Tag Archives: gothic

The Barrowfields: Phillip Lewis

“Yet at last, he was only a man, who, like so many of us, had dreams that exceeded him.”

There are some places that imprint themselves so deeply in the people who live there, that either you never leave or you always come back. That’s the thought that occurred to me when I read The Barrowfields from Phillip Lewis. As the title suggests, the plot and its characters are tied to a particular geographical area: in this case, Old Buckram, North Carolina, “an achromatic town high in the Appalachian Mountains.” The Barrowfields of the title is an area which probably should be named the Barren Fields but somebody made a mistake along the way.  It’s a place “where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss.”

Growing up in extreme poverty, Henry Aster is a cuckoo in the nest of this large, impoverished and nearly illiterate household. As a child, Henry grabs onto the power of books and never lets go, even at one point stealing library books and hoarding them under his bed for future reads. Eventually, Henry leaves home and goes to college and law school only to return when his mother (she’s constantly smoking–her one vice) becomes ill. Coming home is a mistake for Henry. …

The Barrowfields

Henry, with ambitions to become “a beloved American writer,”  and his horse-loving wife Eleonore, buy an abandoned mansion, built by an dying architect with a penchant for the occult. Its gothic, vlad-the-impaler design makes the house a unique, intriguing, yet daunting prospect. The house, “a monstrous gothic skeleton,” has a tragic history, but the Asters ignore it–even though of course they simply become another twist in the house’s past.

On a high shoulder of the mountain, half hidden by a row of wraithlike trees as old as time itself, sat an immense house of black iron and glass. During the day, it was an odd architectural curiosity. Due to a subtle trick of the mountain’s folding ridges, it seemed always to be in shadow, even when the sun blazed in a cloudless sky above it. From morning to night, it was cloaked in a slowly swirling mist as thick as smoke from a fire. At night, it brooded in darkness like an ember-eyed bird of prey on the edge of the mountain. Never before had a house been built like it, and never would another be built.

While Henry practices “a brief legal career with one of the two law offices in town,” by night he drinks himself into oblivion and tries to write. His wife has her horses, and the house, with its magnificent library is a fabulous labyrinth of childhood fantasies for Henry and Eleonore’s son, also called Henry.

This is a sweeping novel about a man who’s deeply rooted to a region he can’t wait to escape from, and Henry’s ultimate abandonment of his wife and children is the central mystery/emotional dilemma of the plot. I loved the first half of The Barrowfields, with its fine Southern tradition, but the second half with Henry junior’s life becoming the focus, just couldn’t match up to the first half. There’s so much going on here–so much so I wondered how this would read in serial form. The whole build up of the house with its tragic past never really goes anywhere, but hangs like a faded banner over the new residents, and the whole baby sister episode just seemed another layer of melodrama/tragedy that existed for its own sake.

Sprawling, ambitious and flawed this is a novel about fathers and sons. It’s described as a coming-of-age novel, but for me it was more about identity. There are some very fine parts indeed here which are evidence of perhaps future books we might expect from this author, for example, when son Henry, describes how his father has developed a persona to converse with the locals:

He knew how to talk like them, though. He knew how to cock his head just right, and hold his mouth open, and say, “You don’t say” and “Damn,” when he heard a remarkable story, and “Yep” and “Naw” and always “Come with us,” at the end of any conversation with an acquaintance met in an unexpected place. He’d run into someone at the grocery store and listen intently as the man talked. He’d listen with a deep focus, looking dead into the man’s eyes, almost unblinking and without saying much of anything, hunched slightly to be more or less on the same level with the man, without anything much beyond an anthropological interest in the story and the man telling it, and at the end of it he’d offer amusement and say something like, “Well, all right, Junior, I hope you have a good night. I reckon I better get on home.

Review copy.

