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Tag: gothic

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is one of the creepiest stories I have read in a long time. This is my first read for the R.I.P. XII event. I’m alone in the house writing this review, and writing this review is scaring me. Yes, it’s that kind of book. 

The book begins with a creepy mansion at the edge of town. It’s the Blackwood House and it is inhabited by two sisters and their deranged uncle. The Blackwood sisters, Merricat and Connie, have a secret. Six years before the events of the story, the Blackwood family sat down for dinner one night and died of arsenic poisoning. Not only did Connie survive the incident, but waited till everyone was dead, cleaned the utensils, called the police and confessed to the crime. Her younger sister Merricat, who had been punished and sent to her room, also survived, as did Uncle Julian, who lost his mind.

Six years later, Connie has been acquitted of the crime, but refuses to leave the Blackwood House for fear of the townsfolk. The town always hated the Blackwoods for their wealth before, and now wish the sisters would just vacate. Merricat goes to the town to buy groceries every week and gets teased all the way back. They shout at her, point and laugh, even as she thinks of all the ways she would make them shut up, if she could.
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom… Everyone else in my family is dead.
This is how the book begins. It seems as though the loss of their family has affected both the sisters quite differently. While in Connie’s case, the result is complete forced seclusion from people, Merricat, who seems otherwise normal, has a stunted growth. Extreme superstitions keep her from doing the most basic things, like cooking and gardening. She is fiercely protective of her sister Connie and still thinks like the twelve-year-old she was when her family died. The story takes an unexpected turn when a cousin arrives, Charles Blackwood, who promises to show Connie the outside world, and threatens to interrupt Merricat’s neatly arranged life. Little by little, she reveals the mystery surrounding the deaths.
The writing is richly atmospheric, very true to the gothic style. There is a lot going on in the story, it is strewn with details which demand attention, analysis, interpretation; the language then is a distraction, but what a beautiful one. It plays with your senses and the imagery alone can send shivers down your spine. I had to read sections of the book again to fully grasp what was going on, sections which seemed like intriguing descriptions until a reread revealed them to hold so much more. What adds to the gothic aura of the novella is the recurring theme of loneliness, fear of being outcast, the exclusion from the normal, the small-minded Salem-trial-like persecution of those who are “different.” The story makes you wonder, what came first – the fear or the monster?
The book is about a madness that stems out of shared trauma. There is a very feminine, possessive, almost motherly quality to the sisters’ insanity. The two “get” each other, it’s almost as if they are two faces of the same person. The bond shared by Merricat and Connie is unnatural for their age, but very sisterly and impossible to break. Charles Blackwood almost manages to get between the sisters, but even he can never take Merricat’s place in Connie’s heart. Together they make a deadly pair, each supporting and aggravating the others’ faults; until you can’t tell apart victim from perpetrator. 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is like a ghost story turned inside out. Think of a conventional haunted house. Two kids venture into the grounds, a test of their wits, and encounter unspeakable horrors. We learn the history of the house in flashback. This book does the exact opposite. It completely dismantles your standard introduction-action-climax-resolution structure. The book ends on its climax, that highest most intense point in the story, whereas the resolution has already happened somewhere in the beginning… the “who” done it is one of the first things you discover. It’s hard to explain, but amazing to experience. The ending is quite satisfactory, with neither twist nor cliffhanger, yet you read the last line and realize, the story has just begun.

Buy this book on Amazon! 

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The cover of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is just as elusive and curious as the plot. The book explores loss, identity, psychology and manipulation. It’s a story about a pair of twins, two people who are at once the very same and poles apart. It is an analysis of death and tragedy irreversibly altering the lives of those left behind. It’s a meta-literary approach to storytelling. Basically, it is one hell of a book.

