gothic

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall

For the past few weeks, I have been staying on the West Coast of Ireland. It is rural, full peculiar cows that like to stare you in the eye and follow you around as you trek across ancient fields to check out Medieval ruined abbeys. It is green and [uncharacteristically] sunny, but some days, still filled with rolling fog atop the mountains. It has certainly put me in the mood for spooks. (If you care to see some photos, stick around till the end for some of my snaps.)

Although Wylding Hall is not set in Ireland, but the English countryside, it certainly was quite a read!

In 1972, a British acid-folk band is carted off by their manager to a remote ancient house to record their next album. The band already suffered one strange occurrence–the ambiguous death of the lead singer’s girlfriend (and former band mate). Of course, when they are at Wylding Hall, there are strange happenings, creepy birds, and lurking presences. Finally, the lead singer mysteriously disappears and is presumed dead after he never reappeared.

The novella is told through interconnected first person interviews: it is present day and a documentary filmmaker is interviewing the band and others involved about the time surrounding the stay at Wylding Hall and the lead singer’s disappearance.

This structure delights my fondness for books written in epistles. Yes, interviews aren’t letters, but in the novella they do give that reading experience. Also, everyone’s experience at Wylding Hall was completely different and when they are commenting on similar moments, there are little tweaks in the perception. Everyone is inherently an unreliable narrator and the question of who to believe is always simmering.

Elizabeth Hand is a writer I’ve been meaning to dip into forever, and I totally dug this book. I read it in a few sittings, quickly flipping pages, as the Gothic atmosphere tinged the entire narrative. Wylding Hall also won a 2015 Shirley Jackson Award.

With the landscape so haunted, I am in search of more spooky tales. I am off to Dublin soon after spending weeks in the country, and I’m curious what hauntings city-life will bring.

Has anyone else read Elizabeth Hand? She is quite prolific. Wylding Hall is easily affordable at $3.82 on Amazon.

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The Quick by Lauren Owen

At the very beginning of Lauren Owen’s debut novel, The Quick, the reader is introduced to a very secretive and mysterious men’s club called the Aegolius. The number of initiates is kept to a minimum and a story is told than even when the Prince of Wales requested membership, he was turned away because the number had already been reached.

It’s the latter part of the nineteenth century and James, a young man right out of university, goes to London to try his hand at writing a play. He becomes roommates and later intimates with another previous acquaintance from Oxford. When the two men go out for a walk one night, dastardly misfortunes befall them and when James goes missing, his sister, Charlotte, arrives from Yorkshire to find her brother, which leads her to the doors of the enigmatic Aegolius club.

the quick

What initially drew me to The Quick was promise of a Gothic inspired novel set in the seedy corners of Victorian London. The book does begin this way and even has elements of such novels as it includes diary entries and other similar epistles.

However, about halfway through, something inexplicable happens–the novel becomes dreadfully dull and doesn’t pick up at all. Once James disappears, a never-ending slew of new characters are introduced. At first, I tried to keep them straight and then realized that none of them was particularly important. The narrative is thick and slow; every movement of every character is detailed for pages. If I never read about a character sitting down and sipping tea again, that day would be too soon.

I fear that Owen’s editors let her down immensely. The only conciliation is that her publisher masterfully worked up a publicity frenzy by not revealing a key plot point and adding a sense of “plot twist” around it. They also mustered up some top notch writers to blurb it. Sadly, about half of readers have ingested the proverbial Kool-Aid and rave about it on Goodreads, while the other half have the good sense to agree with me.

The writing is solid and decent. Yet, the author builds no discernible mood or landscape. This has been a huge reading letdown, which has added to my sparse posts here as this book was long and took up far too much of my time. Normally, I would’ve put the book down, but I was certain something would be a saving grace. Sadly, this was just a complete bomb.

“Metzengerstein” by Edgar Allan Poe

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Time for a throwback to a classic short story by Edgar Allan Poe. “Metzengerstein” was Poe’s very first published short story. He sent it as his entry for a contest held by the Saturday Courier magazine in Philadelphia. It wasn’t chosen as the winner, but the magazine still published it a few months later. It might not be as well-read as his other stories we are more used to these days, but it still has the foundations of many of his later Gothic tales of death beyond the grave and noble families with old roots whose lives are crumbling.

The Metzengerstein and the Berlifitzings are two rival families in Hungary. They have been bitter enemies for longer than anyone can tell. Of course, the story starts off with a doomed prophecy,

“A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.”

The prose that Poe employs is in the style of its Gothic predecessors, mostly notably German tales, which inspired him to give it the often removed subtitle: A Tale In Imitation of the German. The language is of course quite adorned, but this is the feel Poe was going for.

The tale is filled with mystery, but an astute reader will see where Poe is giving a knowing wink. The final surviving Metzengerstein, upon receiving the family fortune, begins to become a grotesque character. He is possibly a villain who has killed a rival Berlifitzing, whose spirit returns in the form of a mysterious white horse (a horse, who perhaps might have only just been on a large tapestry in the Metzengerstein house). Demon horses and castles catching fire are par for the course in “Metzengerstein” (the above illustration was included in a 1909 edition).

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I think readers who are familiar with Gothic fiction and appreciate a good Poe story will enjoy this one. I read it in an edition I own with gilded page edges, which I keep close to my bed in case of a night-time Edgar Allan Poe urge (we all get them, right?). The collection features many of his lesser known works, but I proffer the idea that many of them are known, yet, are not as widely read as others are these days.

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This House is Haunted by John Boyne

This novel came to me at the perfect time¹–sick in bed, unable to do much, and in need of some quality entertainment. Although, most of my time recently has been spent napping, I was able to squeeze in some reading time and a wee bit to write this review.²

This House is Haunted is a takeoff on 19th century Gothic tales (think The Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre). Eliza Caine is a 21-year-old school teacher who lives with her ailing father. In the first line of the book, she declares: I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father. For you see, her father insists on going out one night to see the fine author read one of his stories. The weather is too much for him and Eliza is finally left without parents (her mother died some ten years or so prior).

Without enough money or anything latching her to her hometown of London, Eliza answers an ad for a governess. There is no interview or reference-checking on the part of the family placing the ad; she is outright hired. When Eliza turns up in Norfolk, a nasty accident almost befalls her and when she arrives at the home of her new charges, she is not met by the parents but only by the children–the young Eustace, aged 8, and his older sister, Isabella, who speaks like a tiny, creepy adult.

Many accidents befall Eliza Caine, along with spooky moments of phantom hands yanking her out of bed or trying to choke her. She finds out that her predecessors also had unpleasant tenures as governess.

Besides the excellent exercise on Boyne’s part to write a well-conceived and engrossing tale of 19th century ghosts and intrigue, the real pleasure came from the mystery surrounding all of the strange events. With the unsettling Isabella and the unpleasantries stalking Eliza Caine at every turn, I couldn’ t put the book down. Of course, there is a tragic history behind Gaudlin Hall–the half-derelict home which the children live in–but only portions are extricated at times and it is up to Eliza to pull out as much as possible and piece it all together.

Fans of Gothic novels will definitely enjoy This House is Haunted. Its appeal, however, stretches further than to just those who are looking for an entertaining Gothic homage. It stands alone even with its apparent influence and I dare you to not be caught up in its captivating plot and characters. One shouldn’t merely dismiss it as a shadow of an earlier genre, but an alluring work of fiction that encompasses what we most look for in a novel.

***

¹ I originally heard of this book through NPR’s Book Concierge, which I highly recommend.
² Excuses, excuses, I know, but many apologies for a short and light review this time round.