BOOK REVIEW BY MARYSE KLUCK
Do not fetish and glamorize death, states Maryse Kluck, literature and history student, after reading The Haunting Season, a Sunday Times bestseller. Writing enchanting Gothic stories isn’t about explicit sexual content and gore, but about subtle supernatural events Elements of fear, romance, and intense emotions that do not imply explicit gore. On the contrary, states Kluck, proper Gothic books are often supplemented with a moral dimension. because to Maryse Kluck, reading is learning.
In this essay I will share my ramblings on ‘The Haunting Season: Ghostly Tales for Long Winter Nights’, a Sunday Times Bestseller, published by Sphere. I bought it for keeping me entertained whilst flying from York to the Netherlands, and I finished it a couple days after arriving home. The book cover is stunning. Dark blue and gold, it drew me into a spooky, dreamy world, and let’s be fair; a good cover makes me buy books. I know, ‘Don’t buy a book for its cover’, but I really can’t help it. I’m even thinking of adding a third -very pretty- edition of ‘Frankenstein’ purely as an aesthetic addition to my bookshelves. I’ve put The Haunting Season on my desk, because it is so lovely, and it didn’t fail to inspire me. The first story; A Study in Black and White, is excellent, and I do not say this lightly. A sinister, chess-oriented story about a black-and-white half-timbered house and its former, malicious owner, its narrative drew me in and reminded me of the classic Gothic stories that I love. It is subtle and uncanny, and I especially liked it because it was about a half-timbered house. For those who do not know what half-timbered is, it is a building technique, often medieval, made of a wooden structure, with articulated beams in various positions, filled with filled with other materials, which can vary from clay, rammed earth or stones. A story with preternatural elements featuring a half-timbered house? What could get better? The story is frightening- not as strongly as Ann Radcliffe’s novels though-but not something you want to read before going to bed (on a sunny balcony during the middle of the day is better). Thus, the book opens with its strongest story.
However, I was taken aback by the inclusion of stories which definitely had a political agenda, which irked me. Modern books do that these days; authors tend to take their political standpoint and force it down your throat. This is not necessarily bad- I know my stories carry a certain message too- but I wish there had been more information about this on the backside or blurb.
Stereotypes and a lack of originality are often other unwelcoming ingredients of a book, especially those of women. In Thwaite’s Tenant, by Imogen Hermes Gowar, a woman flees her abusive husband, presumably in the Victorian Era, with her son, ‘aided’ by her openly sexist father, who, despicably, tells her to return to her husband. Whilst I am, as a historian, glad that the Victorian Era isn’t romanticized, I am slightly concerned by the constant trope of men being downright evil to women. There is no dispute that the Victorian Era was sexist, and had normalized terrible things such as wife-beating. My only worry is that not all men, in their attitudes towards women, held such ghastly attitudes. It is important to mention Thomas Hardy, famous writer of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in which he attacks double sexual standards for men and women and describes the devastating impact of rape for a woman- this novel could be called one of the first ‘Me Too’ novels, in my opinion. Furthermore, there were also men campaigning for women’s suffrage in the Victorian-Edwardian era. For further information on this, I would recommend reading these sources on Women-votes and Women’s Right Movements. Unfortunately, men who fought for women’s rights and equal treatment were in the minority; but existed nonetheless. I barely come across this in contemporary fiction, which aggravates me as an undergraduate historian. The fact that feminist men were a minority back in the Victorian time- a minority, but still present- would add an intellectual depth to the story that it unfortunately lacks.
Lack of Originality
The complete lack of originality in two other stories irked me as well: Thwaithe’s Tenant and Lucy Wilt. It happened to be so that a couple months ago, I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by the talented, proto-feminist writer Anne Bronte. Thwaithe’s Tenant comes dangerously close to plagiarism of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; a woman escapes her abusive husband, lives in an abandoned house away from him, struggles against patriarchal norms and values, and fears her son will grow up to be as disgusting as her husband. Why, even the title of the story is reminiscent of Anne Bronte’s novel. Whilst it is good for writers to be inspired by those who came before them, it is one thing to wish to pay homage to a writer and the other to take their plot, their socio-political ideas, and their characters, without any credit or show of gratitude.
Lucy Wilt happened to be another ‘rip off’ of famous novels, although this time it was more subtle. In order to detect the lack of originality, one has to close-read the text. This story happens to be about a man falling in love with a ‘beautiful’ corpse, and he tries to bring it back to life. You read that right- a man falling in love with a corpse. This makes Dracula look tame. My reading pleasure was gradually replaced by a feeling of deep disgust and horror at this story line- this is not your average Gothic story, but a hallmark of our overly-liberal times, in which everything has to be allowed and everything can be written about- even one of the most depraved and grotesque of things. There’s barely any moral message to this story- nobody calls out the main character for his repulsive actions. Thankfully, the story wasn’t explicit, but it was nonetheless revolting in many ways. If a writer chooses to write about something horrifying and abhorrent it would be good to add a moral message. We learn from stories when a writer tells us why his gruesome story is ‘not okay’.