Summary: Our narrator, Margaret Lea, is commissioned to write a biography of ageing writer Miss Vida Winter, possibly the most famous author alive, whose whole identity and life story are a mystery to her readers.
Vida Winter shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden, from her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Today, Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten. It was once the imposing home of the March family – fascinating, manipulative Isabelle, Charlie her brutal and dangerous brother, and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline.
 Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself deeply immersed in the troubling story, even as Vida Winter’s revelations about her fears bring Margaret dangerously close to the ghosts of her own past.
My thoughts: Diane Setterfield has masterfully breathed life into her characters. Sad, tired Margaret, curiously cheerful Aurelius, cynical secretive Miss Winter and the Rebecca-esque characters we never really meet – from Isabelle to Margaret’s sister: these are people I’ll never forget. Setterfield’s writing captures the pain and almost uncontrollable attachment in blood relationships, the unbreakable ties between siblings and the inevitable disappointments that go hand in hand with family. 
In her 2006 debut novel, Diane Setterfield has effortlessly recreated a Victorian gothic mood and the book reads like a homage to favourite classics, which it references – Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights. In its wit, the writing resembles that of Austen and the bleakness is reminiscent of Dickens. All her insight and quips about writing and story, through the exotic voice of Vida Winter, make you question Setterfield’s first-timer status.
My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. 
When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.

The book is about the ghosts of memory; about prisons that you build around yourself with lies and half truths, fear, diffidence and secrecy; about the illusion of safety you cling on to, when freedom appears to be too big a loss of control. It’s about overcoming these and setting yourself free, and in many ways, despite all the horrors of the lives of Margaret and Vida Winter, the book gives hope.
But of course, it’s the meticulous detail and the gripping suspense that make this book worth your time. I read it in a day today: after a month of struggling through one supposed thriller, this book grabbed my attention on the first page and didn’t let go till the last. It had the very same effect on me as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, but the tension here is even more icy, the resolution more surprising. If you like a good bit of guesswork and uncanny twists of plot, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield will be a fairly satisfying read.
It has put me in the perfect mood, if a little late, for the R.I.P. Challenge. If there’s one thing I enjoy about these book blogger challenges it’s not knowing which book I’ll stumble into next. Any horror, mystery recommendations?

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

Reminiscent of: The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh
We learn of great things by little experiences. The history of ages is but an indefinite repetition of the history of hours. The record of a soul is but a multiple of the story of a moment. The Recording Angel writes in the Great Book in no rainbow tints; his pen is dipped in no colours but light and darkness. For the eye of infinite wisdom there is no need of shading. All things, all thoughts, all emotions, all experiences, all doubts and hopes and fears, all intentions, all wishes seen down to the lower strata of their concrete and multitudinous elements, are finally resolved into direct opposites.
Summary: Malcolm Ross, a young barrister, is summoned by his lady friend Margaret Trelawney, when someone attempts to murder her father. Mr. Trelawney is an Egyptologist, and his house is filled with curios, from gruesome sarcophagi and mummies to ornate trinkets. 
The sudden attack on Mr. Trelawney, who is now unconscious, has left Margaret wholly distraught. Oddly, as if he has been aware of the danger all along, Mr. Trelawney has left his daughter a letter, instructing her not to move any items in his room,with an order that there always be at least one man and woman watching him at all times, night or day. On the first night, a second attack is made on Mr. Trelawney, right under the noses of the watchers, including Ross, are found discovered in a deep seemingly drug induced slumber. 
Through the course of the book unfolds the story of Egyptian Queen Tera, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Margaret, and her dream of resurrecting in a future world, more suited to a powerful woman like her. Now, fifty thousands years later, Queen Tera has been set free. It is apparent that she wants to return to her own embalmed body, which rests unsurprisingly in a sarcophagus in Mr. Trelawney’s house. The question is: how much does Mr. Trelawney know and what is he hiding?
My thoughts: I was very curious to read another book by Bram Stoker,  needless to say, I love Dracula. The Jewel of Seven Stars is a curious intriguing book. But it suffers from the pesky The Casual Vacancy syndrome, and is underrated, because, well – it’s not Dracula.
Of course it isn’t Dracula, but you can see it’s the same writer. The switching of perspectives is smooth, we slip easily into two long stories – one by an old explorer when he first unearthed Queen Tera’s tomb and the other by Mr. Trelawney’s friend about their journeys through Egypt. Malcolm Ross’s first person narration resembles Jonathan Harker’s in its deep detailed descriptions. But I love how we have a very biased view of the story, partial to the admirable Margaret Trelawney whom the lawyer never doubts. We see every character through the almost self-deprecating eyes of Ross, who gives so little away about himself – we only know of his intellect and experience through the others’ easy confidence in him. Stoker is good with characters in Dracula, and this is no less.
Another truly enchanting quality of the book is its mood. The atmosphere is rich with suspense and mythical exoticness. The glimpses into the old unfamiliar culture are evident not only through the travels to Egypt but in that antique quality possessed by the Trelawneys’ house and lives.
The book questions belief and experimentation, questions science and skeptics, and contrasts the knowledge of the Old and New worlds. It also has a very feministic quality, and Margaret Trelawney is a remarkable character, comparable with Mina, if in nothing other than her strength.
What the book lacks is perhaps a coherent structure. The plot is confusing, its pace inconsistent. It almost feels as if not enough work went into it. And then there’s the ending – abrupt, bizarre, surprising and actually effective. I don’t think Stoker ever intended for Margaret’s ‘connection’ with Queen Tera to be a secret – but even with only thirty pages left in the book, we find it hard to imagine what might happen next and when the ending does come it leaves us aghast – in a good way, if that’s possible. Think: every Stephen King ending, it’s so simple, you wouldn’t have dreamt a whole book would built up to that. Now I prefer such an ending to an unexpected unlikely twist. But I can see how others wouldn’t. Apparently: Stoker was forced to rewrite his disturbing, depressing ending to make it more appealing to the masses. (I wish he hadn’t fallen for that.) 
My copy had both endings. The first shocked me, so I tried the next. But: the alternate ending is mind-numbingly sappy, a fairy tale wrap-up so enormously disappointing, it spoils the overall effect of the book – like a delicious dessert with a bad after-taste, which makes you wish you hadn’t eaten that thing in the first place.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you know what to expect. It’s not outright horror, more a mix of dark fantasy, adventure and mystery. It’s also not Dracula. If you do decide to read this, though, I’d suggest making sure you read the first ending, the one that Stoker originally intended. What you want is the 1903 version, which you can find here.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

