Friday, November 28, 2014

The Castle of Otranto, Northanger Abbey, and The Mysteries of Udolpho

It's the end of November, and this seems like the perfect time to go back to the roots of fantasy, to the books that inspired the early twentieth century masters of paranormal fantasy and horror. Authors from Edgar Allen Poe, to H.P. Lovecraft, to Victoria Holt were influenced and inspired by these root classics.

The late nineteenth century was a great era in which the seeds of the genre of fantasy were planted, a time when books chronicling magic, mayhem, and dark mysteries found fertile soil in the imaginations of thousands of educated, book-hungry middle-class men and women. This was the emergence of the Gothic Novel.

Gothic novels have common themes consisting of incidents of physical and psychological terror, remote, crumbling castles, seemingly supernatural events, a brooding, scheming villain, and (most importantly) a persecuted heroine.

The Castle of Otranto is a novel written in 1764 by Horace Walpole. Many consider it to be the first gothic novel, the beginnings of the literary genre that would spawn the likes of Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, and Daphne du Maurier. Walpole chronicles the story of Manfred, lord of the castle, and his family. The book begins on the wedding-day of his sickly son Conrad and princess Isabella. Just before the wedding, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet (!) that falls on him from above. This strange, unexplained event is particularly ominous in light of an ancient prophecy “that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.” This sets into motion terrible events.

It also suggests that decking your halls with heavy armor may not be a good idea, for all you medieval Martha Stewart(s) out there.

So anyway–Manfred decides the only way for him to avoid destruction is to marry Isabella himself, but first he must divorce his current wife. Isabella runs away, aided by a peasant named Theodore. ” It’s all very melodramatic and exciting, with Isabella hiding in caves, and the fortuitous appearance of mysterious knights, and dark curses. Theodore is revealed to be the true prince of Otranto and Manfred’s daughter, Matilda, dies, leaving Manfred to repent. Theodore becomes king and eventually marries Isabella “because she is the only one who can understand his true sorrow.”

Even Jane Austen loved Gothic novels.

Northanger Abbey was the first of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed for publication, written circa 1798–99. It was originally written as a send-up of the gothic novel, the Mysteries of Udolpho. She died in 1817 and her book was posthumously published.

The book details the adventures of seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland. She is one of ten children of a country clergyman. Although a tomboy in her childhood, by the age of 17 she has read so many Gothic novels that she considers herself to be in training to be a heroine. Catherine reads voraciously, and Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho is a favorite.

She meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney and after a bit of drama, is invited to visit at his family’s home. Catherine, because of her love affair with Gothic novels, expects the abbey to be exotic and frightening. Sadly, it turns out that Northanger Abbey is a pleasant home and decidedly not Gothic. However, (cue the dramatic music) the house includes a mysterious suite of rooms that no one ever enters. Catherine learns that they were Mrs Tilney’s, who died nine years earlier. Catherine decides that, since General Tilney does not now seem to be affected by the loss of his wife, he may have murdered her or even imprisoned her in her chamber.

I LOVED this novel when I read it while in college in Bellingham, Washington in the 1970s. I wore out three hard-bound copies of it!

So what inspired Jane Austen to write a Gothic novel? It was her own love of a work written an Englishwoman who, in turn, was inspired by the Gothic work of Horace Walpole. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, was published in four volumes on May 8, 1794. Walpole began the genre, but Radcliffe made it popular.

Set in the year 1584 in southern France and northern Italy, the novel details the plight of Emily St. Aubert, a young French woman. Her mother is dead, and while journeying with her father, she meets Valancourt, a handsome man who also feels an almost mystical kinship with the natural world. Emily and Valancourt quickly fall in love. After the death of her father she is sent to live with her aunt, Madame Cheron. Emily suffers imprisonment in the castle Udolpho at the hands of Signor Montoni, an Italian brigand who has married her aunt. Emily’s romance with the dashing Valancourt is frustrated by Montoni and others. Emily also investigates the mysterious relationship between her father and the Marchioness de Villeroi, and its connection to the castle at Udolpho.

Radcliffe’s fiction is characterized by apparently supernatural events that are then provided with rational explanations. She was a forward-thinking woman, as was Jane Austen, in that in all Radcliffe’s works traditional moral values are reinforced, the rights of women are strongly advocated, and reason always prevails. Sir Walter Scott was quoted as saying, in regard to Ann Radcliffe’s work, “Her prose was poetry and her poetry was prose. She was, indeed, a prose poet, in both the best and the worst senses of the phrase. The romantic landscape, the background, is the best thing in all her books; the characters are two-dimensional, the plots far-fetched and improbable, with elaboration of means and futility of result.”

