Gothic September ~ “Ligeia” by Edgar Allan Poe

gothic septemberGothic September is hosted by Michelle at Castle Macabre. Visit for all the details!

The first short story for the Gothic September Poe Read-a-long is “Ligeia.”

Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.

“Ligeia” begins with this quote from Joseph Glanvill, a 17th century natural philosopher and atheist and also a proponent of the supernatural and witchcraft. Sometimes, epigraphs are only tentatively connected to the text, but this quote is repeated three times within the story!

Right off the bat, we learn that there is some mystery to Lady Ligeia.  Our narrator doesn’t quite remember how he came to know her and realizes that he never even knew her last name! She is attractive, but her classical beauty is queered by her very large eyes and her unfathomable expressions.  Not only is Lady Ligeia a looker, but she’s smart too! She surpasses our narrator’s knowledge in the metaphysical investigations of which they are both interested. Alas, as women tend to do in Poe stories, Ligeia dies. On her deathbed, she quotes Mr. Glanvill.

At this point, our narrator needs a change of scenery. He leaves the old city on the Rhine where he and Ligeia lived and purchases an abbey in some remote part of England. He remarries too. Rowena is the photo negative of Ligeia–blonde and blue-eyed where Ligeia was dark. I also kind of get the feeling that our narrator married her more for her title than any other attributes. Poe indulges in an intricate description of the bridal chamber, including the granite sarcophagi in each corner of the octagonal room and the phantasmagorical wall hangings. Right about here is where one could write a whole separate Gothic novel about poor Rowena living, *ahem* briefly, in the shadow of Ligeia.

I’ve been thinking recently about first person narrators and how bland they can be, how normal, and how we as readers have come to see them as merely the clear glass through which we see the story. A first person narrator should never be a clear glass; we should probably be aware of the narrator’s prejudices and state of mind. There are no such worries when you’re reading Poe. Our narrator is noticeably obsessed and haunted, and I wonder a little about what part he might have played in the story’s ending.

ripnineperilshortThis story also counts for RIP X!

Review ~ The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Cover via Goodreads

A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.

Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls…

But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.

For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them. (via Goodreads)

“It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”

That’s a gutsy way to introduce your horror story, Mr. James…

The Turn of the Screw seems to be one of the end-alls of ambiguity. The governess, our narrator, is perhaps unreliable. She’s young, inexperienced, and finds herself isolated in an incredibly unfamiliar situation. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, tells her about the lurid goings-on of her predecessor and one of her young charges is expelled with little explanation. Is it surprising that her imagination primed on Gothic literature (she mentions The Mysteries of Udolpho by name) might run away with her? Or…does it?

James hits many of the gothic tropes. Our disenfranchised governess is properly stuck in her job and feels pressure to do well. Bly, the house, is seen as something of a barrier; one that keeps the governess in her place, but also as something that the children seek to be free of. Mrs. Grose is  the inverse of the helpful servant. She knows half-tales and often she seems to be the densest material on the planet. Once again, the  main action of the story is set in the past, though only removed by a few decades.

One of the things I find most uncomfortable about The Turn of the Screw is a detail I would have missed if I hadn’t gone back to reread the prologue. The story comes to an abrupt conclusion, but Douglas–the storyteller in the prologue–claims to have known the governess, that she was his sister’s governess. Which, not to spoil the end of the story, means that the governess was not held responsible for any wrong-doing. Douglas also claims to have enjoyed walks with the governess while at home from school himself. Which brings to mind, to me anyway, the walks that Miles and Flora took with miscreants Quint and Jessel. That’s the ambiguous bit that I’m going to chew on for a while.

Publishing info, my copy: Public Domain, Kindle edition
Acquired: Amazon.com
Genre: Gothic horror

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Summer Reading, July 13th

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I’m appropriating Mondays for short reviews of my summer reads (I’m behind in reviewing all the books I’d like to review) and my weekly preview.

