#WitchWeek2020: The end is nigh!

If you’re reading this, you’ve lived to tell the tale of Witch Week 2020. When you do, make sure it’s a tale with dark corners, collapsed towers, and horrifying specters. Not to mention lots and lots of shadows.

Chris and Lizzie are grateful for the help of everyone who participated:

e-Tinkerbell of eTinkerbell, who, in typical English-teacher fashion, introduced us to a fabulous classic of Italian Gothic/Romantic literature;

Jean of Howling Frog Books, for guiding us on a tour through the world of M R James’ gothic horror stories and for participating so energetically in our read-along discussion;

Kristen of We Be Reading, who drew our attention to a modern gothic masterpiece set in Mexico;

Lory of The Emerald City Book Review, who joined Chris, Jean, and Lizzie in a lengthy and wide-ranging discussion of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book;

Citizens of the social media world, too numerous to mention, who added comments and questions; Tweeted/Facebooked/Instragrammed links to our posts; and included pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs;

Our readers across the globe;

And, finally, once again, a special nod of appreciation to Lory, who six years ago started this annual celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy fiction on ECBR.

I want to add my own PS of gratitude to Chris for all his support as we put together this year’s event, especially for his excellent kick-off post on Gothick towers. Also, during our stewardship of Witch Week since 2017, he has created our wonderful memes. I hope he enjoys the work, because it’s his job for as long as we do this.

For anyone who just can’t get enough, here are the links for the Witch Week Master Posts from earlier years.

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with us, and we hope you’ll join us next year, at Chris’s blog, when our theme will be …

TREASON AND PLOT

Contemporary engraving of conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Third figure from right is Guy Fawkes.

Posted in Gothic, Witch Week | Tagged | 13 Comments

#WitchWeek2020 Day 6: MEXICAN GOTHIC and the Classic Gothic Tale

Wrangling the specters today is guest blogger Kristen M, who has been blogging at WeBeReading.com for most of twelve years and is the creator of March Magics (which annually celebrates Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett). She lives in Seattle, loves baking, tolerates yard work, and hates laundry. In this post, Kristen’s review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 best-selling novel is framed within traditional Gothic tropes (similar to e-Tinkerbell’s use of classic plot arc to analyze The Betrothed), thus providing an excellent final post for this week of Gothick thrills.


When deciding on a gothic book for Witch Week (in my case, likely a reread since this is my most frequently read genre), I started getting curious about a book I was hearing a lot about and actually hadn’t read yet–Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.  The gothic tale is typically held to be a British and American custom, based on the restrictions and trappings of patriarchy, class, and religion. Could this Mexican-Canadian author tap into the heart of the gothic tradition even while setting her story in 1950s El Triunfo, a derelict mining town based on Real del Monte, Mexico?

Cover image photo credit: Kristen M, WeBeReading.com

When asked about specific books or inspirations, Moreno-Garcia said that “… I have read a whole slew of Gothic novels, too many to list”. I am always up for a challenge so I went through various online resources and my own library and created a list of more than 75 novels and short stories that I had read over the years. (This list can be found on my blog today.)

After being reminded of so many favorites, I was ready to reread some of the sensational gothic books I’ve loved over the years. Since I revisited Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) last October, I decided to start my list with that classic. What else made the list? Brontë‘s Jane Eyre (1847), Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1803/1817), du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), John Harwood’s The Seance (2008), the short stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (Hawthorne, 1844), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Poe, 1839), and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892), and most of The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (1993).

While reading, I kept a word cloud of the elements that felt essential to each story. What were these gothic building blocks, you may ask, and did they appear in Mexican Gothic (MG)? Let us compare.

First there is the young, dependent, educated but self-doubting Hero or Heroine. In MG, this is Noemí Taboada, a twenty-two year old debutante who can’t make up her mind about men or studies but who does want to go off to the university. She still lives with her father and is reliant on him for money and good will. He wants her to go check on her orphaned cousin, Catalina, who has married and moved away to live with her husband’s family and has sent a disturbing letter to the family. Noemí has no choice but to go. She is smart and strong-willed but also knows what she must do to eventually get her own way in life.

Then there is the primary setting, which is almost universally The House, be it Manderley, Thornfield Hall, or the titular Northanger Abbey. The house is usually old and dark and either physically or psychologically difficult to leave. High Place, the home of the Doyle family, is on a mountainside above the abandoned silver mines that the English family used to manage for generations. It is an English-style home, out of place in Mexico, and is dark and in disrepair. It is also isolated from the village below because of the narrow road and regular mists and rain.

There is also the requirement of a Physical Mood. This is rarely one of sunshine and warmth, at least not for long. Eventually there is always cold, damp, rain, darkness, decay, dust, and/or illness. The house’s location in the mountains means lots of rain and mist, and damp and darkness are inevitably present most of the time. Also, Noemí goes because her cousin is ill, supposedly with tuberculosis, although she seems to be having a mental breakdown of sorts as well.

But just as important is the Intangible Mood. This is always one of discomfort and sometimes even fright. It can be based on the actions of others, for example their secretiveness, misogyny, or hostility. It can be based on history: past events or deaths and the grief and consequences and suspicions that attend them. It can exist mainly in the minds of the characters, as through imagination or dreams. MG has almost all of these. There is the inherent misogyny of both the Mexican and English cultures of the time, the shady Doyle family history, and the unexplainable and bizarre dreams that Noemí has once she is in the house.

Even though these stories are usually bleak, sometimes there is a Romance, requited or not. I’m not going to tell you if there is one in MG. You’ll have to read it to find out!

