Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Uninhabited House, by Mrs. J.H. Riddell

Echo Library, 2007
105 pp
(originally published 1875)


My many go thanks to Michael Flowers, who maintains a website dedicated to Charlotte Riddell (1832 - 1906) where I was fortunate enough to find some valuable information about this relatively unknown author -- well, at least I'd not heard of her prior to discovering this book.  An incredibly prolific writer, Riddell's vast bibliography includes over fifty novels and short stories, several of them classified as "supernatural."  The Uninhabited House is a novella-sized haunted house story, set just outside of London along the banks of the Thames.

The "uninhabited house" of the title is River Hall, the property of Miss Helena Elmsdale who inherited the property after the death of her father. Miss Elmsdale has not yet reached her majority, however, so the business of keeping the house rented falls to her aunt Miss Susannah Blake who  puts it in the hands of her attorneys, Messrs. Craven and Son.  She is not the easiest of clients, but the lawyers do their very best to keep it rented for her.   Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the house has a history of tenants who are only too eager to leave shortly after taking the place.  After one tenant decides he's had enough, Mr. Craven realizes that the house that is doomed by reputation to never again see a tenant grace its threshold. With Miss Blake demanding that something be done, one man takes it upon himself to stay in the house so he can discover the secrets that plague River Hall.

Charlotte Riddell, 1875
Without giving anything away, the circumstances in which Miss Blake and her niece find themselves in this book are loosely based on events in the author's own life. After her father died and left the family in financial straits, Charlotte and her mother relocated to London where Charlotte took up writing as a way to help support herself.  Her skills came in handy after her marriage when her husband also suffered some financial setbacks.   In this story, the Blake sisters (the other being Kathleen, now deceased) discover one day that "their trustee had robbed them," and that they were penniless.  Although they tried to earn a living, they found themselves "on the edge of beggary." In The Uninhabited House, the sisters are saved when Kathleen marries a businessman, Mr. Elmsdale, but with Kathleen and Elmsdale dead, Miss Susannah Blake and Helena find themselves in a bad financial predicament once again.   The story's focus on money and the lack of it is quite interesting, not just because of art reflecting life, but because all of their problems could have actually been solved if only Susannah Blake had not set her social and class standards so high throughout her life.  It seems to me that in many ways, one of the points of this story is that it isn't money that brings happiness -- in fact, it is just the opposite in some situations.  Combined with the supernatural elements of this story, it definitely should have made for interesting reading at the time.

I will say that for a while I wasn't quite sure how this tale was going to play out, since it reads like a mystery novel in some parts.  Actually, for me as a crime reader that's not a bad thing, but I really wanted to know exactly what was happening at River Hall. As it turns out, it becomes sort of a hybrid mystery/ghost story when all is said and done; the downside is that it also has a wee bit of sentimental sappiness there at the end, which frankly, given the time it was published doesn't really surprise me.  This is also a story you don't read in hopes of being scared out of your wits ... it's more something you read in appreciation of the author's craft and as a representation of Victorian ghost-story writing, especially the work of a woman writer.

 While it has its issues,  I enjoyed The Uninhabited House very much, and when I finished it, I bought two more books of her work for my home library, Volumes I and II of The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Mrs. J.H. Riddell,  published by Leonaur.  (By the way, I don't reap any benefit if you click on this link that goes to Amazon).  I foresee many hours spent reading Riddell's work in my future -- and would recommend this book to readers who are interested in Victorian-era women writers, to readers of old ghost stories/haunted house tales, and to anyone like myself who is trying to discover previously-unknown authors and bring their obscurity into the light.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink

Dedalus, 2000
originally published as Der Golem, 1915
translated by Mike Mitchell
262 pp


"The soul is not a single unity; that is what it is destined to become, and that is what we call 'immortality.' Your soul is composed of many 'selves,' just as a colony of ants is composed of many single ants."

I read The Golem with a group, which in my opinion, is a very good way to read this novel.  I spent a full two weeks with this book, dragging in other books to use as a reference when I got stuck, in particular my old, raggy copy of  Gershom Scholem's wonderful and classic Kabbalah which came in very handy.  Kabbalah is only one element of the mystical in The Golem, though; as you start this novel you're already into Buddhism, then you get into theosophy, Hindu mysticism and whatever else Meyrink was into -- it's all here.  But the mystical has a purpose -- it is all about spiritual reintegration and self awareness,  and that is most definitely the subject of this novel. Then again, it's a novel of many possible interpretations, so mine may not match anyone else's.

I'm not going to go too much into plot here, but the story focuses on an unnamed narrator who is dreaming/hallucinating  and whose mind makes his way into the body of a gem-cutter named Athanasius Pernath. The truth is that our narrator has lost his memory and he finds himself as Pernath after putting on a hat he had found earlier at church. Pernath's name is written on the headband in gold letters -- and the careful reader will see that this is the first instance of the power of the written word in this novel,  an important theme that follows the story here.  Pernath is in his apartment when he is approached by a strange man who hands him a book that needs repairing -- as it is happens, it is called the "Book of Ibbur," and it is the "I" on the front which needs to be fixed.  Issuing forth from this book in a metaphorical way are all of the important components of Pernath's life that he must discover before the "I" can be repaired, but as things progress, he comes to understand that this is not something he can really do alone. The ghetto's archivist, Hillel, takes Pernath under his wing, and initiates him into the mysticism of Kabbalah (mixed with the other practices I've already mentioned).

