A while ago I read a great book titled The Sherlockian, which is a story about the missing journal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In that story there are two sections, one in the present day and one in the past, which follows Doyle and his good friend Bram Stoker. I mention this because just recently a friend of mine sent me a link to an article regarding the missing journal of Bram Stoker.
It turns out that Stoker and Doyle have a lot in common. In real life they were distantly related cousins, they both wrote stories about vampires, and are both overshadowed by a single character of their creation. I ask you to name, off of the top of your head and fingers, another book or piece of work by either of these two authors that has noting to do with Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula.
What they also have in common is they both have had missing journals suddenly appeared recently in the last few years. The disappearance of Doyle’s journals is much more interesting, partly due to the fact that he has written some of the most famous mysteries. As you can read in this article, Stoker’s missing journal was hidden in plain sight, on the bookshelf of one of his descendants. Not as interesting, and a little humorous.
I tell you this because there will be a book, which is to be titled The Lost Journal, to be published early 2012 to commemorate the 100 anniversary of the creator of Dracula’s death.
Halloween is my favorite holiday and not because of ghost stories and horror films, though I am partial to a good thriller or a good cult classic. Halloween is probably the oldest tradition that humans still practice even though the names and exact tradition of this celebration have changed. This is a unique time of year where everything changes. The weather grows colder causing the leaves to change and increasing the value of the harvest. I know that the harvesting and preserving of crops is not as clearly as important to the modern world, but once upon a time with out the harvest there was no surviving the coming winter. Once there were people that gave sacrifice to guarantee that the spring returned. Many people once feared that when the weather grew cold, the spring and summer would never return.
But rather than go through the history of Halloween, which can be easily googled, I want to talk what stories put me in the Halloween and autumn spirit.
First, are the stories of Ray Bradbury. Perhaps my favorite author, Bradbury writes with great imagination but in a way that is cleverly entertaining. His stories are scary yet still fun and not as challenging to read at Lovecraft. My favorite collection of short stories is The October Country (1955). All of the 19 stories are worth reading and of them my favorites are “The Lake,” “The Emissary,” “The Scythe,” and “The Man Upstairs.” One of these stories is about the grim reaper, another about a zombie, and one is about a vampire, but I’ll let you find out which one is which.
Continuing with Bradbury is a book that is, in its typical Bradbury way, a story made up of short stories. The books is called From the Dust Returned. I first read it last October and it was unlike any other book I have ever read. The stories are beautiful. Even though they are connected, they can stand alone, which can be challenging at times. I shall give you this hint. It can be tricky to get into, but I promise that it is worth it. I found myself rereading the first chapter/story in order to ground myself in the weird Bradbury world.
Moving away from Bradbury another author I love to read this time of year is Ambrose Bierce. He is a little old school, but still a great read. Bierce lived an interesting life. He was a soldier for the Union in the Civil War who made maps for the officers. After the war he became a great writer and wrote many fantastic haunted stories including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and “The Death of Halpin Frayser.” Owl Creek Bridge is a story that, like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I can read many times over and still feel like it is new. For more about Bierce enjoy this strange website.
For a much more modern author, I love the work of Neil Gaiman, who has written many great short stories in several collections. My favorite is M is for Magic. Of these 10 stories by two favorites are “Troll Bridge,” and “October in the Chair,” which is a tribute to the work of Ray Bradbury. Gaiman has also written a few young adults books that are great for this time of year. The Graveyard Book is an obvious choice, but I also like Coraline, which yes, was made into a film a few years ago. The film is a lot of fun, but the book is much better and has a great scene that was left out of the film.
Each year for October I feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of great ghost and horror stories there are to read. It is the same with novels as there are always too many to read and not enough time in the day and night to read them. Short stories are worse since books contain many short stories and when you read someone like Bradbury or Lovecraft you learn that they have written dozens and dozens and hundreds of short tales and novellas.
For me, Halloween is a great time to put down the novel and indulge in all the short stories I can find time for. This year, my focus is on H.P. Lovecraft. I have read some of his work before and loved what I have read. Even though he is a terrible author when it comes to dialogue, his monstrous descriptions make him the king of horror.
Tell me about what short stories and authors you like to read during this time of year.