And then there is usually an Influence based in science or the supernatural, for all of the strangeness and discomfort must be explained but only sometimes is there an earthly reason. MG skirts the line between science and the supernatural in a way that pushes the book toward the realms of a certain founder of the horror genre. Though Moreno-Garcia has named the author in many interviews, they will remain nameless here to preserve some surprise for future readers.

Finally, of course, there is an Ending. This is where the most variety within the gothic stories emerges. Some allow their characters to finally be happy or at least settle into a sort of melancholy contentedness. Others are decidedly sad and tragic. Some end with flight or escape, and a surprising number end in fire. Again, I have to let you, the reader, discover the ending that Moreno-Garcia has crafted.

As you can see, Mexican Gothic manages to gather all of the gothic elements that I found in the classics. Yet, though you could see some influences within, it didn’t feel derivative at all. There were hints, such as one about the chemical used in wallpaper that may have driven Napoleon mad, that an avid reader may have connected to a specific story but nothing that was copied or simply retooled.

One final thing to note is that most gothic novels and stories are written by white men and women. This was why I eventually chose this novel and why I think it is important to note how well it fits in the genre, regardless of the author’s nationality or the location of the story. In a deleted tweet from 8 July, Moreno-Garcia said that she “hope[s] publishing realizes POC don’t just tell stories of immigrant suffering, that we can write books of all genres and that Latino lit doesn’t = only magic realism.” I think this is a great take-away message that only adds to the pleasure of reading this book.

Mural, Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo credit: Lizzie Ross

Posted in Gothic, Horror, Witch Week | Tagged | 11 Comments

#WitchWeek2020 Day 5: Gothic fantasy, with puppets

Puppet shows! Fun times for all, right? Not in this chilling Newbery Honor book. In 2007, Laura Amy Schlitz had won the Newbery Award for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. This 2012 gothic fantasy by the same author takes place a few centuries later, in an England those medieval villagers could never have imagined.

And remember those towers that Chris mentioned four days ago in “Gothic Dreams”? Well, Schlitz gives her readers one that’s full of menace. Here’s her take on the Victorian gothic novel:


Splendors and Glooms, Laura Amy Schlitz (2012, Candlewick Press; published in UK and elsewhere as Fire Spell)

1860, London, autumn. For days, fog thick as pudding envelops the town. To cross a street is to gamble your life, since carriage drivers can’t see you before you’re a bump under their wheels. Mud, urine, manure, and offal ruin the shoes of those without a penny or two to hire a street sweeper. The noise, the stink, the bad food and water, the diseases — there’s no escaping these. Just a few years earlier, all but one of the Wintermute family’s children died of cholera.

Fifty pages into this novel, the one surviving child goes missing. 50 more pages, and we know what’s happened to her. And there’s still almost 300 pages to go!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Schlitz’s novel starts in a nearly collapsed tower, where a witch is dying, albeit slowly. A former lover left her before explaining how she could free herself from the curse of the fire opal that powers her magic.

Back in London, the master puppeteer Grisini has two apprentices: the orphans Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. Lizzie Rose (nearly 15 years old) plays instruments and sews the puppets’ costumes; Parsefall (probably 11, but no one knows for sure) assists Grisini during the puppet shows. Both children are starving and maltreated. Parsefall is missing a finger and can’t remember how he lost it. Lizzie Rose has not yet learned to fear Grisini, but she doesn’t trust him. Though not brother and sister, Parsefall and Lizzie Rose spar and bicker like siblings.

At one point, we learn that Parsefall is haunted by “splendors and glooms” and has “an appetite for prodigies and wonders, for a world where spangles were stars and skeletons frolicked until their bones fell apart.” Lizzie Rose, with more education than Parsefall, corrects his grammar and pronunciation, shares her food with him (he never reciprocates), and dreams of a better life for them both.

The night that Grisini’s puppets perform at Clara Wintermute’s 13th birthday party, the girl disappears. Lizzie Rose suspects Grisini, but has no proof. When Grisini himself disappears, his apprentices are left destitute, wondering if he has simply deserted them. Lizzie Rose ends up drudging for their landlady to cover their rent, and Parsefall puts on puppet shows for the few pennies he can earn.

Fans of Gothic literature will find in Splendors and Glooms most of the familiar tropes: orphans, an evil wizard, a crumbling tower, a crypt, a cursed jewel, a doubtful legacy. There’s even a bit of Blackbeard’s castle, in a locked door the children are warned not to open. Of course they ignore the warning.

Readers will also find diabolical magic, two mages whose hatred for each other draws the children into a trap, and the cleverest use of puppets in any story I’ve ever read, including M. R. James’ “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” (1913), which features a too-lifelike Punch and Judy show in 1830s England. In a YouTube video advertising the Puppet Theatre Barge located in Little Venice, London, Stan Milton calls puppetry “ethereal magic”. That’s what Schlitz gives us in the few performances that occur in her novel. Audiences are enthralled — even hypnotized — by the dancing puppets, which include skeletons that slowly lose their limbs until there’s nothing left but skulls, their toothy jaws still chomping at phantom meals.

Part One of Splendors and Glooms takes place in London, Part Two near Lake Windermere. How Schlitz gets everyone up there is such a clever piece of plotting that you hardly see it happening. In this neo-gothic novel, she is the genius puppeteer, pulling the strings that place every character where they need to be, at just the right moments. So satisfying!

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Gothic, Historical fiction, Mystery, Witch Week, YA Lit | Tagged , | 8 Comments

#WitchWeek2020 Day 4: M R James and the Gothic Tradition

In this post, guest blogger Jean takes us to the world of M. R. James, famous for his creepy gothic tales, which have inspired several 20th and 21st century authors. Jean is a librarian blogging at Howling Frog Books who loves history, world literature, and anything involving textiles or embroidery.


