A Castle of one’s own – The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Date published: 1764

In essence: The true heir of Otranto must be found before the castle kills them all.

The reason I love Gothic Horror so much is the space it creates.  Crimson Peak came in for some bashing when it was first released but I will watch it over and over again just for the house.* The house beats all with its cobwebbed corners and shadowed staircases, its loft ceilings and lancet windows.dsc_0255

Who would live in a house like this?

Only a family in disintegration. A family with secrets and passions that simply can’t fit into the real world.  Otranto’s patriarch, Manfred, thinks it’s a good idea to divorce his wife and marry his dead son’s fiancée.  The current Mrs Otranto does not object as much as you would expect.  The fiancée does object and flees to a monastery while Miss Otranto finds it all very disturbing, but she’s a good girl who obeys her father and is far more concerned with the random, yet handsome stranger outside her bedroom window.

The castle itself has very strong opinions on the fact that Manfred should not be in charge at all. It is the grand sire of Crimson Peak’s house, and yet it behaves like a teenager throwing fits of giant-sized armour and terrorising its inhabitants with prophetic ghosts.

“I want the true heir of Otranto back!” Door slams and plate metal rattles. “Now!”

The family remain puzzled, but carry on with their own agendas. The servants seem more inclined to pay attention, and like Hamlet’s Gravedigger offer some light relief.

Tragical-comical?

I found in The Monk that the funny moments sort of made the scary stuff less scary.  To find it happening again in The Castle of Otranto was not as odd.

It made more sense that in The Castle of Otranto because the gothic space was more clearly defined.  The Monk roves about over a whole city while in the claustrophobic confines of the Gothic Castle there is enhanced pressure on a group of people who cannot escape each other. In that setting the comedy did enhance the horror.

Here is a good article that explains it better than me.

More than just scenery

Of all the characters, the castle was my favourite. It wasn’t just window dressing, but had an agency of its own that drove the plot almost as much as Manfred’s desire for unconventional marriage arrangements.  Plus the castle was a lot easier to sympathise with.

This is also a good read if you’re a writer who wants to learn how to use setting to enhance atmosphere.  It’s a brisk read too.

So, I still really love a haunted building, but I think now I am more aware to the responsibility of owning one. Especially if it doesn’t want me to.

This post is part of the Reader’s Imbibing Peril blog hop. There is still time to get your socks scared off. Click here to find out more. The amazing artwork is by Abigail LarsonRIP XI

If you’d like to learn more about Gothic Houses and what they mean, I really recommend this podcast.

*Yes, the house. Not Tom Hiddleston removing his trousers.

Frightfully Funny? -The Monk, by Matthew Lewis

 

RIP XI

 In essence: Ambrosio is very holy monk until he gives into lust, greed and pride. He descends into vice and pretty much screws life up for everyone else. Except Matilda, whose evil plan it may have been all along.

Have you ever finished a book and not known quite what you think of it, or yourself?

I still don’t know what I think of The Monk.

A shopping list of Gothic Horrors.

There was not just rape, but incestuous rape.  Not just one virgin locked in a crypt, but two.  And mere demons weren’t sufficient so Satan himself appeared. Not just once, dear readers, but a multitude of times.

The book was a one stop shop for evil nuns, bloated corpses, skeletons (in crypts and family closets), ineffectual heroes, devils, mob violence, witches and swooning maidens.

Bizarrely, what I really liked were the moments of comedy.  There were, unexpectedly, several.

The old woman convincing herself that the two gallant knights are flirting with her and not her sixteen-year-old charge was expertly done.  Lewis had a great eye for picking out the ridiculousness in people and situations. This is brilliantly demonstrated in his opening scene.

Although enjoyable, those farcical moments also made the excessive horror feel burlesque in some places.  It may have been the eighteenth century language, but it often felt like the characters were deliberately enjoying their own wickedness too much to be taken completely seriously. Or maybe Lewis was.

I kind of enjoyed it too. Mostly.

When ‘n0’ means ‘yes’ and ‘leave me alone’ means ‘drug me and lock me in a crypt.’

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I was conflicted about Ambrosio, the monk of the title.  He’s an abandoned orphan who has known love or society except that found in the monastery. This was all promising start for my tender heart, although Ambrosio’s history makes him easy pickings for the devilish Matilda.

‘Oh look, a woman’s breast. Ok, I’ll sleep with you. Once wont hurt, right?’  

It’s not quite that simple, but once Ambrosio fell he fell fast and hard (*coughs*) and kept declining at a steady pace.

