Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gothic Horrors

Ah, October! My favorite month of the year. Not just because I love the crisp air and the brilliant leaves, but because I’ve been crazy about Halloween for as long as I can remember. To me, it’s the ultimate imaginative holiday, from the vintage whimsy of the jointed cardboard skeletons my teachers used to pin up on bulletin boards to the eerie sophistication of candlelit Gothic mansions.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence my romances are set during the regency, a time when horror was wildly popular. Gothic novels were the bestsellers of the era, so fashionable Jane Austen

Illustration from the 1830 edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho.

satirized them in Northanger Abbey, giving its heroine, Catherine Morland, such an enthusiasm for the genre that she confuses fact with fantasy. The Gothic novel craze began in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, a work that introduced the brooding setting and supernatural elements that became staples of the genre. Ensuing page-turners like Eliza Parsons’ 1793 The Castle of Wolfenbach and Anne Radcliffe’s 1794 The Mysteries of Udolpho further established the Gothic archetypes: the swooning virgin in peril, the tyrannical and lust-crazed villain, and the gloomy foreign locale—often an isolated abbey or monastery, the better to highlight the villain’s lechery and exploit the anti-Catholic prejudices of the time. Matthew Gregory Lewis’s 1796 The Monk was so popular and so lurid (its main character, a monk seduced by a cross-dressing instrument of Satan, rapes and kills an innocent girl who turns out to be his sister) its fans included such legendary transgressors as Lord Byron and the Marquis de Sade.

The dishy and inventive Dr. John Polidori, author of The Vampyre.

The Gothic movement culminated in a classic that remains popular today, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The story was penned in 1816 at a rained-out Geneva house party, after the far-off eruption of Mt. Tambora threw so much volcanic ash into the atmosphere that all of Europe suffered a cold and gloomy “Year Without a Summer.” Confined by the weather to his rented villa, Lord Byron suggested a ghost-story contest that was supposed to showcase his talents and those of his most prominent guest, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Instead, not only did eighteen-year-old Mary shine, but so did John Polidori, Byron’s young personal physician. Polidori's contribution to the contest was “The Vampyre,” the forerunner of the romantic vampire genre. (Sadly, Byron's guests were a tragedy-plagued group, and poor Polidori was not immune; he died five years later, age 26, having apparently committed suicide by drinking prussic acid.)

And no discussion

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781.

of the era’s horrors would be complete without mention of the Anglo-Swiss painter Henry Fuseli. Raised for a career in the clergy, Fuseli hid his drawing from his father by using his left hand, a subterfuge that left him ambidextrous. In an interesting twist of gothic interconnection, he might have been the father of Mary Shelley—if he had not already had a wife. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was so smitten with the married Fuseli that she practically stalked him, eventually going to his wife and proposing that the three of them live together; Fuseli’s wife, understandably, was not interested, and barred Miss Wollstonecraft from the house.

Blind Milton Dictating to His Daughters, 1793. What could be more horrific than having Milton as a father?

Fuseli is probably best known for his 1781 oil painting The Nightmare, which depicts a sleeping woman with an incubus perched on her abdomen and the object of her dream, a grotesque horse with staring eyes, peering in from behind a curtain. My favorite in the creepiness department, however, is Fuseli's Blind Milton Dictating to his Daughters. Not only are Milton’s pale eyes disturbing (Fuseli seems to have been the master of the horrifying stare), but Milton’s daughter anachronistically wears a red ribbon tied around her neck—a gruesome fashion of the times that was meant to call to mind the victims of the French guillotine.

How do you feel about all the gothic horrors abounding at this time of year? Do you have a favorite creepy book or movie? I’d love to hear about it!

Alyssa Everett's debut regency, A Tryst With Trouble, is available now for pre-order from Amazon. Her second, Ruined by Rumor, will be out in May. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Wendy Soliman said...

Interesting post, Alyssa, and congratulations on the debut novel.
I can't say I have a particular favourite Gothic. I'm a bit of a wimp and Frankenstein scares the pants off me. Thee, I've said it!

Alyssa Everett said...

Thanks, Wendy! I don't like gross-out scares, but I love suspense and creepy atmosphere. My all-time favorite horror movie is a stylish 1944 ghost story with Ray Milland called "The Uninvited," and it's one that even horror wimps often enjoy--there's not a drop of blood, and it has the best haunted mansion by the English cliffs EVER. If you're feeling brave, you can check out the trailer here:

Rose Lerner said...

I have to admit, I've never managed to read a Regency-era Gothic all the way through--my attempt to read Otranto didn't make it past the giant helmet falling out of the sky. But I have a couple on the shelf, including Frankenstein, that I keep meaning to read (the other is called "The Impenetrable Secret: Find It Out!" which I think is fantastic).