We all know the story of Frankenstein and many of us have seen the different films with the stiff arm monster with bolts in his next. I first read the fantastic tale by Mary Shelley when I was in college and was surprised by how much this 19th century novel felt like a modern thriller. And in many respects it is a modern story showing how much humans have accomplished in the world of medicine and science, while also asking the question of how much is too much. Can humans accomplish too much through science? It is hard to believe that Shelley wrote it when she was only in her early 20’s in 1818.
When I was young and I first saw the 1931 film with Boris Karloff, who also did the voice of the narrator and the Grinch in the original cartoon of the How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as the monster I always thought that the monster was named Frankenstein. As I have grown older and have reread Frankenstein as well as other additions to the legend, I come to understand that the monster is named Frankenstein. What is so great about this story is there are two monsters and there are two victims. Both Victor Frankenstein and his creation are villains in the story as they explore the new limits of human understanding of life and death.
Like vampires and Dracula, Frankenstein and his monster have been recreated in dozens of films (Son of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Frankenstein, Lady Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein. There have also been numerous books written about the monster and his maker.
First, there is The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Achroyd. This was my first Peter Ackroyd novel and from I have heard from others I need to read more, but first things first. This was a great book I read for Halloween two years ago and I have never forgotten it. He has taken the wondrous tale and transplanted it with modern day knowledge in the world of science from the 19th century. With the power of hindsight he has remade, though loyally as you can see, this story with the background of history during one of the most amazing times of scientific discovery, which you can read about in The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes. To list some of his historical characters you will find Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley and my personal favorite, Humphrey Davy.
I know that many people will think that this book sounds like the remake of the film Cape Fear, and though I admit I felt the same when I read about this book, I will tell you that this book respects Mary Shelley as it builds on what she has done in such a way that makes this book special in its own respect. For more about this book here is a review from the New York Times.
Second, there is This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel. This is a fun story that follows the life of Victor Frankenstein when he was only in his 16th year. I admit that I have often wondered what kind of life Frankenstein lived before we first meet him in Shelley’s story. What type of childhood did this mad genius have? Who were his parents and who were friends? Did he have any siblings? Oppel took on the challenge to create the young adult life of Victor in the form of a young adult story. Like Achroyd, Oppel respected what Shelley created. When you read his story you can see the hints of the future as you know how this young man will die. For more about this story, click here.
I have no problem with authors using their imagination and telling the story of how a remarkable literary character came to be, as long as it is done well. My first experience with such a story came not that long ago when I read Finn by Jon Clinch, which tells the story of Huckleberry Finn’s father. (Another story I highly recommend.) To me this is why we have imagination and why authors write. It is the very best stories that stay with us and make us think, thereby inspiring others into imagining the story expanded into an entire world. Why are Frankenstein and Dracula remade and retold into hundreds of different stories in both books and films? Because they are the two best gothic novels ever written.
Frankenstein is one of the most iconic Halloween characters that has no doubt inspired other horror stories. Please tell me about what you like to read for Halloween.
Yes, there are cathedrals in Pittsburgh. There are many and they are beautiful. If you ever have the chance on visiting this once frontier town take that chance and visit. The city is beautifully situated along the banks of two rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, and it is here that they both join to form the Ohio River. While visiting two weekends ago I saw that fall was moving in quickly and the air changed to that wonder fall freshness. What really caught my eye was the Cathedral of Learning.
This could be the most wondrous structure I have ever seen both inside and out. I never knew it existed until I drove into Pittsburgh and saw it off to my right from the highway. There is stood, very tall, between the trees off of highway 376. Upon closer review I saw that the structure, though clearly inspired by gothic architecture, is not that old. This second tallest education building in the world broke ground in 1926 and finished eleven years later in 1937 after delays due to the Great Depression. To help fund this project through tough years, school children were asked to to contribute a dime to “buy a brick.” It worked, and now thanks to Chancellor John Bowman and the children of Pittsburgh this magnificent structure stands as a center for learning.
Inside the building is even more beautiful as vaulted ceilings push the height of the ground floor to showcase a grand enlightenment. Through this area can be seen corridors through archways, tunnels through the towering pillars and a place that invites imagination. While here I wanted to do nothing else but marvel at this wonder. I could only imagine what my imagination would feel if I could bring a book like Frankenstein or The Castle of Otranto to read under this atmosphere.