The roots of our modern fascination with all things dark and mysterious goes back to the first stories told by our tribal ancestors, under the stars around campfires. Every tribe (and in later millennia, every family) had a storyteller who wove tales of darkness, of good triumphing over evil, of sin and redemption. When written languages were invented, the upper classes in early societies had literature written for them by the likes of Homer and Li Fang .

In western societies, the renaissance began the great lust for books. With the advent of the printing press and the emergence of an affluent, educated middle-class, reading novels became a popular way to while away one’s well-earned leisure hours in the evening or on a Sunday afternoon. This habit survived, despite frequent, intense puritanical censure of such frivolity.

It is because of those nineteenth century pioneers of early popular literature that we modern readers have such a wide variety of work to entertain us. Kindles and other ebook-readers show up among the patrons of every coffee shop and in every airport-lounge and every doctor’s waiting room.

Much may have changed how we take delivery of that content–few books arrive at my house with thick paper and leather bindings nowadays, but nothing has changed in the desire to just quietly enjoy a good story when one has a little downtime.

(Re-blogged from Life in the Realm of Fantasy, Connie J. Jasperson, author)

Friday, November 21, 2014

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlepig: A Bobby Dollar Novella (The Bobby Dollar Books Book 4) by Tad Williams

I love it when a mainstream author goes rogue and goes indie, even if it's for just a few minutes. Tad Williams has done just that with his new e-book, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlepig: A Bobby Dollar Novella (The Bobby Dollar Books Book 4). YAY! My boy Bobby is home for Christmas even if it is only for 49 pages!

But first, THE BLURB:
"Oh, ho, ho!" the demon Chickenleg said, sounding like your drunk uncle trying to get you to laugh at a dirty joke. "Oh, ho! You'll love this one, Dollar!"

Bobby Dollar, Advocate Angel and perpetual thorn in the side of Heaven, is about to save the holidays for a very special someone. Or somewolf. Or maybe even some pig… Bobby is summoned on Christmas Eve to do his part in the heavenly judgement of a man who is not prepared to go lightly. You see, the family of the gentleman in question are victims of Nazi war crimes, and the crimes are still occurring — in fact, the worst is yet to come. With special dispensation from an Angelic Judge named Ambriel, Bobby Dollar has until Christmas Morning to right some serious wrongs and bring some justice (and a little seasonal cheer) into a rotten world…

I must say--Williams never ceases to entertain me with his descriptions of his characters, both major and minor. His demons are creepy and his angels are not much better. Bobby himself is sort of a rundown, hard-boiled detective type, with unsavory habits, but he has good intentions. (Key word: intentions.) 

My favorite line in this little tale is Bobby opening his defense of his recently deceased client by telling the heavenly judge, "Everyone makes mistakes, and some of us accidentally eat a few people." The hilarity just keeps going from there. Bobby gets the trial continued for an extra day so he can do a bit more investigating, and goes up against a Nazi war-criminal. The bad guys are bad and the snarky one-liners are awesome.

Aw heck. Just read the book. It's $2.99 for the Kindle download and it's only a novella. It's a great little indulgence for one evening of intense, Christmas fun.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Harbinger (The Greatest Sin Book 2), Lee French and Erik Kort

Harbinger is the second book in The Greatest Sin series--and it is  written in such a way that even f I hadn't read the first book, The Fallen, I'd be sucked in. Indie authors Lee French and Erik Kort have written a seamless classic in this series.

But First--the BLURB:
Adjusting to her new life as a soul-bound agent of the Fallen has Chavali pushing herself harder than ever before. Between learning to fight, dealing with idiots, and climbing stairs - lots of stairs - she has little time to waste on thoughts of the future. Or the past.

When another agent fails to report in, Chavali is sent on the mission to discover her fate. Ready or not, she saddles up for a new adventure with new dangers.

The search takes her to Ket, a coastal city slathered in mystery. There, she faces ghosts from her past and demons of her future as she seeks answers. All she seems to find are more questions.

Plague, murder, lies, espionage...this city harbors much more than meets the eye, and maybe too much to handle.

Once again, there are several times I would have liked to slap Chavali--but that's part of her charm. She is arrogant, self-centered, and completely uncaring of other people--until she is forced to see that they have feelings too. She stumbles through the afterlife like a bull in a china shop, but she somehow manages to pull it out of the fire.

Once again Chavali is teamed up with Colby and Portia, and a new character, Harris. As in the first book, the surrounding world is vivid and clear. Once character I am waiting to find out more about is Karias, Colby's horse-that-may-not-be-a-horse.