M R James, 1900

Montague Rhodes James (1862 – 1936) spent his life as a scholar and medievalist, working at Cambridge and Eton, and he also wrote ghost stories on the side, for fun. He knew much of the Gothic tradition, and both drew upon it and departed from it, bringing new ideas to the scene; I think we can fairly call him a bridge from Gothic literature to the beginnings of modern horror. Being an antiquarian (enthusiastic does not begin to describe it), he enjoyed featuring ancient manuscripts, artifacts, or monsters, and his protagonists are often scholarly gentlemen, like himself.

James was the son of a clergyman, and his stories depict a society in which the unassailable centrality of the Anglican church is assumed (rather like Trollope). He also appears to have been a keen antiquarian from childhood. A friend’s reminiscences* include examples of what I would call pretty unusual behavior for a little boy:

[At age 6] …when recovering from a bad attack of bronchitis, he expressed a longing to see a certain seventeenth-century Dutch Bible which he had heard was in the possession of his father’s friend…

[At Eton] …A boy who could, out of the pound given him as his half’s pocket-money, spend on his way back to Eton sixteen shillings for the four volumes of John Albert Fabricius on the Apocrypha was obviously not as other boys.

Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, Penguin Classics

Some of James’ favorite literary techniques came from Gothic literature. He often used the ‘found manuscript’ conceit, and even doubled it a time or two. Or, James would sometimes change things up and make the found object a picture, a piece of stained glass, or something else with a secret message to disclose. Ancient churches or ruins were, of course, favored settings; the older and more mysterious, the better.  

On the other hand, James departed from Gothic tradition by setting his stories in his own time, and usually in England instead of the wild unknowns of Italy; when they are set in a foreign land, it’s probably in ‘civilized,’ Protestant Scandinavia. And while cathedrals and churchmen are thick on the ground, they are, wicked or not, nearly always solidly Anglican. James liked to start with an utterly ordinary setting, and then gradually bring in the creepiness, which heightens the horror and brings it closer. You don’t have to go to Italy and be attacked by banditti in order to experience a Gothic tale; it can happen right at home.

One of my favorite stories is “The Tractate Middoth,” which features an elderly scholar coming into a library and asking for an obscure (but real!) book of Hebrew commentary. The young library assistant, Mr. Garratt, heads off to fetch the book … but it’s haunted by a terrifying specter that doesn’t want to give the book up. Mr. Garratt has to take a vacation in order to recuperate from the shock, and it so happens that he hears some information that might have some bearing on his experience. He learns who the elderly man is, and is in time to see him obtain the book and meet the specter himself.**

Illustration for “Count Magnus”, Rosemary Pardoe

Possibly one of the most traditionally Gothic tales is the very well-known “Count Magnus,” in which the narrator tells of a manuscript he has found, revealing the visit of a travel writer to Sweden. Mr. Wraxall stays with a prominent Swedish family, and becomes fascinated with an ancestral mausoleum attached to the church – but it’s locked. It houses the tomb of Count Magnus, a legendarily wicked lord of the manor who was said to have gone “on the Black Pilgrimage, and had brought something or someone back with him.” (Just what the Black Pilgrimage is, is only partly revealed, but it’s implied that the Count made a metaphysical journey to a cursed city and perhaps made some sort of covenant.) Mr. Wraxall eventually gains access to the mausoleum, and finds the tomb locked with three padlocks, which fall off one at a time…

Illustration for “The Mezzotint”, Loneanimator, DeviantArt.com

This is typical of James, to start with a modern setting, jump back 50 and then a couple of hundred years, and bring the ancient horror up to the present. His horrors, however, are not the typical Gothic kind of pale and elegant specters. James’ monsters are often short, hairy, skinny, and/or muffled in fabric. He must have had a horror of spiders, and he’s the only writer I’ve come across who can make white linen or flannel terrifying. His creatures are nearly always chiaroscuro figures of shadow and moonlight, and are described like engravings or woodcuts – antique illustrations in black and white – as in “The Mezzotint”, when a print of an engraving shows a figure “crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back…” and later, 

the black drapery hung down over its face so that only hints of that could be seen, and what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs…. The legs of the appearance alone could be plainly discerned, and they were horribly thin.

Image created for BBC Radio series of M R James’ short stories

Since I’m a book person myself, I always like James’ constant interest in books. This time, I paid a little more attention to the footnotes and realized that since quite a few of the books he mentions are real, and I live in the glorious age of the internet, I might be able to find some of them and see if they interest me. Most of the ones I looked up were indeed on archive.org, and so I downloaded a book on alchemy and a few volumes of “Bell’s Cathedrals,” and looked at the works of Thomas Bewick (a famous and incredibly prolific engraver who illustrated a variety of works from natural history to Aesop’s Fables). I found PDFs of the Harleian Miscellany, which is a multi-volume collection of old pamphlets and looks kind of fun, but the pages are not very easy to read and the automatic OCR made absolute hash of them when I tried to get epub files. All of this, however, helped to remind me what it was like to learn things back in about 1900. If you wanted to know what Canterbury Cathedral, or Sweden, or what various sorts of owls looked like, you usually had to get a reference book and look at engravings, or at best a few black-and-white photos. No books stuffed with color photos, and certainly no Google Maps to bring you endless views of nearly every famous landmark on Earth.

The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, Penguin Classics

Other favorite stories of mine are “A Warning to the Curious” and “Mr. Humphreys’ Inheritance,” not to mention many others, but I will let you discover them yourself. James’ stories are most easily found in two Penguin paperbacks: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, and The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, which collect all the short stories together. Much of his work is also available for less money and slightly more effort at the Gutenberg Project. There are also quite a few BBC adaptations on YouTube; I’ve watched two so far, and plan to watch more.