Throughout the first and third level are a series of classrooms that make up the Nationality Classrooms. With approximately 27 classrooms, each one is dedicated to a different countries and nationalities. In these rooms some of the featured countries are Austria, Japan, Israel, Ukraine, Wales, Czechoslovak, Italy, Ireland, Lithuania, Greece, Scotland and yes, they have a Romanian classroom. And each room is decorated and designed by a person of that nationality representing their country and their history. My favorite room is the Armenian room.
The next gothic build I saw was during nighttime. When I first saw the Heinz Memorial Chapel its top tower looked strange. Though the outside of the build was illuminated by ground lights the tower stood black in the background as if it were afraid of the light. My initial thought was that since it stood on top of the building the ground lights were unable to hit it. When I came back the next day I could see that I was half right.
I saw that the tower is an entirely different shade from the rest of the chapel. This gives it a great effect at night and during the day it looks like it is always in shadow. Anyway, the Heinz Memorial Chapel was build out of the will of Henry John Heinz in honor of his mother, Anna Margaretta. Construction broke ground in 1933 and the chapel was completed in 1938, one year after the Cathedral of Learning. What is fun about this is the fact that these two buildings are right next to each other on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. While I was touring it began to rain and I actually took refuge in both buildings to take a picture of the other. Sadly my pictures were lost.
Finally, Saint Paul Cathedral. Not too far from the first two building is this grand 14th century style gothic cathedral. It was designed by Egan and Prindeville, a company based out of Chicago and was built by a Philadelphia contractor named Thomas Reilly. This build is more than 240 feet and is beautifully designed with great details on it facade. It is the oldest of the three here mentioned, opening its doors in 1906.
Since I was visiting on Saturday I was unable to go inside two of the three of these, only seeing the Cathedral of Learning. The reason is the chapel and the cathedral were both occupied by weddings. It seemed that there were weddings all over Pittsburgh and a gothic church is a prime location. Indeed it is beautiful and there is a magic about this area. With these three structures as well as many more great buildings this is a great place for the imagination of someone whom loves gothic lore.
If you have any stories about these three gothic builds please share them.
When we think of gothic fiction in American most people minds turn towards Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving or even Nathaniel Hawthorne. Truth is the person most responsible for creating not only the gothic presence in the New World that inspired the authors above, but also developing a new type of gothic literature is a man by the name of Charles Brockden Brown.
Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1771 to a merchant Quaker family. His great-uncle, Charles Brogden, was the first Registrar of Philadelphia and a man whom worked with Benjamin Franklin. Interesting fact, the Brown family was criticized for not openly supporting the American Revolution. His father was accosted and accused of being a Tory all because of his Quaker pacifism. During the war Brown’s father was charged with Tory sympathies and sent to Virginia in exile. The family business was ruined and the young Brown was tragically separated from his father. This series of events would play a huge role in steering Brown to a life of writing.
Charles began his academic career at the Robert Proud’s School moving his profession into Law, but that would not last. He eventually switched to writing when he felt that there was always a bit of the unjust in justice. This move also came with the influence of the a group called the Friendly Club, which was a collection of “artists, lawyers, and physicians who encouraged his literary efforts and shared with him their interests in in both physical and mental abnormalities” – Norma S. Grabo University of Tulsa
I mention this last point about the physical and mental abnormalities because it is important when trying to understand the nature of Brown’s writing as a gothic genre. In each of his two famous gothic novels, Edgar Huntly or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker and Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, we find elements of science and the understanding of the human mentality to be central to the creation of the story. As Jay Fligelman writes, “Brown, views the psychology of human behavior as the real realm of ultimate mysteries. If the Faustian agenda of enlightenment science sought to demystify the world, Brown sought to remystify it.” What this means is if the emergence of science took away much of the mystery of our world and the stars, Brown wanted to find the mystery in science.
This idea is shown in Wieland where we find the antagonist is a man named Carwin whom has many talents. He is a professional Biloquist, which is a fancy archaic version of the word, ventriloquist. In the story, Carwin is able to throw his voice so that it appears to becoming from outside of his body. His disembodied voices can also sound like other people. He uses his talent to break up a marriage by creating a seen where a woman’s husband thinks he hears her and another man having an affair. With out a doubt his greatest trick is convincing the protagonist that he is hearing the voice of God. I shall not give away anymore.