The Small Hand by Susan Hill is a long short story written as a short novel. It’s a ghost story. Our narrator is a rare book collector and dealer, who is returning home to London after having visited an elite client near the coast. He loses his way and in the dark, stumbles upon an old house called The White House. There is a little sign next to is that says, “Garden Closed.” The narrator walks towards the gate, hoping to get directions from the owners, but through the undergrowth, he realizes that the house is deserted and quite possibly, derelict. What had once been, it seems, a grand garden is now just wild brambles and bushes. But something keeps the narrator there, wanting to find out more about the place, and as he waits in the moonlight, something strange happens. A small hand, a child’s, slips into his and holds him. It is comforting; only, invisible. And though he leaves then, our ever-so-curious narrator is drawn to the The White House, digging into its past and the fate of its owners, as the invisible force haunts his mind.
The writing meanders along and keeps going off at tangents: of course, if you enjoy history, travel and the world of libraries and rare books as much as I do, you won’t mind them. It’s an A. S. Byatt meets Sarah Waters story with vivid imagery and an unmistakably gothic setting. The story moves at a slow pace and the end is quite abrupt. It is not a very well plotted book, in that nothing much really happens.

The Small Hand is not a ghost story, really, even if the cover claims it is. It doesn’t star pale-slimy-skinned-creatures. This is a psychological haunting, which may seem bland to some readers. But, I don’t see why. For me, a terrible inexplicable fear, a frightening urge to end your own life, insanity and voices in your head, when written so well, are almost as scary as rotting bodies in bathtubs and freaky apparitions. In fact, they are a lot more tangible; while I could simply dismiss a monster as ‘fiction’, while reading The Small Hand, I was able to put myself in the narrator’s place and it was creepy.

While on the whole, this story was little more than okay, it had its moments. If not anything else, the beautiful artsy narration makes me want to read the other ghost stories by Susan Hill (The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror, The Man in the Picture and Dolly.)
I read this for the R.I.P. Challenge.

The Dead Smile (Short Stories on Wednesday)

I have read mostly horror novels this month, and not only for the R.I.P. Challenge and Wonderfully Wicked Read-a-thon! So to keep up with the Halloween spirit, I read a short story by American author Francis Marion Crawford. It is a gothic tale called The Dead Smile.