I was a sucker for Victoria Holt in high school though, and I think I would have read a lot more modern Gothics if the heroes of the ones in my high school library weren't all such sociopathic jerks (I stopped reading Holt after a rape scene). I loved the creepy servants, spooky mansions, and cliffs!

Joanna Chambers aka Tumperkin said...

It's not Regency, but definitely Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Vonnie said...

I have to say I struggled with The Castle of Otranto but on a second reading a lot of things became clearer.

Have to worry about the state of Fuseli's mind, huh?

Georgie Lee said...

Dr. John Plodori is quite a dish!

Alyssa Everett said...

@Rose Lerner - I loved Victoria Holt! Her gothics were the stepping stone that led me from bodice-ripper romances like Kathleen Woodiwiss's A Rose in Winter to reading regencies. I never encountered any rapes in the Victoria Holts I read, but maybe reading Kathleen Woodiwiss had just numbed my eyeballs.

@Joanna Chambers/Tumperkin - I wonder what Bram Stoker would think if he could see how popular vampire fiction is today, and how many different adaptations have been made of his book?

@Vonnie - Yes on the state of Fuseli's mind! He did one piece called "Brunhilde Observing Gunther Whom She Has Tied to the Ceiling," which I think speaks for itself.

@Georgie Lee - I think Polidori was downright adorable. The funny thing is, he looks exactly like my husband looked in college. I was even toying with the idea of posting pictures of them side-by-side and taking a poll on whether readers thought my husband could actually be a vampire from the 1800s.

Karen Dobbins said...

I was a huge "bloody horror film" fan in high school. But I also love a plain old scary movie and/or novel. Another Victoria Holt fan here. I loved that in the latest version of Northanger Abbey they added the Gothic scenes. I thought they added just the right touch to Catherine's personality.

Dr. Polidori is handsome. Alyssa, with all the latest claims that Nicolas Cage and John Travolta are vampires from the 29th century, you had better watch your throat!

Rose Lerner said...

Alyssa, you'd remember this one, believe me. I'm not sure if I'm merging it with another one in my head, but I want to say she was a miniature restorer? Anyway she ends up engaged to his cousin, and he hates his cousin so he kidnaps her and rapes her for three days. I distinctly remember the phrase, "The bed was a battlefield that night." The cousin then dumps her, I think, and she's pregnant, and she and her son end up living in Paris and then he finds her and saves the kid from a pile of falling rubble and then they live happily ever after...?

Karen--ooh, which version of Northanger Abbey is that? It's my favorite Austen so you'd think I'd have seen more of the movies...

Rose Lerner said...

But of course part of the reason I was so shocked was that I'd just read about ten Holts with nothing of the kind in them. I felt so betrayed!

Karen Dobbins said...

My memory is too shot to remember the plots of any of the Victoria Holts, but that one just sounds horrible.

Rose--I'm talking about the 2007 version. I believe it's BBC. Here's a link:
They guy who plays Henry Tilney is absolutely adorable.

Alyssa Everett said...

@Karen--I totally agree about that version of Northanger Abbey! I thought the fantasy sequences were a great addition, and I loved J. J. Feild as Henry. Did you know he's playing Henry Nobley in the upcoming movie of Austenland?

@Rose--I never read that particular Victoria Holt, which is a lucky thing both for me and for my memories of VH. "A battlefield"? Seriously? And ending up with the rapist is her HEA? I'm glad the hey-day of sexual assault as courtship in romances has passed.

Donna Hatch said...

I'm not really into horror but I did enjoy Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the original Dracula. I like the old gothic novels, too.

Sheri Cobb South said...

Count me as another who loved Victoria Holt when I was in high school! I believe the book with the rape in it was The Devil on Horseback, which I hated and couldn't finish for that very reason. Although I was a VERY naive teenager, I understood enough of what was going on to be shocked and horrified that a "hero" would do such a thing. I may be wrong here, but I suspect this book was written at about the time the bodice-ripper craze was just getting started (replacing the gothic/romantic suspense craze that had been popular throughout the '60s and early '70s), and maybe VH felt the need to jump on the bandwagon to sustain her career? If so, I would say it was a huge mistake on her part.

Alyssa Everett said...

@Donna - I love the atmosphere of the old gothic novels. I grew up in Florida, and when I was a kid, it was my ambition to live in Disney's Haunted Mansion.

@Sheri - Thanks so much for supplying the name of the VH rape plot book! I suspect you're right about the bodice-ripper craze putting pressure on VH. I think it's a shame that craze supplanted gothic/romantic suspense as the flavor of the day, but I think regencies do a good job of integrating the two genres--the elegance of gothics with the passion of bodice-rippers, ideally without the worst excesses of either.

Cheryl Bolen said...

Alyssa, Everything you write is just so darned interesting. I can't wait to read your debut.

Alyssa Everett said...

Thank you, Cheryl! That is so sweet of you to say--and so flattering, because I love your writing. Speaking of gothics, your My Lord Wicked has a deliciously gothic feel!