Monthly Archives: October 2012

Three Tales You MUST Read if you Like Gothic Fiction…

…but you probably won’t enjoy.

I don’t know. Maybe you will. But I think this is a case of Important Reading not equalling Fun Reading or even Good Reading.

This month has been Read Scary Stuff Month. This summer I read the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales, Vols. 1 and 2. I followed that up with a little Poe, and then a collection of Lovecraft stories. Then, feeling frisky and academic, I decided to reach back to what many consider the starting point of the Gothic movement: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. It sat on my shelf for years as one of my many library book sale I-Should-Read-This-Someday finds. I knew it was an Important Story, having taken a course on Romantic Literature and Art in college. And as a fan of the Gothic, I knew I had to see the Granddaddy of Gothic Tales.

Well, Grandaddy may be the oldest in the family, but he ain’t the strongest.

The Castle of Otranto was written in 1764 by Horace Walpole. Set in Italy (as many Gothic tales were), the story focuses on Manfred, the Prince of Otranto, who has a son named Conrad and a daughter named Matilda. Conrad, on his wedding day, is crushed to death by a massive helmet (no spoiler alert here; it happens on the first page). What follows is a story filled with who-marries-who, ascendancy questions, unengaging prose, and histrionics. Conrad the Ghost makes a few appearances, and this formula became a template for many of Walpole’s later imitators.

Even the Foreword admits that The Castle of Otranto isn’t a great novel, and that later writers did far more with the Gothic attitude. And to be fair, it wasn’t a horrible novel. It just wasn’t a really good novel, either. Part of the problem may have been the conventions of prose. In the mid-eighteenth century, dialogue wasn’t always separated by paragraphs. As a result, conversations between characters become heavy blocks of text that are visually daunting. But I think more than anything, it just wasn’t that scary. Conrad the Ghost is pretty much mute and benign.

So overall, I read The Castle of Otranto, and I can say I did it. I don’t really plan to read it again, unless I’m pursuing a Ph.D or a coma.

But wait. There’s more.

The Castle of Otranto was in a collection with two other key early Gothic stories. Since I was already halfway through the volume, I thought, “Why not?”

Well, after reading William Beckford’s Vathek and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, I found myself kind of missing Otranto.

I must make a confession. I could not finish Vathek.

Vathek, a tale about a corrupt Caliph who descends into debauchery,  wasn’t just boring (though it was that). It was badly written. I could pull a dozen examples out, but here’s one:

“The caliph, notwithstanding his habitual luxury, had never before dined with so much satisfaction. He gave full scope to the joy of these golden tidings, and betook himself to drinking anew.”

Is it the vague language (“so much satisfaction,” “habitual luxury”)? The clunky syntax (“betook himself to drinking anew”)? Imagine sentence after sentence of this, working to squeeze some meaning or enjoyment from the text. Eventually, I realized I wouldn’t get more out of it than I put in, and I put it down.

Which brought me to The Vampyre by John Polidori. Polidori was Lord Byron’s personal physician, and often moody and disagreeable.  The tale is about an Englishman named Aubrey who befriends the weird and spooky Lord Ruthven, who–surprise–turns out to be a vampire. It wasn’t a terrible story, but it was clearly the work of a cranky doctor who pals around with writers, rather than the work of a writer.

I might actually gives these stories another try someday. Maybe I just didn’t give them the time or energy they required. But for now, they will return to my shelf, while I round out the month with the work of a more talented writer.

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Is Poetry Relevant?

This past week, I took a professional development workshop. In it, we teachers learned a variety of ways to get students reading and writing, and maybe even engaging some critical thinking skills. (I’m not being sarcastic. It actually was a helpful PD session, for once). One of the best activities involved using poetry– perhaps the least left-brain form of writing– to engage critical thinking skills. All in all, a thought-provoking activity, but the thoughts it provoked in me went in a different direction. I found myself asking:

Is poetry relevant?

Of the poems we read as examples, a couple were familiar to me, but most were not. They were all suitable for middle/high school students. I realized as we did this activity that I haven’t really read much poetry in… years? Ok, not true. I will read narrative poems; I reread The Iliad and The Aeneid a couple years back, and I’ve been celebrating October with some Poe (Poe-try?). But as for just sitting down with lyric poems and working with them…it just hasn’t been something I’ve been drawn to. Between reading fiction to study the craft, and reading fiction for pleasure, and reading history to broaden my knowledge, and reading student essays to eat and pay my mortgage, reading poems hasn’t felt all that pressing. But simply because I’ve neglected it doesn’t mean it’s not important. Some people neglect going to the dentist for a decade, that doesn’t mean dentists are irrelevant. But still, I ask:

Is poetry relevant?

I chose my question carefully. I’m not asking “Is poetry important/powerful/worthwhile/beautiful/interesting/useful?” I don’t think most people would argue that poetry has NO place in today’s world. There is a place for everything in this world: punch cards, speakeasies, the steam engine, the longbow. That place is a museum. These things, like poetry, all serve a purpose. But I wonder, in today’s world:

Is poetry relevant?

Our instructor told us about an assignment he would give his students. He worked with tough, urban kids from Atlantic City, and asked them to think of the dirtiest, foulest word they knew, and tell him. Of course, the kids started spewing all the profanity they knew in an attempt to answer the question (and to shock him), but he just shook his head. “Those words aren’t dirty. You use them all the time. They’re part of your everyday vocabulary. I would say that the dirtiest word you know is ‘poetry.’  Try this tonight for homework: go to five people you know and say ‘I want to talk about poetry’ and tell me how they react tomorrow.” The next day, the kids returned with stories of strange, uncomfortable looks and friends and family making a point to steer clear. I think this story illustrates something important: Poetry isn’t just obscure to most people; it makes people uncomfortable.

So now, having not answered the question in the least, I leave it to you, world:

Is poetry relevant?

In an essay of at least 1 word, defend your position on this issue. This counts as a test grade for the first marking period.


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