“It was a low-moaning voice, one that rose suddenly, like the scream of storm. Then it went from a moan to a wail, from a wail to a howl, and from a howl to the shriek of the tortured dead. He who has heard it before knows, and he can bear witness that the cry of the banshee is an evil cry to hear alone in the deep night.”

The themes of the story are lies, secrets and forbidden love, combined with the supernatural. The story is wonderfully written and has in every way the aethetic beauty of gothic literature. The descriptions are so vivid and at times, gruesome, that you can almost see the scenes unfold before your eyes. That being said, the plot is awfully predictable and riddled with loopholes. As long as you don’t try to make sense of every action, the story is a beautiful and touching read.
You can read it here. Short Stories on Wednesday is a bookish meme hosted at Risa’s Bread Crumb Reads.

R.I.P. – The Lame Priest by S. Carleton

“I do not know why, but that black track had a desolate look on the white ground, and the black priest hurrying down the hill looked desolate, too. There was something infinitely lonely, infinitely pathetic, in that scurrying figure, indistinct through the falling snow.”


The Lame Priest is a gothic short story by Susan Morrow Jones (S. Carleton), first published in December 1901.

The story opens as the narrator is walking back to his cabin, a little shack in the woods, after a trip to the nearby village. On the way, he sees a strange priest in a black robe running hurriedly towards the village. He looks gaunt and desolate and has a limp. Back in his cabin, the narrator meets his friend Andrew, an Indian, who warns him about the wolves and the strange things that might be hiding in the woods. And when the narrator runs into the lame priest again, the priest gives him a similar and equally cryptic warning. Soon enough, the strange prophecies seem to take shape, as a lone wolf starts preying on the villagers’ children.

The Lame Priest is beautifully written. I loved the air of mystery, which is there right from the first page. Though the writing isn’t outright scary, it is distinctly eerie. The setting is wonderful, the descriptions are vivid and you are involved in the story from start to finish.

You can read this story here. This review is a part of Peril of the Short Story from the R.I.P. Challenge. You can read more short stories on Short Stories on Wednesday at Risa’s Bread Crumb Reads.

R.I.P. – Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German

Metzengerstein is Edgar Allan Poe’s first published short story.


Summary: The families Berlifitzing and Metzengerstein of Hungary have been rivals for centuries. Legend has it that the reason is this prophecy:

“A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.”

The story begins when one night, the stables of today’s Berlifitzing family catch fire. At that same time, in his own castle, Baron Frederick von Metzengerstein notices the horse in the tapestry suddenly look alive. The painting depicts a Metzengerstein while dead at his feet, fallen from his horse, is a Berlifitzing, whom he killed. Only a few minutes later a ferocious and demon-like steed is found by the Metzengerstein guards. The horse is fiery and energetic, and has the letters “W.V.B” branded on its chest. News later reaches the Metzengerstein family that Count William von Berlifitzing died in the fire. Baron Frederick decides to keep the monstrous horse, unknowingly setting the prophecy in motion.

“In the glare of noon – at the dead hour of night – in sickness or in health – in calm or in tempest – the young Metzengerstein seemed riveted to the saddle of that colossal horse, whose intractable audacities so well accorded with his own spirit.”

My thoughts: This is the first time I have read anything by Poe (apart from listening to and not understanding the Raven once, a long time ago.) I really liked the prose. That something so modern was written more than a hundred years ago seems amazing. The tale, like the subtitle says in some prints, is argued to be a subtle mocking of the typically German gothic writings. While it is only argued (and not definite) and I am certainly no expert; I did detect a slight satire.

I loved the authority the narrator has over the text. He is almost a part of the story (as opposed to a silent observer) and is the only one left standing, at the very end. The key theme of the story, as is hinted to us very early in the story, is the general belief of those times in Metempsychosis, or transmigration of the soul.

I liked the eeriness of the story and do see myself reading more of Poe’s famous short stories. Meanwhile, you can read this story here. This review is a part of Peril of the Short Story from the R.I.P. Challenge. You can read more short stories on Short Stories on Wednesday at Risa’s Bread Crumb Reads.