Gilbert James’ cover image for “The Five Jars”, publisher Michael Walmer (MichaelWalmer.com)

I only recently discovered that James also wrote a charming tale for children, “The Five Jars”, which combines fun and shivers in about equal measure. I downloaded it from Gutenberg. The narrator (James himself) is led to an ancient buried case holding tiny jars of ointment, which allow him to hear, see, and speak with magical creatures of all sorts. He needs their advice, because there are evil forces trying to get the case too.  

Once you read James’ spooky tales, you’ll start to see his influence in innumerable later writers of creepy stories. I’m not a reader of Lovecraft, but I know he commented positively on James’ work. I’ve seen James’ plots adapted or even lifted outright for use in children’s and YA fiction (which is where my experience lies). John Bellairs, one of my favorite spooky children’s writers, often used Jamesian details; his successor, Brad Strickland, has been more overt about it. And in The Dollhouse Murders (1983), Betty Ren Wright rewrote “The Haunted Dolls’ House” for 10-year-olds.

I’m not enough of a scholar to really know, but as far as I can tell, M. R. James is considered the inventor of the ‘antiquarian ghost story’ – which I suppose is my favorite type of ghost story! And there’s no need to keep his works for the autumn; he followed the British tradition of having ghost stories at Christmas, and many of his tales were written to share at that time of year. I hope you’ll enjoy them too. 


*A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James, by S. G. Lubbock,  Cambridge University Press), 1939.

**I found a fairly recent BBC adaptation of “The Tractate Middoth” on YouTube, and thought it was very well done. I am supremely envious of Mr. Garratt’s library! I do have one small quibble, though; this is one of the few James stories with a pretty happy ending, and the BBC felt it necessary to add a little to it, which I didn’t really think was the best choice. But I encourage you to read and watch both, and see what you think.

Posted in Classic, Fantasy, Gothic, short stories, Witch Week | Tagged | 15 Comments

#WitchWeek2020 Day 3: The Graveyard Book

2012 US paperback edition, cover by Dave McKean

“It takes a graveyard to raise a child.” 
(back cover of The Graveyard Book, US edition)

Appropriately for today, the Day of the Dead, we present you with a discussion of this year’s read-along book, a novel set in a cemetery. Four of us–Lory* from The Emerald City Book Review, Chris at Calmgrove, Jean at Howling Frog Books, and Lizzie–spent the last few weeks of summer discussing Neil Gaiman’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Graveyard Book (2008). We addressed four questions of interest to us.

Many of you know this book, or have read it recently, and we hope that after reading our discussion you’ll add your own comments and questions, expanding this in new directions.


What did we think of the novel’s gothic nature?

A bloody knife promises danger.

Chris:The Gothick elements include the menace right from the off and the memes or motifs that Gaiman deliberately uses — ghosts, graves, vampires, the innocent abroad, the enclosing boundary representing safety. 

Lory: What I find interesting is that Gaiman makes some of the traditional villains of horror/gothic fiction, the monsters, into guardians and protectors of humanity. He gives them new names and doesn’t use the old ones, though we can deduce them (vampire, werewolf) from our knowledge of the tropes of fiction. The creepiest part of The Graveyard Book to me is the chapter where Mr. Frost gains Scarlett’s trust, and that has nothing supernatural about it. It’s an all too everyday story. 

Jean: Mr. Frost, unassuming nice man, is really frightening. He knows just what to say to manipulate Scarlett and Noona into trusting him.

Chris: Jack Frost’s grooming, of both Scarlett and her mother Noona, is all too recognisable, and as creepy (though in a different way) with the older woman as with the 15yo. That’s Gaiman’s skill, I think, to mix the menace of Gothick with everyday evil, and somehow to suggest that the mundane type is more horrific than ghosts and ghouls. 

Lory: Exactly! When Gothic lit veers into the unbelievably silly and absurd, it is just too much for my taste. It’s a grounding in reality that makes it truly scary, and also educational. We need to realize that evil is an everyday occurrence and the only way we can defeat it is to recognize it – above all, in ourselves.

Chris: I’m about a quarter of the way through Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance which is very much in the style I remember from Walpole’s Castle of Otranto but the atmosphere is of a different nature to Gaiman’s: archaic not contemporary, classic Gothick not serio-comic, teenage-focused more than child-centred. 

Lory: Jean, since you are reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, do you see anything to compare there? I confess that hardcore Gothic is not my thing and I tried to read Radcliffe once and could get nowhere. I did read Uncle Silas, though, and Gaiman’s using the name is a nod to the genre I think.

Lizzie: I’m the same, Lory. I’ve read The Monk, and Walpole and Radcliffe, and they’re all just silly.  

Jean: The silliness is part of the fun! Walpole always cracks me up; how did he come up with the idea of a giant helmet falling out of the sky and squishing the heir? (I also like B-movies. So that might be part of my problem.) 

Lizzie: Yes, Jean, that giant helmet is hilarious — plus the giant foot and sword. That’s some curse, to manifest itself through size.

Lory: It’s not so much the silly external events as the silliness of the characters that bugs me: when they are just too stupid to live, or their actions simply make no sense. (I’m really basing this comment on Uncle Silas, which has a lot of that.) To be thrown into fantastical, weird situations and have to make sense of them is all to the good, narratively speaking; that’s what Bod has to do a lot, isn’t it?

