Among the controversial literary works published throughout world history, few have sparked the level of outrage and obsession associated with Matthew Lewis’ 1796 novel The Monk. Even before his book bugged out eyes all across London, the patriarch was feeling hesitant toward Gothic plots. On one hand, Ann Radcliffe’s narrative puzzleboxes were charmingly written. But on the other, her female characters were too pushy against their fathers, too resistant of assigned husbands, and too eager to run off on exotic adventures. A girl could get ideas reading such folly. What a mess that would be!Read more “Matthew Lewis – The Monk (1796)”
A Gothic rollercoaster! Action is launched with the first line and doesn’t hold back until the twist-filled resolution. Smith was an actress by trade and her dramatic experiences fit well within the genre, where characters are encouraged to speak in the operatic tones of Shakespearean tragedy.
First published in 1815 and largely out-of-print until 2006, Barozzi would have likely been a mainstream publication in its day, but not splash-worthy. The tyrannical ruler willing to embrace any evil to maintain power is highly reminiscent of Manfred in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and, by extension, Macbeth (1606). The sections which deal with demon conjuring reflect Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796). And the magician’s reveal of a conclusion is very much in line with the tradition of Ann Radcliffe. In other words, Smith played all the hits but nothing edgy enough to cause a stir.Read more “Catherine Smith – Barozzi (1815)”
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies wasn’t the first book to remix classic literature with horror. Way back in 1867 came this totally bonkers French novel which imagines Ann Radcliffe as a vampire hunter. The young novelist, along with several ragtag companions, scout across Europe to root out blood suckers and save Ann’s sister before the upcoming double wedding. Along the way, Radcliffe’s macabre adventures inspire her to write her masterpiece, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
If the plot sounds ridiculous, it’s supposed to be. Féval, who was quite popular in his day, tells his tale with all the self-aware hilarity one might expect from a skilled satirist. The tone is meant to be zany, and zany it is. I wouldn’t call it a fine novel by any stretch of the imagination. That said, according to Goodreads, I highlighted over 200 sentences. It’s rare for a book to have me so glued that I’m highlighting on every page.Read more “Paul Féval, père – Vampire City (1867)”
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.Read more “Ann Radcliffe – The Italian (1797)”
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.Read more “Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto (1764)”
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:Read more “Ann Radcliffe – The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)”
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.Read more “Peter Middleton Darling – The Forest of Valancourt, or, The Haunt of the Banditti (1813)”
A collection of gothic short stories “from the world’s leading ladies of terror.” The editor, Edwina Noone, goes on for some time celebrating the triumphant female takeover from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Hugh Walpole, Henry James and other male gothic icons. “Who is better equipped to write of a female in trouble than a talented lady author?” muses Noone in the introduction, declaring the included “authoresses” are among “the most gifted in the genre.”
This is all a bit cheeky, since Edwina Noone is actually the femnine pseudonym of writer Michael Avallone. Avallone self-satisfyingly includes two of his own stories in this anthology, one under the moniker “Edwina Noone” and another under his other pseudonym “Priscilla Dalton.”Read more “Edwina Noone (ed.) – Edwina Noone’s Gothic Sampler (1966)”
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!Read more “Ann Radcliffe – The Romance of the Forest (1791)”
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.Read more “Ann Radcliffe – A Sicilian Romance (1790)”