Saturday, November 30, 2013

Almoran and Hamet (17??): A Forgotten Oriental Gothic?

oriental divan

“Charming Princesses, everything is ready; we have prepared beds for your repose, and strewed your apartments with jasmine; no insects will keep off slumber from visiting your eyelids, we will dispel them with a thousand plumes; come then, amiable ladies! refresh your delicate feet and your ivory limbs in baths of rose water; and, by the light of perfumed lamps your servants will amuse you with tales.” (Vathek, 1887)

The gothic genre relishes these Oriental tales. The influence of the Arabian Nights being indiscutable, there are native English precursors to the usage of Oriental elements in gothic. On the one hand, the great, and well-known, authors of gothic all used Oriental elements at some point – Maturin takes us to India and Parsons accompanies us to the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, Beckford’s Vathek stands as a very particular representative of the gothic movement in that it is entirely, exclusively, Oriental and that special flavour is felt not only in the content but also in the language itself. But Beckford’s text did not exist alone, nor was it the first of its kind.

Almoran and HametJohn Hawkesworth published a work in two volumes entitled Almoran and Hamet. The author was purportedly a self-taught writer and an admirer (and imitator) of Johnson. The popularity of his book is astounding in the sense that in the absence of criticism, it survived and reappeared in print regularly in the company of early 18th-century novels. It was sometimes republished along with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It was “embellished” with illustrations and further distributed in a single volume. One of the earliest surviving editions is dated 1761 and this is a reprint of a previous version. Taking place in Persia, the story involves Arabian princes and a Circassian beauty. The setting and architecture are very similar to the one in Vathek – Oriental palaces, vaults and latticed windows, perfumes, gardens and riches immeasurable. Within, the rulers pace with ennui and dissatisfaction.

(on the left, Hamet is depicted running into the garden to see a burning tower and Abdallah mourning his daughter who, he thinks, is dead…)

Francis_Ayscough_with_the_Prince_of_Wales_(later_King_George_III)_and_Edward_Augustus,_Duke_of_York_and_Albany_by_Richard_WilsonThe story starts with the traditional twofold gothic scenario where two brothers (one good and one bad) contest both the throne and the heart of a virgin. After the death of their father, they are under the obligation to rule together. This arrangement pleases neither and they engage in long discussions about ruling and ruled. The whole work being dedicated to the King (possibly George III), the political dimension of this complex metaphor is indiscutable. Furthermore, the two princes are under the constant surveillance of Omar, their teacher and old counsellor of their late father. One cannot fail to notice the parallel with the ca. 1749 Richard Wilson painting of the two princes (George and Edward) and their tutor.

Under this politically charged plot, the subplot of a love story is developped. Abdallah’s daughter is a Circassian beauty. She remains sheltered in a tower and is completely covered in veils until, one day, fate throws her (literally) in the arms of the good brother. A fire destroys her tower and she has to jump into the garden below. Luckily, Hamet catches Almeida and takes her to his room, away from the servants and everyone else. The following scene is a good example of what those interested in 18th-century literary eroticism can find in this book:

Almoran catches Almeida falling from balcony“She was covered only with the light and loose robe in which she slept, and her veil had dropped off by the way. The moment he entered his closet, the light discovered to him such beauty as before he had never seen: she now began to revive; and before her senses returned, she pressed the prince with an involuntary embrace, which he returned by straining her closer to his breast, in a tumult of delight, confusion, and anxiety, which he could scarce sustain.”

An evil spirit appears before Almoran (1841)The supernatural and spiritual elements of the work are developed with the appearance of a beautiful and omnipotent spirit who tempts Almoran into usurping the throne for himself and then into stealing Almeida from Almoran. This happens during their marriage ceremony and is full of dramatic, theatrical effects of lightning, smoke and deep voices coming from the underground. Almoran tries to obtain power and riches. He also keeps Almeida locked up and repeatedly tries to force himself onto her. Almoran keeps asking the spirit for help until it actually goes on to change his bodily appearance so that Almeida mistakes him for her beloved.

