A Review of The Little Stranger – The Novel

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Some reviews are easier to write than others.  There are those stories that inspire the briefest of descriptions and the simplest of impressions. These aren’t bad stories necessarily; they can be quite good. But after the reading or viewing (novel or book), everything I want to say falls neatly in place. And there might not be much to say other than things like “very suspenseful” or “just an all-around fun bit of horror.”  Such stories don’t require layers of analysis. Nor will they transport me to wider worlds that inspire endless contemplation.  Then there are books like Sarah Walter’s The Little Stranger.  After the reading I realized there was so much I wanted to say, so much more I wanted to learn. These thoughts and curiosities I had, well, they were all jumbled up, and I had to start another book while I allowed some time for these ideas to settle and come together in their own due time.

A story that provokes simple impressions, I have stated, can be very good but it can also be very poor. This “either/or” explanation doesn’t work so well with stories that inspire a complex set of thoughts. Such complexity hardly unfolds as the result of a poorly written story.  The opposite is true. To get to the point – The Little Stranger is an excellent book. Superb! Bravo!

The Little Stranger has all the ingredients I love in a haunted house tale. Its “house” is more than “the sum of its ghosts”, meaning, its mystery is innate and not the result of a phantom that goes “boo”.  The house, Hundreds Hall, has a personality all its own. This is a story that falls under the genre of “Gothic”, and so once again, I found myself climbing that tree of this mammoth genre and exploring its various branches. Very willingly I did this. With excitement and curiosity.  I found myself comparing this story to other great literary haunted house novels but never suspecting it of concept plagiarism. Putting aside ghosts and haunted houses, the story that takes place outside these elements is engaging and speaks to matters of the heart.  I came to know the characters of the story quite well. I enjoyed visiting the Ayers family in their run-down manor and taking in all their nuances and eccentricities, their madness if I may be so bold.  And I have Dr. Faraday to thank.  Through his eyes the first-person narrative unfolds.  There is a love story in here as well. A sad love story built on longing and yearning that puts to mind that painful old adage “you can’t always get what you want.” (Thank you, Rolling Stones,!)  Because his viewpoint is “skewed” (biased) , his account of the house itself and the events that take place within its walls add to the “Skewiness” (I made this up – that state of being “skewed”) of an already “Skewed” (twisted) place and situation. Finally, I love the unique “agents of scare” that are built into the house. These would be what are otherwise neutral structural components, except that when they are manipulated by mysterious forces, they become quite creepy.

There. I gathered together all these Sarah Walter’s inspired complexities from my head and condensed and simplified them into one paragraph. My work here is done. Not!  Silly you for believing that. For you see, now I have to explain in more detail what the hell I was getting at in the paragraph above. So here comes the meat of this review!

Plot in Brief (Some spoilers)

The story takes place in the United Kingdom. It begins in 1919. As previously mentioned, the story unfolds from the viewpoint of Dr. Faraday, the family physician for the Ayers family. As a child from a humble background, the young Faraday marveled over the impressive display that was Hundreds Hall. He greatly admired the family that owned and ran it as well. Who didn’t? The Ayers were highly respected members of the noble class and they shared bits of their greatness via the feats they gave to celebrate Empire Day. The Colonel and his wife parade about with their six-year-old daughter Susan and receive grade admiration from the crowds, which are partly made up of folks from the “lesser” classes. Most of the people are not allowed in the grand Hall but young Faraday is lucky.  His mother was once a servant for the Ayers and using her connections to the household staff, she is able to grant her young boy son entrance to the Hall. And he is impressed with what he sees.

Shortly thereafter, little Susan dies, triggering change. The Ayers cease to throw Empire Day fetes. The Colonel and his wife have two more children after her death (Caroline and then Roderick). Later the Colonel dies. Things are never the same.

Fast forward thirty-years later, post-World War 2 Britain, and Faraday is now a country doctor and the family physician for the remaining Ayers. He is saddened at the state of the hall; rundown and in great disrepair, the landscape is unmaintained.  Still he admires the Hall and covets the family unit itself; he wants in.  The family has lost much of their social standing. Roderick, wounded with a limp during his service in the war, struggles with the finances. Caroline is somewhat of a recluse, more so is her mother.  And there is a hint of madness among the family.

In attempt to regain social graces, the Ayers throw a small party for other well-to-do families. It doesn’t go well. The family dog bites the nine(?)-year-old daughter of one of the guests. It’s normally a passive dog. Was the dog possessed by something? A spirit perhaps?  Roderick thinks so. According to him, he has been experiencing strange happenings in his bedroom. His mirror moves on its own accord. Fire erupts in his room, source unknown. He goes mad and is locked away.

Meanwhile Dr. Faraday falls in love with Caroline. She mildly returns this love but is quite ambivalent about this.  The servants are witnesses to what could be supernatural activity. They believe the house is not only haunted but evil. Mother and daughter fall prey to the strangeness of the house. Faraday tries to reassure them.  But its as if the house and its family have some kind of figurative disease for which the doctor cannot cure, to his frustration and great sorrow.

Is all this the work of the ghost of little Susan who dies as a child so long ago? Oh what is going on?

Similarities to other classic works

To begins this section, I quote from Wikipedia’s article on The Little Stranger:

 A mix of influences is evident to reviewers: Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Wilkie Collins, and Edgar Allan Poe.

I will address this claim, author by author.

Henry James – Turn of the Screw

With the exception of The Jolly Corner, the only work  I read from Henry James is The Turn of the Screw. But Turn of the Screw is a fine example of an inspirational source, so I’ll use that piece for comparison.

In many “spooky episodes” of our favorite television stories, a Scooby-Doo-type premise plays out – a trickster was behind the haunting all the time. There is always that person that suspects such from the very beginning. “There has to be a logical explanation,” the character will say. Well, I’m going to reverse this scenario. In both Turn of the Screw and The Little Stranger, a supernatural explanation is offered early on in the story. But we the readers know that there is something more going on to account for the bizarre events that we have encountered across the pages.  In the James novella, it is surmised that the ghosts of two deceased adulterers, a former governess and a man-servant, are haunting the children, a young brother and sister who live at Bly Manor.  But overall, the story hints that the haunting is rising up from some far deeper source, something that is buried deep within the dark tunnels of the psyche of the children’s current governess.  Likewise, Walter’s novel offers up a supernatural explanation to account for the ghostly-going-ons: the ghost of Susan, the girl that died so young, is haunting Hundred’s Hall.

In both stories, the authors give us a possible supernatural explanation.

James – former adulterous servants, man and woman, dead, ghosts corrupting the two innocent children, boy and girl. But overall the story offers a psychological explanation that may put to rest and claims of supernatural activity.

Walters – the ghost of a  little girl, sister, Susan, is haunting the place.  But it might be that something else is affecting the brother/sister siblings. The source of the scares might not have anything to do with the supernatural.  The “ghost” might just be a “collective hallucination” that plagues a family stricken with sorrow and grief. Or maybe it’s the “times” (“these days” vs. “those days”) that is the ghost?  This will be explained in further detail later in the article. (In the “Go-Go Gothic Section!” Oh boy!)

Also of note – both stories feature a brother and sister as lead characters that fall victim to a haunting that occurs in their own home.

Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

Both stories treat the houses in each tale (Hill House and Hundred’s Hall) as conscious entities. The houses in question are either troubled, diseased, or downright evil.  In addition, both stories offer a theory that a character is unintentionally projecting negative energy upon the house, and this is what is causing the disturbances. In Jackson’s story The Haunting of Hill House it is Eleanor Lance. In Walter’s story it is Roderick. Or if not him, someone else, but who?

Wilkie Collins – ????

Duh I dunno. I never read anything by him. I should change this. (This was the easiest section to write! Hey, I only said I would address these claims, and address I did. I just forgot to fill the envelope with a letter.)

Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher

Ah, my favorite and perhaps the tale I find most similar to The Little Stranger. I’ve loved The Fall of the House of Usher since I was a kid. I didn’t need that Wikipedia list to let me know that this was a major source of inspiration, for Poe’s ghost kept calling out to me as I progressed through the book.

Both stories are told from the outsider’s perspective. Each is narrated in the first person. Both narrators are visitors/guests of the family that live in the houses that are at the center of the stories. Both outsiders (The Little Stranger – Dr. Faraway/The Fall of the House of Usher – Unnamed Narrator) bear witness to the fall of great families. They watch in horror as the ones they love succumb to madness and grief. Both try and do what they can to ease the suffering of the families but in the end their efforts are futile. They feel helpless, wishing there was something they could do. It doesn’t help that they are caught up in a situation where there understanding is limited. You can’t fight a disease when you don’t even know what it is.

Also, both stories deal with an adult tortured brother and sister that are heirs to the family’s house and legacy. Likewise, they are heirs to a curse.

Similar Yet Unique

Although The Little Stranger’s influences can be found in the aforementioned literary works, it stands on its own. It is not a carbon copy; the houses in these stories are not of the cookie-cutter design. Rather, let’s think if these houses (and the stories surrounding them) coming together to form a neighborhood. Hundreds’ Hall belongs in a neighborhood that boasts Hill House, Bly Manor, etc. One should be proud to be welcomed in such a community.

Go-Go Gothic

Here I go for the umpteenth time wandering on the trails of that behemoth forest that is Gothic Literature, picking at and extracting from only some of its sprawling branches, stealing clues to bring to the next clearing where light will shine upon them and illuminate me on the story that I am currently holding in my heart. I’ve made such journeys for several articles here at this blog, and again I must emphasize that in no way am I trying to encapsulate in one article everything you needed to know about Gothic Literature but were afraid to ask. I can only explore the elements of which I am familiar and examine them within the context of the story that I am reviewing.  So, with that said, hello Gothic elements, meet The Little Stranger!

The collision of the past and the present; this is a common theme in Gothic Literature. The most obvious example in terms of ghostliness is, well, the ghost itself, or the ethereal remains of someone who died long ago making its presence known in current times. But think also of the ruins of an old castle. Long ago the castle served a mighty purpose, but not so anymore and yet part of its structure remains. What use is it to us now? Does it have something to share with us? Is it relaying a message to us modern folk about the past? Is it hiding a secret within its stone walls?  To ponder such questions is to open oneself up to the conflicts that often arise within Gothic Literature.

Gothic stories often take place in times of social change. There’s a new society on the horizon, a new social structure is replacing the old. Those that cling to the old ways have trouble navigating in the new terrain. Outmoded institutions still exist but the forces of change erode their foundations. Every passing moment they shed life-supporting stones.

After I read the book The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, I explored some of the characteristics of American Southern Gothic, for that is the genre that best describes this novel by Siddons, at least according to critics and reviewers.  What I learned parallels with what is going on here in The Little Stranger, even though the story contexts are separated by time, circumstance, and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Though taking place in the early 1970’s, The House Next Door deals with themes that were spawned by the American Southern Gothic movement that came into being following the events of the Civil War. The Institution of slavery had come to an end. The institutionalized social order crumbled. Two quotes from Wikipedia on Southern Gothic  explain some the significance:

continuing pressures of the past upon the present, particularly with the lost ideals of a dispossessed Southern aristocracy

 

Similar to the elements of the Gothic castle, Southern Gothic gives us the decay of the plantation in the post-Civil War South

A different kind of social change was occurring in the United Kingdom post World War 2, the time and place of the events that occur in The Little Stranger. The Wikipedia article TheLittleStrangerWaltersfor The Little Stranger  publishes a quote from author Sarah Walters on her intentions for writing the book that explains some of this social change (quote is originally from the Toronto Star):

I didn’t set out to write a haunted house novel. I wanted to write about what happened to class in that post-war setting. It was a time of turmoil in exciting ways. Working class people had come out of the war with higher expectations. They had voted in the Labour government. They want change…. So it was a culture in a state of change. But obviously for some people it was a change for the worse.

Also of note is this, from the same article:

Reviewers note that the themes in The Little Stranger are alternately reflections of evil and struggle related to upper class hierarchy misconfiguration in post war Britain. Waters stated that she did not set out to write a ghost story, but began her writing with an exploration of the rise of socialism in the United Kingdom and how the fading gentry dealt with losing their legacies

Now, remember at the beginning of the article when I wrote “After the reading I realized there was so much I wanted to say, so much more I wanted to learn.” (See, the words of the past are colliding with these present words – oooooo! How Gothic!) Upon learning of the existence of such a social change in Great Britain, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to delve into these significant changes and report on all there was to know about the dwindling of a system that “involved the hereditary transmission of occupation, social status and political influence”  (Quote is from Wikipedia: Social Class in the United Kingdom.)

But alas, this is a major feat, a job for a social historian.  Suffice it to say, the noble class lost much of their nobility. Fortunes were lost. Let’s look at the Ayers’ household, the family at the forefront of The Little Stranger. They represent what Walters called the “fading gentry”. They did not benefit from the change. At the center of this story stands Hundreds Hall. Once a grand estate now a rundown shell of its former self. It is no accident that the beginning of the story features a memory of the grand ol’ days of Hundreds Hall and the celebration of Empire Day. Good times for the Ayers.  But the British Empire would crumble as would the legacy of the Ayers.  The remaining family longs for the past but it is gone.  If only the “grand ol’ days” went marching on, status quo preserved, the family’s standing financially and socially secured.  Hmm, now is there a symbol of any sort in this book for “better days” or, more appropriately, “what could have been?”  Yes. Little Susan, who died so young. Her sister and brother never met her.

Susan Ayers – The Ghost of What You Cannot Have. (SPOILERS)

TheLittleStranger3Try to capture a ghost. You can’t. Forget about Ghostbusters and 13 Ghosts and other movies that feature sci-fi technology that allows hunters to suck these poor phantoms into some kind of device. If you reach out to touch a specter your hand passes right through it. Throughout the book, the characters go mad when they confront what could be the ghost of the little girl – the little stranger. I submit that she represents a past that could have been but was not meant to be. That is what is so maddening about her. They can sense this more perfect past; they feel it in their hearts, even see it with their own eyes. It’s there haunting them. But they can’t have it. She is a tease. Susan would be the continuation of the finer way, the preservation of the status quo. She died. And so will the Ayers. Prematurely. One by one. Death of the body or death of the mind. All because they tried to hold on to that which is designed to pass through their fingers. Then there’s Dr. Faraday. He doesn’t see the ghost but he holds onto a misguided love for a family, for a woman, for a house that no longer exists in the form that he has embraced. He survives to tell this sad tale. Maybe that’s the trick for survival. If you embrace the ghost but are ignorant of its composition, then you can endure in sadness. Become the ghost maybe. For quite often a ghost doesn’t realize its dead.

Agents of The Scare

Wow, a lot of cheeriness going on in the above section, huh?  Let’s lighten things up a bit with good ol’ fashion “fun” horror.  In all haunted houses, there are objects and structural components of a house that are downright creepy. Maybe it’s the swaying chandelier. Or the specter that traipses down the curving stairwell, adding to the unpleasantness of each stair tread.  How bout the wall hanging portrait with the moving eyes? That locked room? (How about that wardrobe in the movie The Conjuring?  Clap-clap-clap!)  You get the drift. I just wanted to take some time to highlight some of the unique Agents of The Scare that are found in this book.

