Friday, September 22, 2006

Gothic Tales

Gothic Tales
An Entry for the R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) Reading Challenge

Gothic Tales

Author: Elizabeth Gaskell (link to bio at Wikipedia)

Copyright: The nine short stories and novellas in this collection were published over the course of ten years, 1851 - 1861. The stories themselves are in public domain and available on the Web (see The Gaskell Web and Project Gutenberg); for the purposes of R.I.P., I used the Penguin edition of Gothic Tales (ISBN:0-140-43741-X -- link to Library Thing for this work).

Length: The Penguin edition (including Introduction and Notes by Laura Kranzler) is 367 pages.

Genre: Short stories, novellas

Summary: This collection ranges in scope between light and humorous works of the fantastic to somber, deeply Gothic tales of hauntings and misery. At the light end of the spectrum are tales such as Disappearances and Curious, if True while the darker end of the spectrum includes The Poor Clare and The Doom of the Gryffiths. As might be expected from a nineteenth-century novelist, the pacing is a bit slow in some of the stories but as her craft matured, Gaskell used both language and pacing to build excellent moods of suspense in these stories. Other stories appearing in this collection include: The Old Nurse's Story, Lois the Witch, The Squire's Story, The Crooked Branch and The Grey Woman.

Eerie/Creepy Quotient: The author of Cranford and North and South gets a 2.5 or a 3.0 (out of a total of 5.0) on the Eerie/Creepy Quotient. If you've read any of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, you might agree with me that she seems far too reliable an observer of her time period to indulge in melodrama and melancholy to the extent required in a terrifying ghost story. Her stories are still compelling (I found Doom of the Griffiths to be particularly readable) but not particularly spooky. One could read this collection in a house alone at midnight and not be fearful of going up the dark stairs to bed.

Extract: (From The Doom of the Griffiths )

It was the time of day when a change in the aspect of the weather so frequently takes place, and the little pool was no longer the reflection of a blue and sunny sky; it sent back the dark and slaty clouds above; and, every now and then, a rough gust shook the painted autumn leaves from their branches, and all other music was lost in the sound of the wild winds piping down from the moorlands, which lay up and beyond the clefts in the mountain-side. Presently the rain came on and beat down in torrents.

But Owen heeded it not. He sat on the dank ground, his face buried in his hands, and his whole strength, physical and mental, employed in quelling the rush of blood which rose and boiled and gurgled in his brain, as if it would madden him.

The phantom of his dead child rose ever before him, and seemed to cry aloud for vengeance. And, when the poor young man thought upon the victim whom he required in his wild longing for revenge, he shuddered, for it was his father!

Also Relevant: Phantom children, spectres, death, revenge and anguish are all present in these stories. The extract above is exemplary of the Gothic tone of most of the stories. As mentioned above, two of the stories have humorous overtones. I could easily see use of Curious if True in a classroom unit on fairy tales and the fantastic. Specifically, the style in that story reminded me very much of the tone of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell even as I tried to pick out notable fictional characters like Puss in Boots and Cinderella. Just as a caveat, it really did help to have the footnotes to explain many of the French-language phrases and references in that particular story. Disappearances comes close to mocking its own small set of anecdotal incidents as it evinces relief at the inception of London's detective force. In retrospect, I would suggest that is is Gaskell's gift at expressing describing the end results of human cruelty and the vagaries of circumstance that makes all of the stories in this collection memorable. At the same time, it is not plot that is key in this collection -- it is the melancholy tone that she uses in telling of human behavior that makes the collection less melodramatic than sad.