Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin

#8 on KEW's 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels:

"The greatest of the Gothic novels, proving that Gothic and psychological horrors are doubly effective when combined."

Where do I begin with this one? To say I've been working on it thirty years plus would be bragging. I first encountered Melmoth in HP Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature, where he praised it to the rafters. I spent a summer working as a delivery man while in college, so I read the first part of Melmoth in the cab of a truck. This time around, I was working a part-time job on the graveyard shift, where I read the novel at 2AM while trying to fight sleep (always the optimum way to experience Gothic novels). And I finished it at the dentist's office.
Melmoth is the story of a man named Melmoth who has somehow extended his life by 150 years. It's never said how he did it, but the assumption is that he made a pact with Satan. The only way Melmoth can escape the pact is to find someone to take his place. This situation forms the narrative of the book.
The novel was written in 1820 by an Irish clergyman, who never saw any success from it (he died a few years after it was published). Since it's written at the time of the Romantic revival, Melmoth is outside of the great Gothic wave. However, these post-Goth writers did love to use their words. They never let one sentence suffice when an entire page would do. For instance, here is a passage I have pulled from the manuscript at random:

She was thus employed on the eighth morning, when she saw the stranger approach; and the wild and innocent delight with which she bounded towards him, excited in him for a moment a feeling of gloomy and reluctant compunction, which Immalee's quick susceptibility traced in his pausing step and averted eye. She stood trembling in lovely and pleading diffidence, as if intreating pardon for an unconscious offence, and asking permission to approach by the very attitude in which she forbore it, while tears stood in her eyes ready to fall at another repelling motion.

And that's just two sentences. Try enduring 600 pages of this prose.
Melmoth is actually a series of stories within stories. Such a style of writing is not new; Arabian Nights used this technique. The 1965 Polish film Saragossa Manuscript also utilized the same method. It's a good style to keep the reader engaged, but you can get lost in the narratives.
Melmoth links all the stories together with a mysterious wanderer who appears at a crucial time in someone's life. He makes them an offer they can't refuse. Whenever he appears, the subject of the story is at the lowest point in their life, usually near death. Melmoth's offer will take them out of the horrid situation, but at the cost of their soul.
The first tale is that of John Melmoth, a college student who travels to the home of his uncle and benefactor. Here he learns of his fabled ancestor who appears at dire moments in the history of the family. The description of his uncle's wretched genteel poverty is one of the best sections of the novel. The younger Melmoth soon locates a manuscript among his deceased uncle's papers which tells of the adventures abroad of an Englishman named Stanton after the Restoration. Stanton has several encounters with the wanderer, one of them in a lunatic asylum. John Melmoth next encounters a Spaniard who tells him the story of a nobleman forced to become a monk. The wanderer appears when the monk is imprisoned by the Inquisition. Escaping from the cells of the Inquisition, the monk takes refuge with a Spanish Jew who shows him a manuscript describing the wanderer's encounter with a noble Spanish Christian family. The wanderer succeeds in wedding the daughter of the family, only to bring her tragedy. Melmoth concludes with the wanderer making his final appearance to John Melmoth.
My one-paragraph summary of the novel only skims the basics of the complicated plot. There's a whole passage where Melmoth encounters a jungle girl on an island off the coast of India. Hard to say, but I can't help but wonder if this passage inspired both The Jungle Book and Tarzan. The description of the prisons of the Inquisitions out-goths anything Edgar Allan Poe wrote. But I should also mention Maturin's anti-catholic church diatribes are excessive to the point of parody.
Melmoth is a crucial book in the development of Gothic horror literature. If the reader can endure the prose, it's a good tale.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Yellow Mistletoe By Walter S. Masterman

From 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels:

#7 The Yellow Mistletoe by Walter S. Masterman.
A wild one. Masterman was another of those detective writers who at times broke away from formula. This one reads like a cross between Monk Lewis and Sax Rohmer.

Once again I delve deep into the inner mysteries of the KEW list. What book made the cut and why? I've speculated in the past few reviews about Wagner's own personal interests appearing in these tomes. So what links this one with the rest? Not much. There is a doctor. I think he enjoyed this one for it's sense of adventure.
The Yellow Mistletoe begins with a murder in the London subway in 1930. The Rev. George Shepherd was on his way to deliver important documents to Scotland Yard when he' s found dead at the foot of a stairway. The official cause is an accidental fall. Sir Arthur Sinclair, a retired police investigator soon takes an interest in the case. He discovers the Rev. Shepherd was serving in a small town in Derbyshire, where he'd relocated to after his second marriage. The Reverend was survived by a son(Ronald) from the first marriage and daughter (Diana) from the second. Both of his wives had died, the second was found frightened to death in a wooded area near his church.
Rev. Shepherd's son and daughter soon make an appearance. We don't get much of a description of either of them (descriptions of the characters is one of the few weak points of the novel), but we are told his daughter possesses golden hair and is the very image of her late mother (also named Diana).
At this point the novel bogs down a bit as the step-siblings busy themselves dealing with the death of their father. Sir Arthur pops in and out and more characters are introduced. There's an Italian restaurateur named Ganzani who tries to "buy" Diana for parties unknown. Carstairs, a chum of Ronald from his college days, makes an appearance. He has interests of his own in Diana. There's a rich uncle R. Reginald Shepherd, who seems to know more about the reverend's dead wife than he will admit, but he soon dies also. And we are introduced to Dr. Smart, a research physician. Lastly, there's a smart set, Ralph and Doris Gorringe, ready to play tennis at the drop of a straw hat. Masterman has an irritating tendency to introduce a lot of characters quickly with similar names.
It's the half-point where the book turns from a conventional 1930's mystery novel to a tale of high adventure. Diana suddenly disappears with Carstairs. It's not clear if she was kidnapped or went willingly. Her step-brother Ronald decides to pursue her across Europe with the Gorringe kids in tow. The trail first leads to an ancient Italian town near Lake Nemi, then across the mountains of Bulgaria. Along the way they discover Carstairs is the leader of a lost tribe of a Greek fertility cultists, which survive in a hidden valley near the Black Sea. They practice unspeakable rites at spring. And the cult has designs on Diana, whose mother fled from the valley. It's up to the mysterious Sir Arthur to save the day.
Obviously Masterman studied George Frazer's The Golden Bough for the ancient Greek survivalists in the lost valley. There's plenty of references to the "priest-king" and Diana of the Woods. It wasn't George Lucas alone who found Frazer useful for a work of fiction.
I give credit to Masterman for a brief but well-thought depiction of an isolated lost race. Instead of portraying them as pure representatives of the noble past, he points out all the problems caused by in-breeding. Even the crops are having trouble .
As for the title, it refers to a particular plant the initiates of the Greek cult use to identify each other. Sprigs of yellow mistletoe pop-up all over the place in the first 100 pages.
Ramble House has done of a fine job of getting this book and other novels by Walter Masterman back into print.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

KEW List

There's a good mention of the KEW list over at Weird/Horror/SF/Genre BLOGOS. To read it go here.