Yes there is a creepy set of stairs and a landing that foreshadows doom. Oh, there is a mirror that moves on its own accord and freaks out poor Roderick (analysis – he doesn’t like confronting himself in his present state). There is mysterious writing on the wall and strange burns spots on the ceiling. But what I enjoyed most was the servant bell and the tube.  The bell, I can’t remember how it was described, perhaps decorative rope, rings out and calls a servant to a given room. Except there was no one in the room from which the bell tolled! Then there is “the tube”, which in the book is described as a “19th century tube communication device linking the abandoned nursery.”  It descends from the upstairs down into the kitchen. If the nursery is abandoned, then what is that whooshing sound that makes its way to where frightened maids work?  The sound of breath. The sound of whispers. A child’s whisper. Imagination? The servants are freaked out by it. And you will be too!

The Little Stranger – A Movie?

I think I’ll wrap things up.  What else is there to say? I have said so much and have withheld so much as well.  A great book it is! I discovered there is a movie based on the book. It doesn’t seem like it has gotten great reviews. I will wait a while before watching it. I want my memory of Hundreds Hall preserved with the stuff of mystery and intrigue; a brilliant form of eeriness. I wish not to cheapen such a memory with the trappings of a poorly made film. That would be an injustice.  With that said, peace out.

Review of The Witches of Ravencrest (The Ravencrest Saga Book 2)

WitchesRavencrestOnce upon a time, I absorbed the “Ghosts of Ravencrest.” Then I needed a break. I had to let these ghosts settle into my consciousness and give them time to digest into my subconscious before moving on. And move on I did,  carrying these ghosts with me, for they were stored in my memory banks. But alas, many of these banks were locked; their contents – irretrievable?  I had hoped not, for any understanding of the book that is under review depended on unobstructed access to these ghosts. Were “The Witches of Ravencrest” able to set them free?   Short answer – yes!

For those that have no clue what I was babbling about in the preceding paragraph, I refer you to this review: The Ghosts of Ravencrest  The Ghosts of Ravencrest is the first book in the Ravencrest saga. The subject of this review is The Witches of Ravencrest, the second book of the series. I finished the first book back in February. When I started the second book in the late summer, I was a bit worried. It had been a while since I visited with the occupants of Ravencrest Manor – the haunted house of the Ravencrest series. These occupants are members of the Manning household; would I remember them?

As far as family goes, the task was easy. The only living family members are Eric Manning and his two children. Check, check, annnnnd check!  But this household includes more than just this trio of living relations – so much more.  First there is the household staff. There is Belinda Moorland, the governess for the Manning children and the aspiring love interest of Eric Manning. Since she is the central protagonist, I had an easy time recalling her as well. Being the newest member of the household, it is through her eyes that readers of the first book come to meet the rest of the staff; a collection of  odd individuals whose idiosyncrasies  range from the charmingly eccentric to the dangerously disturbed.  Then there are those other “entities” that lurk about in the house; abhorrent creatures living in the walls and mysterious spirits that haunt an entire wing of the mansion. Going on memory, it seemed that each household member, living or dead, had a role to play in this somewhat complicated  and continuously unfolding plot. Oh Lordy! How was I ever going to reacquaint myself with all these characters and remap this plot?  Turns out, the task was not that difficult.

With familiar ease, I rediscovered Grant Phister the butler and his husband Riley the gardener. Grant is the eyes and ears of Ravencrest and he seems to be the one tasked with managing the overall affairs of the household. This is no easy feat since part of his job, unofficial though it may be, is to keep the supernatural carnage at a minimum. His ease of character and witty humor make him memorable.   Officially, the untrustworthy Cordelia Heller is the household manager. She is bound to the estate by matters of wills and legality.  It took me very little time to refamiliarize myself with her wicked ways.  For she is an ancient witch that has worn different clothing’s of flesh over her many years. She has it in for Belinda, who is learning, little by little, that she has her own magical abilities that, when fully realized, may rival the skills of Cordelia.  But for now, Cordelia’s power is great! In The Ghosts of Ravencrest, she transformed a man into a crawling abomination that lives inside the walls. This thing, known as The Harlequin, is back in this second novel. He passed out of my conscience for a time, but he crawled back into my brain with the same ease for which he crawls about in the ventilation system.  Cordelia is in charge of the maids who she regularly disciplines down in the dungeon, thereby adding some BDSM flavor to this novel. Ah yes, how could I have forgotten the spicy Dominique, the Latina maid whose obsession with Jesus Christ is taken to an erotic level! Oh and I had forgotten all about Walter Hardwicke, the chauffer, always doing the bidding of Cordelia.  He is also a serial killer. Once reintroduced, I “remembered him fondly” (not really, I just wanted to use that phrase!)

Of all the ghosts that haunt Ravencrest, the three nuns stand out the most. I never forgot them and they are back again, gliding in unison in the haunted wing, forcing anyone they encounter to “Eat, eat, eat!” the cursed persimmons that they have in their possession.  But perhaps of more prominence are the ghosts of Mannings long since dead. To what extent these men and women haunted Ravencrest in the first book I could not remember. But they shine with meaning and revelation in The Witches of Ravencrest.

 The first book introduces us to all these characters and lets us readers know that GhostsRavencrestRavencrest is haunted not only with spirits but also by a strange history of familial drama wrapped in murder and treachery. This second book goes beyond the supernatural manifestations and explores the agents of such phenomena; the summoners of spirits, the casters of spells. In short, we move on from “The Ghosts of Ravencrest” to “The Witches of Ravencrest”.  In the first book we learn what we are dealing with. In the second book, we learn more about the whys and wherefores of the “whats”. We learn of the complex roles of the characters and begin to understand how they fit into the larger story.

For better or worse, The Ravencrest Saga has the makings of a literary soap opera. There is love and eroticism, murder and betrayal, a subplot here, a trail of story over there, here a conflict, there a conflict, everywhere a con-flict – Eric Manning had a house – E-I-E-I-GHOST! Some may not like this style, especially those horror fans that are not into romance sagas. While I am not a follower of such a genre, I did enjoy this book. What I missed, however, were the trips back in time that were prevalent in the first book. There are places in The Ghosts of Ravencrest where the story creeps back to the distant past. The writing style of these sections reflects the style of the period. We go back a century or two and learn about the Manning family of yore. We see how ghosts and witches were a part of the makeup of the family even back then. In The Witches Of Ravencrest, while the ghosts of the old times visit the present, we as readers are rarely allowed back into the past. I miss the old world of the story. Oh well, time marches forward I guess.

So to wrap it all up, The Ravencrest Saga offers interesting characters and a compelling story. It mixes erotica with the gothic. Sometimes this mixture works well. At other times it…I don’t know, it just “works” these other times, minus any supporting adjective. The soap opera style can be daunting, especially if one is not attuned to this style of storytelling, but in the end it pays off with its creativity of content.

 

 

 

 

J.S. LeFanu and Haunted Houses

LeFanuBook

LeFanu! I love that name. One can have so much fun with it.  For instance:

LeFanuuuu, This is Gary Gnu (Guh-nuuuu)! How dooo you doooo? Excuse me, ah..ahh…achoooooo!

Oh shucks, I just discovered that his name is pronounced with the short “a”, which is the syllable that is stressed. How disappointing! But his ghost stories are not, which is the important thing.  Far from it! Some consider him to be the best of his craft; the master of the ghost story. His work certainly epitomizes the classic ghost story. By the way, “classic” is always the best!

I first encountered Joseph Thomas Sheridan LeFanu when I read The Mammoth Book of Haunted Houses Stories .  LeFanu’s tale “An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House” was just one of many stories that was necessary to plow through on the way to the book’s end. While I am proud of my review of the book as a whole, it didn’t do justice to the many authors and stories that made the anthology special.  I’m glad to finally have the opportunity to hone in on this great author and examine some of his delightful haunted house stories.

It was Anne Rice that first recommended J.S LeFanu to me. Well okay, not to me personally, but she dedicated a post to him on her Facebook page. His vampire story “Carmilla” influenced her works tremendously. After reading her post I went to Amazon and bought Best Ghost Stories of J.S. LeFanu . Fourteen chilling tales! I have yet to read them all, but for purposes of this article, I will examine three tales that deal with haunted houses. But first, let us go over some interesting information concerning the master.