(on the left, Almoran is tempted by the evil spirit)

By the end, evil is punished. Almoran transforms into a stone statue and the rest of the cast live happily ever after.

Hawkesworth’s book contains a vast number of elements found in gothic – from sibling rivalry escalating to a wide-spectrum political conflict to the supernatural apparition, the burning tower, the gloomy dungeon, the subterranean avenues, and innocents held in captivity. No religion is specifically mentioned but Islam is alluded to in a manner that is generally positive. What is more, the work contains debates that we can find in the novels and romances published towards the end of the 18th century – the idea of marrying for love and choosing one’s partner (for the domestic sphere) and the developing notion that a ruler must be chosen by the people (for the public sphere). The twofold nature of the work (the two simultaneously developing plots, the confrontation between tyranny and democracy on the political level, and between virtue and wickedness on the spiritual level) is what creates the impression of reading a gothic novel before its time.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Phantom Village of Roquebillière (France)

DSC_0070The fans of Ann Radcliffe know of her preference for French and Italian landscapes. Most events in Radcliffe’s “French” novels actually take place in the South, haunted by centuries of terror, banditti and ghostly presences. It may seem a strange thing today because southern France, and especially the lands around the Riviera, have become synonymous to sunlight and azure blues. The average British tourist will attest it – the French Riviera is more beautiful than sublime in the gentle summer light. But if you go further up and into the Alps that surround the city of Nice, you can find a few forsaken places still standing. The tiny villages in the “back country” (arrière pays) have had trouble adjusting to modernity – Internet is scanty and some telephone providers cannot guarantee coverage. In fact, these places have not only had trouble joining France (which they did around the 1850s at the earliest) but are also having trouble with Europe itself and with anything foreign, imported and strange. Maybe because they themselves are very strange and in their strangeness, they seem to attract only a few stranded passers-by on their way to the sea… But there still are ruins to be admired, hidden by the dense foliage.

Roquebillière Vieux FacadesOne of these forsaken places of the back country is the village where world-famous Nobel laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio grew up. Called “Rocabiera” (meaning “bee hive”), it is one of the last “phantom” villages of France. Separated from the new vilage by a quaint bridge, Roquebillière Vieux (“the old village”) was destroyed five times by mud descending from the mountains, by the river Vesubie which passes nearby, and by earthquakes. Back in the 1920s it was evacuated but a few resisting, persistant locals still insist to inhabit the ruined buildings. Commemorative Cross (Belvedere)Many of these buildings conserve gaping windows and decaying facades, and one wonders how they hold on during winter. But even after the tornado that swept the region last month, they still stand. Despite the crosses erected by the locals in memory of the victims that nature has repeatedly taken, despite its solid 6th-century foundations and despite the fact that one of the oldest Roman clock-towers still presides over the village scape, one only needs to ask the locals about stories of hauntings and apparitions and everything that seems solid sinks into the insecurity of terror. Some say that one born here must always return or else the family pays in blood. “It comes from the mountain,” one local said in a dialect that was barely understandable. One can only guess what comes from the mountain… but in all villages a popular song in sung, which dates back to the 1880s and its title is “Pellegrin, the Phantom; or the Terror of the Mountain” (Lo Fantome Pellegrin. Pellegrin, terrour de la montagna).

DSC_0073The origins of the village are equally mysterious and local legends tell of a “phantom” village that moved from one location to another and from one mountain top to another so that, nowadays, no one really knows where the original village was situated. Contemporary science has a lot to say about this – a text in French can be found here. Other legends tell of the Knights Templar who appeared in the village around the 12th century and presided over its life with a mysterious force that could move the location so that no enemy could find it. The patron saint of the place is Saint Julian (the Hospitaller) and many locals say that his curse still reigns over the place. Allegedly, he cursed the village to be destroyed not five but seven times, which means that the old generation still lives with the expectation that destruction and havoc will strike again. After it was destroyed in the early 20th century, the village was indeed moved and this is the last movement of the place that can be backed up with certainty by witnesses and documents. Interestingly, Saint Julian and legends of destruction and rebuilding link this tiny village with the Belgian city of Ghent and with the distant island of Malta.