   The action in this book takes place in the Prague ghetto, where it is also rumored that the Golem lives in an inaccessible room with no doors; it also known that the Golem returns every thirty-three years in times of spiritual crisis. It seems that this is one of those times;  Pernath will cross paths with the Golem more than once as he attempts his spiritual journey, and along the way he will fall in love, will be tempted by forces he doesn't quite understand, and act as a friend to many in need, all the while trying to remember his past. It is also a book about memory and forgetting, and where better played out than in the streets of the Jewish Quarter of the Prague Ghetto? 

I could go on and on and on about this novel, because frankly, I absolutely loved it.  After I read the book and let things gel in my own head, I looked at several reviews of this novel where the reader had his or her own take on things; rarely did any two agree.  But I do think that it's interesting that Meyrink wrote a book about a man who, because of the influence of outside forces beyond his control, was separated from parts of his memory -- which seems to reflect the story of the upheavals in the Jewish quarter of the Prague Ghetto, and indeed reflects some of the  modernist concerns of the time.  Another thing -- Meyrink may come across as a bit of a woo-woo writer to some people with his intense focus on mysticism here, but considering the fact that psychoanalysis was just barely getting started at this time, it's interesting that Meyrink's focus here is on the importance of connecting with one's self/soul/identity to achieve one's own "salvation" so to speak. There's so much more I could say but well, time and all that.

The Golem is a lovely book, and I'm so very happy to have read it.  I can't think of enough superlatives to describe this book, but  Meyrink's writing here is absolutely beautiful, and this book has led me to others he's written that I plan to read in the very near future.  One thing, though...if you're getting into this novel thinking it's going to be about a monster, or that it's a horror novel, forget it. That's just not the case here.  It's a story about identity in crisis, much more than anything else.

another great book from Valancourt: The Feast of Bacchus, by Ernest G. Henham

Valancourt Books, 2015
214 pp

originally published 1907


I became interested in this novel as part of my little haunted house foray, but I soon discovered that to label this book as one more haunted house novel is to do it a major injustice. Once again, Valancourt has not let me down ... I LOVE these guys!

The small parish of Thorlund is the site of a "inexplicable" and abandoned house, known locally as the Strath.  It had sat empty for well over a century and had "no evil reputation" attached to it, although it had been the site of a murder of one Thomas Reed before the Crown was supposed to have seized the property. However, since the Crown never took it, the Reed family claimed it, but being too poor for its upkeep, they had rented it out, but no one ever stayed too long at the Strath.  As the novel opens and the current owner of the house, Henry Reed, enters he  finds the remnants of the last dinner party of the last family to have lived there still out on the dining table.  Reed has decided to make something of the Strath and himself, and has plans to clear it out, clean it up, tame the wild garden and start a poultry-farming enterprise.  One of Thorlund's locals,  the Rector Dr. Berry, has been the only person for years to have ever set foot into and to have enjoyed the Strath's gardens, and he "knows" the house well enough to advise Reed that his plans will never see fruition -- that the house will never allow him to make his desired changes. Berry, who has fallen under the "spell" of the house over several years, now finds himself an unwelcome guest.  But it isn't long after Reed takes up residence that he is soon found dead.   Soon enough, another person comes to take Reed's place; unlike his predecessor, however, Charles Conway quickly finds himself growing in tune with the house and its influences.  The problems really begin when other people begin to make their way to the Strath and the house starts to work its spell on them, causing them to, as the back cover blurb says, "behave in bizarre and violent ways."  They become "puppets," acting out some strange dramas while inside the house; outside, they return to themselves but with only a vague, hazy recollection that they'd been there.  But what exactly is the source of the house's power?  That is indeed the question that will keep you reading until the very end when all is revealed.

There are a number of factors that elevate this novel from being just another simple haunted house tale. I'll list a couple of them here.   First, the house is the stage for a contemporary tale related in the form of classical Greek drama, complete with all of its component parts.  It doesn't take the reader long to figure this out; if nothing else, the chapter headings are constant reminders -- there are  acts, scenes, scene-shifts, incidentals, etc.  Another factor that elevates this novel way beyond the norm is the shifting atmosphere of the house, denoting some strange force that takes control of and fashions the players' personalities depending on the current whim of the house.As the introduction states,  "the ceaseless interaction of comedic and tragic is the human condition,"  and in the case of the Strath, this idea takes on some very dark overtones. I will leave it for the reader to discover how and why. There are other indicators of the uniqueness of this story as set apart from "normal" haunted house tales, but those I will leave for other readers to discover.

I was both fascinated and disturbed by this novel for many reasons, most of which I can't explain without giving away the show. I will just say that Feast of Bacchus is a book that once you've read it, sticks in your head for a very, very long time -- it's that good. A word, though, about the book itself. It was written in 1907, so the writing may come across as a bit archaic to modern readers. If you can get past the style though, it's a book you definitely do not want to miss.  Creepy, weird, strange, way out of the ordinary yes, but definitely a fine read.