Lizzie: 18th and 19th century gothic fiction relies heavily on the helpless female, allowing “heroes” to rescue them from Dracula/Frankenstein’s monster/the Monk/whoever is threatening their life and/or chastity. I’m glad that Radcliffe stepped away from that particular trope. And certainly the fainting woman that Austen parodies in Northanger Abbey [in Love and Freindship, Austen advised: “Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!”] was being replaced by redoubtable women like Jane Eyre and the various widows of Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford (although David Copperfield’s Dora comes far too close to the gothic model). I’m happy that Gaiman didn’t include anything like this – unless you count Noona being taken in by Mr. Frost? A case where the adults are dupes, although Scarlett is also fooled. But I assume/hope not the careful reader, who, upon seeing a character named “Mr. Frost” ought to move immediately to “Jack Frost”. 

Lory: It’s certainly fascinating to look at gender roles in Gothic lit. E.g. in Frankenstein, a man takes on a female role (giving life) but then he is too weak to take responsibility for the result and just runs away from it. One wants to say, “Be a woman!” And with Dracula it seemed to me that Mina Harker had more brainpower than all the men put together, who insisted on being all manly and protecting her and just made things worse. However, this takes me a bit far afield from TGB, where (with a mostly preteen protagonist) the gender issue is not so much in the foreground.

10th Anniversary cover, art by Chris Riddell

Jean: Much of Gothic fiction, it’s true, has helpless females who need rescuing, but it’s not at all uncommon (in the women-authored ones, anyway!) for the heroine to conquer through bravery and common sense. Eliza Parsons and Ann Radcliffe are both notable for their sensible and brave girls, though Radcliffe’s heroines feel faint a heck of a lot. The Monk is just completely bananas anyway …. I think the women authors felt much more of a responsibility to write heroines that could be models for the girls they knew were reading the books.

Udolpho, like all of Radcliffe’s works, is notable for its championship of common sense and emotional self-control that stands in opposition to the background of creepy castles, evil villains, and nameless horrors. Emily’s triumph comes through defeating superstition (including belief in ghosts) and standing firm in her moral certainties – both against money-grubbing men who want to force her into marriage, and against the panic-inducing fear of ghosts. I’d say that Silas does teach Bod a lot of sense. He’s good at calmly figuring out not just how to deal with the Indigo Man, but also solutions to real-world problems, like the school bullies. He eventually marries defeating both the supernatural and the ordinary terrors by luring Jack into the Sleer’s cave.

Lory: Nice characterization of the qualities that can be strengthened exactly through encountering their opposites in the Gothic genre. I might give Radcliffe another try at some point.

Gaiman has said that TGB was inspired by seeing his own son riding a tricycle through a graveyard, a perfect metaphor for how life continues renewing itself in the midst of death. What does this suggest about the book’s setting?

Chris: It’s a tale set in limbo, playing on the threshold between life and death, and between amity and adversity. 

Lizzie: The final defeat of Jack Frost requires Bod to have no fear of the Sleer – and that was the case the first time he met it. I guess growing up surrounded and taught by ghosts teaches a person that death isn’t anything to fear. I’ve had this quote for ages: Letum non omnia finit. (“Death doesn’t end everything.”)

Lory: Yes, that ties together all the incidents and themes in a way. And makes it clear why setting a book in a graveyard does not mean it’s morbid or anti-life.

I recently came across a quote from Tennessee Williams – “We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.” I think this is a book about love, the love that has the potential to lead us safely through dangerous and liminal spaces, that is able to discern good and evil within our own hearts and to point us in the right direction, even when conventional wisdom might tell us something different.

How do we live in the face of mortality? Not by denying it or trying to erase it. Bod lives in the very realm of death, and what he “saves” from it is primarily learning and relationship. I find that a worthwhile message to ponder right now.

Cover of Italian version, artist unknown

Chris: I think you’ve pinpointed this very well, Lory. If there’s a leitmotif in much of Gaiman’s work, it’s love – the compassionate type more than the passionate. I had a spot of heartache in the final chapter, even the suggestion of a tear, and I remember a similar feeling at the end of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And closely allied to love’s pang are partings, and loss, and change. 

Lory: Agreed, Chris. The poignancy of change and loss is strongly present in Gaiman’s work. That’s always a factor when love is truly present, because we have to learn to let go what we cherish, so that it can be free. I believe that is what the “graveyard” setting conveys here, rather than a ghoulish delight in decay and corruption. I don’t usually enjoy horror stories which exist to indulge such an unwholesome appetite, but I can read his because they walk on the right side of that line, for me.

Jean: I love your Tennessee Williams quotation, Lory, and yes, it’s a theme I find in Gaiman a lot – and I think in Pratchett too – that love is what brings us through. Not usually romantic love, but compassion and mercy. Bod walks out of the graveyard and into life “with his eyes and his heart wide open.” He has no illusions about people or the world being particularly nice, but he’s willing to love. So I think you have wonderful points there, Lory.

The graveyard isn’t a ghoulish place, even. Sure, it has dark crypts and old coffins of bones, but really it’s a little town with a lot of cozy homes and a lot of people rubbing along together through their many differences. 

Lory: It’s ironic, though, that it’s in the graveyard that Bod is considered safe! The outer world, for him, holds greater dangers. And it’s again a good point that it’s by really knowing and experiencing all that is in the graveyard that he comes to have the abilities he needs to meet the challenge on the threshold of growing up. Continue reading

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#WitchWeek2020 Day 2: A Gothic Reading of The Betrothed

Today’s guest blogger, e-Tinkerbell, lives in Italy, so it’s no surprise that she brings this classic Italian novel from the 19th century to our attention. e-Tinkerbell is a high school English teacher who loves literature, history… and shoes. She blogs at e-Tinkerbell. All translations from the Italian are hers. Buona lettura!