In Edgar Huntly, we find a similar story, but this time the twist in science is sleep-walking. I know that sounds a bit silly, but it is a fantastic story filled with imagination and dark mysteries. Brown is a talented writer and great story teller. But, why are they gothic?
These stories are taken out of the traditional gothic setting of European castles and cathedrals and inserted into the American wilderness when it was still a dangerous wilderness that had not been developed and explored to what we know and see today. Gone are the days of the dark corridors and things that go bump in the night of the ancient castle. Here we find deep forests filled with the unknown that attacks our imagination with the wind through the trees and echo of sounds from wild animals that can sometime sound like the screams of a child.
In the publishing of his first book, Wieland (1798), Brown became the first native born American author to become a professional writer. He made a living off of his writing, which was not very common his that day and age. Today, Brown was is the beginning of American novels and the american gothic genre. His works are taught in many American universities. Google his name and you will see.
Brown wrote a lot in his short life. He died at the age of 39 in 1810 from Tuberculosis.
For more about Brown visit here.
Since I mentioned briefly in the last post the fantastic stories of M.R. James I thought that he was owed his own post. So here it is.
As I mentioned in that article I first found his book of ghost stories while browsing through a used bookstore in Belfast a few years ago. I had never before heard of him, but the title caught my eye since it included the word ‘Ghost’ and the price seemed more than fair, which was one pound, about two dollars. I bought it and quickly began reading that afternoon in mid september.
I instantly loved the stories and found that each one was better than the previous. I have read many collections of stories and often I find that by the end I want to be done so that I can read something else and walk away from the collection knowing that I had read that that there was to read. Not this book, not his stories. Each year, right about this time of the seasons, I reread many of his stories, which have held up over time.
What makes his stories so powerful is their atmosphere and their ability to turn a normal situation one of terror. He has a great ability to use his words to capture the atmosphere of the 19th century in foreign lands and bring them to our modern day eyes and imagination. His sense of details and how those details can and should be used is both fantastic and horrific. Please, if you have never read his work, buy or check out a collection of his stories and read them this Halloween and over the winter months.
From his collection of stories I say that his best are The Ash Tree, Number 13, Count Magnus, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral and my favorite among favorites, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.’ In each one of these stories we find the questions, ‘can ghosts really cause us harm?’ To which James’ characters answer, ‘yes, they can.’ His horror is more than a bump in the attic or the creak of a door, it is a hand that reaches out the door of a room that cannot always be found, reaching for the neck of an innocent. His stories teach us that when you visit and old town or structure, be careful what you might wake up.
Part of James’ ability to craft such stores comes from his education and his profession as a medieval scholar. He lived from 1862 – 1936 in England and was the Provost of King’s college from 1905 – 1918. If Bram Stoker is the father of the modern vampire, James is arguably the father of the modern day ghost story. There are stories that he used to have gatherings in his study at King’s College around Christmas and at these gatherings he would read his stories. Believe me when I say that many of them are frightening.
It seems like many great writers of the macabre come from this time period, the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century. It could be that they lived on the bridge from the world of candle light darkness as well as on the brink of the light bulb of the modern era. From where they stood, Stoker, James, Conan Doyle, Stevenson and even Le Fanu and Lovecraft all could see the world they came from and the future where they were heading.
Each of these writers focused on the old parts of this world what has survived, been forgotten and rediscovered by some scholar or explore of nature, science and history. From them come works that have survived for us to read at night by the light of our modern world. These stories remind us that there is still much that is unknown about our world and in that unknown you can find your own imagination.
These famous words were spoken by a character known as “second Witch” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Arguably one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays, it brings to mind gothic ideas. A dark castle with ghosts, murder and treasonous plots hatched in the middle of the night. There are witches who speak portentous words and those words excite a feeling of anticipation of a coming unknown menace. Together they make the perfect title for the superb novel by Ray Bradbury.
This novel is perhaps my favorite story and has been since my father introduced it to me when I was a teenager. At the time I did not know the history behind the title, but every time I read Shakespeare I think of this gothic tale. And yes, I would argue the idea that Shakespeare was a gothic playwright long before the term gothic was used as a genre in literature. Of all Ray Bradbury’s books I have read, none of them have stayed with me the way this wonderful story has. I have read it multiple times and each time I find something new hidden by the master of the macabre in his precious pages. (The sign of a great book.)
Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story about two 13-year-old boys named Jim Nightshade and William Halloway. They are more like brothers than best friends partially since they were born minutes apart on either side of midnight on October 30th (Will before Halloween, Jim in the first moments of Halloween). Though the two are very alike they come from different families that happen to live next to each other. Jim comes from a broken home and has only his mother to care for him; Will comes from a comfortable home with two parents, but his father (Charles) is much older making him somewhat disconnected from Will.
Together the two boys and the father Charles must protect their hometown from a nightmarish carnival. The carnival arrives with a storm one day in the dead of night as autumn descends on the boys’ quiet town. Suspicious from the beginning, it does not take long for the boys to uncover the driving force behind the dark carnival. Working to overcome their own personal weaknesses the trio tries to stop the carnival’s leader, Mr. Dark who bares a tattoo for each of his victims. (I’ll let you read to find out how they become his victims.)
What makes the story so great is not just the imagination that Bradbury storms up for the plot of the sinister carnival in the quiet American town, but the real emotions generated in the characters. This is part of Bardbury’s genius in that he find fantastic ways of using science fiction, the macabre, and the wickedly unknown to show real human qualities and faults in his characters. His language is uncanny and his ability to build real characters with real life issues in an unreal world is something very special. This is one of my favorite lines from the story:
“You’ll live and get hurt,” she said, in the dark. “But when it’s time, tell me. Say goodbye. Otherwise, I might not let you go. Wouldn’t that be terrible, to just grab ahold?”
And what better names are there for characters than William Halloway and James (Jim) Nightshade?
This book was published in 1962 and was latter adapted into a film that I have mixed feelings for. It is not that it is a bad film, but it is not how I imagined the story in my mind and this is a story that will excite your imagination.
If you have read it please share with me your experience; if you have not read it, please ignore me and read it and enjoy.
Werewolves vs. Vampires
Werewolves have been a more tricky sell in the literary world than vampires. (Even though vampires are getting to be a little done.) Through out the history of the genre, Vampires come out every night to romance humans into giving up their blood through a deadly bite on the neck. What could be a more romantic way to die in the arms of a monster? Wolves can be a little messy. In the tales, vampires have more history from living hundreds and even thousands of years. The old ones can tell us stories from the long forgotten past since they are themselves living history. One of my favorite vampire novels is Pandora by Anne Rice, which deals with a vampire living during the time of the birth of the Roman Empire. I love a good historical/monster/vampire novel.
Werewolves are a different beast. Pun intended.
Like vampires, the nature of werewolves varies from novel to novel and series to series. The wolves can be huge beasts that mimic prehistoric mammals; they can be a man/wolf hybrid that walks on two feet; or they can be your regular real world wolf taking the definition that a werewolf is a man that turns into a wolf literally. Werewolves differ in their nature as a predator as some attack at random in a frenzy of hate and hunger while others have control over their transformation. Through all their differences and similarities vampires have had the edge over werewolves for a very long time even though the folk tales for both monster dates back to the same time period.
This year I read my first two werewolf novels (vampires 25 : werwolves 2) and I would like to share them with you. First:
by David Wellington
I came across the galley for this book about a year ago and read it this summer. It is a quick read, but carries a very engaging story. The nature of the werewolves are very different from what I am used to reading in other novels that include werewolves. In this world a werewolf does not change only at the full moon. It changes when ever the moon is out and with that change comes a tough battle between the human and the wolf. This story takes place in the deep wilderness around Alaska and Canada, which means that as the moon goes through its phases, like the sun, it approaches a time when it does not set, keep the wolf in power longer than the human. Both wolf and human hate each other, but are stuck in the same body that will live forever unless it is killed.
The writing in this book is not the best I have seen, but the story is strong and the imagination is original. I like what Wellington did with the werwolves in that he brought them into more of scientific/lunar realm answering the question why do werewolves only turn on the full moon. In making the wolf and human hate each other he creates a character that is both a blood lusting killer and a victim. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to try out a werewolf novel or to anyone whom likes werewolf novels.
There is a sequel that I have ordered through my library and hope to read soon.
For anyone interested in reading more novels by David Wellington he is quite the horror writer. Check out his other books here.
