It’s been more than six months since I reported on my progress in reading the “horrid novels” mentioned in Northanger Abbey, but I have finally read another. This one is The Necromancer, published in 1794 by Carl Friedrich Kahleut under the pen name Ludwig Flammenberg. Its publication date makes it one of the earliest novels in this genre.
However, it is not a novel as we understand it. The Editor’s Note explains that it was originally a collection of tales, the equivalent of contemporary urban legends. Its translator, Peter Teuthold, actually “novelized” the tales by presenting them as a fairly incoherent story.
The novel starts with the story of boyhood friends Herman and Elfrid, who are separated after school for many years by life’s events. Eventually, Elfrid seeks out his friend Herman. During this visit, Elfrid tells Herman about an incident in Germany. When staying at an inn, he was robbed repeatedly of his possessions, but they were mysteriously returned. When he wants to find out what happened, he agrees to meet his neighbor at the inn for an explanation. At the meeting place, he experiences a confusing event that ends with his being rushed off in a coach and breaking his leg.
After Elfrid tells his story, Herman has one of his own. But Herman begins a nested series of tales that end up being linked by a single person, an army sergeant with a knowledge of necromancy named Volkert.
I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that the apparent supernatural occurrences turn out to be cheats. In a sense, I’m not sure if that makes this piece a gothic novel or not. Once we hear Volkert’s lengthy confession and an explanation of all his tricks, you might think the novel would close. But it does not. We still have to be subjected to a tedious confession by the chief of a gang of thieves.
Perhaps I’m just not getting into the spirit of these novels. But so far, I have really only mildly enjoyed The Castle of Wolfenbach, which has a relatively straightforward plot. The others I’ve found full of digressions, with meandering plots. A sense of characterization doesn’t seem to exist yet in these early novels. When I reflect that Jane Austen, with her rich characterizations, begins publishing books in less than 20 years, it seems truly amazing.