The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi*) is well known as an iconic love story, like Romeo and Juliet, but it is actually much more than this. We are talking about the greatest Italian novel of modern times and its author, Alessandro Manzoni, is considered the main Italian novelist of the 19thcentury and leader of the nation’s romantic movement. “With the exception of Dante’s Comedy, no other book has been the object of more intense scrutiny or more intense scholarship” writes the Italian scholar Sergio Pacifici. The Betrothed, in fact, still forms an indispensable part of the curriculum in Italian high schools and it helped to establish and formalize the modern Italian language.

Begun in 1821 and published in three volumes in 1827, The Betrothed was an immediate success and introduced a new genre: the historical novel. When the novel landed in America in 1834, the book had already become a hit in Europe. With more than 80 reprints, The Betrothed had caught not only the attention of publishers but also the praises of many illustrious writers of the time such as Mary Shelley, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, who had the fortune to know Italian and appreciate the book in the original language. The problem of the language employed by Manzoni was no minor matter, as translators found it very difficult to interpret it (as Italian students do today), and this was one of the reasons why in England, for example, The Betrothed received cold reviews at first. Edgar Allan Poe, who himself ventured into a translation of the novel, hailed it in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835 as “a work which promises to be the commencement of a new style in novel-writing.”

1834 edition, courtesy Project Gutenberg

The tale is set in Lombardy in 1628 during the oppressive Spanish occupation and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). The betrothed of Manzoni’s title are Lorenzo Tramaglino (known as Renzo) and Lucia Mondella, two young peasants who share an unfading love in their desperate attempts to marry against all odds. Renzo and Lucia, who live near Milan, plan to be wed by the local priest, Don Abbondio, but two thugs of the local baron, the villainous Don Rodrigo, who himself desires Lucia, threaten Don Abbondio and impart him this order: “Questo matrimonio non s’ha da fare”(“This wedding is not to be celebrated”), so the clergyman, who is not actually a lionhearted sort of man, tells the lovers that there will be no ceremony for them that day. 

What follows is a journey made of perilous situations the two lovers have to tackle: wars, famine, bread riots, and last but not least the plague. In this journey we will meet a gallery of memorable characters, such as the Nun of Monza, a feared criminal known as the Unnamed, and the virtuous Cardinal Federigo Borromeo.  Differently from Romeo and Juliet, good wins over evil and the couple reach their deserved happy end at last.

The Betrothed fully belongs to the Gothic trend so en vogue at the time more than it seems at first glance. Gaspare Manzoni, son of Alessandro, reveals in his diaries that his father had long wished to write a Gothic novel in his youth. Although he never completed the project, it is possible to trace in his masterpiece both the structure of the Gothic novel and themes, characters, and settings so dear to noir fiction.

Continue reading

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#WitchWeek2020 Day 1: Gothick Dreams

Happy Halloween to all!

My first guest blogger is my co-host, Chris, who blogs as Calmgrove on WordPress, where for eight years he’s been exploring the world of ideas through books by way of reviews and discussions. Today Chris has taken on the challenge of setting the mood, so to speak, for our week of dark mysteries. 

What was that thump I heard on the stairs behind you?


I waked one morning [in 1764] from a dream, of which, all I could recover, was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down, and began to write…       — Horace Walpole, in a letter

A castle in Herge’s Tin Tin series

At the heart of early Gothick literature—I use the spelling ‘Gothick’ to differentiate it from historical or architectural meanings of Gothic—broods The Castle. 

And when I say ‘Castle’ I mean those edifices, usually ancient abbeys or mansions, with a clutch of qualities which we immediately recognise, namely antique origins, some of which may be ruinous, harbouring histories of romance, the supernatural, even horror, and—at its heart—mysteries in the form of eldritch scandals or objects, accessed via secret passages, tunnels, caves, crumbling staircases, and hidden doors. 

The attraction of stories that include these edifices is twofold: first, the intellectual satisfaction that comes from following a confusing trail that may or may not lead to answers; and second, the curiosity that has its roots in psychology, dreams, even nightmares, with an inkling that the skull may itself be the castle and that, within it, the brain’s convolutions hide the ultimate mystery. 

Let’s have a look at these two aspects. 

Arrival of a Dutch three-master at Kronborg Castle, by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom.

Whence the template of the Gothick Castle? Revenge tragedies, perhaps; the acknowledged epitome of the genre must surely be Hamlet. Here, in the corridors and chambers of Elsinore [modern-day Kronborg Castle], lies the concealment of a murder; here, on the battlements, manifests a ghost crying for justice; here, behind tapestries and in poisoned chalices, lurks death. Both Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe own up to the debt they owe to the play, and that legacy will filter down through the centuries. 

Walpole’s Strawberry Hill. 18th-century watercolour by Paul Sandby

Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (published on Christmas Eve, 1764) is the progenitor of the genre, combining the tropes of wicked rulers and defenceless damsels, secret passages and crypts, and supernatural happenings and tempestuous weather. Walpole realised that his fictional Italian castle mirrored aspects of the Gothick residence he’d had built for himself at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, whose “towers, gates, chapel, great hall” were unconsciously based on one of the Cambridge colleges he became familiar with in his student days. He had used the college building “as the plan of my Castle without being conscious of it myself.” 

The early novel of one of his successors, Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance (1790), added wild scenery and colourful imagery to Walpole’s elements, accentuated by the liberal use of adjectives such as romantic and picturesque. The strange lights in the unused southern range of the Castle of Mazzini on the north coast of Sicily are believed to be from a ghost, and the duplicitous Count leads us to believe that a dark deed in the distant past has led him to shut off that part. But his supernatural explanations dissemble, for he has secrets to hide.