LeFanu was an Irish novelist – born 1814. He is one of the main figures associated with LeFanu2Victorian ghost stories.  He influenced many authors of the supernatural, including M.R James, H.P. Lovecraft, and Anne Rice. His vampire story Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” by twenty-six years. According to Dover Books, the publisher of Best Ghost Stories of J.S. LeFanu, he “achieved depths and dimensions of terror that still remain otherwise unexplored.”  His knack for setting up an atmosphere that all but welcomes a haunting explains his success.

From Wikipedia:

He specialized in tone and effect rather than “shock horror”, and liked to leave important details unexplained and mysterious. He avoided overt supernatural effects: in most of his major works, the supernatural is strongly implied but a “natural” explanation is also possible.

With that said, let’s explore some of LeFanu’s haunted houses. We’ll begin with story synopses and then we shall delve into deeper analysis that will uncover common themes.

 

(WARNING: Spoilers are lurking below!)

The Stories

Squire Toby’s Will

Two brothers quarrel over the hereditary rights to Gylingden Hall, the house that is at the center of this story. After Squire Toby Marston passes on, the favored son, Charles, takes possession of the house. Scroope Marston contests this and gives it his “legal all” but to no avail.  Inside the house in a secret compartment, Charles discovers documents that prove Scroope’s right to his share of the inheritance.  But Charles isn’t telling!

A stray bulldog comes wandering along and Charles takes a liking to him and takes him in, against Butler Cooper’s wishes. The dog is locked up at night, but somehow, it always finds its way to his master’s bedroom. It climbs upon Charles’s bed. There in the darkened bedroom, its face transforms into the face of his father. Toby Marston then warns his son, through the mouth of the mutt, to give Scroope was he is due.

Time passes and so does Scroope. Scroope is to be buried inside the family graveyard that is out beyond the garden of Gylingden Hall. While the ceremony is in progress, two men in black coats and hats are spotted exiting a stagecoach and entering house. Servants search for these two strangers so that they might inquire about their identities, but they are nowhere to me found.

After the arrival and disappearance of the two figures, the house is never the same. Servants hear whispering at the ends of corridors. Nurses witnesses strange figures passing by the room of Charles, who is now sick and confined to the bed. Poor Charles, his mind is going. He rambles on and on about lawyers, about bulldogs, about his deceased father Toby and his dead brother Scroope.  It does not seem that his remaining moments here on earth will go too well.

Ghost Stories of the Tiled House

Old Sally is the servant of young Lilias, and she just loves to share stories with her mistress. Likewise, Lilias enjoys hearing about the older woman’s experiences. So Sally tells her all that she knows about The Tiled House; a house that Lilias had been hearing vague but foreboding tales about ever since she was a young child.

One evening, Sally says, the servants and the family friend await the arrival of the master of the house, who is due in quite late. They hear the rustle of the stagecoach horses, the howl of the wind, and a knocking on the front door.  The butler springs to his feet and goes to let his master in.  He opens the door. No one is there. But he feels “something” brush past him. Intuitively the family friend, Clinton, solemnly states “The master has died”

Another tale of the Tiled House is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator. Another family lives at the house; it is another time. Occupants look out the window, only to see a set of hands clenching the windowsill.  There is knocking at the door and when the door is opened, the greeter again sees no one but feels a presence brush against him.  Now hands are seen in the middle of the night, penetrating the valences that surround the beds, reaching out toward the unsuspecting sleepers.

An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House

The story begins with the comments of a fictional editor, who is presenting this tale, presumably to some kind of made-up publication. He vouches for the characters of the witnesses that have told him the tales for which he is about to present.

It is a tale told from the perspective of yet another unnamed narrator. He has a large household consisting of a wife, three children, and many servants. They move into a large house and strange things begin to happen.

Quite frequently, the occupants awake in the middle of the night to find strangers prowling about their bedrooms. A tall man moves across the room stealthily. And old woman is seen searching for something. They think of these trespassers as ordinary prowlers. The servants examine the coal vaults, searching for a possible secret passage that might allow trespassers entry to the house. They find nothing.

Maids see a pair of human-shaped shadows move across the wall, passing and repassing.

Later, human bones are uncovered from the outside garden. Eventually the family moves out of the house. Their stay was never meant to be permanent. The mysteries of the house remain unsolved.

Common themes

The Unknown

In this section, not only am I working with the premise cited in Wikipedia (specifically that the “supernatural” in Le Fanu’s stories “is strongly implied but a ‘natural’ explanation is also possible.”) but also with notions concerning the lore-like “origins” of these stories. To begin, the creepy things that lurk within these tales blend in well with the “stuff” of imagination; the byproducts of heightened sensitivities brought on by fear. The face-changing dog in Squire Toby’s Will is the stuff of nightmares that bleeds into Charles’s wakefulness as he lies in bed. The disembodied whispers are disturbances that test the already frazzled-nerves of the highly imaginative maids that are hyper-reactive to rumors of spirits and hauntings.  In Ghost Stories of the Tiled House, the strange noises heard upon “the phantom’s” arrival originate from the same place that gives us all those other unknown sounds that occur on a dark and scary night; that unknown location that is usually forgotten come morning time. The passing shadows behave as if they are but tricks of the flickering candlelight; the hands are perhaps made up of the same material that tends to pass out of existence after crossing the corners of our eyes.  The trespassing figures in An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House are like phantoms freed of the nightmare.

In all these stories, the supernatural occurs within the darkest corners of the natural, and this is what makes them truly scary. Never are the ghosts proven to exist; never is there collective agreement concerning what has supposedly occurred.

Another fascinating aspect of these tales is that they are not first-hand accounts. Squire Toby’s Will begins with a narrator that is intrigued by Gylingden Hall. He describes its dilapidated structure and the “ancient elms” that surround it.  He appears not to have witnessed the events of the story, yet he tells the tale. Ghost Stories of the Tiled House is a mixture of tales from an old maid (Sally) and then later by an unnamed narrator. The unnamed narrator confronts one of the occupants, Mr. Prosser, at the story’s end. In the events of the story Mr. Prosser is a young man. When confronted by the narrator, Mr. Prosser is quite old and minimizes the supernatural elements of which the narrator is inquiring.  While the events that unfold in An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House do so from the first person perspective of the man of the house, the story is presented to readers via an editor.

As second-hand accounts, these stories rise to the level of folklore, which has staying power. They pass from one person to another like the ghosts that haunt the houses of successive generations of estate owners. Mysterious in content, mysterious is origin. Such is the nature of the ghost.

Outside-In

In all three of these stories, there is this theme – something from the outside wants in. Squire Toby’s Will has two cloaked figures (which some in the story guess to be the father and son spirits of Toby and Scroope) entering the house and then disappearing, perhaps embedding themselves forever into the spiritual fabric of the house.   Ghost Stories of the Tiled House presents a scenario where a man, who is perhaps dead,  is making  noise outside the premises of his former home?  Is he returning from the dead? Then there are the hands hanging from the outside window ledges. In one case a pudgy finger pokes through a bolt hole on the window frame.  In An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, the apparitions appear both inside and outside. But there is the lingering fear that these beings, whoever (or whatever) they are, have forced their way in from the outside.

After these mysterious phantoms gain entry, things go awry. Servants from Squire Toby’s Will hear voices. Cooper the Butler sees two shadows dancing in wall, resembling the two cloaked men who had entered the home on the day of funeral.  After the butler in the Ghost Stories of the Tiled House senses a presence brushing past him through the entryway, people begin to report some rather uncanny occurrences. There are strange noises. Indentations appear in the mattresses of beds without sleepers.  The same situation occurs years later in the same house; a man at the door experiences the sensation of something making its way inside.  After this, occupants no longer see hands outside the windows.  They see the hands on the inside! They find handprints inside pools of dust. They see hands coming at them while they sleep in their beds. The mysterious beings of An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House had already gotten into their home. The question was – how to get them out?

