Day 1015: Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

Cover for Tales of Mystery and the MacabreAs I am familiar with an Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote relatively realistic (for a Victorian) novels about ordinary people in different stratas of society, I was surprised to find this collection of strange and gothic tales. That shouldn’t have surprised me, though, because the supernatural and the fantastic were preoccupations of the Victorians. Séances were popular, and many reputable people believed in the supernatural.

That being said, these stories are not Gaskell’s best. When I looked them up, I was surprised to find that she wrote them later in life. They are about what you’d expect from the genre, though less fantastic and not really scary. Straight narrative dominates over dialogue and scenes.

In “The Old Nurse’s Story,” a little orphaned girl goes to live in a relative’s house that is haunted by the ghost of another little girl. In “The Squire’s Tale,” a new neighbor is found to be a robber and murderer. “The Poor Clare” is a story about a woman who inadvertently curses her own granddaughter.

I found three of the stories too tedious to finish. “The Witch Lois” is about an unsuspecting English girl who arrives in Salem, Massachusetts, to live with relatives just in time for the witch scare. “Curious, If True” seems to be about a lost traveler who comes upon a party of fairy tale characters. And “Disappearances” is a string of short anecdotes about people vanishing that did not seem to link up.

So, a disappointing book this time. Almost all of the main characters are women, and them so virtuous and retiring that they weren’t very interesting.

Happy holidays!

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Day 1010: The Antiquary

Cover for The AntiquaryThe Antiquary was considered Scott’s gothic novel, but I felt it was more a romance, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The only gothic elements involve trickery and a ruined abbey. This novel was Scott’s favorite, as well. It is not mine, but it does have a good deal of humor.

The antiquary is Mr. Oldbuck, loquacious to a fault, a man who likes to lecture others on the history of every object that he sees and every subject in conversation. He befriends a young man he meets on a journey, Mr. Lovel, who arrives in the area on undisclosed business.

Mr. Oldbuck has a friend, Sir Arthur Wardour. Sir Arthur handles his money poorly and is in the thrall of a German conman, Herr Dousterswivel, who is trying to further deplete him. Mr. Lovel has formerly met Miss Wardour and proposed to her, but she has turned him down because of his lack of birth.

There are several plot lines in The Antiquary—the machinations of the German, the state of Mr. Lovel’s romance, and a terrible secret of the house of Glenallen that begins to emerge upon the death of the countess.

The dialogue for this novel is in Scottish dialect except for the well-born characters, and there is a good deal of humor around the characters of Mr. Oldbuck and of the rustics.  A beggar named Edie Ochiltree acts as a deux ex machina so often that I began to think the novel should have been called The Beggar. I enjoyed this novel, just not as much as I  have some others of Scott’s.

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Day 902: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Cover for Who Was Changed and Who Was DeadWho Was Changed and Who Was Dead is another eccentric and original novel by Barbara Comyns. With its characters and plots, it contains more than a slight touch of the bizarre.

We meet the Willoweed family after the nearby river has flooded. Some of the family are wading on the lower floor of the house, and Ebin Willoweed has taken the girls out in the boat, from which they are observing the dead animals floating by.

The novel is almost entirely concerned with the Willoweeds. Ebin is a writer who lost his newspaper job years ago and hasn’t worked since. He lives in his mother’s ramshackle but enormous house with his three children, the entire household terrorized by his tyrannical mother.

The Willoweeds seem stuck in a monotonous existence. Ebin occupies some of his time by having an affair with the wife of the village baker. Emma, the oldest daughter, yearns for pretty clothes and shoes but has to be content with clumsy ones made in the village. Dennis and Hattie love playing in the river.

Then a mysterious malady strikes the village. People begin to run mad and commit suicide. No one knows who will die next.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is narrated with the same innocent simplicity of Comyns’ other novels, which deal with similar grotesque situations and characters. It’s one of the things that makes them so readable, yet so eerie.

