10 Gothic Gems of Historical Fiction

A Reading List by Adrian Van Young

I made a couple attempts at historical novels throughout my twenties. The first of these was called The Immaculate Birth of Concepta Obregon, a magical realist epistolary novel set alternately in present day Buenos Aires and in that same city thirty years previous in the midst of the Dirty War. Though there is no elevator pitch for the novel sufficient to its fundamental preposterousness, I do remember that it involved a haunted yet cheeky academic, the psychosexual mingling of a fallen noblewoman, a murderous junta general and an Argentine ragamuffin who is also a were-cat. My second attempt called The Skeleton Key — featuring a haunted yet cheeky Jewish blacksmith, a fallen noblewoman with five twin sisters, and a mustache-twirling lothario whose serial date rapes throughout the narrative are depicted with alarming coyness — was no rose either.

Yet apart from these books’ narrative flaws, they were moreover flawed as historical novels. They invoked history with a capital H. You know the kind of book I mean? Like that one you read set in the French Revolution which begins in the following thundering way: “It was summer of 1789 and the peasants were rioting in the warrens…” The cardinal sin of my novels was this: they were not about history, they were of it; their modern-day privilege of hindsight was nil. And in a world that has books like Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and C by Tom McCarthy, it doesn’t pay to dredge the past unless you can bring up fresh fish in your net.

In that spirit, here are 10 Gothic historical stories and novels that interrogate history but aren’t subject to it:

  1. “Ovando” by Jamaica Kincaid (1989)

Unimpeachably kicking off Bradford Morrow’s 1991 anthology The New Gothic — which also features Robert Coover, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson and Peter Straub — Kincaid’s allegory of the horrors of colonialism takes place in a conceptually abstract space somewhat resembling a house. In the story, Kincaid’s unnamed and “exhausted” narrator is paid a nocturnal visit by a specter who goes by the name Frey Nicolas de Ovando (real-life 16th century Spanish Governor of the Indies and scourge of the Taino population of Hispanola), whose grotesque physical properties morph throughout the story, and throughout history, on a scale with the “endless suffering he [can] cause whenever he [wishes].” “Not a shred of flesh was left on his bones,” Kincaid writes. “He was a complete skeleton except for his brain, which remained, and was growing smaller by the millennium.” It quickly becomes clear whom Ovando and the narrator are meant to represent collectively and respectively: colonizers, colonized. As the “innocent” Ovando seeks to justify his blood-crimes, the narrator, too, finds herself at an impasse. “Who will judge Ovando?” she ponders. “Who can judge Ovando? A true and just sentence would be imbued with love for Ovando.” This is a story that washes its hands in the slippery offal of history itself.

2. Jack Maggs by Peter Carey (1997)

Australian novelist Peter Carey’s shadowy appropriation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is equal parts meta-fictional puzzle box, sinister murder mystery, and a gaslight panorama of Victorian London. The central character, Jack Maggs, is a literary double for Dicken’s Magwitch. The monstrously self-absorbed, second-rate writer he befriends in the course of the novel, Tobias Oates, is a lackluster double for Dickens himself. Jack Maggs, a fugitive of New South Wales missing two fingers from his left hand, sets things in motion when he comes to London to see to the fortunes of his erstwhile charge, Henry Phipps (see: Pip) whom he raised from a boy. Oates, a lay metaphysician, imprisons Maggs inside a mesmeric rapport in exchange for good info to help him find Phipps, seeking to decipher in the process the “[cartography]” of the “Criminal Mind.” If this sounds cheeky, never fear. Carey subverts the posturing of Victorian melodrama and channels it steeply toward moody despair. Caryn James, writing for the New York Times, wrote: “In Jack Maggs, the bright 19th-century surface masks a world-weary 20th-century heart.”

3. “The Lady of the House of Love” by Angela Carter (1979)

An excerpt from Angela Carter’s groundbreaking collection The Bloody Chamber, this story reimagines Sleeping Beauty at the Queen of the Vampires, deliquescing in her castle. In fact, Kelly Link recommended it here. Like all of the stories in The Bloody Chamber, which aren’t retellings so much as wholesale re-imaginings of popular fairy tales — in Carter’s words she sought to “extract the latent content from traditional stories” — the tale has an elegant feminist lens; it examines history by way of the history of narrative itself and, in due course, the shockingly little degree to which the female protagonists of popular myth have been granted agency in its unfolding. In “The Lady of the House of Love,” set among the medieval ruins of the Queen’s castle, a young soldier of the WWI variety arrives one day at the gate to find the child-bride Queen wasting away with in her boudoir, ceaselessly laying her “inevitable” Tarot and strumming the bars of the cage “in which her pet lark sings, striking a plangent twang like that of the plucked heartstrings of a woman of metal.” Here, the Queen and her sumptuous male bimbo engage in a game of cat and mouse. About the victor, who can say, except it’s not whom you might think.