Something is outside. It makes its presence known. It wants in. It gets in. Now what? These are the situations that the unfortunate characters of LeFanu’s stories have to face.

Spine-Chilling Imagery

 LeFanu has a way with words. He finely crafts these mood-alterting scenarios; the tone effectively digresses from ordinary to frightful with just a few strokes of the pen.  It is the imagery that he invokes with this pen that transforms the piece. The things he describes rise up from within the words like the eyes of a gator emerging from the slough.  They take form and come at the reader in almost three-dimensional fashion.  Take for instance the shadow that merges with the wolf-head carving in Squire Toby’s Will. Out of this meeting the contorted face of Scroope comes into being and frightens poor old Cooper. In the Ghost Stories of the Tiled House, a poor maiden awakes to the sight of a strange man beside her bed.  His throat has been cut and blood drips onto the floor. But he is not suffering. He is laughing. The hands that will grip the outer sills seem to be reaching outside of the book and clenching the yet-to-be-turned pages. The strange woman that haunts the house in An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House is described as a squalid little old woman, covered with small pox and blind in one eye. The way Le Fanu describes her shuffling about and wandering the room – is he looking though the page and describing a woman that he sees in real time standing next to you – the reader?

Throughout these tales, there is yet more captivating imagery. Vanishing stagecoaches, passing shadows, figures ascending staircases, shining eyes, ruffling curtains, and on and on and on.  The things that come to be, they have a way of breaking the serenity. They creep up on their victims when they are at peace; sitting in a soft chair, lying in bed. They interrupt casual conversations. In this way, these image-evoking scenarios are similar to the “outside-in” theme.  Inside, the occupants are going about their normal, peaceful lives. Something wants in. Once in, life is no longer normal. Likewise, once the object of the imagery forms and invades a casual scenario, the situation turns dire.

Summing It Up

 

LeFanu3Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu – who are you?

He is THE master of the ghost story. He conjures up frights that take place within the scariest realms of our imagination and then forces us to confront our own understanding of reality. He constructs haunted houses but leaves the ghosts outside. But they always seem to creep on in. He gives the readers the opportunity to “see” the apparitions that exist in the minds of his characters.  He’s quite the ghostly dude.  If you haven’t read any of his works, I suggest you do so soon. Soon = immediately!  Get on it!

 

 

 

Review of The Castle of Otranto

castleofotrantoI’m willing to bet that the following themes are all too familiar – Kingdom vs. Kingdom. A despotic Prince.   Underground passageways. A fleeing princess. Knights on the hunt. Dire prophesies.  A castle haunted with phantoms. Have I listed enough clichés?

All of these motifs are found in Horace Walpole’s novel “The Castle of Otranto”. But let’s give the guy a break. After all, he wrote this piece back in 1764.   Long before George R. R. Martin had his Game of Thrones, sooner than J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, previous to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, prior to Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolfo, Walpole wrote this fantasy novel about a time long ago (even in 1764 it was a period piece); a time of knights and kingdoms, princesses and perils, all wrapped up in a story that is sprinkled with ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. Mind you, he had his predecessors. Shakespeare was writing of kingdoms and ghosts in the 16th century and the stories of King Arthur and The Knights of the Roundtable date back to the 11th and 12th century. However, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is credited as the very first gothic novel.

What does it mean to be the first “gothic novel?” Well let us see what the with the fine men and women of Wikipedia have to say.

According to Wikipedia, this novel establishes:

“many of the plot devices and character-types that would become typical of the Gothic: secret passages, clanging trapdoors, pictures that begin to move, and doors that close by themselves.”

But what makes this novel standout among other fantasy and frightful novels of its time is its unique method of blending the fantastic with the mundane. Supposedly in the late 1700s, stories of the supernatural were considered “old school” (They probably had a different term for it, but you catch my drift).  Modern tales of romance and adventure were allegedly devoid of such supernatural themes and focused more on believable foes and realistic conflicts.  By mixing the two literary strands, Walpole establishes what has come to be a defining theme for Gothic literature – traces of the past making their way into the modern world. Looking at the gothic haunted house stories that come later, this theme bears out over and over –  curses born in the past that claim the lives of future generations, justice for sins committed long ago coming for the heirs of the original sinner; ghosts returning from the graves to haunt the living.

Wadpole, a British politician, was a fan of the ancient medieval period, so much so that he had a castle built to replicate a palace of yore. It’s called Strawberry Hill House and it still stand today, although it has gone through much renovation. In writing “The Castle of Otranto,” Wadpole tried to imitate the style of speech from the medieval era. In its initial publication, Wadpole included a preface that made is seem as if his tale was an ancient one, written in the sixteenth century.

Fascination for the ways of yore, nostalgia for periods of we never knew – this is at the heart of Gothic literature. What are ghosts but fanciful beings from times long gone!

So, how much of this novel is dedicated to ghosts and other things that go bump in the night? I’d say there is a smidgen of these elements. Maybe more.   Phantoms and other mysterious things pop in and out of this story. Lord Manfred, a ruthless tyrant, arranges a marriage between his son Conrad and the maiden Isabella in order to unite two kingdoms. However, before the marriage is to take place, a giant helmet falls from nowhere and crushes him. Paranormal event #1.   Lord Manfeld then takes it upon himself to have Isabella as his own. But not if she can help it. She flees through an underground passage. Lord Manfeld chases her while the painted image of his grandfather flees the portrait and interferes in the chase. Paranormal event #2.

More story follows, but I’m not going to go into much detail. There are battles. There is a love story, and there are more supernatural events; inhabitants of the castle see a giant foot that occupies an entire room, a specter in dark clothes kneels before an altar. Some of these occurrences are rather bizarre to say the least.

As to the claim that this tale deposits the supernatural into “realistic situations”, I don’t really see it. I’m not saying that this isn’t happening. It’s just that I am so far removed from the writing style of the eighteenth century and I’m a complete novice when it comes to the “ordinary, day to day life” of the royal classes of medieval society. Therefore, I’m not attuned to the supposed “realism” that is going on here. “Realism” to me is a Stephen King story, where there might be a guy in a baseball cap chomping down on a Mars candy bar at gas station and sipping his bottle of Dr. Pepper, all while speaking in local slang.   In Wadpole’s work, the characters speak in a theatrical style.  Formal, long-winded salutations seem to invade nearly every sentence of the dialogue.  The heroes and heroines always have the noblest of intentions.

I can’t say that this novel thrilled me to death. The story is fair. However, I did learn a lot from reading the book and doing research for this article. I have a better understanding of the foundations of gothic literature and I have learned a great deal about the evolution of literary styles. For this I am thankful. And onward I will go, digesting more works within the Gothic genre. Some I will like, others not so much. But I look forward to the rewarding experience. You too can have such an experience. Just pick up a book and read, read, read!

 

Dracula’s Castle

draculabandn2I am a sucker for those hard cover, classic-bound books that are published by Barnes & Noble. I have several, and last autumn I purchased another – Dracula and Other Horror Classics by Bram Stoker. For the first time, this sucker (me!) finally read about the most noteworthy “sucker” of all (bloodsucker that is!)  – Dracula, the most famous of all vampires.  I enjoyed the novel considerably, especially the first four chapters. I relished them in the same way a vampire relishes blood! For it is in these chapters that the reader is lured into the vampiric crypt of Dracula’s Castle. I went down into this crypt ever so willingly!  But first things first.  Vicariously, I began my trip to this malevolent fortress.  Through the wooded Carpathian Mountains I rode with Protagonist Jonathan Harker via horse and carriage. I took in the chilling surroundings; the high mountains, the dark trails, and the glowing lights.  I listened to the howling of the wolves. Finally, there it was – The Castle of Dracula, off in the distance, challenging the heavens with its height.  Soon I would be inside its domain! I couldn’t wait.  I went inside and the excursion was only beginning!

