I am woefully behind on reading short stories for RIP. Neither of the two collections I thought I wanted to read from really piqued my interest. Friday, I was browsing over my shelves (because I was home sick) and came across a book I had totally forgot I had. I bought it a couple years ago for RIP and apparently completely put it out of my mind. The book I am referring too is The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales edited by Chris Baldick. And it’s fascinating. And rather…large.
What I love most about it is that it has the stories in chronological order, therefore giving the evolution of the Gothic tale. And the introduction is fascinating. I’ve read several Gothic books in my day, but I never really sat and thought about; what makes a Gothic story Gothic? According to Baldick, a Gothic story typically “will invoke the tyranny of the past (a family curse, the survival of archaic forms for despotism and of superstition) with such weigh as to stifle the hopes of the present (the liberty of the heroine or hero) within the dead-end of physical incarceration (the dungeon, the locked room, or simply confinements of a family house closing in upon itself). page xix. It is “characteristically obsessed with old buildings as sites of human decay.” page xx. It explores “our deepest fears” and our “fear of death, of decay, of confinement.” xx
I’m not sure why these tropes are so fascinating to me; it sounds rather sadistic doesn’t it? But it is. I am just as fascinated by the Gothic as many other readers. So I am excited that I rediscovered this volume and am very much looking forward to exploring it during RIP.
I read the very first story, a fragment, and I was sorry that they didn’t have the entire story. It is called Sir Bertrand and is by Anna Laetita Aikin. Isn’t it interesting that the first story featured is by a woman? Who wrote in the 1700s? I LOVE that! I looked up Anna Laetita and wow, she had a fascinating life. You should really go check out her biography at Wikipedia.
Aikin’s story Sir Bertrand is the story noted at the beginning of these Gothic Tales and it starts on a sinister note.
“…After this adventure, Sir Bertrand turned his steed towards the north, hoping to cross these dreary moors before the curfew.”
How I would love to know what adventure he had been on, because the next one is absolutely crazy. After he turns his steed, he promptly gets lost and it’s not a nice night out on the moors.
“It was one of those nights when the moon gives a faint glimmering of light through the thick black clouds of a lowering sky.”
As he winds his way through the dark seeking help, he comes upon a large, antique mansion. He knocks three times, but gets no answer. So, he goes inside! Smart man! Because the door closes on him and won’t let him back out. He’s a big scared chicken (I’m being nice) but bravely (for him) means not to act so. He stands shaking for awhile, trying to figure out what to do (I get the feeling Bertrand isn’t the sharpest knife of the set) until he sees a sinister blue flame hovering over the stairs. When he moves toward it, it moves away. So he gets the bright idea to follow it! I know that’s what I would have done, if I was trapped in a creepy old house scared out of my wits. Follow the scary blue specter!
As he climbs the stairs, it gets good. Listen:
A dead cold hand met his left hand and firmly grasped it, drawing him forcefully forwards – he endeavored to disengage himself, but could not – he made a furious blow with his sword, and instantly a low shriek pierced his ears, and the dead hand was left powerless in his – He dropped it, and rushed forwards in desperate valour.”
He sees a completely armored figure with a bloody stump that vanishes when Bertrand goes to attack again. Don’t you just love how Bertrand has broken into someone’s house and attacks the first “person” he sees? Anyway, the figure leaves behind a “massy key.” What is a massy key? I have no idea. Curious, yes?
Bertrand finds a door just beyond where the figure was and goes and turns the key in the lock where he discovers a “large apartment” and coffin with a taper burning at each end. Plus, the room is full of statues of black marble “attired in Moorish habit”. Don’t you love it? And old abandoned house, with a spooky blue spirit thingy and a COFFIN inside Plus, those statues? They attack Bertrand. I would have run screaming. But here Bertrand proves he is made of stronger stuff that he at first appeared, for he fights off the statues! And guess what happens next. The COFFIN flies open. And a lady in BLACK emerges. And she KISSES Bertrand. Freaky! The kiss makes the house shake and shudder and “fall asunder.” Now, it really gets good. He falls into a TRANCE peoples. And when he awakes, it is to a large room with a banquet. A woman greets him and she is “an incomparable beauty” and calls him her deliverer. She leads him to a sofa and…. It ends. Yes, it ENDS right there. What happens on the couch? It’s up to interpretation!
Sir Bertrand was a ton of fun to read and I highly recommend it. And it was interesting to see how all the characteristics of the Gothic literature Baldick mentioned were utilitzed in this story. You should definitely read it. It’s like only 4 pages long. You can read it for yourself here. It really makes me look forward to what comes next in this collection and if you do check out Sir Bertrand, I would love to hear your thoughts!