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Day 885: The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

Cover for The Last Summer of the CamperdownsHi, all, I just wanted to tell you before I get started that I began a new project, attempting to read all of the Man Booker Prize shortlisted books since 2010. See my new Man Booker Prize Project page for more information, and join me if you want to.

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The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is one of those books that I made a note I’d like to read some time ago, but by the time I got to it, could not remember what it was about. When that happens, I don’t read the cover. I just plunge in. I was surprised to find myself reading a sort of modern gothic novel.

Riddle Camperdown is a 12-year-old girl spending the summer at her family’s dune-side house on Cape Cod in 1972. Her name says a lot about the eccentricity of her family, for she is named after Jimmy Riddle Hoffa (yes, that one), and her father sometimes calls her Jimmy. “Camp” Camperdown is a labor organizer, composer, and politician, a noisy brash, boisterous, charismatic true believer. His wife, Greer, seems a mismatch for him. She is a cool, chic ex-movie star with an acid tongue. Riddle, who adores her father, thinks her mother only cares about money and status.

Another of the couple’s regular arguments starts up when they learn Michael Devlin is returning to the area. Michael is a rich, privileged man who used to be Camp’s best friend, but an incident during World War II drove them apart. Riddle is also fascinated to learn that Michael was engaged to Greer and stood her up at the altar.

Riddle and Greer are avid riders, so when that afternoon they go over to see Greer’s friend Gin, Riddle wanders off to the yellow barn to see a mare with a foal. When she is in the barn, something horrible happens, something she doesn’t see but only hears. She thinks she hears someone or something being chased through the barn and then dragged back to the tack room. She is terrified, but just as she is getting the nerve to open the tack room door, Gin’s employee Gula comes out.

Riddle is already terrified of Gula, so she pretends she hasn’t heard anything. Inexplicably, though, she is too terrified to tell her parents.

Soon, they learn that Michael Devlin’s youngest son Charlie has disappeared. It doesn’t take long for Riddle to guess it was Charlie she heard in the barn. That night, the barn burns down with several horses in it.

As Riddle is repeatedly terrorized by Gula, her parents’ marriage seems more and more fraught. Michael Devlin begins threatening Camp’s political campaign with a tell-all book, and Camp fears what he sees as his wife’s attachment to Devlin. In the meantime, Riddle falls in love with Michael Devlin’s oldest son, Harry.

This novel is quite suspenseful, with a plot that is far more complex than it first seems. If there were two small things I didn’t quite buy, one was the extremeness of the Camperdowns’ arguments at first. The other was how long it took Riddle to tell the truth, considering how Gula was threatening her, even going into her room and leaving things. Although ultimately Riddle was also hiding the fact that she hadn’t told the truth right away, I would think she would be too scared not to tell.

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Day 882: Rebecca

logo for the 1938 clubBest Book of the Week!
Since Rebecca is a book that qualifies for The 1938 Club and is also on my Classics Club list, I thought this was a good time to reread it. I must say that during this reread, I noticed things I’d never noticed before.

Some years after the time of the novel’s action, the narrator recollects the events at Manderley from a life of exile. As a young, naive woman working as a companion for the vulgar Mrs. Van Hopper, the narrator meets the older, sophisticated Maxim de Winter one spring on the Riviera. When Mrs. Van Hopper becomes ill, the narrator spends some time each day with him, driving through the countryside. Mrs. Van Hopper recovers and decides abruptly to return to the States. When the narrator tells Maxim, he proposes.

Cover for RebeccaThe narrator, whose first name we never learn, is an immature girl who is prone to imagining what people are saying about her or what may happen, usually in exaggerated terms. The wedding is not the romantic event that she imagined, but she goes along with whatever Maxim suggests.