This piece you are reading is not a review of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”  Instead, the focus will be on Dracula’s Castle as it exists in both fact and fiction.  I will examine the characterisics of this castle along with the themes that arise from its stories. In the end we will be left with a setting that is saturated with delicious gothic gloom!

(So then, why not just write a review of the novel, or even the Dracula movie, and in that review, describe this “gloom”?) 

Good question.  The answer is: I am not sure if Dracula’s Castle qualifies as a haunted house. (All the reviews are of haunted house stories, afterall.) There are no ghosts in this tale. Likewise, there is nothing supernatural about this castle aside from the creatures that dwell within. Remove these creatures and the castle is just another fortress of stone and relics. For the most part, the history of the Castle (in the fictional story) is hidden from us. We can only guess at any ghastly misfortunes that might have played out inside this domain over its many years of existence. If the “spirits” or “disembodied emotions of past dramas” still cling to the castle, they do so only vaguely at best; there are no details that describe such “spirits,” certainly not enough for one to say that the castle is haunted by them.

And yet, Dracula’s Castle cries out for special recognition. It stands among its peers (i.e. other famous haunted houses and castles) proudly, and in some cases towers over them. Its influence on the haunted house genre is great. Likewise, it has made a huge impact on popular culture.  There are many haunted attractions worldwide that have borrowed its title.

(Here for instance. https://www.queensland.com/en-us/attraction/draculas-haunted-house

And here http://www.darkinthepark.com/Niagara/niagara4.htm)

It has spawned many movies, television stories and novels , not to mention video games. Castles in Eastern Europe are in competition as to which one can rightfully claim to be the “real” Castle of Dracula. They are open to tours and on some occasions, they welcome overnight guests.

Now that I have established the literary and cultural relevance of Dracula’s castle, let’s begin our examination of its finest, most ghoulish elements. We’ll start where the preceding paragraph ends – with the real Dracula and his castle (or castles.)  The vampiric count of Stoker’s novel is based on Vlad Tepes, a fifteenth century voivode (or ruler) of impaleWallachia, an historical region in what is now Romania. He was also known as Vlad III, Vlad Dracula, The second son of Vlad Dracul (or Draculesti). However, his most famous and notorious alias is Vlad the Impaler. According to wikipedia:

“Vlad the Impaler is said to have killed from 40,000 to 100,000 European citizens, (political rivals, criminals, anyone he thought to me “useless to humanity”) , mainly by impaling…… Impaled up to 100,000 Turks.”

According to Sparknotes.com, Stoker discovered Vlad while studying Romanian history.  He chose to name his villain after him, and even suggested (in the novel) that Count Dracula is a descendant of Vlad.

Vlad’s reigns of terror occurred in the late Middle Ages, but even these “late” medieval rulers had their castles.  Vlad resided in Poenari Castle in the region of Wallachia. draculascastle.com claims this to be the “real” Castle Dracula, since it was the domain of the real historical ruler.  However, Stoker did not have this castle in mind when he wrote his novel.  Sources contend that it was Bran Castle , also in Romania, that captured his attention and inspired his vision for the fictional castle.

From the Washington Post:

“Images of Bran Castle supposedly reached Bram Stoker, the 19th-century Irish author of “Dracula,” who drew inspiration for his famous work from travelogues and sketches by British diplomats and adventurers in what was then Wallachia (modern-day Romania).”

Today, Bran-Castle is a tourist attraction. Recently, arranged by AirBnB , Bran-Castle opened its doors to guests for an overnight getaway. This was not an average bed and breakfast affair. Guests were treated to a carriage ride, dinner, and nice snug sleeping arrangements – inside coffins!

Watch the promotional video:

Take a virtual tour of the castle here:

http://bran-castle.com/

Pictures outside and inside the castle.  Pictures are from  dailymail.co.uk :


So far, I have presented an historical context for Dracula’s Castle and have offered pictures, along with links to videos and websites. Let us hang on to this knowledge and retain these images in our minds as we reexamine the castle through a prism of Gothic horror. By the light of his vivid imagination, let’s unlock the palace doors and tour “Stoker’s castle.” Let’s navigate through a darkness that’s irresistible to fans of horror fiction.

Bram Stoker did not invent the gothic haunted castle. He followed in the footsteps of many of the greats. (Like Horace Walpole, for instance, author of 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, which is said to be the first Gothic novel). But he was a great asset to his genre. As sparksnotes points out, his work “spawned countless imitators, and scores of horror films owe a debt to the simple but powerful repetition of Stoker’s “doors, doors, doors everywhere.”

When reading the “doors, doors, doors everywhere” phase in full context, the effect is incredible.

“The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests. But I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit. The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!”

Stoker effectively instills a scene that is both picturesque and horrific. He lends to us a feeling for what it might be like to be locked inside such a towering structure; to be above such a beautiful yet isolating landscape.

Some time ago, I wrote an article called Ghostly Grounds: Explorations Outside of the Haunted Houses of Film and Literature. In the article, I explain how the external environment of haunted houses is significant to the stories within this genre. It gives the reader a sense of place, sets the mood, and can even reveal key plot points. Stoker is quite generous when it comes to describing such an environment. From the cultural accounts within this foreign region to detailed descriptions of the darkened landscape, Stoker transports his readers into a chilling world, all while preluding to a terror that will unfold at the Castle.

We first learn of Count Dracula and his gloomy castle from the journal of Jonathan Harker. He is a lawyer from London and he makes his way to Transylvania in order to do buisness with The Count. While London in a triving urban center, Transylvania is a region insulated from modernization; it is a land of superstitious mountain people.  On the road toward the castle, he hears the warnings of these people as they cry out in their language, “Satan! Hell! Witches! Vampries! Werewolves!”  He heeds not their warnings and goes deep into the wooded Carpathian Mountains.  His coach driver seems uncanny and mysterious.

As they make their assent, they travel through tunnels of trees. The wind is wild and tree branches are “smashing together.” Harker is quite unnerved.  He hears the howling of wolves. There are mysterious blue flames here and there among the trees.

Finally they arrive in the courtyard of the castle. Harker has some telling notes in his journal:

“In the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.”

“I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone.”

“A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the door swung back”

The Count greets Harker politely. He is carrying an antique lamp from the days of yore. Its flickering flame casts scary shadows on the wall. The Count carries Harker’s bags, and they travel up a flight of winding stairs; a trope for many haunted house stories yet to come. In these stories, characters are climbing to unknown heights all while tension is escalating. The same thing is occurring here.

They travel through many stone passages. The echoes of their feet fill the halls. Adding to this sound are the songs of the wolves that creep in from the outside.

Soon they arrive in a set of rooms that are, perhaps, almost comfortable for Harker. There is a warm fireplace, a table with food and Brandy. There is a library with books on all subjects; history, geography, politics, political economy, law, botany. The curtains and upholstery are centuries old.

In short, The Count makes Harker feel welcome. He is a well-read man of great knowledge. The two have interesting conversations. But soon a sense of unease will take Harker over. Fright is not far around the corner. The Count’s startling eccentricities are beginning to show.  He is absent during the daytime, never to be found. One evening, he has some rather bizarre things to say about the castle.

“Let me advise you, my dear friend – nay, let me warn you with all seriousness that should you leave these rooms you will not by any chance go to sleep in any other part of the castle. It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely.”

Here are some of the vague references to the history of the castle that I had alluded to earlier in the essay; to the “spirits” of dramas past. But these aren’t ghosts that the count is warning Harker about. There are others living with the Count in the castle; other vampires.

In the daytime, Harker wanders the corridors and finds many locked doors. The main doors to get outside are locked as well. He is trapped in this dreadful castle. Once a man who was comforted by The Count’s hospitality, Harker is now fretful, afraid of his own shadow.