There were moments when Lewis captured Ambrosio’s inner moral wrangling beautifully.  There were other moments when, partly due to cultural differences but mostly because he was a toad, I wanted to beat Ambrosio to death with his own crucifix.

He repulsed me, and what made him truly horrific was his willingness to take advantage of his position of power. Kind of like a religious Littlefinger, but with less charisma.

I hated Ambrosio. Yet, as he launched his lecherous pursuit of Antonia, I turned another page.  And another.

*thunder rolls*

Just as I need to see the credits at the end of a particularly disturbing horror movie, I had to see if this character got his come-uppance.  (No spoilers here. Don’t look at the woodcut.)

Ambrosio’s descent from holier-than-thou to criminal sex fiend and murderer made me think about the gulf that sometimes emerges between who we hope everybody thinks we are, and the person we are capable of becoming given the right pressures. Ambrosio’s one true fear was not that God would find out what he’d done, but that society would.

I can almost sympathise with that. I want to be the person who can read this classic text with appreciation for its context and the moral issues it displays.  It’d also be cool if I could make some witty observations and you would all applaud and leave lots of comments.

Alas, I actually gobbled it up like Catherine Morland, squealing with horrified delight every time Ambrosio crept an inch closer to satisfying his demonic desires.

*lightning strikes*

I would highly recommend this book. I think.If you do choose to read it, I advise wrapping it in a brown paper bag between sittings.

This is a Readers Imbibing Peril post, and there’s still time to get in on the spookiness (until October 31st). It covers books, films and games in the horror (and associated) genres.  The very cool and kooky picture is by Abigail Larson.

 

 

There’s Something about Mina

This is a foot note to my R.I.P post on Dracula, and my public letter of apology to Mina Harker.

To find out more about R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) and a blog hop that celebrates the spooky, follow the link.  RIP XI

Dear Mrs. Harker,

I can’t remember the exact moment when I first found you offensive.  It began somewhere between The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and ITV’s short lived Demons.  It reached its plateau with Penny Dreadful and erupted in a climatic hissy fit during the last ten minutes of Dracula Untold.

‘Is it impossible to write a pop culture vampire/gothic story without Mina Harker?’  I raged at my patient, long-suffering boyfriend on the way back to the car. ‘Why is she so special? What about Lucy Westenra who actually gets turned into a bloody vampire?’

‘Yes, dear’, the boyfriend replied, ushering me into the car. People were starting to stare.

Like all witches lead to Salem (there were no witches! That’s kind of the point!) all lady vampires lead to you, Mrs. Harker.

I now appreciate it is not your fault. You are not responsible for the actions of Frances Ford Coppla’s Dracula film.

It was my fault, because the first time I read Dracula I was a lanky teen more interested in the wolves and the crumbling castle than any actual human-shaped character.  I was too young to appreciate your strength and forbearance.

I now acknowledge that as female characters from Gothic Horror go, you are very good at not swooning.  You drive a coach across Romania, travel (alone!) to Budapest to bring you fiancée home, shoot a revolver and organizes the resistance to the monster that killed your friend while said monster has infected you with his almost cancerous like disease.

As well as all this you deal with being patronized, side lined and constantly congratulated for her ‘man’s brain.’

It’s enough to make anyone start throwing your typewriter about, but you don’t. Sometimes I’d like you to, but I now have a greater understanding of your context I can see why the desire doesn’t even cross your mind.Typewriter, Vintage, Old, Manual, Manual Typewriter

And I get it.  Why wouldn’t anyone want to take you, an amazing character with so much potential out of you restrictive context and give you the power to have control over her own life (undeath)?

So, Mina Harker, I apologise again for defaming you in a public carpark.  As with all prejudice it came from a lack of my own understanding.

Of course, that does not mean I can promise not to get frustrated the next time your name crops up in a main stream vampire film/series/book.  My new appreciation of your talents will make me short tempered with those who I feel are using your name for credulity without adding a deeper understanding of your character.  However, I will not blame you.

I hope you can forgive me and we will become friends in time.

Yours & etc.

Images from Abigail Larson and Pixaby

 

Dracula Review (Readers Imbibing Peril)

RIP XI Review SiteIn preparation for Hallowe’en I’m tanking myself with Gothic Horror as part of R.I.P.  Head over to Stainless Steel Droppings to join in and get your spine tingled.

The first part of the novel has always been my favorite.  It’s a study in slow burning terror.  The following scenes in Whitby do not compare to Dracula’s Castle and the sinister behavior of its master.

