Ann Radcliffe – The Italian (1797)

Review by Justin Tate

The Italian appeared in 1797 during peak Ann Radcliffe pandemonium. Fueled by the success of her uber bestsellers The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), this new release was destined to be popular, no matter what. Fans were anxious for another Gothic thriller by their favorite author, particularly since the genre had become so fashionable. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), for example, had recently scandalized readers in all the right ways. When rumor got out that The Italian was Radcliffe’s literary response to Lewis, anticipation whirred like a steam engine.

Certainly the publisher had big expectations. Radcliffe was already the highest paid author in the world after receiving a record-breaking £500 for Udolpho. For the The Italian she was paid £800, or about three times the annual salary of her successful, journalist husband.

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Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto (1764)

Review by Justin Tate

The Castle of Otranto was the Blair Witch Project of 1764. Both were game-changers which popularized a new genre. Blair Witch launched the “found footage” horror trope and Otranto inaugurated the “Gothic.”

Interestingly enough, Otranto also employs a “found footage” gimmick with its first edition, pretending that the original manuscript was hundreds of years old, unearthed from the dusty library of an “ancient Catholic family” and had to be translated from Italian. There’s a lengthy introduction written by the “translator” explaining all his theories about how much of the story might be true and what the author intended to achieve. This charade isn’t part of the game-changing nature of the novel, however, because such a tactic was in vogue at the time.

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Ann Radcliffe – The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

Review by Justin Tate

The Mysteries of Udolpho is considered Radcliffe’s most enduring literary achievement. At nearly 700 pages it’s certainly her longest. As such, and because I’m usually juggling several books, I decided to blog my review over time. This way I can capture a range of emotion experienced in the duration of such a sprawling epic.

Here’s how it all went down…

11/16/2020 Update – Seventy pages in and I can tell Radcliffe is doing something different this time. The mystery element mulls more beneath the surface than usual and pacing is far more luxuriant. Gorgeous scenery is crucial to the Radcliffe formula, but she really stops to smell the roses. Not a bad thing, as her travel writing skills have improved from her earlier novels. Here’s one lovely example:

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Peter Middleton Darling – The Forest of Valancourt, or, The Haunt of the Banditti (1813)

Review by Justin Tate

Originally published in 1813, The Forest of Valancourt is noteworthy for being a particularly rare Gothic novel. Prior to this re-publication, only one copy remained in existence at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Major kudos to Valancourt Books for bringing it back to life. Now they are a major publisher of the rare and obscure, but this appears to be one of their first re-print efforts. And quite a fitting title, I must say.

As for the novel itself, it’s pretty terrible. I’ve never read anything paced so furiously. Drama flies in all directions, with battles, breakups and blunders all happening simultaneously. No time to linger upon the conflict’s significance, we’re immediately set off to the next disaster. Nearly every paragraph begins with a “Three weeks later” or “later that day” or “suddenly” or “abruptly” to signify a vast transition. Further contributing to the cacophony of chaos is the large cast and shifting POV, which skips from person to person like a pebble in rapids.

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Ann Radcliffe – The Romance of the Forest (1791)

Review by Justin Tate

In 1791, while George Washington served his second year as president and politicians were preoccupied with drafting something called the Bill of Rights, readers across the pond devoured Ann Radcliffe’s hotly anticipated new novel The Romance of the Forest. If foreign affairs consumed their mind, these thoughts were easily vanquished to a fictional world of chilling melodrama and gothic romance.

Radcliffe wasn’t yet a household name—she would become one with her next novel, however—but the majority of literate society was familiar with A Sicilian Romance (1790) which was published only months earlier. This new novel, printed over three volumes, was longer, spookier, more atmospheric and more heart-pounding than her last. No surprise that it became an instant bestseller.

I suspect my reaction, 200+ years later, is similar to Radcliffe’s original audience: YES!!!! This story has everything I want and more. Can’t wait to read her next book!

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Ann Radcliffe – A Sicilian Romance (1790)

Review by Justin Tate

Ann Radcliffe was the J.K. Rowling of the late 1700s. She churned out bestsellers so popular they made her the world’s highest paid author for an entire decade. Her atmospheric gothic romances entranced the reading public similar to how Rowling made us obsessed with wizardry and magic.

Critics and fans alike could not get enough of Radcliffe. Once they finished her novels they fantasized about her personal life, imagining it as dramatic as her stories. Wild rumors were spread, including that she wrote while confined to a madhouse. The boring truth is that she was merely a private person who likely never traveled to any of the picturesque settings featured in her novels.

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Coronavirus Journal: Stephen King – The Stand (1978)

Review by Justin Tate

As soon as Chinese New Year got cancelled, I knew this was serious. Then the virus spread just like viruses do in every horror novel. So much so, in fact, that my immediate first thought was not to stock up on bottled water and toilet paper, but that it’s finally time to read The Stand.

Naturally I’m a Stephen King superfan, so it’s strange I hadn’t yet read what is commonly considered his magnum opus. In the back of my mind I knew there would be a right time to read it. I thought it might be after King’s death (rue the day) or after reading everything else by him. As a way to fully compare it to the rest of his oeuvre. Clearly, however, a once-in-a-100-years pandemic was the sign I was looking for. This is it, folks. It’s time.

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