What I Read Last Week

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Cover via Goodreads

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.

Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story.

Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets… and the ghosts that haunt them still. (via Goodreads)

Back in October of 2013, I read an ARC of Bellman & Black. I was entirely unfamiliar with Diane Setterfield at the time, but very quickly learned that expectations were high for the sophomore book. While I hadn’t heard of it, everyone loved her debut, The Thirteenth Tale.* I, in fact, liked Bellman & Black a lot. It was one of my favorites of that year. But as reviews came in from The Thirteenth Tale fans, it turned out that most were pretty dissatisfied with B&B. Was it expectations? Were the two books very, very different?  It was a question I was mildly interested in answering, but it was The Thirteenth Tale‘s inclusion on many gothic literature lists that led to my reading it.

Being somewhat a book about books and reading, Setterfield is definitely aware of the story’s gothic pedigree. Not only is Miss Winter’s childhood home of Angelfield a presence in the book, but so is her current estate (and its gardens) and the Lea’s bookshop. In both the present story and Miss Winter’s past, servants and employees are pretty much the most powerful characters. The family secrets are salacious. While I was slow to get into it, I enjoyed plowing through the second half on Saturday.

Surprisingly, though, I find I like Bellman & Black more. While gothic elements make for a generally approved format, I liked that B&B was a bit different; if not in tone, but structure. I can see were some readers might have been disappointed with its sort of incorporeal story, it’s lack of twist, but I that’s what I liked about it.

* That I hadn’t heard of it is indication of nothing. I live under a rock. It’s a cozy rock.

SmallAce

What I’m Reading This Week

I need to make some headway on The Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 7, but I think I might start Girl Meets Class by Karin Gillespie this week for something completely different. This week’s Deal Me In story is “Bobok” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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Deal Me In, Week 18 ~ “The Secret Chamber”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Secret Chamber” by Margaret Oliphant

Card picked: Five of Spades – Spades are my “clean-up” suit and there was room for more women of horror. And a good thing too!

From: Available at Gaslight; I found it via Paula Cappa’s blog.

Thoughts: Some tales are just…juicy.

“The Secret Chamber” is chock-full of gothic goodness.  Our setting is Castle Gowrie, full of labyrinths, hidden stairways, long mysterious passages, and, of course, a secret chamber. The chamber is connected to a family secret.

…there are hundreds who are interested in a family secret, and this the house of Randolph possessed in perfection. It was a mystery which piqued the imagination and excited the interest of the entire country. The story went, that somewhere hid amid the massive walls and tortuous passages there was a secret chamber in Gowrie Castle. Everybody knew of its existence; but save the earl, his heir, and one other person, not of the family, but filling a confidential post in their service, no mortal knew where this mysterious hiding-place was.

After a great teasing introduction, Oliphant gets to the meat of the story. John Randolph, a.k.a. Lord Lindores, is coming of age and his father must share with him the secret of the chamber. Lindores isn’t an impressive specimen of a man, but he is smart and curious. The family and community, aside from his father, have high hopes for him. The Randolphs have never really gotten very far in life despite occasions of early promise. Lindores’ father knows why. What is housed in the secret chamber is the family curse. Even by the end of the story, it remains to be seen whether Lindores will be able escape the influence that held back his father and the entire Randolph line for centuries.

This may be the first “gothic” story I’ve read (this year, at least) that involved no female characters or servants. Often, it’s been the women, the daughters especially, on the receiving end of bad circumstances. In this case, the disenfranchised party is a rather mediocre landed family.