Roquebillière is Gothic Readings in the Dark’s Gothic Village of the Year 2013 – a place you must visit and… if there are any aspiring young authors of gothic out there – here is a mysterious place that you might like to feature in your work! A phantom village that keeps moving from hill to hill, a phantom descending from the mountans, local people tied to the place or else a deathly menace hanging over them… what more do you need?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Gothic Child (2013)

The Gothic Child - MGI am very happy to announce to you all that my book The Gothic Child is scheduled to appear on October 16. It is already available for preorder at Palgrave Macmillan and Amazon.

This post contains the answers to some questions I have been asked about the book on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

The Cover Art

Many of you loved the cover art. I am very happy that you did and also very happy that I asked Ivann Dimitrov to draw it for me! Here is a LINK to his online portfolio. I cannot say much about the creative process behind the image but this is how things were from my point of view: I sent a chapter-by-chapter resume to the artist and then sent him about a paragraph or so about what I wanted. My need seemed pretty simple – I needed a “gothic child” on the cover. But what that child looked like was quite a difficult thing to determine… I am fascinated by the final result. I cannot tell you how Ivann Dimitrov drew it but it was exactly what it had to be, for which I thank him with all my heart! Maybe it is the eerie, dreamy haziness about the things he draws that I like but many of you saw similarities to Coraline (2009) and to Wednesday from The Addams Family (1991) but also to the art of Nicoletta Ceccoli. If you are interested in Ivann’s projects, he is currently involved in a game project (fascinating!) called A Tale of Two Worlds. You can also visit the Facebook site.

The Title

The title originated from my Ph.D. thesis. Back in 2008, when I began research on the topic, the title was much longer and less definite: The Child and the British Gothic Novel (1764-1824). This title was chosen by myself and my thesis director Dr Denise Terrel because we did not know if I would actually find anything to say about the children in gothic. It seemed to us like a virgin jungle that we could go through unscathed if we paid enough attention but we could have also been eaten by beasts never seen before… Then, with the years, I accumulated more data and a definite shape was beginning to appear. The more I read, the more important the child seemed and, at some point, I had to admit that, indeed, there was such a thing as a “gothic child”. The timeframe was dropped from the title of the book and the cover. Better leave it sober, I thought. Gothic is so rich, fanciful and variegated from within that we do not need to clutter things from the cover page.

The Contents

Some of you complained that the information at the Palgrave website was not sufficient in terms of contents. So, apart from the abstract and scolarly opinion you can find there and in the flyer, you can download (by clicking HERE) a detailed plan of the text (without the page numbers). The book also contains some plates from gothic novels with children on them and will have a detailed primary source bibliography and index (by theme and author).

What Now?

Many have asked me about my future plans. Will there be a translation in French? What about Bulgarian language? Why not. But first, we should patiently wait for the release date in October. Most French-speaking people interested in this subject also read English and I do not know if I can translate my own text into French. I have always written either in French or in English and I have translated other people’s texts but, frankly, I do not know if I can handle mine. As for Bulgarian, I think this might actually be a good idea. However, I have other plans before this. I have three more translations waiting to be done and possibly published. I also have some gothic projects I would like to research, possibly start a new book. So, my answer is… Wait and see!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Of Legends, Heroes and Swords

Imagine a vast expanse of land, muddy and cold with bodies strewn all over, smeared in gore, and bSword of Truth on Goodreadsodiless heads staring at you as you fly with a raven who is as black as Hell. And this land of waste can only be saved by one hero and his beloved. Sounds like a simple plot. In fact, it is only an very small part of a plot that has been evolving in the recent history of the heroic fantasy genre. After J. R. R. Tolkien’s and Robert Jordan’s deaths, there seems to be a gaping void that demands to be filled with new heroes. The Game of Thrones craze is one of them but there are others, as good, that have remained on the edge. As any scholar of gothic knows, in literary history, none are more important than the obscure books. The obscure, unfilmed, unnoticed chef-d’oeuvres that are secretly, guiltily devoured by thousands of young men and women and their even guiltier parents are the stuff which literary history is made of. Because they will show future generations what franctions of the population on the margin of the popular and famous have loved and cherished.