First, this guy knows how to write a novel. I did not hear about this book until recently and when I did I had to bump it up to the top of my book pile skipping other novels that have been waiting patiently for more than a year. It received a lot of hype this past Spring before it was published in July. I heard about it from a from a friend of mine and then read about it at one of my favorite book blogs, here. Having read Frostbite earlier in the summer I wanted to double-down and try my luck again with another were-book. The cover and pages of the book also look incredible with the red trim and black jacket.
This was the first book I have read by Glenn Duncan who has also written Death of an Ordinary Man, The Bloodstone Papers and I, Lucifer. I am now ready to read more of his work after reading this thrilling novel that is very gothic/romantic. Every page had a new surprise and the nature of the werewolf was the exact opposite of Frostbite. The difference can be likened to the vampires in Twilight Series to those in The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. In this world, the man has control, but must live by the hunger, lust and animal urges of the wolf.
This book also reminded me of Interview with the Vampire in how it was written and in the voice. It is told through the journals of Jacob Marlowe who is, as the story begins, the last werewolf. All of his kind have been hunted down and killed, by a paramilitary organization, leaving him as the last. Similar to what we find in most vampires stories, Marlowe tells us the story of his life, about how he was turned, when he was turned and how he had to leave his old life behind to survive through time never aging in more than 150 years. There are scenes of lust and scenes of love that may seem strange and cruel, but thanks to the clever writing we understand the mind of the wolf. In understanding we again see the werewolf as both the villain and the victim that we love and hate.
The best part about the book is the language and how Duncan develops the story through the words of the main character. Duncan knows how to tell a story and tell it well with strong prose that at times reads like poetry. It might be a little hard to get into, but once you get use to his writing style you will see that it is the way the novel needed to be written and how the story was meant to be told.
The book ends with a hint of a sequel, which I shall be eagerly await.
Give me your thoughts on these novels and another other werewolf literature you care to share.
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before; . . .
Reading The Last Werewolf by Glenn Duncan and it is great and well written. Having read so many stories about vampires from different authors this is a fresh look at another classical monster and Duncan presents this monster in a new night. For instance,
“He ran. I ran. We ran. At moments a triumvirate dissolved and was neither him nor I nor us but an unthinking aspect of the night inseparable from the wind in the grass or the odors in the air, a state – like getting lost in music – recognisable only by coming out of it.”
Taking a break from gothic stories and architecture, I read this article on NPR this morning and wanted to share. Apparently scientists, using the Kepler spacecraft have found a planet circling a near by star, 750 lights away. What makes this discovery stand out from all other planets we have seen beyond our solar system is that this planet reflects little to no light even though it is very close to its sun. The planet is a large gas giant, like Jupiter, and is much closer to its star than Jupiter is to our sun. To put this in perspective, if Earth reflects 37% light, making that beautiful blue, this planet reflects less than 1%, making it darker than coal.
To read the rest of the article, read here.
Though there are many old cathedrals in the United States that can be considered as being of gothic architecture, there are few castles. Sadly for those of us who live in the United States and love gothic architecture, there are few places to visit to see the beauty of that medieval style. There may be some of similar style, but few of historic craft and artifact. Perhaps the most well known gothic castle in American is the Smithsonian Institution Building, which is appropriately nicknamed the ‘Castle.’
In terms of size and aesthetics, the ‘Castle’ is an impressive structure. With its red sandstone it appears bold in its splendor on the Washington Mall and stands out from even amongst the Capitol Building, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Supreme Court, all of which are more classical in their style. I have had the chance to visit Washington D.C. many times and I have always been impressed with the layout of the mall with the Washington Monument on one end and the Capitol on the other. I have always been aware of the out of place red gothic castle, but never have I looked into why it is there or who designed it. I did know that it was the headquarters for the Smithsonian, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I am a little sad that it took me so long to learn more about this beautiful building that has stood for over 100 years.
Completed in 1855, the ‘Castle’ was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr. James Renwick was born in 1818, in New York City. His was part of an affluent family that was well educated. His mother came from a prominent New York family, and his father was an engineer, architect and professor of natural philosophy at Columbia, where later James would study engineering. James did not, however, study architecture. The only education he received in that field was from his father who taught him the trade. Indeed, he did grow up with early exposure to the craft and was nurtured in architecture throughout his life.