Re-reading I also found a new respect fro Johnathon Harker.  He was firmly stuck in my head as an impotent Keanu Reeves, losing his vivacious wife to a charismatic blood sucker.  Not so. The man scales a wall (twice!) and  keeps up his hope and spirits throughout the whole book, despite being submitted to the worse kinds of mental torture.

First Date Etiquette.

In fact if you do ship Mina and Dracula (#Mracula? #Dracuina?) reading this book will put you off. His attack  of her is erotic, but the mere fact that it is erotic makes it all the more flesh-crawling. I’ve also been reading The Monk and a similar scene occurs when Ambrosio breaks into the heroine’s room while she is asleep, only without the metaphorical blood sucking  to hide his intentions behind.

That complicated juxtaposition of desire and disgust is irrefutable evidence that sneaking into a woman’s bedroom when she is unconscious is not sexy. Take note, Mr Cullen. It’s been done. It was creepy and wrong then; it is creepy and wrong now.

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Dracula himself, is sadly off page for most of the later part of the book.  The way he is described is the same mix of attraction and repulsion used above.  Even off page, his presence looms large over the action. And the way Van Helsing talks about him gave me a new found respect for what the Count is trying to accomplish and how much effort has gone towards him leaving his own superstitious Romania in order to make a better/safer  life for himself in London.

Of course, that isn’t quite how Van Helsing tells it. I’m reading between the lines, but Dracula is a pioneer of vampire-kind, seeking to over come his (super)natural restrictions and improve both himself and his quality of life.

Van Helsing was the only character I found myself frustrated by.  Lucy is turning into a vampire! Just tell them already! My modern sensibilities did not appreciate the good hearted reasons behind the old boy’s coyness.  It made that part of the book drag a tiny bit, but not so much to ever make me want to stop.

The Buffy of the 1890s?

The Scooby Gang of Victorian Gentleman rallying to take on the Count was a great race against time. Especially when they got over their noble sentiments and actually let Mina (who had previously pulled out her typewriter and organised their flaky, love sick arses into some course of action) be involved in the proceedings.

I have plans for my own fanfiction focusing on the Lucy Westenra Memorial Foundation for the Eradication of the Undead.  Young Quincey Harker spends his summer holidays travelling Europe with his parents hunting vampires. Lord Goldaming stumps up the money and Dr Seward provides medical expertise on locating vital organs.

Stoker’s characters were all real and distinct. They made a strong impression on me, as did their friendship forged under fire.

Modern sensibilities firmly locked in a trunk under my bed; I also really wanted Harker and Mina to make their marriage work (#Hina? #Marker?) There is real strength in their love and devotion to each other.  No, please, don’t vomit.  You don’t go to the trouble of memorizing a train time table for a man if you don’t love him.

In conclusion, if you have any interest in vampires at all, you need to read this book. It has so much to offer in terms of both horror writing, character and the origins (sorry Polydori) of a genre. You’d be mad to leave it languishing in it’s crypt a moment longer.

 

Halloween is Coming (Readers Imbibing Peril)

RIP XI

If, like me, you have Anne Radcliffe’s back catalogue gathering dust on your reading list it’s time to take action.

Join the R.I.P linky list and read one (or two, or three, or four) books from the perilous genres.  Watch a film, or play a game and get in the mood for Jack-o-Lantern season.

In an ideal world I’d read;

  1. 1. Dracula – because I need to make peace with Mina Harker
  2. 2. The Castle of Otranto – because I have yet to make it past the giant helmet
  3. 3.The Monk and (yes, one Anne Radcliffe) the Mysteries of Uldolpho – because I want to know what the all the fuss in Northanger Abbey was all about.

Ambitious of me, but tis the season to rediscover my inner Gothic Landscape.  I’ll put some Jill Tracy on to motivate me.

The awesome artwork was provided by Abigail Larson.

 

 

 

 

 

Anger and Ardee West

There are lots of things that make me angry;

  • That my niece is growing up in a world where some still consider it acceptable to cat call at school girls;
  • That it doesn’t matter what time or day I drive on the M25 there is always a fricking traffic jam.
  • There is still sometimes a presumption in fiction that the ‘good girl’, if she remains good, will get the happy ending she deserve.

Ardee West is also angry about things. Most of which she can’t change.

For those of you who have not met Ardee West before she is a relatively minor character in a sprawling three book epic of war, treachery, torture, gambling and other traditionally male activities, as the covers will demonstrate.

first law

What Abercrombie does wonderfully though is take well known tropes (fantasy and otherwise) and stretch them to their cynical and fascinating conclusions.