The Legend of the SeekerThe Sword of Truth series is one of these jewels. It has had success but it has also been much criticised. Clans have been forming among heroic fantasy fandom – the faithful defenders of The Wheel of Time, the traditionalists – those who still adore Frodo and then, there are the forgotten ones, a fighiting, battered crowd of Seekers, who brandish Kindle copies of the latest Terry Goodkind novel. A densely populated bastion of Seekers have conquered a small part of Facebook land and are now fighting for more publicity. They are not only reading books by Goodkind but have also found a real-life quest for themselves – they are trying to save and crowd-fund a show based on their favourite novels. To do this, they have started a SMGO.tv project. These modern-day heroes are also a very particular breed of literary scholars and translators without Ph.D.’s What they do, from a scholarly perspective, is amazing. An international community of kids, middle-aged housewives, teenagers, old men, students, they brandish their unique linguistic identities and different cultural backgrounds in the name of a common goal. Something else is even more amazing – most of these people are able to engage in literary analysis and discuss translation issues as if they have a few years of literary/linguistic teaching on university level behind them. From the point of view of a literary scholar, this community is a jewel worthy to be discussed in an extended sociological, ethnological and linguistic study.

But to turn to the show and books. It all began in the mid-1990ies with a book entitled Wizard’s First Rule. The series (now over 12 books) were then adapted for TV with the show The Legend of the Seeker. The two go hand in hand, the books providing the basis. They are a kind of solid background foundation on which the show improvises. To those who have both read the books and seen the show, they are like a symphony, or an opera, or a jazz tune, built of many leitmotifs that come and go. The question that immediately springs to the mind of a gothic scholar, however, is this: Where do these fictions belong? What is their genre? It is really heroic fiction? How much of it is gothic? There is no easy reply to this enigma.

The Death of Infants (1825)The first image that came to my mind when I opened the first book in the series, however, was an 1825 drawing of a skull, eating babies and young children. A kind of deathly menace, a global one, targeting the young and helpless. The scenes of massive destruction, the cruelty and inevitability of it all are part of what drives the plot. A cruel tyrant is after the children of his people, after their innocent babies. Much like the old Biblical motif of the King going after all sons in order to find the Savior and much like Rowling’s Voldemort going after the Chosen One, Darken Rahl tries to kill his own son. In that, the book is anchored in a very rich literary heritage. In fact, it is more profoundly entwined with the European and Christian literary heritage than any of Jordan’s or Tolkien’s books, probably only equal to the work of C. S. Lewis. The settings are very interesting and range from the Romantic forests one sees in Ann Radcliffe to the gloomy vaults of Lewis and Maturin’s fictions. But then, there is the element of magic. A non-negligible detail that places the work on the margin that the gothic shares with the fantastic.

For those willing to venture into this world, you can watch the show, available on DVD at Amazon.com, and even join the crowd of invincible Seekers who are trying to have a new Season 3 of it. As for the books, the next in the series is due this August and is called The Third Kingdom. It is also available for preorder at Amazon.fr for the European customers.

Alternately, you can also join their Facebook hangout and browse through personal reveries, analyses of dialogues, quotes and favourite moments, among which some interesting quarrels and strifes… but what is a heroic fantasy world without those burly, churlish, grumpy men looking for trouble and their fearless, outspoken opponents? Yep, you have it. Nothing. We need them all to vanquish!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

“All flesh is grass…” and you can cut it!

The heavy silence that reigned over this blog for the past few months was caused by a book entitled The Gothic Child that will probably come out this September and which I contracted with Palgrave Macmillan. Now that the hard work is almost over, I have had the time to read again. And as the gothic genre is vast, I have been upgrading my knowledge about it by reading obscure 18th century books along with contemporary and recently published works. I want to present to you one of my most recent readings, one I enjoyed tremendously.