About the Author: Margaret Oliphant (or, Mrs. Oliphant) was an incredibly prolific writer. She had to be. Her brief marriage left her with three children to support and later she took in her sister-in-law and her brother’s children. It is no surprise that she was successful. While I’m sure not all her domestic and historical novels have the same slightly gleeful phantasmagoria about them, I can’t imagine them being any less well-written. “The Secret Chamber” was published near the middle of her career, but after a number of tragedies had befallen her and her family. I wonder if Mrs. Oliphant thought her line cursed…

Review ~ Rebecca

Cover via Goodreads

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
So the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter remembered the chilling events that led her down the turning drive past the beeched, white and naked, to the isolated gray stone manse on the windswept Cornish coast. With a husband she barely knew, the young bride arrived at this immense estate, only to be inexorably drawn into the life of the first Mrs. de Winter, the beautiful Rebecca, dead but never forgotten… her suite of rooms never touched, her clothes ready to be worn, her servant – the sinister Mrs. Danvers – still loyal. And as an eerie presentiment of the evil tightened around her heart, the second Mrs. de Winter began her search for the real fate of Rebecca… for the secrets of Manderley. (via Goodreads)

When I started reading Rebecca, Eric looked at the cover (the same edition as above) and stated, “That doesn’t look like the sort of book you read.” Despite its sort of romancy cover, I assured him that it was a classic of gothic fiction. Anytime I mentioned the book on Twitter or Reddit, it was greeted with positive responses; more replies than I’ve ever gotten about anything else. I went into Rebecca with no preconceived notions aside from it being one of those classics that I hadn’t gotten to. It came up as a part of the (now defunct) Gothic Challenge and Read-a-longs* and I jumped at the excuse to bump it up my to-be-read list.

Yet, this novel is not at all what I expected.

The narrator is very much what I’d consider a YA character. She is, of course, young. She’s still attempting to figure out where she belongs; asking those questions about who she is supposed to be, who might love her. This isn’t a terrible thing, but she is prone to flights of fancy. Constant flights of fancy. By the end of the book, it feels like every single scene had played out at least once in her head before the actual event. And I found that tedious. She’s also somewhat petty. I get annoyed with stories that are somewhat dependent on a character taking things the wrong way.

I’m also a little disturbed by the fact that our narrator actually seems to have an interest before marriage–sketching–which is inexplicably put aside for no good reason once she reaches Manderley. She’s fairly aimless until she’s called on to stand by her man at the end of the book. Is that horribly romantic? I…guess. I can understand that she’s thrown by her change in position and spends much of her time unsure of how to act, made worse by the circumstances, but she’s really sort of a non-person until the end. This is less a criticism of the book and more of a confession of confusion about why it’s so beloved.

I did like the gothic aspects of the book, although past the halfway point when nothing much had happened, I did go online and “spoiled” the twist for myself. (I’m generally unfazed by spoilers. For me, it’s the journey.) The secrets were nicely kept, with little hints here and there about what’s going on. There are issues of class and heredity throughout. Mrs. Danvers, a servant, proves to be the most powerful character. Manderley, in good gothic tradition, is a character itself. In fact, for me, it’s the best aspect of the book. If I wanted a fictional place to walk, Manderley would be it.

Publishing info, my copy: Avon Books, 1971, mass market paperback
Acquired: Paperback Swap, I believe.

* Books Under the Bed, the blog that was hosting the challenge, has been deleted. But I guess I’ll keep on reading from the list since I’ve become interested in the genre.

Deal Me In Lunar Extra ~ “The Invisible Girl”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

I was very indecisive when picking my Deal Me in Stories, so I added an extra “Lunar” twist.
For each full moon, I’ll be reading a horror story written by a woman.

“The Invisible Girl” by Mary Shelley

Card picked: A Jack

From: Online at Gutenberg Australia

Thoughts: This is another tale that borrows some gothic tropes, if lightly. Our narrator isn’t the person directly involved in the story, but heard it from an old woman after he seeks refuge in a curious “ruined” tower that has a lovely painting called “The Invisible Girl” in its upper room. Further, this narrator is set in the early 18th century, not in Shelly’s early 19th. Since the old woman is telling a story that happened many years before *that*, we could place the main events of “The Invisible Girl” near the time The Castle of Otranto was written (although the events of Walpole’s novel occur centuries in the past). I wonder if this shifting a story backwards in history is meant to excuse some of the actions of the characters. Sir Peter and his widow sister treat Rosina terribly, but they are people of the past. Surely, people of the present behave more humanely. (Also in the land of Otranto connections I’m probably making up, we also have a heroine with a somewhat Italian sounding name.)