Henry Tilney discovers Catherine Moreland exploring a mysterious wing of Northanger Abbey, Ferdinand Pickering, 1810-1889

In 1798 Jane Austen began writing what was to become Northanger Abbey (though it was not published until after her death in 1817); in this she references several Gothick authors and their works, in which the young heroine Susan, later renamed Catherine, immerses herself before visiting the Tilney residence. Encouraged by Henry Tilney to indulge her romantic fantasies about the place, she is frankly disappointed that the former religious house converted into a residence is so modern in appearance and taste. She would have done better to have visited Blaize Castle outside Bristol which was, in fact, a newly built folly which would have fitted all her expectations, as Austen slyly tells us.

In fact, follies and mock medieval residences were one way to have a more or less instant fix of Gothick, and Walpole was not the only person with land and money to indulge himself. William Beckford built Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire between 1796 and 1813, though most of it fell down in 1825, the rest demolished by 1845. The Scottish author Sir Walter Scott had completed Abbotsford in the Gothick style by the time Fonthill collapsed, and that of course still survives, as does the fairytale structure of Neuschwanstein built by Ludwig II on the Rhine. But the structures that live on in the memory are the ones that we find constructed in books. 

Fonthill Abbey. View of the west and north fronts from John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill (1823)

The castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is described as vast and ruined, and those key elements — medieval architecture, the supernatural, horror, ruins, secrets — are found down through the succeeding centuries into the 21st: think of the castle in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, Château d’Eppstein by Alexandre Dumas, Charlotte Brontë’s Thornfield, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, and Rowling’s Hogwarts, even hinted at in the title of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. For instance, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan (1946) introduced us to the Gormenghast domain, its denizens, and their dark deeds. At the start of the sequel called Gormenghast (1950) he reminds us of where we’d left off previously:

Titus the seventy-seventh Heir to a crumbling summit : to a sea of nettles : to an empire of red rust : to rituals’ footprints ankle-deep in stone.

Gormenghast.

Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra : the immemorial masonry : the towers, the tracts…

Crickhowell folly. Photo credit: Chris @ Calmgrove

So, why this fascination with the idea of a castle? Can psychology explain the attraction? Perhaps we might get an idea from dreams, such as that which led to Walpole writing his novel. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) Carl Gustav Jung described a dream he’d had — in India — of an island off the coast of Britain: 

On the rocky coast at the southern end of the island was a medieval castle. We stood in its courtyard, a group of sightseeing tourists. Before us rose an imposing belfroi, through whose gate a wide stone staircase was visible. We could just manage to see that it terminated above in a columned hall. This hall was dimly illuminated by candle-light. I understood that this was the castle of the Grail […].

After a hiatus in his dream he understands that 

the Grail was not yet in the castle and still had to be celebrated that same evening. It was said to be in the northern part of the island, hidden in a small, uninhabited house, the only house there. I knew that it was our task to bring the Grail to the castle […].

Bannerman Castle, Hudson River, NY. Photo credit: Lizzie Ross

He sets off across the island, but just when he is almost in reach of his goal he wakes, his quest incomplete; the now conscious dreamer is left wondering about the dream’s true significance.

The grail is just one of many relics or magical objects that many narratives employ as a symbol, the key to the opening of a door, its finding leading to a resolution. I wonder, then, whether we should imagine the castle or similar structure as somehow symbolic of the mind? I’m almost tempted to see the folds of the brain as corridors leading to doors, with doors concealing steps leading down to a chamber hiding secrets. 

Not all secrets are pleasant, of course — we may hope that what may be revealed won’t be like the secrets concealed in Bluebeard’s bloody chamber. Instead it may turn out to be what one unconsciously hopes for — love, possibly, or a treasure, some healing, a revelation, or a definitive answer to a nagging question. Thus might the trope of the Gothick Castle satisfy on both an intellectual and an emotional level. 

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#WitchWeek2020: Master Post

Image is from the medieval Vår Frue Church (Church of Our Lady) in Trondheim. Photo credit: Lizzie Ross.

Diana Wynne Jones’ Witch Week (1983) is a fantasy set between Halloween and November 5th — Bonfire Night — marking the day in 1604 when Guy Fawkes was caught preparing to blow up Parliament. Six years ago, Lory of Emerald City Book Review used this time frame to set up eight days of magic and mayhem as an annual event to celebrate fantasy books and authors.

We’ve now come to the seventh Witch Week, which I’m co-hosting with Chris at Calmgrove. Our theme for 2020, an appropriately dark one for this time of year, is

GOTHICK

Our 2020 read-along is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. In August, four of us had a virtual conversation on this, and we hope that you’ll add to our discussion when an edited version of it is posted later in the week.

Here then is the schedule:

Day 1: 31st October, Halloween
My co-conspiritor, Chris, takes us on a tour of Gothick castles and towers featured in more than 200 years of gothic literature.

Day 2: 1st November, All Saint’s Day
We travel to Italy, with e-Tinkerbell as our guide through Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th century gothic romance, The Betrothed.

Day 3: 2nd November, All Soul’s Day
Is there a better place to visit on this Day of the Dead than a graveyard? We think not. Join us for an in-depth consideration of our read-along book

Day 4: 3rd November
Gothic short stories move into the spotlight today, with Jean of Howling Frog Books giving us a taste of Montague Rhodes James’s collected works.

Day 5: 4th November
I review a modern gothic YA fantasy that features creepy puppets: Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms.

Day 6: 5th November, Guy Fawkes’ Day (Bonfire Night)
“Lovecraft meets the Brontës in Latin America” (The Guardian). Kristen of We Be Reading tempts us with her review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 best-seller, Mexican Gothic.

Day 7: 6th November
I end the celebration with the usual wrap-up post, and end by unveiling the theme for Witch Week 2021 (to be hosted on Chris’s blog).

Do not fear to join us!

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all of Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again;—I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time.” —Mr. Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey.

Woodcut from The famous History of the Lancashire Witches (1780?)