The characters are sharply drawn and their motives drive the plot. Pale, the villain, is a strong, crafty woman, and I really liked that. Robin, Pale's mentor, is still pulling the strings, but he comes into focus more in the tale, as do his plans. 

Harris, the new character, is an excellent foil for Chavali--and provides a little drama as far as Colby's continuing interest in her goes.

All in all, this book is a great way to while away the winter day. But be warned--once you get started reading it, it's hard to put down!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Today we are visiting the fantasy classic Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. I am going to say at the outset that it took me ten years to really appreciate this book, but that is because I was unable to figure it out. Then I stopped trying to understand it, and began appreciating the utter beauty of Holdstock's work. This power of prose that Holdstock wields is the reason this book is considered to be a cornerstone of any library claiming to contain the truly great masterpieces of epic fantasy.

But First THE BLURB:

Myth and Terror in the Forest Deeps

The mystery of Ryhope Wood, Britain's last fragment of primeval forest, consumed George Huxley's entire long life. Now, after his death, his sons have taken up his work. But what they discover is numinous and perilous beyond all expectation.

For the Wood, larger inside than out, is a labyrinth full of myths come to life, "mythagos" that can change you forever. A labyrinth where love and beauty haunt your dreams. . .and may drive you insane.

There is a a lot of both history and pre-history in this tale. The tale begins just after the end of WWII. At the outset Stephen Huxley returns from military service, after recuperating from his war wounds, to see his elder brother Christian, who now lives alone in their childhood home, Oak Lodge, just on the edge of Ryhope Wood. Their father, George, has died recently. Christian is disturbed but intrigued by his encounters with one of the mythagos, while Stephen is confused and disbelieving when Christian explains the enigma of the wood. Both had seen mythagos as children, but their father explained them away as travelling Gypsies. Christian returns to the wood for longer and longer periods, eventually disappearing into the wood.Stephen reads about his father's and Edward Wynne-Jones's studies of the wood. Part of his research on the wood causes him to contact Wynne-Jones's daughter, Anne Hayden.

The book  defines a mythago as a "myth imago, the image of the idealized form of a myth creature". Mythagos are dangerously real, but if any of them stray too far from the wood they slowly deteriorate and die. Because they are formed from human myths, they vary in appearance and character depending on the human memories from which they formed. That concept was what I struggled with as a reader, but as I grew to understand it, I was amazed at the possibilities such a notion offered. 

Holdstock's prose is lush and beautiful--even when I didn't understand the concept of the meaning behind the Mythagos I loved the words on the page. And later, when I had begun to understand what had happened to Christian I developed an appreciation for the sheer creative genius of Robert Holdstock as an author and builder of worlds. In Mythago Wood, Holdstock gives us tough questions, deep moral dilemmas, and a seriously epic fantasy world that can never be matched or imitated. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

The King of Ys, series by Poul and Karen Anderson

Today we are revisiting my bookshelf, with a look at series, The King of Ys, by Poul and Karen Anderson. I read this series many years ago, in 1989 to be exact. It was featured as a 2-book book-of-the-month selection for those of us who were members of Doubleday's Science Fiction Book Club, and it was always a happy day for me when my new book would arrive.


Ys: Magical city shrouded in legend, where Gratillonius, doomed by the gods to be the last King of Ys, refused to accept defeat, and became a legend that would ring down the corridors of time.


This is the story of Gratillonius, a roman soldier sent by Maximus to act as a prefect for Rome to the country of Ys. Upon arrival he is challenged by The King of Ys for reasons which I was unable to decipher. Gratillonius comes out the victor, and is made king.

The book follows Gratillonius as he navigates both the political and spiritual worlds of Ys. The people of Ys have strong religious ties to their gods, and Gratillonious, a roman soldier, has stong ties to the Roman God Mithras. These beliefs sometimes clash.

He is given nine wives, the Gallicinae, and falls in love with one of them, Dahlis. His preference for Dahlis leads to trouble among the others, and this combined with his lack of understanding about the religion of Ys creates the tension in the tale.

This series has amazing world-building, and rich depictions of the political and religious climate of Breton at the height of the Roman Empire. The characters are real, and in true Poul Anderson tradition, flawed, which leads to their eventual downfall.

I don’t know if the book is still being published. This book can be picked up at a second-hand bookstore, or ordered through Amazon. I do recommend it, if you can get your hands on a copy. It was also published in 1996 by Baen in a two-book compendium, The King of Ys, vols I & II.