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The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Horace Walpole’s much referenced, ghoulish and unrelentingly grim The Castle of Otranto is considered the first gothic novel. Published in 1764, The Castle of Otranto purports to have originally been printed in 1529 and found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England.” The preface to the first edition, included in my copy, includes a facsimile of the title page along with the name of its fictional translator (William Marshal, Gent.) and its fictional author, Onuphrio Muralto. This is followed by the preface to the second edition which acknowledges the deceit and Walpole begs his readers’ pardon “for having offered his work to them under the borrowed personage of a translator.”

castle of otrantoThe extensive introduction by Nick Groom  in my Oxford World Classics edition provides a lot of background information about “eighteen century discussion and debate about the Goths and ‘Gothick.‘” If I’d read the book without the intro, I would have missed a great deal of the novel’s historical and political context, and probably scratched my head a lot more as I read the archaic language. In this edition, there’s a chronology of Horace Walpole’s life in the context of his times and extensive explanatory notes. The Castle of Otranto, a story set in Medieval times and laced with lust, incest and the supernatural, explores the question of legitimacy and succession–a most relevant topic for Walpole & his peers.  The book turned out to be nothing like I’d expected; a little background info goes a long way.

The book’s plot is simple enough: Manfred, Prince of Otranto has two children, a son Conrad and a daughter, Matilda,  by Hippolita, an obedient, now aging woman. Manfred, in order to secure his title, has arranged a marriage between the orphan Isabella and his sickly son, Conrad. Manfred managed to persuade Isabella’s guardians to hand her over, and she’s in his castle so that Manfred  “might celebrate the wedding as soon as Conrad’s infirm state of health would permit.” Hippolita occasionally objects at the haste, but she’s rewarded with “reflections on her own sterility.” So the wedding day is fixed even though the match seems incongruous given Conrad’s youth and poor health.

On the day of the wedding, as everyone gathers for the ceremony, Conrad is missing, and a search leads to the discovery of Conrad squashed under a giant helmet. Isabella is secretly relieved that the marriage will not take place, but her relief is short-lived when Manfred summons her to his chamber and announces his intentions to marry her himself. Isabella, horrified, and basically at Manfred’s mercy, flees into the subterranean passages, a “long labyrinth of darkness,” under the castle and eventually finds sanctuary at a convent.

All of this is on the back of the book, so I’m hardly giving away any plot secrets here. The rest of the book includes various twists, turns and complications in the plot as relationships are dramatically revealed and several characters are unmasked. One of the features of the plot that must be mentioned is the use of archaic language:

Madam, said Manfred, what business drew you hither? Why did not you await my return from the marquis? I came to implore a blessing on your councils, replied Hippolita. My councils do not need a friar’s intervention, said Manfred–and of all men living is that hoary traitor the only one you delight to confer with? Profane prince! said Jerome: is it at the altar that thou choosest to insult the servants of the altar?–But, Manfred thy impious schemes are known. Heaven and this virtuous lady know them. Nay, frown not, prince. The church despises thy menaces. Her thunders will be heard above thy wrath. dare to proceed in thy curst purpose of a divorce, until her sentence be known, and her I lance her anathema at thy head. Audacious rebel! said Manfred, endeavouring to conceal the awe with which the friar’s words inspired him; dost thou presume to threaten thy lawful prince?

That long quote gives not only a sense of the language used in the book but also the formatting–a complete lack of quotation marks and line breaks in the dialogue.

Written in 5 chapters, this gothic story is packed with strange events, unexpected, shocking, dramatic revelations, mysterious sounds and dark, secret passages. The morbid, eerie atmosphere of the castle reinforces the plot elements–we know, as dread builds, that anything can happen, and whatever it is, it will be bad. On the question of Manfred’s marriage to Hippolita, and his desire to divorce her (with the help of the church) and marry Isabella (thus producing, he hopes more male heirs), it’s impossible NOT to think of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and with the tricky questions of inheritance and hidden/mistaken identities, of course, it’s also impossible not to think of Shakespeare. The macabre castle itself becomes almost a central character as the tragic events unfold.