He received his first major commission at the age of 25 for designing the the Grace Church in New York in 1843. The church is modeled in the English Gothic Style. Even though the church received other bids from well established architects it took a chance on the young engineer believing that his background and family provided a guarantee that the church would rise without fault. The finished product was very different from what could be found in the city at the time. It was the first of its kind, gothic, to be seen in New York and one reason why the style was chosen can be linked to the churches rector, Thomas House Taylor.
Prior to his arrival in New York, Taylor had spent a year traveling throughout Europe for possible the purpose of searching for ideas as to what the future church should resemble. It is without doubt that he would have seen many gothic style churches, but we also know that Renwick had never seen one, outside of what he could find in books, thus adding to his talent, skill and vision.
Of all of his designs Renwick is perhaps most renown for the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also in New York City. This project came later in his career after he had completed Grace Church and the Smithsonian Castle. It is a marvel to see in the atmosphere of Manhattan as it was built long before midtown became what we can see today. Once upon a time this was not the populace part of the city. Construction began in 1858, but the project was placed on hold during the Civil War. It would take another thirteen years before the cathedral would be completed in 1878.
Today, like the rest of Renwick’s monuments to the gothic style, the cathedral is a National Historic Landmark. These structures are worth seeing even though they may be hard to photograph. Pictures do not capture their full majesty.
Edgar Allan Poe is easily one of the most recognizable names in American literature and though he would wish to not be considered an author of Gothic literature, his stories do have a gothic influence. Let me explain.
He was born in 1809 in Boston to David Poe, the son of Irish immigrants, and Elizabeth Arnold Poe. When both of his parents died in 1811 he was taken in as a ward by man named John Allan from Richmond. Evidence shows that the relationship between Allan and Poe was never that of a father and son and Allan never formerly adopted Poe. Throughout Edgar’s life his relationship with his guardian would go through periods of happiness and deep despair as Edgar battled through times of poverty while attending school and times with of gambling and drinking.
Perhaps the most important time of his life was came in 1815 when the Allan family moved to England where John Allan opened a branch of his mercantile firm in London. In 1819, the family traveled to Scotland to visit relatives and there Poe spent two months admiring the local aesthetics. As he traveled throughout the Scotish countryside he was exposed to the ancient castles, abbeys country mansions and cathedrals. Being exposed to such a world as that stayed with Poe and we can see descriptions of these places in his story ‘Fall of the House is Usher.” In that story Poe describes the ancient house of Usher situated next to a Tarn, which is a small mountain lake that was formed by a glacier. Tarns are not found in the eastern United States as they are more common to Scandinavia and Northern England. The word tarn itself is from an Old Norse word. He begins the story by having his narrator describe the house as a depressing scene. “There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart.” The view of the decaying house is enough to inspire the narrator with these thoughts of horrors the same way the view of gothic cathedrals and castles have inspired writers such as Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis and Lathom.
Poe wrote man stories that can be considered gothic in nature including “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Man That Was Used Up.” But Poe is more than just gothic, he is also a mystery. In “The Murderers in the Rue Morgue” Poe created the modern day detective story.
He believed in the idea that the only narratives worth writing were those that could be read in one sitting, secretly criticizing his own work, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” calling it “a silly book.” (I agree in that it is not my favorite story to read.) Poe’s earlier stories including “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “The Assignation,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” received praise from notable American authors such as Washington Irving, whom Poe had to chance to publish in one of the many magazines for which he worked.
Poe worked hard for years to build his own literary magazine that would only feature American writers and he was an advocate for the creation of an international copyright law that would protect American authors and stop American magazines from pirating English works.
Gradually over his professional career he gained some success as a writer and some as a publisher/editor. He once interviewed Charles Dickens in Philadelphia and wrote a well read review of Nathaniel Hawthorne. When his famous poem “The Raven” was published in January 1845 it made Poe an national celebrity.
He was not a drug addict and was not an alcoholic as many people today imagine. The success he is given today was gained through hard work. In school he was very talented in languages such as French and Latin. He once attended the University of Virginia where the faculty included former presidents Madison and Monroe.
Poe is also famous for marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. As strange as this marriage is today with not quite so strange then and there is evidence that he and Virginia did truly love each other. For many years she bought him happiness, but the happiness would not last. In January of 1842 Virginia suffered a massive pulmonary hemorrhage while singing. To distract himself from her illness Poe threw himself at his work. Virginia would never recover and she died at the age of 25 in 1847 leaving Poe in a deep depression that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Poe would die only two years after Virginia, in October of 1849 at the age of 40. HIs death came as a mysterty being admitted in to Washington College Hospital on October 3rd in a delirious fit until he died four days later on October 7.
