Sunday, November 28, 2010

THE DEVIL'S MISTRESS by J. W. Brodie-Innes

What a lurid title!  What a lurid cover!  And yet, underneath it all, it's actually quite a good historical supernatural novel, based on what's known of a real case of witchcraft in 17th-century Scotland.

Isobel Goudie (sic) is the intelligent, passionate daughter of an attorney, used to an exciting life with her prosperous father.  However, due to various machinations, she ends up in an unhappy arranged marriage with a cloddish poor farmer.  She was raised Catholic, but he's a devout Protestant, and demands she renounce her Catholic baptism.  She's generally miserable, and an attempt to spark up her loveless marriage is useless.  But soon she meets a handsome stranger and is drawn to him, and through him is initiated into a coven of witches.  Soon her life is a whirl of spells and enchantments, and she sees beneath the facade of local respectability.  She even visits the Fair Folk for a while.  But in the end, her conscience and devotion to her friends has her breaking from her love and her coven, and putting her own life in jeopardy.

Isobel Gowdie (the more common spelling) was a real person who was tried for witchcraft in 1662.  Apparently she confessed voluntarily; there are no indications that she was tortured or interrogated in any way; she seemingly just walked up to the authorities one day and said, "Oh by the way, did you know I'm a witch?"  Her confessions are very lengthy and detailed...and also out of sync with other known "facts" about witchcraft at the time.  In fact, she established a few cliches that were unknown before her confessions were made public.  It's debated if she was truly involved in some sort of coven or cult, or if she was mentally ill and her confessions were the work of a bizarre inner fantasy life.  There is no record of her being executed; was she done to death, or did they decide she was crazy and put her away?  (I once saw her name used by a Wiccan as an example of one of the "millions" who were "tortured and executed" for witchcraft...but as far as is known, Gowdie was never tortured or executed, and the best estimates place the number of people executed for witchcraft, based on available documentation, is below 100,000.)

Naturally, Brodie-Innes takes the view that she was a real witch, at least for the purposes of this novel.  But she's not simply a cackling caricature.  Isobel is a fully-realized human being, of whom another character says that she "would either be a great sinner or a great saint."  She genuinely tries to make her marriage work before giving in to her otherworldly lover.  She truly cares for her friends and stands by them when they need her.  She wonders if her lover truly is Satan himself or just a roaming charlatan who knows some conjuring tricks.  And yet she gleefully partakes in the coven's hunts, and puts her enemies under dire enchantments.  And she often wonders if her supernatural adventures were just dreams.

That's one thing I truly liked about THE DEVIL'S MISTRESS; her spells and bizarre adventures with her coven are treated in a hallucinatory, dreamlike way.  She'll often be in another part of Scotland as part of her working an enchantment, but then get tired, fall asleep, and wake up in her own bed.  Sometimes I was tempted to think they truly were dreams, or drug trips, but another thought is that Brodie-Innes was thinking of them as astral projections, although that is never made explicit.  Her workings of magic are given quite a bit of attention and detail, but are never tedious or repetitive.  They're just more elements of the world the author creates.  And he knew his stuff.

John William Brodie-Innes was a Scottish lawyer and bibliophile, but was most notably a prominent member of the Golden Dawn, and a significant figure in Victorian and Edwardian occultism and mysticism.  He was a close associate of MacGregor Mathers, and reportedly gave Dion Fortune her training in the occult, and was the inspiration for her occult detective character in THE SECRETS OF DR. TAVENER.

I've read supernatural and horror fiction by occultists before, and Brodie-Innes is head and shoulders over all of them.  All too often, an occultist's passions and beliefs translate into tiresome preachiness and didacticism, and good storytelling, plotting, and characterization take a back seat.  Fortune's Tavener stories exist mainly to teach her views on occultism and psychic phenomena; another set of supernatural tales by Madame Blavatsky has its moments ("The Ensouled Violin" is flawed, but haunting) but overall is spoiled by her intention of communicating her worldview to the reader.

But Brodie-Innes simply creates a world and some fully-realized characters to populate it.  Isobel is sympathetic and strong, especially when she realizes she has to part ways with her lover when she realizes she must be true to herself and the people she cares for.  He never preaches or condemns, never tries to explain why the spells work or the nature of her experiences; they simply are

I read an old copy, a 1974 printing by Sphere that is Vol. 11 in "The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult" that from what I've seen ranges from some genuine classics to some total crap.  But it's back in print (courtesy of Ramble House) and it's worth a read.  Gowdie has appeared in other novels, like ISOBEL by Jane Parkhurst, and NIGHT PLAGUE by Graham Masterson.  Gowdie's "spells" have made their way into poetry anthologies, and she's also inspired songs by artists like Creeping Myrtle and Alex Harvey.  Both Maddy Prior and Inkubus Sukkubus have used Gowdie's words in song.  And modern composer James MacMillan composed a 1990 orchestral piece, "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie," which has met with critical and audience acclaim.

So look for Isobel; she's well worth it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gothic at the Root: Walpole's THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO

So I recently tackled the great-granddaddy of all Gothic novels, the seminal work that influenced generation after generation of writers and readers, ranging from the most debased hack to stellar artists like Jane Austen.  Written by Horace Walpole in 1764, THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO is nearly 250 years old, so the casual reader of today can hardly be blamed for approaching it with trepidation.  But it's quite short (modern editions are frequently omnibus volumes with other short novels, or padded out with histories, critical essays, notes, and other stuff), so it's not too threatening.