Sparknotes sums up this transition very well:

The tone of Harker’s journal changes with amazing rapidity as his stay in Castle Dracula progresses. In the course of a single chapter, Harker feels stripped of the robes of honored houseguest and considers himself bound like a prisoner. Here, Stoker demonstrates his mastery of the conventions of the Gothic novel: evoking the ruined castle, the beautiful but overpowering landscape, and the mounting sense of dread.

From Harker’s own words:

“I am beginning to feel this nocturnal existence tell on me. It is destroying my nerve. I start at my own shadow, and am full of all sorts of horrible imaginings. God knows that there is ground for any terrible fear in this accursed place!”

Harker thinks he has found relief when he stumbles upon a somewhat enchanting room. He discovers it via a secret passage that leads to a staircase that takes him to a lower floor.  Hidden passages – another staple of gothic and haunted house lore. If the story is suspensful, the reader anxiously awaits to discover where it leads and what it reveals.  Stoker writes with suspense, very effectively so.

The room he finds relaxes him. It smacks of a woman’s touch. There he falls into a trance-like sleep. He awakens to the sight of three young and very pale women that seem to materialize right out of the moonlight. They descend on him, and Harker experiences this attack as if he were in a dream. He thinks he sees The Count behind them commanding them to retreat. The next thing he remembers is waking in his own guest bed back in the wing he had left.

Harker wanders again and discovers a stone passageway that leads to a circular stairway. Down, down down he goes – to the crypts!

From Harker’s journal:

“At the bottom there was a dark, tunnel-like passage, through which came a deathly, sickly odor, the odor of old earth newly turned…….as I pulled open a heavy door which stood ajar, I found myself in an old, ruined chapel, which had evidentally been used as a graveyard.”

There he finds fifty gray boxes – coffins! In one coffin lays the count, immobile, eyes wide open.

What becomes of Jonathan Harker? Does he escape the castle?  Read the novel and find out.  Read as Jonathan looks out the window and watches The Count descend the outer walls of the castle as if he were some kind of reptile. Read as Jonathan, from the same window, sees the pale women out in the forest below hunting for blood.

Only the first part of the novel is centers around Dracula’s Castle. But it is by far my favorite section of the story. How can a Haunted House guy like me not relish such chapters?


How about the Movie?

There are crypts below the castle. Smoke rises from the earthen ground. Rodents hide behind coffins, of which there are several. A rat crawls inside one and hides amongst the bones. Three ladies creep out of three of the coffins. They walk slowly toward their master – Count Dracula.  draculamovie4

This scene occurs early on in the 1931 Dracula  film, before the protagonist enters the castle. Grisly foreshadowing at its finest! The scene lets the viewers know that Count Dracula’s (played be Bela Legosi) visitor, Redfield, is about to walk into a snare.

The movie and the book differ on many points. I prefer the book. In both platforms, my favorite chapters/scenes center on Dracula’s Castle. So let us now examine the Castle through the eyes of the camera.

It is a foggy coach ride toward the castle. Eventually, Renfield arrives at the castle and stands before its giant door. It opens on its own accord with an unnerving creak.

The room he enters is humongous. It is old, dark and gray. The ceiling is propped with pillars. There are stone chards on the floor. And there are spider webs. They freely blanket every platform in sight. There are bats fluttering about outside of the windows.

Renfield notices a wide, L-shaped staircase. He watches as Dracula descends the staircase. He is holding a large candle. It is the only light in this dismal place. He welcomes Renfield draculamovie and instructs his guest to follow him – back up the stairs. Wolves are howling in the background and Dracula comments “what beautiful music they make!”

There is a wall of cobwebs crossing the stairway. Whereas Dracula is able to pass through without destroying it, Renfield must slash it apart with his cane. A huge spider runs for cover.

Dracula leads Renfield to a dining room. There is a candelabra, a knight’s armor and a fireplace. In the background, a door is opening and closing with a moaning creak.  Dracula excuses himself and makes for the door. It opens on its own accord.

Renfield is alone now. What is to become of him?  See the movie and find out.


 

draculabandn

 

 

Dracula’s Castle – an icon of horror, one of the most frightful fortresses of lore. Although, due to some minor technicalities, this castle might be cheated out of the title “Haunted,” it is nevertheless one of the most terrifying castles of literature and cinema. Borrowing from the most brutal tales of times past, Stoker created Dracula, the world’s most famous vampire.  Since every great villain needs a lair, he gave him a castle which he took from the pages of history. He reassembled it inside his novel and filled it with bats, coffins, and other creepy things.

Both in fact and fiction, the “Castle of Dracula” is legendary. It has earned its respect. So I came to the conclusion that I needed to pay homage to it somewhere inside this blog.

The scope of its influence extends outside the pages of literature and beyond the frames of film. A mere review of the book or movie would not suffice. Therefore I gave it its own theme; its own article. I hope I have done it justice.

Review of The Haunting of Gillespie House

Haunting of Gillespie HouseThere are occasions when a novel helplessly succumbs to the tropes of its stated genre. Page after page is littered with overused themes.  They reach out from these pages and smack the reader across the face.   “Look at me! Look at me!” they shout from in between the lines, “Look at me and let me lock you inside every literary device that I the author I can conjure up from the catalog!”  Conversely the opposite is also true.  Like a summer wind that blows across an ocean beach, the familiar and expected can be refreshing.  If a story is imaginative and well written, then the proverbial themes within will wrap the reader in nestling comfort as s/he settles on in to the story.  Such is the case with Darcy Coates’s The Haunting of Gillespie House

 

This beautifully written piece features a large house in the countryside. Protagonist Elle agrees to stay and watch over this house while the elderly owners (Mr. and Mrs. Gillespie) go away on a trip. The house is shrouded with mystery and intrigue.  There are locked rooms with hints of activity occurring behind the doors. Peculiar scratching-noises are heard within various walls.  The third floor contains rooms with beautiful antique furniture strangely hidden away. Certain revelations lead to the conclusion that there is a secret passage somewhere in the house. But where is it?

The grounds surrounding the house have their share of intrigue as well. There is a hidden cemetery with gravestones of Gillespie family members dating back to the 1800s. All of them have the same year of death inscribed into the stone, which alludes to the fact that some kind of horrible tragedy was responsible for these deaths.  Fast forwarding to current times, Elle discovers that deadly misfortune has also plagued the surviving members of the Gillespie clan – poor Mr. And Mrs. Gillespie have recently suffered through a sad set of circumstances.

As I made my way through this creepy and enjoyable journey that is the book, I was reminded of the thrills I experience when I play graphic adventure video games. These games are usually non-linear and there are plenty of puzzles to be solved along the way. (See MystShivers, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent . The last two are Haunted House themed games.)

For those not into gaming, I hope that I have not cheapened The Haunting of Gillespie House by making this comparison. But for me, the association is appropriate because both platforms inspire suspense as I travel though the various mediums anxiously wondering, “what is behind door # 6?”

The Haunting of Gillespie House – the tone is inviting, the descriptions are colorful, and the writing is superb.  Do I have any complaints?  Minor ones, mostly concerning the length of the story.  This is a long novella.  I wanted more – I wanted a novel.  The ending is somewhat abrupt.  I felt there were seeds to more story planted here and there. With just a little more nurturing they could have developed into something great.  However, it turns out that The Haunting of Gillespie House had already outgrown its original intent. Darcy Coates states in her after word that this tale was supposed to be a short story.  It ended up being much too long to fit within the boundaries of the short story format as unintended themes manifested and grew. This happens quite often when writing a story.  So she had to let the story grow into its preferred outcome. I think there could have been more, but who am I?