As if this story wasn’t offensive enough, the man who ‘falls in love’ with the corpse- I loath to write this words- is asked if the seventeen year old corpse is that of a twelve year old. This is mental. The character, who is in no way condemned, has three very big problems that aren’t called out: he falls in love with a cadaver, the cadaver belongs to a seventeen year old woman, who, looks like a twelve year old. The shocking and monstrous elements of this story only keep adding up. Besides the nauseating aspects to this story, it was highly unoriginal. I, as reader of the Gothic genre, have, of course, read Dracula by Bram Stoker. It did not sit well with me, although it compares as a pleasant and moral read to Lucy Wilt. Let’s go to the death of one of the characters, Lucy Westenra ,who is bitten by Count Dracula and dies, only to be resurrected as a vampire. Stoker goes into uncomfortable detail on how beautiful the dead Lucy is:
Death had given back part of her beauty, former brow and cheeks had recovered some of their flowing lines; even the lips had lost their deadly pallor.
She makes a very beautiful corpse, sir. It’s quite a privilege to attend on her. It’s not too much to say that she will do credit to our establishment!
Compare that to Lucy Wilt:
Pemble conjures before him her body lying in sweet repose. Her golden hair, the upturned button of her nose, the slim breast under the white lace. Her downy arms and heavy lashes and pearly little lace.
Her delicate toes, lovely shins, the beautiful arch of her eyebrow, her dear story cheek.
In death, she is nothing short of a miracle. Her beauty grave and sublime. Her expression enigmatic. Her mortal shell exquisite and untarnished by natural processes.
Glamorizing death, really?
These lines are glamorizing death. I feel morally obliged to call out the repulsiveness of these lines. Furthermore, see how close they are to the text in Dracula, which, thankfully, did not spend as much time elaborating on the beauty of a dead body (although enough to put the book in my ‘least favourite novels’ list). Notice the similarity between ‘Lily Wilt’ and ‘Lucy Westenra’. Then, as if borrowing from Bram Stoker wasn’t enough, the main character, the highly problematic Pemble, decides to do a Frankenstein. Yes, you heard right- he decides to resurrect Lily Wilt. I love Frankenstein for its moral message and passionate descriptions of the landscape, not to mention its powerful dialogue, so seeing one of my favourite novels being copied does not sit well with me. Pemble resurrects Lily Wilt, thinking she will be his perfect lover (I shudder writing this), only for him to find out that bringing the dead back to life is not the best of scientific ideas- just like Viktor Frankenstein discovered.
All in all, this story filled me with disgust at a lack of originality and an abhorrence at its depravity that the author fails to condemn. If any of you are sensitive readers who read Gothic novels for the supernatural and spirituality and not for the demonic forms of sexuality and gore, skip this story. I cannot emphasis that enough.
Thankfully, other stories are better. The Chillingham Chair has a bit too much elements of fantasy for me, but it is a good revenge plot, and it reads like a thriller, a ‘whodunit’. This story I would definitely recommend. ‘The Hanging of the Greens’ is good as well, although it contains the usual contemporary disparagement of religion, and ‘Confinement’ was one of the best; a story of protective motherhood, a woman fighting against evil. I love it when main characters are mothers, because we include too few mothers in fiction. Society has forgotten the importance of parenthood.
My final critique, which goes for ‘Confinement’ and ‘Monster’ is the amount of graphic descriptions of bodily functions, ranging from the erotic to the scatological. Part of the enchantment and mystery of famous Gothic books such as Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, and The Mysteries of Udolpho are because the gore is skipped; it is not needed to be gory. I do not need to know about ‘two bodies slammed together’ or a character’s digestive habits. It is unromantic and takes away the terror and eeriness. You see, Dracula is much more explicit and it leaves me more with a feeling of sickness than with fear, horror, terror, or suspense. I just want to purge my mind of these details. The key element of Gothic literature does not come through when the reader becomes nauseous.
All in all, I would give this collection of short stories a three or four stars. It does not come close to the writers I love, such as the Brontës, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe. It lacks a moral dimension, uniqueness, and it takes away feelings of the sublime and terror, replacing them with disgust. Nonetheless, there are some good stories in there, at the very beginning and at end of the book. If anything, as an aspiring writer, I have learnt from it- what elements and styles I wish to avoid writing. Perhaps, for future writers, one can use this book more to learn than to actively enjoy and how we can return to writing classic Gothic literature.
Literature lover and History student at York University & Utrecht University; writer at Literary Ladies and owner of @kluckmaryse on Instagram.
Maryse is one of the two Literary Ladies who published the Gothic Literature Magazine. It is available here.
Other posts by Maryse Kluck:
Maryse Kluck as Author at Reflections.