SLICE Bennett

C. D. Bennett is the author of Echoes of Dusk, well, at least this is how I knew him but he has also been writing some positively macabre pieces of fiction that deserve the attention. Slice is one of these. It is a new form of short fiction, somewhere in between the short story as we know it and the sober, fast, Kindle-format writing that you can consume on the go, voraciously. 13 pages. I did think about the significance of numbers when I reached the last page. So I amused myself with counting some keywords. “Blood” comes up 20 times, “hate” comes up 8 times, and “slice” only twice. To give you an idea about the general sound of it, these are accompanied by “cut”, “razor”, “dead” and “death”, and by “dream” and “nightmare”. A curious fact, both “slice” and “nightmare” occur twice – once in the first slice of text, a second time in the ending and this mirror effect is confirmed by the mirror in which the scarred, bleeding narrator sees his reflection. We are dealing with dark horror, both visually and psychologically terrifying, but there is more to it when one looks into the structure and vocabulary management.

The story itself is sliced. It comes in two parts, one longer, one shorter, and the rhythm, alliteration and repetition used make one think of poetry. Slice is a contemporary, Numerical Era sonnet. The sentences aim for shortness and clarity. And their content exposes the slices of a narrator’s life, beginning with his dreams, his childhood, his adolescence, and what look like his final throes of death… But dead is never an ending in gothic, as you all know, and the piece ends in a final twist, something that sounds distantly, nightmarishly, fantastically eerie like The Turn of the Screw in a more bloody setting. But the mother, brother and distant, hazy father figure are all there, haunting the borders of the text.

I am calling Slice “gothic” for a very simple reason. Intentionally or not, C. D. Bennett goes back to the gothic canon with a combination of wandering consciousness, nightmares, troubled childhood, child cruelty, religion, and a peculiar fascination with death. Thus, his work is more than mere horror, more than a mere anti-suicide message for adolescents, more than mere dark poetry. It belongs to a larger body of short gothic fiction, which sees itself as both visually horrifying and morally significant. Slice is about what we choose to do with our lives and how we try to gain control over the uncontrollable, death itself. It is also a very philosophical text whose author is not afraid of crude language but attenuates it with a rich vocabulary and suspense. Slice will definitely take you “a dozen more steps closer to the grave”. You will be happy once back from the journey, cleansed and happy to be alive!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Playing With Colour

MartenitsaAccording to an ancient (dating back to 500-600 A.D.) East European custom, in March people wear strings of red and white wool on their wrists or pin them on their clothes. Red stands for females and white stands for males. Sometimes, these strings are fashioned into dolls representing the male “Pijo” (Пижо in Bulgarian) and female “Penda” (Пенда) couple.

Interestingly, no one ever refers to blood and sperm which are the underlying elements of this metaphor. The reference to bodily fluids is burried deep into the popular subconscious and the “martenitsa” tradition is generally sublimated. It is presented to children as an innocent but necessary custom and they enjoy making these martenitsas at home and at school, and in workshops. This is a popular magical ritual and children enjoy fashioning the dolls in their likeness. While making them, they wish for good health and prosperity. English flagThe unspoken, unnameable wish has to do with sexual desire, waking libido and the idea of fertility. How this legend in its spiritual spiritual complexity is related to the English flag and to St. George’s cross remains to be seen.

Interestingly, in Bulgaria, the month of March (март) is also known as the month of “Granny Martha” (баба Марта). This time of the year is personified as an old lady with a changeable humour. When she’s in a bad mood, the weather is terrible so that everyone conspires to make her happy. Interestingly, it is the woman’s humour that is changeable, not that of the men (her brothers, the months January and February) who are by definition evil and displeased with everything.

Now, how is this related to gothic? In fact, even though it might seem far-fetched, there are several things that bind this tradition to gothic. One of these is William Henry Ireland’s Gondez, the Monk (1805). This incredibly rich novel contains two legends. One is sung and retold by a blind Welsh bard and is called The Legend of the Tall White Man. The other is penned by the superstitious Monk Ingulphus and is called The Legend of the Little Red Woman. Notice the play on colour – the man is white, the woman red. Both are bloodthirsty and “grim to behold” (Ireland, 97, Zittaw Press edition) – the Tall White Man likes to eat parents who do not portect their children and the Little Red Woman likes to devour babies and small children.