As a bonus, Coates includes a short story entitled The Crawlspace for readers that purchase her ebook. This story is what was left behind when The Haunting of Gillespie House grew to big for its bridges. When I say, “left behind”, I do not mean to imply that this story is a collection of discarded material. Rather, it is the youngling that The Haunting of Gillespie House was destined to spawn from. Keep in mind though, that it is a different story altogether.   It’s a good story too.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. This well-written piece is a page-turner.  While The Haunting of Gillespie House does put readers in a somewhat uncomfortable state of wanting more, it also leaves behind a desire to explore more works from Darcy Coates.

 

Review of The Others

The Others

If I were to make a list of my ten favorite haunted house films, I would say that The Others would make the top five.  I first fell in love with the film a decade ago. I re-watched it the other night to see if the sentiments were the same. On second viewing, I liked it even more.

It is a period piece, set during World War 2 on British island off the coast of France. The film takes place at a creepy manor that sits within acres of fog-filled foliage.  It utilizes gothic themes artfully. Thankfully, the film substitutes shock and gore for suspense and mystery. The story itself is absorbing from beginning to end.

The film brilliantly sets up a haunting environment when the lady of the house Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman)  introduces three new servants to her home.  She has a peculiar set of instructions. The house has many rooms, all of which have lockable doors. No door must ever be left open! When entering a room, the door must immediately be shut and locked. That way, the light of one room will not escape into the other. Why is this an issue?  Grace’s two children are photosensitive; allergic to light. Therefore, all the windows are covered with drapes to prevent any invading sunlight.  The servants are shown a grand piano and they are told that never must the children play with it. Grace suffers from migraines and so noise is kept to a minimum. There are no phones, no radios. In fact, the house had no electricity.

the-others-nicole-kidman-scaredSo – you have a large, isolated house on a remote section of an island that is surrounded by gardens and fog; a house that is kept gloomily dark and eerily silent without any devices to connect its occupants with the outside world.  What else could there be to make the situation anymore creepier?  How about a religious zealot of a mother that tells her children stories about little boys and girls that go to Limbo after they die, which is at the center of the earth where there is fire, and they live there in pain forever and ever – all because they told lies.

But wait, there’s more.  Remember earlier how I said that doors inside the house must remain shut and that the windows must stay covered and that the piano must not be played?  Well, these things never remain closed, covered and unused.  Who is opening door, uncovering the windows and playing the piano, ghosts?  Perhaps. One of the servants has an explanation for this:

Sometimes the world of the living gets mixed up with the world of the dead.

 

A mighty strange trio these servants are!

the-others - Servants

 

There’s Mrs. Mills the nanny,  Mr. Tuttle the gardener and Lydia the mute maid.  They know things that others do not.

 

This film brilliantly adds its own unique twists to the scenarios it borrows from the gothic tradition. To explain how it does this would be giving too much away. I won’t do this. This is one of those films gets better and better as the mystery unravels.   However, I will point out one scene in particular that perhaps is forgotten after the film is over but ought not to be (The scene stuck with me only after the second viewing).  At one point, Grace is convinced there are intruders hiding in the house, disturbing the dark and quiet environment. She has the children hide away from the the-others-Windowslight while she and the three servants search the house. They open all the curtains to bring the dark corners to light.  The sunlight beams through the windows one by one.  Different shots of the house’s interior literally “come to light”;  a long hallway, a room with a clothed table sporting an oil lamp, a den with a fireplace, walls with tapestries and murals. All of these things are common décor in haunted house movies, but in The Others, it is the light that brings out the creepiness within them, not the dark.

What more is there to say? It’s a great film. It’s refreshing that a film of such classical scares was made on this side of millennium, just squeaking in at year 2001.  Makes a guy hopeful for the future!

 

Review of Crimson Peak

crimson-peak houseWhen I heard that the writer and director of Pan’s Labyrinth was writing and directing a haunted house movie, I got excited. I looked forward to seeing the latest film from visionary Guillermo Del Toro. I couldn’t wait to see “his” ghosts; freed from his imagination and set loose on the big screen. To these ends, my wishes came true on Tuesday night, Oct 27.  My visual appetite was satisfied, as was any desire I had concerning flair. It was a stylish film indeed.  But alas, something was missing.

Let me being with what I liked about Crimson Peak. I liked the atmosphere. I liked the gothic manor and all its intricacies, seen and unseen. I liked the winding staircase and cage-like elevator. I like the unfinished roof and the atmospheric snow that flowed continuously into the house like background waterfalls.  I loved all the props – the candelabras, the portraits, the piano. The music is appropriately haunting.  The ghosts are great. Silky and spooky; they are like no ghosts I had ever seen on the screen.

I liked the overall tone – the Victorian/Edwardian formality in dress and speech. The Crimson-peakfilm transported me out of the theater and into a different time period without any turbulence.  It was nice to see a shout out to those glorious horror films of yore.

And the film is rich with symbolism. It’s poetic.

So much is good about the film. So it disheartens me to say that I left the theater feeling slightly underwhelmed.  Why is this? It was the slow and unpromising plot. Actually, cancel that word “unpromising.”  It was promising. The problem was that it made promises but failed to deliver upon them.

It teased out mystery where there was none. It built up false suspense and while the story didn’t leave viewers hanging, in the end it seemed to shrug apologetically for the fact that there was never a reason to hang at all.

It is difficult to provide examples without trudging into the storyline. But I don’t want to reveal too much, although the risk of spoiler contamination is very low. The young and handsome Thomas Sharpe arrives to New York from England with his sister. He is an opportunist and he tries to convince Carter Cushing to invest in technology that he has developed for mining clay. Carter turns him down. So Thomas and his Crimson Peakmysterious sister will go back England, but not until Thomas woos away Carter’s daughter Edith.  Carter does not trust Thomas. He says that there is something unlikable about him but he can’t explain what it is.  But at least Thomas is friendly and charming, unlike his sister who is cold and expressionless.  Thomas marries Edith and the three return to England to live in the spooky old mansion on top of Crimson Peak.

crimson-peak-trailer

Here’s a hint as to how the suspense works in this film: if a character has a hunch (like Carter has with Thomas), he is probably correct. If a person appears evil, the person is evil. If there were a butler in this film, then the quip “the butler did it” would surely play out (There is no butler in this film.)

One might say, “Okay, so it’s a straightforward film. What’s wrong with that?” What’s wrong is that it starts viewers out on arcane paths, only to merge them into a plain old narrative of narrow storytelling.  If you want to tell a straightforward, what-you-see-is what- you-get story, that’s fine. But don’t lead the viewers on with secrets and hidden histories.  There are many examples of this kind of leading, but I won’t mention them, because I guess even a letdown can be a spoiler.

Imagine receiving a present. Not only is the wrapping paper beautiful, but there are bows and bells and pieces of candy attached to the box as well. Peel away all this and you find that the design of the box is appealing too.  Inside the box there are decorative tissues and fluffy coverings that feel soft against your fingertips.  Remove this covering and you find – tube socks.  Happy Birthday.   If this were a terrible movie with absolutely no depth, then my analogy would be a bit different. It would entail dazzling wrappings on a crappy, empty box. But it’s not terrible, it’s just, well, it’s tube socks.

Let’s end on a mostly positive note as I focus in on the ghosts. I’ll call this the “good, the blah, and the good again”

  • The good – The ghosts looked good. The CGI worked to the film’s benefit. The ghosts didn’t come off as cartoonish. They looked genuinely creepy.
  • The blah – We didn’t learn much about the ghosts. They were just sort of “there”, part of the background. Yes they scared the wits out of poor Edith on several occasions. But they didn’t contribute all that much too the overall workings of the story.
  • The good again – Kudos for allowing viewers the time to take in the ghosts! They didn’t flash rudely on the screen as did the ghosts of other modern ghost movies such as The Haunting of Connecticut  and the remake of Amityville Horror. Rather, they traversed slowly and creepily. They peered around walls. They peaked out of closets.  THIS is what “scary” is all about.

crimson-peak-crawl

So that’s about it. I really, really, wanted to like this film. And I guess I did, but I just couldn’t bring myself to love it.