Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter to another Horace—Mann—dated January 28, 1754. The occasion was pretty unremarkable—it was a happy accident, after all—and almost archetypally British: Walpole had used a talisman to discover a link between two families by investigating their coats of arms in an old book. At least Walpole was aware of the dullness of his eureka moment: “I have nothing better to tell you,” he writes, before launching into the fascinating etymology of his new word. It would take nearly two centuries for the adjective form, serendipitous, to come on the scene—its first recorded usage was in 1943. —D. P. Read More
Melmoth the Wanderer and the bizarre appeal of gothic horror.
I have long been a rather reluctant fan of gothic horror. The reluctance comes from never quite knowing if it’s a genre worth caring about. How well, really, do any of my favorite works hold up? Is The Castle of Otranto actually good, or just campy? Is The Monk great literature? Probably not—but as genres go, there’s none quite so pleasingly ridiculous as this one.
Gothic horror usually revolves around the sinister absence of God inside some religious framework. These are stories that couldn’t exist outside a culture obsessed with sin and hellfire, and yet they’re not morality tales: the only lesson to be drawn from most gothic romances is that the supernatural can be easily substituted for the divine. Any benefits to leading a religious life seem to be completely erased in these stories, with paranoia and persecution complexes to take their place. There seems barely time to contemplate the afterlife when everyone’s so busy trying to escape the traps laid for them on earth—traps set by heredity and fate. The “good” characters are, for the most part, idiots: foolish clergyman, one-dimensional lovers doomed to die horrible (sometimes cannibalistic) deaths, and so on. The only character with any power of personality happens, more often than not, to be the devil himself.
This is especially true of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a shapeless tale of transformation, loneliness, and evil as shown in complete isolation from good. Maturin, an Irish clergyman and great-uncle to Oscar Wilde, wrote the book in 1820, at the height of the vogue for gothic romance. By the end of the nineteenth century, the book had taken on cult status. Baudelaire adored it. Balzac wrote a sequel to it. Wilde himself, after being released in disgrace from Reading Gaol, based his entire identity around his uncle’s story, renaming himself after its hero, Sebastian Melmoth. What was it in the story that spoke to them so deeply? Read More
Earlier this week, to commemorate Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, Flavorpill found ten Gothic short stories for our delectation, and I must say, they’re really hitting the spot. January is especially well suited to the tint of the Gothic mindset—nothing helps you settle into the winter doldrums like an unceasing parade of bloodied knives, thousand-yard stares, disemboweled corpses, creaking doors, and shrieking virgins. It’s enough to make you want to sunder a frilled shirt and drink rancid port from a tarnished silver chalice, muttering all the while about the gloaming, the gloaming, the gloaming…
And let’s not forget the funereal knell of church bells. You’ll want those, too.
If you really want to whip yourself into a Gothic froth, I recommend The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, widely regarded as the forebear of the Gothic proper. It’s not “good,” exactly—you won’t find independent booksellers foisting it on you as a forgotten classic—but it packs a lot of senseless murk into a slim volume, and it features one of my favorite opening scenes in all of literature: a homely young man is crushed to death by a giant helmet, which seems to have fallen from the sky. Read More