Dear readers, have I mentioned the Folio Society before? If not, let me remedy my oversight forthwith.
The Folio Society publishes fiction and non-fiction in truly sublime illustrated and bound editions. Their books are BEAUTIFUL. So gorgeous, so collectible, and usually a bit pricey – but they’ve currently got a sale on, so do browse their website if you’re interested – you will not regret it.
Anyway, getting back to actual reviewing…
If you’ve been following my blog and reading my book reviews, you might have picked up on the fact that I enjoy gothic fiction and gothic Victorian fiction/ Victorian vampire fiction.
I obviously had to read this book, especially since it contains what is usually considered the first Victorian vampire story – John Polidori’s (Byron’s physician) The Vampyre, the titular character of which is rumoured to be based on Lord Byron, the poet considered the wild child of the Romantic movement in Literature, dubbed “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.
This short story collection is a well selected anthology of gothic fiction, with an insightful introduction (by Lucasta Miller) that tackles the question of the significance of vampire and what they represented to Victorian writers. It is beautifully illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert. Works included in the anthology are:
- The Vampyre (John Polidori): Polidori’s seminal short story, which many consider THE original Victorian vampire story, follows a young and honourable man called Aubrey as he meets the tantalising and mysterious Lord Ruthven and accompanies him on his journey through Europe. They part ways, and are reunited in sinister circumstances during which Ruthven extracts an oath from Aubrey – one that will come back to torment him. Perhaps not the strongest of the stories in this collection, but certainly interesting from the point of view of the literary history of the vampire and the evident references to Polidori and Byron.
- The Cremona Violin (E.T.A Hoffman): The stories is narrated by an unnamed narrator. Councillor Krespel, violin-maker extraordinaire and inhabitant of the German town of Hartberg is renowned for his eccentricities and the architectural anomaly that is his house. One day, he brings home a woman with a beautiful voice, whom he regards with apparently jealous possessiveness. Our narrator is intrigued and means to get to the bottom of the mystery. A creepy and suspenseful short story that explores the power of music.
- The Lady with the Velvet Collar (Washington Irving): A young German, Gottfried Wolfgang comes across a damsel in distress in the old quarter of Paris, in the Place de Greve where public executions take place. The lady is in evident distress, alone and in need of help. The young man is quickly besotted. But things are not quite what they seem. A truly excellent short story (short enough to be easily readable) – darkly gothic, disturbing and dramatic.
- Leixlip Castle (Charles Maturin): A dark castle, strange happenings at midnight on All Hallow’s Eve, a missing girl, a hag – the usual gothic tropes and appropriate atmosphere. Certainly a piece of gothic fiction, but not one that stood out as particularly memorable to me.
- The Tapestried Chamber (Walter Scott): General Richard Browne stays over at Woodville Castle, the home of his childhood intimate Frank Woodville. During his stay in the “tapestried chamber”, he is visited at night by the spectre of a woman in a silk gown…This story had the makings of something truly creepy – a haunted chamber, a ghost, a chilling atmosphere. Unfortunately the ending did not quite meet the expectations created during the first half of the story.
- Monos & Daimonos (Edward Bulwer-Lytton): I did not like this one, although it may appeal to some readers. The story focuses on a truly and a deeply misanthropic individual as he sets out to explore the world and free himself of human society. This proves difficult and he takes drastic measures, which do not turn out as he would have hoped.
- The Dream (Mary Shelley): This one is superb. Dreams and the gothic have always been interrelated, especially considering the influence of the unconscious/subconscious and the mind (even sanity and insanity) in gothic works. A young, recently orphaned Countess is in love with the son of her father’s enemy. Torn between love and duty to her father, she decides to spend the night on St. Catherine’s Couch, a ledge above a waterfall. It is said that St. Catherine shall appear to anyone who sleep there and will offer them help. Atmospheric, well-written (as expected) and accompanied by a wonderful illsutration.
- The Red Man (Catherine Gore): The Red Man is dark and disturbing and has a truly evil villain. A good piece, but not a personal favourite.
- The Bride of Lindorf (Letitia E. Landon): A young man finds a beautiful girl locked up in hidden garden in a castle. Another excellent short story. This is what gothic fiction is all about – mystery, darkness, love, insanity; the works! Also beautifully illustrated, well-written with prose that just flow. It is both poetic and atmospheric – beautiful and dark. One of my favourites.
- Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment (Nathaniel Hawthorne): A doctor develops an elixir for youth which he shares with a select group of his friends. This story explores the question of the value of wisdom gained with age versus the folly of youth. It is somewhat more lighthearted than the rest of the stories in this collection, but is nonetheless a good piece of fiction – well written and entertaining.
- Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu): An Irish countess comes to stay with an uncle two cousins she has never met before; and all is not well. An interesting enough story, but with melodramatic plot developments and characterisation.
- Ligia (Edgar Allan Poe): Described as the “Godfather of Goth” (by John Cusack, in an interview for ‘The Raven’), Poe’s writing is always perfectly gothic. The narrator of this story has lost his beloved wife Ligia, and has since he married although he continues to mourn Ligia. This is story is a classical example of the unreliable narrator, as we along with the story-teller begin to question his sanity or wonder at the possible supernatural occurrences.
All in all, I loved this anthology. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys Victorian fiction, gothic fiction, or supernatural fiction.