Halloween Reads: Two Overlooked Gothic Classics
Updated: Oct 21
(Reposted from my original October 15, 2015, entry)
Come October, when readers' eyes turn toward the chilling and macabre, bookstores pull from the shelves their copies of Poe, Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson, to entice with plots, images and characters long identified with Halloween. But if your copy of Dracula is so well-worn you'd like to retire it for a year, consider starting with one of the titles below.
Supernatural Tales - Vernon Lee
We may not generally associate sun-soaked Italy, birthplace of the Renaissance, with the Gothic. But for Vernon Lee, medieval superstition, decadence and eroticism, imbue this unlikeliest of settings with a tinge of the macabre. After all, the bloody political intrigues of one family alone, the infamous Borgias, must have crowded the Venetian streets with enough ghosts to occupy even the most ardent of ghost hunters. And of course Italy was a chaotic stage in that theater of human history long before the Borgias ever burst upon the scene.
With a dense, description-heavy style reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, Lee flits through time and place in a collection of six stories which shows her to be one of the sadly neglected masters of the Gothic genre, while also evoking each setting down to the most minute of details. (Indeed, her diffuse sentences coil so intricately around material inventories that the reading demands close attention yet rewards with fully three-dimensional worlds capable of transporting the reader straight into the delightfully ominous atmosphere she is describing).
Not only are the subject matter and settings wide-ranging ("The Virgin of the Seven Daggers" even travels to Spain), but Lee proves herself a technical chameleon by employing a variety of styles and narrative modes. A personal favorite, "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady," reads like a Grimm fairy tale, while "The Legend of Madame Krasinska" unfolds piecemeal, nesting tales inside tales, all with an eye to the storyteller's authority to transmit his portion of the plot.
But above all, this is a collection which thrills, which lures readers into a richly evoked setting, then disorients, causing them to question those most basic of assumptions about their own era's so-called enlightened ideas. And isn't that the goal of any good Gothic tale? As the narrator of the story "Amour Dure" reminds us:
We smile at what we choose to call the superstition of the past, forgetting that all our vaunted science of to-day may seem just such another superstition to the men of the future; but why should the present be right and the past wrong? (120)
My Fantoms - Théophile Gautier (translated by Richard Holmes)
Perhaps the artist is the most haunted figure of all, always straddling that precarious line between reality and dream, ever negotiating a Faustian pact with the muses. At least, Théophile Gautier would have us believe this to be true, in seven tales (collected and brilliantly translated by Richard Holmes) which thrust the dreamer, the aesthete, into the heart of his fantasies, often to chilling effect. Thus, each story leaves us with that unanswered question: Is art destructive, decadent? Or rather life-fulfilling, eternal? It is a question that must have tormented Gautier himself, as Holmes points out in his postscript, after watching the poet Gérard de Nerval spiral into madness and ultimately commit suicide. The collection's final story, "The Poet," is a eulogy of sorts for his dear friend, and picks up many of the motifs that appear in the other, more fantastic tales: nostalgia, nightmare, occult arcana and demonic possession.
With language both sensuous and melancholy, Gautier's prose is marked by contrasts: Eroticism commingles with death, the physical is simultaneously sublime, grim happenings adopt the guise of whimsical imagery, and "reality" is overlaid with layer upon layer of dream or hallucination, such that the reader traverses the narration on uncertain footing.
Those hoping to find in these stories the typical Gothic tropes will not be disappointed. Burial imagery abounds, and a standout story, "The Priest," features one of literature's earliest examples of a female vampire in the dazzling Clarimonde. Indeed, femmes fatales feature prominently in the whole collection, yet each is, by and large, a transcendent figure, not just sexually desirable but the embodiment of Love in the abstract. This, then, is where My Fantoms surpasses the genre; this is the redemption overarching Gautier's ambivalence about art. For these stories show love to be the antidote to death, and art is its potent elixir, capable of reaching across the centuries to connect souls. As Arria Marcella, a resurrected Pompeiian beauty, explains to the modern protagonist in "The Tourist":
It is faith that creates gods, and it is love that creates women. No one is truly dead until they are no longer loved. (143-4)
Gautier, Théophile. My Fantoms. Trans. Richard Holmes. New York: New York Review of Books, 2008. Print. Lee, Vernon. Supernatural Tales: Excursions into Fantasy. London: Peter Owen Publishers, 1987. Print.
© 2015 Amanda Sarasien