4. The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (2007)

Much like Carey’s Jack Maggs and Carter’s “The Lady of the House of Love,” Bayard’s novel The Pale Blue Eye pays tribute to another popular literary figure, but this time in his own life and times: Edgar Allan Poe. Set amidst the depredated austerity of West Point in the 1830’s, where Poe saw a short-lived career as cadet, Bayard’s novel showcases the relationship between Poe and New York City constable Gus Landor as they seek to decipher the riddle of another young cadet’s murder; the boy in question has been found hanged and, in a gruesome turn reminiscent of Poe, had his heart carved from his chest. Vacillating between Landor’s hardboiled-Victorian POV — he’s the Continental Op by way of the Brontes — and Poe’s own grandiloquent epistolary output, The Pale Blue Eye accomplishes the tricky business of seeming like a lost classic of the macabre while also interrogating the myth that has accrued around one of America’s most cherished literary personalities. The Gothic trappings liberate, allowing Bayard to navigate the past with one eye — “a pale blue eye, with a film over it” “[resembling] that of a vulture” — forever on the present moment.

5. The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch (1999)

Busch invigorates the life of another famous literary American in The Night Inspector, set in the Five Points neighborhood of 1870’s New York City. This particular American works at the Customs House nights. He’s written books nobody reads — not during the time that he lived, anyway. At one point in the book he says: “I am my darkest, best-held secret. Do I wish to be? I would prefer not to.” His name is “M.” Can you guess who? Yet the more immediate poignancy to be found in Busch’s novel lies not in his dourly witty characterization of Herman Melville, but in the narrator William Bartholomew, a Union sharpshooter in the Civil War, which, as the novel begins, has ended only a few years previous. Disfigured in the conflict, he wears a papier-mâché mask; he collects standing debts from unsavory persons. In the world of the novel, Bartholomew is the sharpshooter, in fact, whom Winslow Homer sketched for his 1862 Harper’s print: “The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty.” Here, Bartholomew describes the aftermath of a massacre of women and children, which he comes upon in an abandoned barn during a reconnaissance mission for the Union Army: “It was their faces I wished not to look upon. I had seen men killed and I had killed them. I had smelled their corpses and the corpses other men had made… Here, however, I saw fury and despair, deep fright, and I sensed in them a dimunition — that they had understood, ultimately, that to someone in the world with the power to enforce his conviction, they had not mattered at all.” And so you can see that for a novel of the Civil War and its aftermath, Busch’s is as rigorously unromantic as you’re likely to find, pivoting between Bartholomew’s traumatized recollections of those he killed and saw killed, and his relationship with Melville. Together, the weary gentlemen aid former slave Jessie in shepherding a boatload of children still enslaved in Florida to freedom in New York. Much like Jack Maggs and The Pale Blue Eye, The Night Inspector’s portrait of 19th-century America is shot through with the juxtaposition of mythmaking and skepticism. Through a stereoscope, darkly, the world is made new.

6. Little Sister Death by William Gay (2015)

Gay was long interested in the terrifying ways that the past informs the present, yet nowhere is this more apparent than in his posthumously published novel, Little Sister Death, a riff on the Bell Witch legend which rattled the bones of Gay’s native Tennessee. Little Sister Death, as with much of Gay, is above all a showcase for the jasmine-scented chiaroscuro of his sentences: “For no reason [Binder] could name he found himself watching the old toolshed, a leaning structure of gray planking set against the base of the hill. Above it the hill undulated eastward, cold and silverlooking in the moonlight, broken only by the dark stain of the cedars. He found himself waiting, staring intently at the doorway of the toolshed, a rectangle of Cimmerian darkness that seemed beyond darkness, darkness multiplied by itself, and he was thinking, Something is going to happen.” But Little Sister Death is also notable for its structure, which, much like The Night Inspector, moves sinuously among characters and time periods. In the foreground is David Binder, a successful Chicago novelist who moves with his pregnant wife and young daughter out to the maleficent Beale Homestead in Robertson County, Tennessee, where he hopes to write a commercial horror novel on the Curse of the Bell Witch. Woven into Binder’s story are scraps of historical narrative from as early as 1785 that become a living document of the Beale haunting as Binder researches it in the real-time of the novel. All this adds up to something downright meta-fictional, uncharacteristic territory for Gay, yet one that he manages to explore with his trademark elemental menace. There’s also a really freaking beautiful introduction to the novel and tribute to Gay’s life by friend and fellow writer, Tom Franklin, in case you were looking for extra incentive.

7. Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel (2005)

Mantel’s 9th novel, Beyond Black, is more than adequate proof that a story need not be set in the past to be historical. More so for the fact that Mantel, perhaps best known for her trilogy in-the-offing about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII (Mantel won a Booker Prize for the first volume, Wolf Hall, in 2009, and then again for the second, Bring up the Bodies, in 2012), brings a historical novelist’s knack for period detail and depicting larger-than-life characters with startling intimacy to the vaudevillian world of New-Age-y spiritualism in contemporary suburban England. At the center of Mantel’s novel is Alison, an obese and perfume-redolent medium who works the psychic fair-and-festival circuit, delivering bathetic condolences from beyond the grave to crystal-wielding, aura-photographing, principally female audiences. As an antidote to grief, Alison prescribes “closure” and “a cycle of caring,” constructing an Elysian vision of the afterlife in the minds of her sitters which the reader soon discovers is a merciful lie. Alison alone of all the novel’s players is privy to the truth of life after death, which amounts to a graceless confusion in the lost souls that people the novel, chief among them the figure of Morris, a louche pervert from Alison’s girlhood. The rub, of course, is that truth is an entirely subjective construct in Alison’s POV, a tension in the novel mediated by the entrance of Colette, a spiritual seeker whom Alison meets on the circuit and quickly makes her right-hand woman. What ultimately renders Beyond Black a historical novel apart from its immersive and unromantic depiction of modern England’s psychic set is the implicit juxtaposition of this milieu with that of toe-rapping, table-tipping Golden Age-spiritualism, which had been widely debunked over a hundred years previous to when Mantel’s novel takes place. We don’t learn from our past mistakes. The players change, the game endures.

8. Affinity by Sarah Waters (1999)

Waters’ sophomore novel of socialites and spirit mediums in 1870’s England is a wonderful complement to Mantel’s Beyond Black in that it depicts the world of mediumism in its Golden Age with a studious commitment. On the surface, then, it has more in common with Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye, seeking as it does to critique the 19th century from the inside out. The plot of Affinity creeps around protagonist Margaret Prior, a depressed aristocrat who visits Millbank Prison for Women on a service trip only to fall under the spell of a spiritualist medium imprisoned for fraud, Selina Dawes. In the cloistered realm of Millbank, overseen by a vividly imagined phalanx of prison matrons, the two women embark upon a friendship that becomes, for Margaret Prior, a dangerous obsession. If you’ve read Fingersmith, The Little Stranger or really anything by Waters then the revelation that everything with Selina isn’t as it seems is a given. It’s Margaret’s desire for Selina that burns, and drives the novel to its finish. Here, Margaret reflects on one-time love object Helen, mapped to lead her toward Selina: “I saw Helen watching us,” Waters writes. “There were pearls at her ears — they looked like drops of wax, I remember seeing them upon her in the old days and imagining them melting with the heat of her throat.”

9. Spider by Patrick McGrath (1990)

For another psychological slow burn of a sophomore novel look no further than McGrath’s Spider, which was also adapted into a very good film by body horror-auteur David Cronenberg in 2002. Like many other books on this list, the novel feints between past and present timeframes, with its cerebrally dysfunctional and colossally unreliable anti-hero Spider (aka Dennis Clegg) narrating the goings-on in entropic, 19th-century inflected prose. Threadbare, muttering, coated in a body armor of cast-off newspapers and twine, and hounded by some undefined trauma, Spider walks the reader gingerly among the shattered bits of his boyhood with deadbeat dad Horace and mercenary prostitute stepmother Hilda Wilkinson intermingled with those of his present, living in a halfway house run by stepmother-doppelganger Mrs. Wilkinson after being released from a lunatic asylum where he spent the last 20 years. While McGrath isn’t a subtle writer, he is resoundingly self-aware. Spider’s references to 19th-century forebears like Poe and Maupassant give it the obfuscating sepia-cast of a historical novel while also allowing it to remain rooted in the late-late modernism of Beckett and Paul Bowles. Like Bayard and Waters, McGrath commits and the product, though it mightn’t be, is utterly convincing. It’s all right there in the novel’s playful opening in which Spider, a hot mess, reveals to the reader: “I’ve always found it odd that I can recall incidents from my boyhood with clarify and precision, and yet events that happened yesterday are blurred, and I have no confidence in my ability to remember them accurately at all…All I can tell you for certain — about yesterday, that is — is that there were people in the attic again, Mrs. Wilkinson’s people…”

10. The Notorious Doctor August: His Life & Crimes by Christopher Bram (2000)

Bram, author of the melancholy masterpiece Father of Frankenstein about Frankenstein-director James Whale, works a vein of historical fiction somewhere in between Waters’ Affinity and Busch’s The Night Inspector in his Civil War-era novel about clairvoyant pianist Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd (the “Doctor August” of the title, who also happens to be gay), former slave Isaac, and no-frills governess Alice Pangborn. Simultaneously interrogating the vicissitudes of being queer in the 19th-century and the emotional complexities of the Spiritualist movement, Doctor August takes readers from the American South, to New York City, to Europe, much of it in pursuit of Fitz’s main chance of contacting spirits (and gaining lucre) through his piano music of the spheres, ambiguously evidential. Meanwhile, Fitz, Isaac and Alice form a ruinous love-triangle that serves as the novel’s devastating and all-too-human emotional core. As Paul Quarrington wrote in his review for The New York Times, “It is the novel’s sly contention that Dr. August was the bridge from the Romantic to the Modern periods…” which elevates it above the problematic quagmire of being a 19th-century nostalgia-trip. Like all of these winning historical tales, Bram’s novel subverts a seemingly uncritical indulgence of the past by training upon it a critical eye.

About the Author

Adrian Van Young’s historical gothic novel Shadows in Summerland will be published by ChiZine this Spring.

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