23 February 2009

Review: Seven Gothic Tales


The label Gothic can mean many things, encompassing the suspenseful realism of Radcliffe's Udolpho, the surreal Orientalism of Beckford's Vathek, and the sexually-charged diabolism of Lewis' Ambrosio. (And that's just considering works prior to Mary Shelley or John Polidori!) Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen) creates her own little corner of the Gothic, one that does not shy away from the supernatural but is more interested in people and their relationships than rattling chains in a cobwebbed corridor. Like many Gothic works, it features stories of people trapped within prisons, sometimes physical, but just as often social or psychological. Overall, I'd say this is a book that merits rereading, as only the most perceptive reader will pick up on everything the first time around. Even so, there were definitely some stories that stuck with me.

"The Deluge at Nordenay" is the story of four people trapped in the loft of a barn during a flood. The story takes place over the expanse of one night, during which the waters continue to rise and the four do not know if they will live to see the morning. Though resigned to their fates, they decide to spend the night telling stories. The two younger storytellers narrate their experiences of struggling with identity, of struggling with forces outside their control to exist in the world as they would choose. The older woman of the group tells of her own life and the choices she made. And then the last of the group, a religious scholar, tells a very odd tale of Peter a few days after the Crucifixion. All of it forshadows a rather interesting surprise near the end of the story.

"The Old Chevalier" is a pretty brief story of an older man recounting an experience when he was younger. He met up with a curious young lady and spent the night with her. Though the experience stayed with him, he did not see her again for many years. When he does finally encounter her again, it is a brief but haunting encounter.

"The Supper at Elsinore" features a ghost, much like that other story set in Elsinore. This ghost, though, is that of a brother come to visit the two sisters he left behind in his career of privateer, pirate, plantation owner and trader. Though beautiful and smart, the two sisters have grown into spinsterhood, always wondering about the fate of their brother. The meeting of the three allows for a final and melancholy reckoning regarding their respective fates.

"The Dreamers," like many of the stories here, incorporates storytellers and their stories into the narrative. Three men--two middle eastern, the third European--are on a boat together, sharing stories about how they have come to be on that boat. The European tells a story about how an obsession with a prostitute in Greece caused him to break off an advantageous betrothal, and how the prostitute vanished on him one day. Later he meets two friends, who have astonishingly similar stories to tell. There are some elements--mountain chases, a Wandering Jew--that almost make this story a Gothic parody, yet it also succeeds quite well on its own tragic terms.

"The Poet" is a bit of a misnomer, since the story actually has two poets. (A discrepancy which is likely intentional.) One, older and wealthy, takes a younger poet and an orphaned dancer in under his care. After realizing that the two may be falling in love, he decides for his own, not entirely cruel, purposes to marry the girl. This drives the young poet deep into despair, though he attempts to hide it. The love triangle ends, as they all do, rather badly.

These are quite moving stories of entrapment, identity, escape--all the Gothic mainstays--told through the marvellous talent of Isak Dinesen for creating a character, a place, or a situation with narrative finesse.

1 comment:

Evelyn said...

I assume you've read Edward Bleiler's anthology "Three Gothic Novels [Castle of Otranto/Vathek/Vampire]" (also from Dover), Peter Haining's "Gothic Tales of Terror" (2 volumes), and Robert Spector's "7 Masterpieces of Gothic Horror [Castle of Otranto/Old English Baron/Mistrust/White Old Maid/Heir of Mondolfo/Fall of the House of Usher/Carmilla]".

And don't forget Jane Austen's take-off on all this: "Northanger Abbey".