How does it read in this day and age?  Quite well, actually.  The phrasing avoids the turgid purpleness one can find in later gothic novels (ranging from the three-volume monstrosities of the 1800s to the crappy 70s paperbacks that clutter up your local friendly used-book emporium), it moves briskly, and there's rarely a dull moment as in every few pages something new is thrown at the reader.

THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO purports to be an actual translation of an Italian manuscript (printed in Naples in 1529, and then rediscovered in the library of an old Catholic family in the north of England) about the downfall of Manfred, the Prince of Otranto during the Crusades.  Manfred plans to marry his sickly 15-year-old son Conrad to Isabella, the daughter of the Marquis of Vicenza, but before that can happen Conrad is killed by a giant helmet that falls from the sky.  (Yes, you read that right.  It just falls out of the sky, WHOMP, and little Conrad is just a smear, and all this happens in the first few pages.  Walpole doesn't waste time.)  After a hasty funeral, Manfred informs Isabella that he's going to divorce his lawful wife Hippolita and marry her instead.  A peasant, Theodore, announces that the helmet is identical to one worn by a statue of Prince Alfonso the Good (a former ruler of Otranto) in the nearby chapel of St. Nicholas.  Manfred imprisons him, then goes after Isabella.  While hiding from the priapic prince, Isabella meets Theodore, and they venture through an underground tunnel to the aforementioned chapel, and then...oh, I won't recount it all.  There's a lot of plot and counterplot, subterranean passages, secret panels, more pieces of giant armor showing up, a real giant appearing here and there, a bleeding statue, a skeleton in a hermit's robe, a confrontation in a cave, a portrait that steps out from its frame, romantic intrigue, murder, ghosts, and an apocalyptic finale.  (And interestingly enough, it seems that there was a real Manfred, a ruler of Sicily from 1258 to 1266, and some details of his life may have inspired the novel, and he DID own a castle called Otranto...but that's all remote and tenuous.)

CASTLE is full-throttle Gothicism from start to finish; I can't help but wonder if Walpole was aware that he was essentially writing the handbook for a new literary style.  And so much of it is so over-the-top, it often seems as if Walpole had his tongue firmly in his cheek while writing it.  There's often a feel that this is all a joke, as if he was wondering if he could write something as absurd as possible and pass it off as a real document.  I don't know if anyone really swallowed it, but in the second edition he owned up to it and admitted he made it all up.  The characters are given little depth or backstory, and the few that do have backgrounds have them only as plot devices.  Manfred has the most depth of any of them, and is the first of the great Gothic hero-villains who came to dominate the genre.  He has nobler instincts and knows the difference between right and wrong, but is too driven by sexual lusts and personal ambitions to let his higher nature guide him.  Sometimes he seems to truly hate himself for what he's doing, but then his passions overcome him and he goes ahead anyway.  He swings between relishing the mayhem he's causing, and repenting of it.  He's juicy fun.

It's also interesting to see that OTRANTO is free of the Catholic-bashing that came to dominate the genre in later years.  And it doesn't shy away from the supernatural, unlike later novels that played a Scooby-Doo game with it, like in Mrs. Radcliffe's THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO.  And it has to be said that some of Walpole's supernatural terrors lack bite, either because we're modern readers used to far worse, or because they're a bit ridiculous and may not have been intended to be all that horrifying.  But the scene of the talking skeleton still packs a whallop; while I giggled at some of the other things going on, that part actually gave me the shivers.

Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford (1717-1797) published a handful of novels, but was also an art historian, letter-writer, antiquarian and politician.  He was a member of Parliament from 1741 to 1768.  He also built Strawberry Hill, a Gothic architectural fantasia that along with OTRANTO is his most enduring work.

He also wrote a ton of letters, coined the world "serendipity," and wrote about the history of painting and gardening.  Strawberry Hill and OTRANTO were both big influences on a revived interest in medievalism and gothicism that reached its peak in the Victorian age, and was treasured by later architects and critics like Ralph Adams Cram.  And OTRANTO itself paved the way for modern writers, for which we should all be grateful.  He died childless and unmarried (there's been speculation that he was gay or asexual, nobody seems to know for sure), and the title of Earl of Orford died with him.

So should you read OTRANTO?  Absolutely.  It's good juicy gothicism, still highly readable, and worthwhile for anyone interested in the origins of modern horror.  Get a copy and read it to your friends on a windy winter night.

THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO is available in modern reprintings in many bookstores.  You shouldn't have much problem locating a cheap copy in your favorite used-book store, though.  Obviously, it's in the public domain, and you can download free copies from various sites on the aethernet.  Librivox also has a free audio version for downloading as well.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

And now, a musical interlude for November

Now that Halloween is over, and the trials of the elections are past us, it's time to perk things up a bit.  Here's another recent discovery of mine, the Mandragora Tango Orchestra!

I've started to daydream of having my own club night/dance party, maybe called something like The Phantom Ball, with various groups appearing, like Mandragora or maybe Janet Klein or the Baltimore-based gypsy band Balti Mare.  Sigh.  Someday.