Remember 1996? Let me help. “Macarena” is Billboard’s #1 song the past fourteen weeks, Space Jam is box office gold and Nanook, the Siberian husky Beanie Baby, is born. Meanwhile, Goosebumps is everywhere. The TV series is in its second season and the books are only halfway through an eventual 62-title run. If you’re reading each book as it comes out, you just finished The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and are eagerly awaiting How I Got My Shrunken Head. You are unaware, of course, that future classics like Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns and Calling All Creeps are already in the pipeline.
One day your mom buys a specially marked bag of Doritos. You find inside a teeny tiny Goosebumps book, individually wrapped so it doesn’t get covered in orange dust. You read the short story, love it, and discover that TWO more teeny stories can be obtained if you submit enough UPC codes. To sweeten the deal, the promotion includes a cardboard “library” for “shelving” your books.
Ring any bells?
Read more “R.L. Stine – Goosebumps Haunted Library (1996)”
Victoria Holt is a polarizing figure. Her Mistress of Mellyn (1960) created such a buzz that it was largely responsible for inspiring thousands of Gothic paperbacks during the 1960s and ’70s. Some (including me) consider this era a renaissance for the genre. Others, however, feel Holt and those like her cheapened Gothic literature by replacing the bombastic ingenuity of classics like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights with plots that are, more or less, trifling romance.
I happen to believe Holt’s critics tend to be those who’ve never read her, but I also see their point. It would be disappointing if The Devil on Horseback was the first Gothic novel to appear in someone’s head over, say, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Just as it would be disappointing if Alex Cross was the first literary detective that came to mind over Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin. Even still, for pushers of Gothic like me, I’m okay with any gateway drug. Especially if it inspires someone to try the “hard” stuff, like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis.
Read more “Victoria Holt – The Devil on Horseback (1977)”
First published in September, 1839, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is among the most critically scrutinized works in Edgar Allan Poe’s bibliography. The short story, ripe with metaphorical descriptions and intentionally mysterious language, is an open invitation to varied interpretations. At the high school level, most students are taught that it is a tale about extreme isolation. In academia, scholars are typically more interested in the bizarre brother-sister relationship and its incestuous possibilities.
Until recently, the idea that Poe could be in conversation with queer anxieties might have sounded absurd. Increasingly, however, critics have identified queer themes throughout his stories and poetry. In some cases, such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it is nearly impossible to deny that Dupin and his male companion are in a romantic relationship (Novosat). So too does “The Fall of the House of Usher” benefit from a queer reading. Suddenly the curious language and enigmatic events make sense. Not vaguely or subconsciously or inadvertently, but in its entirety. It is my argument that “Usher” is, from beginning to end, about queer anxieties. Notably, the angst of sexual repression and an inability to reproduce.
Read more “Queer Theory: Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)”
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial” was adapted for film in 1962. Usually this would result in a reprint of the original book with new cover art to promote the movie. In this case, however, another writer—the mysterious “Max Hallan Danne”—was hired to pen a novelization of the screenplay, written by Twilight Zone alumni, Charles Berumont. So this book is actually an adaptation of an adaptation. And it’s way better than it should be. Dare I say, it may be even superior to the original source material.
Read more “Max Hallan Danne – Premature Burial (1962)”
From an historical perspective, Quatrefoil is immensely significant. It is known for being the first American novel to depict gay relationships in a positive way. In the 1950s, Quatrefoil (pronounced cat-er-foil) became the bible for battling suicidal thoughts and embracing monogamous love, while simultaneously masquerading as straight to avoid blackmail and social ruin. Often the plot functions more as self-help than fiction. Tim and Phillip, one more experienced with his identity as a homosexual, the other still coming to grips, serve as stand-ins for readers going through their own journey.
Given this historical context, it’s no wonder the book became such a classic—and deemed so “obscene” that Greenberg, its publisher, was indicted on a federal charge of “sending obscene material through the mail.” After five years of legal woes, they eventually settled on a $3,500 fine and promised to keep the novel out of print. All this hullabaloo, mind you, for a book with absolutely zero sex scenes—not even a kiss! The only “problem” was its depiction of gay love in a positive light.
Read more “James Barr – Quatrefoil (1950)”
First published in 1816, when Edgar Allan Poe was an impressionable seven years old, this “science” volume chronicles reported incidents of premature burials, re-animated corpses, and bizarre embalming methods. It even finds time to get into politics, advocating for new laws that would make burial illegal within church yards and city limits.
Poe scholars point to this text as a possible reason for the author’s obsession with alive burials. Even if Poe never read it, its existence shows there was a general unease about premature interment at this point in history. Such evidence can further be found in early nineteenth century coffin technology which might include literal bells and whistles to alert a passing sexton.
Read more “Joseph Taylor – The Danger of Premature Interment (1816)”
Avoid the pond water and don’t cut the grass! This eco-gothic horror novel delivers more plant-based thrills than an Earth Day celebration. You’ll think twice about weedy vegetation overwhelming that ramshackle house outside of town, and may even second guess having outdoor trysts with woodland nymphomaniacs.
It’s rare for a pulp novel to live up to its brilliant cover, but this one does. Actually, the story surpasses any of the wild assumptions you might have going in. It gets crazier and crazier with every page, and I’m all about it!
Read more “Hugh Zachary – Gwen, In Green (1974)”
Die, Jessica, Die is a 1972 novel from the “Queen-Size Gothic” series. The series promotes itself as “greater in length and drama, richer in reading pleasure.” Presumably this appeals to readers who found mass-market gothic novellas of the 1960s and ‘70s too short and simplistic. In reality, the most “queen-size” thing about the series is thicker pulp paper (which makes 285 pages look more like 400) and a large font. Sometimes the plots are juicier than typical, but often they are as basic as any gothic romance paperback.
No exceptions here. Despite its alluring title and a narrator who promises much diabolical intrigue, there are no unconventional surprises.
As Jessica returns home after four long years at college, she finds her father’s mansion much-changed. There’s a new housekeeper she’s never met before, an attractive handyman roaming about, a strange doctor who administers tranquilizers at the first sign of distress, and a “burly” lawyer who may or may not be seducing Jessica for his own gain.
Read more “Jean-Anne de Pré – Die, Jessica, Die (1972)”
Zofloya is a pre-Freud gothic novel first published in 1806, but it often seems informed by modern theories of sexual psychology. Much of the drama arises from megalomania in the characters’ brains. This includes a philandering man with a fetish for married women. He has the very specific goal of using his charms to wreck happy homes. Then there’s the young Leonardo who thinks himself above temptation, but soon finds himself the love slave of a fifteenth century dominatrix.
Read more “Charlotte Dacre – Zofloya (1806)”
First published in 1897 by “Girl’s Gossip” columnist C. E. Humphry, this how-to guide on not being a cad or embarrassing yourself in polite society is surprisingly readable. Mrs. Humphry utilizes sharp wit that remains hilarious 100+ years later. Other laugh-out-loud moments emerge thanks to the rich ironies of drastic culture change. My favorite parts, however, are when she berates men for engaging in uncouth behavior that continues to plague today’s society.
For example, manspreading. Yes, the act of bowed legs on public transit was an issue in 1897 as well. She has a whole section on it:
True courtesy will prevent a man from infringing the rights of his neighbours on either side by occupying more than his own allotted space. Very stout men are obliged to do so, but at least they need not spread out their knees in a way that is calculated to aggravate the evil. Even a thin man can take up a quantity of room by thus disposing himself at an angle of forty-five with the other occupants of an omnibus.
Read more “Mrs. Humphry – Manners for Men (1897)”