To the modern reader, The Castle of Otranto presents a challenge, and the more fantastic events which occasionally occur with a generous dollop of deus-ex-machina seem almost laughable were we not to consider that this is a ground-breaking tale which no doubt shocked the 18th century audience for which it was intended. Any book should stand on its own merits without an explanation to make it readable, and standing on its own The Castle of Otranto possesses the gloomy melodrama you’d expect from a Jacobean tragedy but in this instance, the tale is seeped with the Gothic. Reading the introduction reinforces the political nature of the novel and the author’s intentions.

The brutal Battle of Culloden (anyone seen the brilliant film by Peter Watkins?) in which the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated by the loyalist troops commanded by the Duke of Cumberland took place in 1746, and it was this battle that decisively ended any hopes for the Stuarts to regain the throne. This significant battle took place less than two decades before the publication of the Castle of Otranto–a book with a plot mostly concerned with legitimacy and succession.  The excellent introduction delves into the politics of the time and argues that “Walpole was [therefore] perhaps positioning the text to be read in its first incarnation as a Tory justification for Stuart rebellion against the House of Hanover, as ‘Jacobit Gothick. The revelation that it was written by a Whig, however reverses the politics of the novel, which then becomes a study of usurpation and the corrupting extension of a sovereign’s power.” Nick Groom’s illuminating intro also analyzes Walpole’s social, financial and political position at the time of the novel’s authorship. I liked The Castle of Otranto because it was so over-the-top, shamelessly melodramatic, milking every opportunity to twist the plot into further knots, but the introduction argues for the novel’s subversive intent. Political background aside, this is the novel that jump-started a fantastic genre, and it’s certainly clear that the Gothic novel had to exist before the Sensation novel made an appearance. …

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Constance by Patrick McGrath

To say that I looked forward to reading Constance, Patrick McGrath’s latest novel would be putting it mildly. His novel Dr. Haggard’s Disease makes my favourite books list, so I approached Constance with some high expectations. McGrath’s father was the superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital, and I don’t think I’m making a leap when I say that you can see this influence in his work.  I’m specifically thinking of Asylum and Spider which were both made into excellent films in case anyone is interested. Since Patrick McGrath uses the unreliable narrator in his novels, I expected more of the same creepy insanity. Was I disappointed? Well yes and no.

SO … imagine that you are a middle-aged professor, an expert on Romantic poetry with a couple of failed marriages under your belt. You don’t think you’ll ever love again at your age and with your soured attitude towards love and relationships. And then, one night, while attending a  book party, you spot a beautiful young woman alone and out of place in the room full of people. You go and talk to her, take her from the party and go to a restaurant to talk. The young woman, whose name is Constance, is obviously damaged goods. Brittle and … yes … on the mentally fragile side. She hates her father (long story) but also has a daddy fixation. Not a good combination. And to top it off, you become the father figure in her life. How unhealthy and potentially hazardous is that?

ConstanceAnd here’s how the novel begins:

My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went  before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling querulous voice so unshakeable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary.

Constance is married to her new “daddy,” and things, hardly surprisingly, are not going well. While I understand why one partner in a relationship may seek a new parent, I’ve always found the other partner facilitating that role cringeworthy. Perhaps it can work if both people in the relationship accept the parent-child dynamic but how can it be healthy and isn’t it guaranteed to be fraught with problems and tension? Naturally, it follows that this parent-child relationship is going down the toilet. Sidney is, of course, old enough to be Constance’s father (that’s why she’s attracted to him) and so according to Constance, he likes to lecture his girl-bride and ‘teach’ her how to think. Shades of Pygmalion here so often found in relationships between much older men and young women: she offers youth and he offers experience, stability and financial security.

Told in dual narratives from Constance and Sidney, narratives that are possibly unreliable from their very defensiveness, we learn how these two people met. We already know that Constance has a daddy-complex, and while Sidney seems happy enough, at least initially to accept that role, he’s attracted to Constance’s damaged self. Sidney, a lover of Romantic poetry, is working on a  book called The Conservative Heart and is at an all-time low when he first spots Constance at the book party that changed the direction of his life. Attracted by her “air of angry untouchability,” he approaches her. On Constance’s part, she sees Sidney in a far from flattering light. We’re told he’s tall and “heavy,

It was a warm evening. I was in my light seersucker and apparently there were beads of sweat on my forehead. The effect she said later, was that of an obscure consular official going quietly mad in a far-flung outpost of empire.

