As Hermann Melville wrote in Pierre, “One trembles to think of that mysterious thing in the soul, which seems to acknowledge no human jurisdiction, but in spite of the individual’s own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts.” I’m accessing this quote not to discuss Melville and his works, but instead to highlight what it is about the Gothic novel (when it is good) which keeps devoted readers following the form. I hope my readers will stick with me while I discuss this issue (men as well as women; guys, you may learn something about your near and dear). I’m centering my discussion on one particular modern example which I in my own mind keep reverting back to ever since I read it.
So, let’s get down to it. In every Gothic worthy of the name, there is of course some sort of mystery. As with any mystery, the mind of the young (usually) heroine (almost always) in Gothics reaches out in summaries and hypotheses to account for the unusual happenings of the book, whether they are the sinister machinations of a villain or villains or whether they are more supernatural in nature. A really great Gothic is one which amasses a goodly number of surmises and conjectures, only to top them all with a conclusion which is even more unusual. It’s also a great book (not only a great Gothic) when the conjectures we have been encouraged to make have been good clues, with the true answer (as it turns out) always niggling at us just outside the range of conscious awareness. Lastly, a good book of this sort may well leave one or more minor details of the overall conundrum unresolved, which doesn’t detract from the overall performance, but may actually add to its believeability (incredible as it seems), since life is not neat with all the strings well tied up.
One such book, one of the best books I’ve read in the last 5 years, is Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, which centers around a famous and reclusive author’s collection of stories, supposed to have 13 parts, in which however the 13th tale is missing. This is the slender thread which leads into the labyrinth of mystery and out again for Margaret Lea, a young biographer who goes to write the much awaited biography of the reclusive author Vida Winters, old and frail at the time the story opens.
The blurb on the book jacket, otherwise so tantalizing, starts out disappointingly enough: “When Margaret Lea opened the door to the past, what she confronted was her destiny.” How many times have you read something very like this generalization in the opening blurb of a Gothic or–I hate this term–“chick lit”–novel? Yet, it goes on far more promisingly: “The enigmatic Winter has spent decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself–all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. She summons biographer Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth, hidden by those who loved her most, remains an ever-present pain. Struck by a curious parallel between Miss Winter’s story and her own, Margaret takes on the commission.” The blurb goes on to itemize some of the characters and things that appear in the novel: “a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire”–these last four items are your reassurance that yes, it is in fact a Gothic novel in the classic tradition that you’re reading.
And as has been established and rung changes upon by the long Gothic tradition, family relationships and mysteries of identity and selfhood are articulated. The story behind the story (as with any good biographer’s work) is uncovered, and the eerie becomes a daily routine (rather, the daily routine becomes eerie). This novel is superlative in that not one but at least three characters’ entwined life mysteries are maintained and only gradually exposed to the light of day, holding off until almost the very last page.
One of the main ways in which this novel is different from so many run-of-the-mill romance-Gothics (written since the heyday of the great Gothic writers in the Romantic period, when happy endings and weddings weren’t the sole mainstays of the tradition) is that it functions without the typical boy-meets-girl love sequence which is usually worked in as a major element: this is a Gothic that can stand on its own without the sugar coating. That’s not to say there are no characters who “match up,” but these are either in the past or at a distance as subsidiary characters. The most this author will contribute in this way (and I think this is a good choice) is hinting that the cat, Shadow, caught between two owners, may in fact have a happy ending, which one may take either as a literary promissory note or not, as one chooses. This departure from what has become a somewhat predictable, boring, slogging sort of tradition is immensely more interesting by its very difference.
And now the guys (assuming there still are some guys reading this) are beginning to clamor, “Yeah? So what’s in it for me? What do I get out of this?” And I reply, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Well, first of all there’s some great girl-on-girl psychic action that has nothing to do (at least not overtly) with sex. How’s that?” They look at me (I imagine) with suspicion. But especially if they’ve often wondered why their girlfriends/wives/female partners take advice so willingly from mothers, aunts, and other older women, they might refer to the budding and troubled friendship of Margaret Lea and Vida Winters, in which two women learn to trust each other and exchange friendship of a non-sexual kind. Also, guys, and especially if your woman has read a lot of what passes for good Gothic fiction (not this book, which actually is good Gothic), the next time you surprise that funny, frowning, puzzled look on her face when she looks at you, you should know that she may not be wondering if you would mind if she changed the drapes. In fact, she may be wondering if you buried your last girlfriend or wife under the floorboards of a castle somewhere “romantic” (in other words, far away and inaccessible) and whether the attractive young delivery man Ernie might not burst in and save her from you if you try the same thing with her. It only means that she’s in the process of self-discovery and exploration of her identity that philosophizing about men brings out in women, and if you’re smart, you’ll get on the right side of the “who-I-actually-am-and-what-he-brings-out-in-me” equation).
And that about wraps up my post for today. People wanting to comment, please do so outright on my “comment” box for each post or page. I’m also on Twitter (and Twitter is enabled on my posts). I welcome all helpful suggestions. If you have a book you’d like to recommend for review, I’d be glad to know about it. It may take me a while to read it, but I’ll try my best to give it a fair shot. My sidebar unfortunately doesn’t have a “Blogs I Follow” link, because I’m using the Pilcrow theme from WordPress.com which has the best form for what I have to offer (there are six variations of content and sidebar on Pilcrow, and this makes it truly versatile); I don’t have the extra link space right now. But next post, I will mention the names of 5 blogs I follow and what I especially like them for, for they are all very different. Until tomorrow! shadowoperator