But anyway, the story: Henry, the son of Sir Peter, falls in love with Rosina, an orphan who lives on his father’s estate. Henry and Rosina have grown up together; of course they love each other, but since she has no heredity of note, the couple keep this love secret. All is well until Sir Peter’s sister moves in. She susses out the truth, sends Henry away and besmirches Rosina’s honor. Sir Peter sends her away and she presumably dies in the woods. Sir Peter, we are told, might feel badly about this, but Shelley’s not very convincing when she says so. Henry finds out his love is dead and decides to find her body. Instead, his boat is caught in a nasty storm and is led to safety by a mysterious light in a tower. When he asks nearby folks about it, they tell him the Invisible Girl is responsible. Which of course leads Henry to wonder, is the Invisible Girl the spirit of Rosina?

There’s a twist ending to this tale which I thought was quite nice. Paula Cappa originally posted about this story in October of 2013.

About the Author: Yes, *that* Mary Shelley. She wrote more than Frankenstein. A lot more! This is the first short story I’ve read by her, but it probably won’t be the last.

Review ~ “The Old Nurse’s Story”

“The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover via Goodreads
I’m *fairly* sure that I hadn’t read “The Old Nurse’s Story” before, but it seemed very, very familiar. Have I seen an adaptation of it somewhere? Maaaybe? Or is it one of the quintessential gothic short stories and I’ve run into its tropes all over the place? It’s hard to tell.

Gaskell begins the tale with a sort of tangled recitation of heredity. Even rereading it, it’s kind of hard to figure out just who the old nurse means when she talks of the children’s grandmother. I think the only thing I’ve read that had a more tangled family tree, from a reader’s point of view, is Wuthering Heights. Happily, this background is quickly left behind for the meat of the story.

An orphan and her nurse are sent to live in an old manor house with a distant relative of the orphan. The description of the house and the moors are definitely worth the read. Of my reading this year, thus far, only Doyle paints a better picture of desolate countryside. Some issue weighs upon Miss Furnivall, the mistress of Furivall Manor, and indeed it pervades the house as well. There is a mysterious broken organ, portraits that are not hung on the walls, and an entire wing of the house that is shut to everyone. Hester, the old nurse of the title, is okay with these things. She’s even okay with the creepy organ music that is heard during storms. What she’s not okay with is the ghostly little girl who wants to lure her charge outside on cold winter nights.

A trend I’m seeing in my gothic reading: disenfranchised characters. In Castle Otranto, Isabella’s status seems to be downgraded to “ward,” after the death of her fiance because her father isn’t immediately in evidence. Power differential drive plot points. If Miss Rosamond wasn’t an orphan, she and her nurse couldn’t be so easily sent to live at Furivall Manor. We also spend quite some time in Otranto getting information from Bianca, the maid. Here, in “The Old Nurse’s Story,” our narrator is the nurse and she spends her time among the servants, of course. Servants know things. They span generations. They are the least powerful in terms of social standing, but probably the most powerful in terms of narrative. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Mr. & Mrs. Barrymore, servants at Baskerville Hall, are key to one of the subplots.

Hester outside following Rosamond’s footprints around the closed up wing of Furivall Manor also reminded me of many of the great gothic elements in K.J. Kabza’s “The Soul in the Bell Jar.”

Publishing info, my copy: From Curious, If True: Strange Tales, Kindle ebook version
Acquired: Amazon
Genre: Gothic horror
Previously: As a 19th century writer of gothic and weird fiction, I’ve been meaning to read Gaskell and have acquired a few of her books.

Gothic_Ken Russell