And he is not gender biased, despite the aforementioned war etc.  Ardee West is as screwed up as the best of his male characters. That is why I love her. She is trying to save nobody. The girl can’t even save herself. She fucks up. She makes bad decisions. She’s human.

In essence:

  • Young girl beaten by her father and abandoned by brother who goes to the big city to seek his fortune.
  • She eventually goes to stay with her brother in the big city. She has no money and no connections (sound familiar?) 
  • Instead of bravely being witty while preserving her virtue, she gets lonely, gets drunk and is generally beaten down by circumstances. 
  • She seeks amusement by seducing a self-centred handsome prince who then ditches her for round the world quest, returns, becomes king and then offers to make her his mistress.
  • She refuses, and with her life in danger (she is carrying the new king’s child) marries the crippled torturer who now (due to his own twisty and nail biting plot) is the most powerful man in the kingdom.

A belief in the Cinderella principle is still alive and well. I know, because while reading the First Law I really wanted Ardee to make it work with her handsome prince because not only would he save her, but she could save him from being such a dopey git. Even now I am not sure whether that is what I actually wanted, or whether that was what I had been conditioned to want.

When it comes to fiction I am generally, messed up in the head like that.

There is a rocking girl power moment when Ardee does tell dopey prince git where to go.

Then there is a slightly less rocking girl power moment when she accepts marriage from the crippled torturer.  The truth is she does still need to be saved (or assassinated, her choice).

It’s gone from Cinderella to Beauty and the Beast.  Except that Ardee is not really Beauty. She’s as beastly as he groom, on the inside anyway. (Has being a bad girl brought her exactly the happy ending she deserves? Is a shared cynicism with matching his and hers chips on shoulders a basis for a happy marriage?)

She is now the most powerful woman in the country. How about that for flipping the finger to not just your ex but every single member of society who has made your life a the living Hell?

Hehehehe.

My inner feminist revolts at the idea that Ardee has no other choices. My inner bitch is air pumping and crying out for revenge.

That makes me angry. And confused. Mostly angry.

I wouldn’t necessarily throw Ardee West onto the list of ‘strong female characters’ I am going to subject my niece too when she is older, but I want her to know that it is ok for women to be angry.

What’s important is using that anger to change the things that you can change, and not getting impotently worked up over the things you can’t.

 

 

 

A Recipe for the Perfect Bad Guy?

Are there a lot of hunchbacked monarch’s about lately, or is it me?

No sooner had the Hollow Crown finished than the cinema over the road from my office started advertising a live airing of Ralph Fiennes as Richard III.

I’m a convert. Spending the entire play in Richard’s head was as much fun as the first time I saw Tyrion Lannister’s beautifully ironic ‘you know how I love my family.’

It made me think about their other similarities.

  • Hated by at least one of their parents
  • A physical appearance that has a huge impact on how they are perceived
  • By large the most witty and charismatic character on the page
  • Completely unashamed of their own world outlook (with the occasional wobble)
  • They don’t care what people think of them. At least they don’t cry about it but do occasionally murder family members.

Typing this also makes me think of the Phantom of the Opera, and for the Abercrombie fans among you, Inquisitor Glotka, the dashing swordsman turned crippled torture who, despite the fact we regularly see him gleefully chop thumbs off, has an inner dialogue (much like Richard’s) which tight rope walks the edge of pantomime and makes you cry with laughter.

And they show me the way I would like to be fearless. I’m quiet, obedient and have a horrible habit of always apologising for myself. Even when I’ve done nothing wrong. I’d like to blame my parents (sorry Dad, if you’re still reading), but I think there are wider social and cultural pressures to blame.

There is danger in breaking the norm, my brain tells me on a daily basis. It’s dangerous to be too noticeable, too outside the box, too bad.

That is the spice in the recipe though – these characters show you things that you would like to do, even if it is as basic as pushing the fear away and just saying, ‘Fuck it, let’s see what happens if I try to be king today.’

These characters still have something to lose, they still have something that makes them human and they manage to invoke empathy even as I disagree with what they are doing. Plus they make me laugh, and seriously, if you make me laugh I will forgive you most things.  They show me a freedom of self-expression and ambition that I am only just brave enough to dream of.

And on a sliding scale (Tyrion being a protagonist in his own right, and Richard being a moustache-twirling bundle of wickedness) are they really bad guy’s at all?

And where are all the women in this line up?

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I’ve already mentioned Glotka, and in honour of the 1oth anniversary of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, in my next post I’m going to write about Ardee West.

Who?

Cynic, boarding alcoholic, social pariah and seducer of red-coated idiots. She’s a laugh a minute. Stop by and I’ll introduce you.