About a year and a half ago I attended an event that discussed the life and sudden death of Edgar Allan Poe. As most people know, Poe died from unknown circumstances at the Washington College Hospital in Baltimore on October 7th. What no one knows is exactly how he died. Before I go into some of the theories I want to share with you my history of Edgar Allan Poe.
My first experience with Poe happened on October 25th, 1990 when I saw the first Simpsons Halloween Special titled ‘Treehouse of Horror.’ The episode, which is appropriately named “The Raven,” sets Homer as the narrator in this spectacular parody of Poe’s famous poem. After watching the episode and having my father explain to me its origin, I attempted to read the poem, but failed miserably with my young not-quite-eight-year-old mind. It would be ten years later while in high school when I again attempted to read the unusual poem and two years after when I read my first Poe short story, “The Tell Tale Heart,” which was also made into an episode of the Simpsons. Today I can still recall exactly where I was and under what circumstances I read that tale for murder and insanity. I remember how Poe’s words drew me into the story with the steady pace of a beating heart and how the rythme of the tale flowed off of the page and caused me to forget my surrounds. I remember the words changing, moving more rapidly as the climax grew with the beating of the hideous heart.
Back to the library event, which was organized by the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. Throughout my life I heard of a few difference theories about how Poe died. First, the rabies theory, which always seemed the most fitting idea to me, no offense Edgar, but wild stories usually come with wild endings. Second, which I always believed, was the Cooping theory involving a gang that forced him to vote multiple times during an election. Rather than explain the details of these theories I’ll simply refer you to this webpage. In the end no one knows how he really died and we may never know since he has been dead for more than 170 years. If you are interested in reading about Poe’s death, one book that has come highly recommended, which I have not had chance to read, but have every intention is a book titled “Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe,” by John Evangelist Walsh. What ever conclusions people have, I prefer to leave his death as a true mystery. Sometimes there is a little bit of magic hidden in ignorance.
During his lifetime Poe did not receive the attention and praise as he does today. In fact, some people at the time of his death wrote about him being a drunkard and a lunatic. His modern success is in part due to the French poet Charles Baudelaire who published a multi-volume edition of his work in French, which created his fame abroad. Throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th century, Poe’s fame grew as he was gradually introduced into classrooms and pop-culture.
If you are interested in learning more about Poe’s death and how his grave moved from the back of the Westminster Graveyard, where it was first set without without a headstone, to the current day position shown above, please ask Sara Sigourney Rice.
Like a scenery of great birds,
On a snow fallen sunset,
Where your memory and words have met.
A vision that may never seem,
To be more than a soft escaped dream.
But please pause for a tune,
When next you see the full moon.
Imagination is one part, memory the other,
Let them meet and dance together.
Share your time and plant your sage,
To find songs from the heart, then words on a page.
Happy Full Moon,
I awake, alone in my bed,
Trying to shake that nightmare from my head.
That last dream felt much too real,
Creepy, its presence I can still feel.
In solitude, I am, but something is here,
I know this because of my ever-growing fear.
I hold my covers up, acting as my shield,
Yet, vulnerable I feel like prey in an open field.
Will it attack me?
Will I go crazy?
It is evil and mean,
Escaped from my dream
It bites at my mind and tears at my nerves,
Blind my mind imagines a horror with sinister curves.
It approaches! smelling my tears,
A beast feasting on my fears,
Growing strong as I grow weak;
The breaking point has come-I release my shriek.
I scare myself into another sleep,
As another nightmare steadily begins to seep,
Into my head
Alone in my bed.
Welcome to my website. It is still very new and I am still preparing, but here is what you can expect to find. Gothic Literature and the history of how it came to be known as Gothic is what I want to share and have you help me share. In this website I shall tells stories of what I find in both history and literature through both the physical structures of Gothic architecture and through the authors and their stories they once told. I shall share with you names like Le Fanu, Brown, Stoker, Radcliffe, Lewis, Arms, and many others that are all a part of the Medieval Modern World. Give me time and I promise to be back.