[…]
Her hand the pale head of a dead infant bore,
Thick blood from the neck clotted fell;
‘Twas the head of a babe, which at midnight she tore,
[…]
This Little Red Woman suck’d infants’ pure blood,
And, living, she’d steal them away […]
(Ireland, 97)

This old woman is apparently a vampire and this reference to the vampire brings us to the second element that binds gothic to the “martenitsa” tradition. References to blood-thirsty vampires and their white skin. The combination of red and white is a must for gothic. The heroines’ skin is usually white, transparent. Matthew Lewis’s Agnes is depicted resting the ‘pale cold cheek’ (The Monk, 351) of her dead infant against her own. From the onset of adolescence, the usual sublimity associated with the white colour in nature (snow, mountains, clouds) is transferred to the body of the gothic character, habitually likened to a marble statue. The 16-year-old Fatima in The Castle of Ollada is ‘whiter than the virgin snow’ (Lathom, 13-14). Maturin’s 15-year-old Immalee has ‘white and slender feet’ and her whiteness is accentuated in comparison to the Indians visiting her island (Melmoth, 280-282). Ireland’s 15-year-old Maddalena possesses ‘a lily neck’ and her ‘transparently fair’ face exhibits a ‘snowy modesty’ (Abbess, 47, 57). Roche attracts the reader’s attention to Amanda’s white hands, clasped in prayer (Children of the Abbey, 28). Indeed, ‘her skin was of a dazzling fairness, and so transparent, that the veins were clearly discernible’ (Roche, 97). This whiteness is linked to the increasingly eroticised image of the adolescent, as is the case for Maturin’s bleeding Everhard (Melmoth, 421), which is further linked to dying.

This last example is especially interesting for it reunites whiteness and redness in a scene that involves young children. A curious transference of the male (white) colour is at play here – the male bleeds and the females are white. This exchange of colour references occurs in gothic which does not necessarily distinguish between the physical sexes but rather, between the genders. Of course, this is also related to the idea that red signifies power and war. Another interesting element is the association of the Romanian “martisor”, the dragon and the loss of blood. A young man kills a dragon that kept him captive and the dragon’s blood leaked into the virgin snow. Interestingly, according to Transylvanian customs one has to hang a “matisor” on the door to keep the evil spirits out, probably vampires too.

For more contemporary views on what colours are “gothic” and what colours are not gothic, check this forum. It gives you a non-literary, gothc subculture peek at colours.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Child in Gothic–Some Illustrations

Below is a small but eloquent collection of images from gothic novels dated 1764-1830, featuring babies and children.

1796 Elizabeth Helme The Farmer of Inglewood ForestAnn Radcliffe - UdolphoEliza Parsons - The Mysterious Warning - 1796

From left to right: The Farmer of Inglewood Forest, a dead mother and child in a coffin; The Mysteries of Udolpho, Emily’s family before they all die one by one; The Mysterious Warning, a child dying of thirst and the villain rejoicing.

Die weisse Frau in Neuhaus. Geistergeschichte aus dem 15. Jahrhundert (The White Lady of Neuhaus. Ghost Story of the 15th century)John Moore - Zeluco - 1789Plate 1807 5volumeed The Children of the Abbey Paris BarroisWilliam Godwin - St Leon - 1799

From left to right: From a German gothic The White Lady, a woman holding a child in the candle light; Zeluco, young Zeluco killing a bird; from a French edition of The Children of the Abbey, Amanda and a young girl visit the graveyard; St. Leon, a boy mourning the death of his pet dog.

wilhelmina johnson eva or the bridal spectre 1830Wilhelmina Johnson EvaWilhelmina Johnson The Tomb Raider

All of the above are taken from Wilhelmina Johnson’s work – the first two are from Eva; or, The Bridal Spectre and the second from The Ranger of the Tomb, twins unveil a mysterious portrait.