Constance’s daddy complex is more than matched by Sidney’s doomed Romanticism:

I asked her about her childhood, and she told me she’d grown up with her sister, Iris, in a falling-down house in the Hudson Valley complete with a framed verandah and a tower. It had been in her family for generations, she said, but when I asked her how many generations she was vague. Oh, two at least, she said. Daddy grew up there. It stood high on a fissured bluff, and on the south side of the property a steep wooded slope descended to a wetland meadow by the railroad tracks and the river. This was the view she’d had from her bedroom window, she said, the sweep of the mighty Hudson far below her, with the Catskills in the distance. It was called Ravenswood.

It was all too good to be true. The old house with its tower on a bluff above the river, and this beautiful girl, clearly in flight from who knows what horrors she’d suffered there, it was a Romantic cliché, the whole thing. But for that I liked it all the more.

While Constance ostensibly seeks a new father figure who is everything her real father isn’t, Sidney soon, in common with Constance’s father, becomes the villain–the villain to be rebelled against. And while Sidney was initially attracted to Constance as a damsel-in-distress, that old cliché becomes wearisome when he realises that he is now the source of her distress. Sidney discovers that being the caretaker of a mentally damaged, fragile person is both draining and thankless, so when Constance’s sister, Iris, moves to New York and finds an apartment “over a noodle shop in Chinatown,” Sidney is pleased.  Sidney rather approves of Iris who intends to become a doctor like her father, and this really doesn’t help the child-parent dynamic between Constance and Sidney as this effectively recreates the toxic competition between the two sisters for attention. Sidney’s approval of the freshly relocated Iris,  “a messy beatnik floozy,” very effectively signals trouble for Constance’s marriage.

McGrath novels often include a lurid, pathological past, and there are hints of that from Constance, and those hints blow wide open into a lingering malignancy as the book progresses. All the past secrets, of course, reside at Ravenswood, a house that is slipping into decay–symbolic of course of the pathological secrets buried deep in the past. Why is Constance’s father (who reminds Sidney of the “pitchfork man in Grant Wood’s American Gothic”) so emotionally distant from his daughter? There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here in the very unhealthy atmosphere at the family home at Ravenswood. There’s a creepy dried, up, “sour,” housekeeper, Mildred Knapp, who takes over after the lonely death of Constance and Iris’s mother Harriet. What’s the dark secret involving Mildred’s husband, and why are certain topics strictly off limits at Ravenswood? The book has an underlying trademark McGrath creepiness, with its emphasis on death and decay. Buildings and people fall apart. While one character is slowly dying, New York’s Penn Station is being stripped and noisily demolished–both incidents depress Sidney who sees the pointless destruction of the station as evidence of the decay of civilization.

Constance is a problematic character in this beautifully written novel in which the characters never quite seem comfortable together as they drift through the story rather like disinterested dance partners. While Constance is the less-favoured daughter, there’s something of the spoiled brat about her damaged air, and for this reader, there were a couple of story threads which were never fully explored–one involving oily lounge lizard, pianist Eddie Castrol, thrown into the mix but underexploited for the plot.  Dr. Haggard’s Disease remains my favourite McGrath novel, and it’s a book that set an impossibly high standard to beat, and unfortunately Constance doesn’t come close. The madness and obsession found in Asylum, Spider and Dr Haggard’s Disease appear in Constance but in a much lighter dose. There were occasions when the novel seemed about to take the reader down the dark labyrinth of total insanity, but instead the story lands on neuroticism. Does Gothic not translate effectively to Manhattan in the 60s? Or is Gothic simply replaced by its more modern counterpart, Neuroticism?

But she had such a tricky psyche, all turned in on itself like a convoluted seashell, like a nautilus, and at times I caught her talking to herself as though in response to what she heard in that seashell. When I asked her who she was talking to she’d all at once startle and wouldn’t tell me. It was disquieting.

Review copy.

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