Finally, they come home to Maxim’s family home of Manderley, and that’s where the novel really gets going. For the narrator is already haunted by the thought of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. Rebecca was beautiful, assured, accomplished—everything the narrator believes she is not. Everyone assures her that Maxim adored Rebecca and was shattered when she died in a sailing accident. Everyone tells her she isn’t at all like Rebecca. The decor of the house reflects Rebecca’s taste, her name is scrawled inside books, her monogrammed handkerchiefs are in the pockets of coats, and the servants tell her, when she timidly makes a request, “Mrs. de Winter used this vase,” or “Mrs. de Winter sat in this room in the morning.”

Further, there is the terrifying Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, from whom the new Mrs. de Winter senses actual hostility. Mrs. Danvers was devoted to Rebecca and resents a new wife taking her place, especially one so much Rebecca’s inferior.

The narrator was not brought up to a life with servants, running a big house, and she has no idea how to behave. Maxim gives her little help in this regard, just expecting her to adapt. She makes mistakes, and his moods become more erratic until she thinks he regrets their marriage. As she becomes more unhappy, events build to a climax on the night of a big costume ball.

This is an extremely powerful novel that, I think, hits you differently depending upon the age you are when you read it. When I was young, I thought it was romantic and scary. Now, I think it’s more of a study of some very maladjusted characters. But this is the first reading where it made me think of Mr. Rochester.

Even though I love Jane Eyre, I’ve never been much of a fan of Mr. Rochester. But what does he do? He yearns for a young, innocent girl and is prepared to commit a crime to get her. We can say this for Jane, though, she has a strong sense of herself.

I don’t want to say much more about Rebecca in case you haven’t read it. But let’s keep it at this. Maxim de Winter also yearns for a young innocent girl, but his choice has such a weak sense of self that we don’t even learn her name. He takes her to a life for which she is completely unsuited and untrained, with a servant he might predict would be hostile, and just leaves her to make the best of things. And this comment doesn’t even touch on the darker secrets of the novel.

Do these observations make me love the novel less? No, this is a great novel. Rebecca is one of Daphne du Maurier’s most atmospheric novels, in a career with many atmospheric novels. I believe she modeled Manderley after the house where she lived in Cornwall, and its description is detailed and loving. Du Maurier was interested in aberrant personalities, in which she probably counted her own. This is a dark novel that fully draws you in. It is very well written, an excellent character study and a masterful suspense novel.

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Day 864: The Necromancer

Cover for The NecromancerIt’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.

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Day 858: Fates and Furies

Cover for Fates and FuriesFates and Furies is about a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde marry shortly before graduating from college, after knowing each other only two weeks. They are both very tall and blonde, considered by many to be a golden couple. Lotto is charismatic and loud, always the center of attention, with many faithful friends. Mathilde is quiet and aloof.

Although Lotto has had a bit of a Southern Gothic upbringing, he is the son of wealth and privilege. However, his mother cuts him off when she hears of his marriage. Mathilde appears to have no family or money. So, the couple’s first years are tough, as Lotto tries to make it as an actor in New York while Mathilde supports them. But one night Lotto stays up drunk and writes a play. When Mathilde reads it, she knows he has found his vocation.

The first half of the novel is from Lotto’s point of view. Success seems to come easily to him after he writes his first play. Even though he is prone to depression if things don’t go well, he has hit after hit. Mathilde quits her job to take care of the business side, and he becomes a little self-satisfied. Still, all in all they are remarkably happy. He considers his wife a saint.

It is not until the second half of the novel, when we see the marriage and past from Mathilde’s point of view, that we learn a different truth about their lives. Mathilde, who has been alone for much of her life, is fiercely loyal to Lotto. But she is no saint.

Lauren Groff seems to write completely different novels each time out. This one shows the complexities of human relationships. That this relationship is almost operatic in scope gives the novel a slightly gothic trend.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I think we are supposed to like Lotto more than I did, but I distrust charismatic people. I think Lotto may be a little stereotypical, however, while Mathilde is mostly a cypher until her half of the book, when many secrets come out. It is not until we learn Mathilde’s side of things that the novel really begins to unfold. It is certainly an interesting novel and one that could provoke discussion.

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