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Countdown to Witch Week 2020: One week to go

Halloween card, 1908, NYPL

Actual Halloween may be cancelled this year, but you can celebrate it virtually with us, during Witch Week!

Don’t miss out on the fun: Apply your Gothic makeup, put on your best costumes, and settle down for a close reading of Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

The 1980s music to inspire your nightmares ends with this industrial classic from Ministry [set to the 1929 cartoon, “Hell’s Bells”, directed by Walt Disney (!) and drawn by Ub Iwerks, Silly Symphonies series; read more about the film here]:

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Stress Reading

This month, as three crucial dates slouch nearer (31 October, 01 November, 03 November¹), my reading has been all about trying to keep calm. True, only one of these dates will have world-wide significance, its consequences possibly repeating and repeating unpleasantly, like bad champagne of which we’ve bought too many cases yet feel compelled to keep drinking. (Again, I want to know: why do we keep doing this to ourselves?) The other two involve multiple participants, but I doubt the aftermath will be so dire.

However, that these three events converge makes this month — for me, at any rate — particularly baleful. Thus, an unusual assortment of comfort reading:

The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner. Ash, by Malinda Lo. Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Four Nancy Drew mysteries. The Plague, by Camus. Eleanore Updale’s Montmorency series. Back issues of the NYRB and LRB (so nice to be reminded of the world’s concerns pre-2016). Peter May’s Blackhouse and Jenny Milchman’s The Second Mother

Kipling and Nancy Drew need no attention from me. I reviewed Updale’s series here. Jenner’s bit of fan fiction is diverting but not worth a re-read, much less a review. Still working on May’s and Milchman’s thrillers.

That leaves two books to discuss here:

With her 2009 fantasy novel, Malinda Lo reboots the Cinderella tale in a fascinating new take that flips everything on its head, including the meaning of “fairy godmother”. To the story’s traditional medieval setting, Lo adds a close proximity to the land of Faerie, whose denizens easily move between there and here, looking for fun — in other words, for means of making mayhem. Lo’s elves are more like Pratchett’s and Townsend Warner’s rather than Tolkien’s — haughty, selfish, often fatal to humans, but for the most part living in their own world. Yet one comes to the aid of Ash (short for Aisling) when her step-mother begins mistreating her (not just by making her do housework — oh, the horror! — but the dreadful woman accuses Ash’s adored father of being a spendthrift!). Ash essentially sells her soul to her fairy-aide in order to be able to attend the Prince’s celebrations, and how she gets out of that commitment is the (somewhat disappointing) denouement. Yet overall, this unusual story wins my admiration. By switching genders for key characters, Lo makes this a surprising tale of sexual awakening as well as passage into independent adulthood, and not just for Ash. Angela Carter would approve.

As for the remaining novel from this month’s list, it’s been much in the news earlier this year. Everyone’s must-read, the book-candy for every eye, multiple re-issues, yadda yadda yadda. In April, the wait for an e-copy from the NYPL was several weeks. Today, access is immediate. Readers have moved on.

Yet here I am, reading it again after … omg, has it been 40 years?² I can recall seeing it on my shelf a few times, considering it, and then deciding, “Not yet.”

Well, “yet” has come.

First off, I admire Camus’ astute portrayal of the range of responses to the pandemic. When Oran, the Algerian coastal town where Camus sets his novel, goes into lockdown, the citizens pass through every stage we’ve experienced the past several months — denial, anger, boredom, frustration, fear, despair, rebellion. The only difference is that the local Préfet and other government officials follow the scientists’ advice. One can only dream.

Allegory? Absurdist drama? Christian apology? Whatever you like; I don’t believe it matters. Although there are few women and no Arab characters (even though the Arabs must outnumber the French), the novel’s value lies in the arguments between Dr. Rieux and other characters about how one ought to respond to a crisis like this. (Aaaand again, I get to refer to The Good Place and its 4-season examination of how we should treat each other.)

This quote is on a wall near my desk: “… evil exists so we can struggle to overcome it” (David Brooks, “Your Loyalties Are Your Life”, New York Times, 24 January 2019). In The Plague, Camus’ narrator argues that citizens of Oran who volunteered to help during the epidemic (caring for the ill, disposing of bodies, etc.) were actually just doing their duty. He uses the example of a teacher:

… we do not congratulate a schoolmaster on teaching that two and two make four, though we may, perhaps, congratulate him on having chosen his laudable vocation. Let us then say it was praiseworthy that [the volunteers] should have elected to prove that two and two make four rather than the contrary; but let us add that this good will of theirs was one that is shared by the schoolmaster and by all who have the same feelings as the schoolmaster …. [A]gain and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four. For those of our townsfolk who risked their lives in this predicament the issue was whether or not plague was in their midst and whether or not they must fight against it.

I have other explanations for the existence of evil (one comes from Tom Waits’ song, “Heartattack and Vine”: “don’t you know there ain’t no devil there’s just god when he’s drunk”), but I can’t argue with Camus’ narrator about our duty in the face of evil. To do nothing is to accept evil.

Tarrou, a traveler accidentally trapped in Oran’s lockdown, organizes volunteers during the epidemic. Dr. Rieux asks him why he helps these people to whom he has no connection, and Tarrou answers, “I don’t know. My code of morals, perhaps.” When Dr. Rieux asks, “What code?” Tarrou replies, “Comprehension.” That is, Tarrou understands what we owe each other in this world, and how to respond to evil.


¹In case you need it, in calendar order: Witch Week (7 days to celebrate Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy fiction), NaNoWriMo (a month of writing abandon), Election Day (the possible end of all hope for the future).

²These days, when I pick up a book I haven’t read for a while, I enjoy recalling those carefree days of the 1970s, 80s, 90s — even the 2000s.

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