233 pages, Wordsworth
Review by Pat Black
Did you have a teenage Goth phase? I sort of missed mine out, but I flirted with a bit of the darkness. No make-up or anything. Not even so much as an earring. What I really wanted to be was a rocker – the squarest one in existence. I just wanted to play my guitar, drink my beer and get the girls. I had a biker’s jacket, band t-shirts, Doc Martin boots and pale jeans. I used to wonder why strange men would try to strike up conversations with me at train stations late at night.
Anyway, the Gothic literary traditions were a reaction to the Enlightenment, a little kickback against the Age of Reason and all those terrific scientific discoveries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these are still with us, almost undiminished, even as science strives to have an answer for everything. If you watch the movie Sinister, starring Ethan Hawke, you can count off the Gothic tropes one by one. Or think about all those movies about the supernatural which fly in the face of reason (normally characterised through a sceptical man), and uphold superstition, “instinct” and flat-out hysteria (usually characterised as a woman). The recent remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce, has to be a perfect example of this.
I guess even the most rational of us like a little bit of shadow here and there. It’s a part of humans’ collective psyche that has proven resilient.
Gothic Short Stories has a few veteran stagers on its title page - “The Room In The Tower” by EF Benson, “A Madman’s Diary” from the Pickwick Papers and Sir Walter Scott’s “The Tapestried Chamber” are no strangers to this type of anthology. And poor old MR James; I’ve read “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” so many times in the past year alone that I missed it out this time altogether.
But many of the other stories in this fine collection have the shock of the new, and some from familiar hands, too. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatchers” was apparently so ghastly an experience for its author that he was shy about having it published. This would have left us bereft; what a fine piece of work it is, and what a love letter to grimy, seamy Edinburgh, a hundred years before Trainspotting.
Many of these stories are previously undisturbed tales, disinterred from obscure sources by David Blair. The opening salvos, such as “Sir Bertrand: A Fragment” by Anna Letitia Aikin, and “Captive of the Banditti” by Nathan Drake and An Anonymous Hand (seriously!), set the tone. Far from the rational world of quantity, weight, cause and effect, here are portents, curses, cruelty, violence, imprisonment and buried, uncanny lusts. Death is a constant – not just the fear of it, but the embrace of it. Throw in a bit of vampirism and lycanthropy for colour, and we’re away.
Charles Robert Maturin’s “The Parricide’s Tale” layers on unremitting, horrid cruelty, as a monk and a nun at a convent are persecuted by the loathsome narrator for the crime of falling in love. It left me depressed and untrusting of human beings; somewhere in eternity (perhaps), we might hear Charles Robert Maturin cackling and slapping his thigh.
Edgar Allan Poe, the only Gothic writer who I could see being fashioned into a cupcake or a cuddly toy for children – look at his wee face! - weighs in with the suitably grim “Berenice”. Again, we encounter hidden desires and thwarted lusts, but also a curious fetish for teeth. It takes all sorts, Ed. As I guess you would know.
Le Fanu’s “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” may be the most straight up and down Gothic tale in the book, as a strange man who is clearly up to no good makes a marriage match with the daughter of a famous artist. The painter’s apprentice isn’t happy about this, but if he thinks he’s going to find some sort of peace or catharsis in this story, he is having a laugh.
American heroes Ambrose Bierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne weigh in with their own creepy, odd stories, but the stand-out for me was a well-known tale which I hadn’t had the pleasure of reading before: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A harrowing tale of what actually happens to the “loonie in the attic” once the door’s closed on her, this looked at mental illness and delusion with unnervingly sharp focus. What lurks behind the wallpaper patterns, if that’s all you’ve got to look at? You can bet it won’t be pleasant. It’s not something I want to consider for too long. This is a masterpiece of feminism as much as horror.
These are a few examples of the goodies on offer here – 20 stories, plus an excellent essay by the editor. This has been a smashing bedside book for me this past wee while, and although my dreams afterwards may not have been sweet, I’ll miss it now it’s gone. Wordsworth’s Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series has been pumping out some terrific collections for a few years now – all cheap as chips, for your Kindle or with proper pages. Myself and Mr Proops have tackled a few of these for Booksquawk, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
I’m not very superstitious these days, nor spiritual, nor romantic. But there’s something in me that won’t quite turn away from tales of ghosts, ghouls, vampires, werewolves and madmen. Perhaps it’s a biological imperative, a psychic alarm, to keep us on our guard. You never know – there might actually be something waiting to lunge out at you in the forest. Or someone.
As an internet meme I saw recently put it, “Let’s face it – when you turn the lights out in the basement, you run the hell out of there.”