Sarah Perry’s Melmoth: A Modern Spin-Off of Maturin’s Classic Gothic Novel Melmoth the Wanderer

Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin is one of the greatest of the Gothic novels of its time although it is largely forgotten today, so I was very surprised when I learned that someone had decided to use Maturin’s character to create a new Gothic novel.

Sarah Perry’s Melmoth is a reimagining of a female version of Maturin’s famous character.

I had never read anything by Sarah Perry before, although she has previously published two novels After Me Comes the Flood (2014) and The Essex Serpent (2017), the latter of which has received critical acclaim, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her new novel Melmoth (2018). I found it a mix of classic Gothic elements without being either a rehashing or sequel to Maturin’s novel. Rather, Perry largely makes Melmoth her own, primarily by making her female. Maturin’s Melmoth lived in the seventeenth century and has a prolonged life of about 170 years before meeting his end at the end of the novel. Perry’s Melmoth has lived since the time of Christ. While Maturin obviously drew on the Wandering Jew theme, he did not as explicitly use it as Perry. Perry never refers to the Wandering Jew, but that legend typically concerns a shoemaker named Ahasuerus who refused to let Christ rest outside his shop on his way to Calvary. Christ then curses him to wander until the Second Coming. (There are numerous other versions of the story and other people, including Judas and Pontius Pilate, who are candidates for being the Wandering Jew, but Ahasuerus’s version is the best known.) Perry’s title character is one of the women who saw Christ rise from the dead at the tomb, but later she denied he had risen, a lie that has resulted in her being cursed to wander the earth.

Gothic wanderer figures like the Wandering Jew are often wracked with guilt over their sins and seeking to end their existence and free themselves from their curse. Because Perry’s Melmoth never really gets a voice and is usually off-stage, we do not know much about her existence over the centuries or whether she feels any guilt. All we know is that she is constantly lonely and therefore seeks to entice others to join her in her wandering, something she never succeeds at, although the novel is filled with documents from people who have seen her or whom she has tried to seduce. She watches those who are lonely or have committed crimes and therefore will be easy targets for her and she follows them, although she never succeeds in winning them over.

I have to admit I was disappointed in the overall story, although Maturin’s own storyline is not all that fabulous either. Like Maturin and other Gothic novelists, Perry uses the story-within-a-story technique, and she also uses various manuscripts and documents that the characters find to move the story along and shed light on Melmoth’s character and to serve as individual testimonials to her existence. Some of these documents and their stories are more effective than others, in my opinion, but they typically reveal truths about the people who saw Melmoth—people who committed crimes or transgressions for which they feel guilt.

One of the better stories is the document by Hoffman about his experiences during the Holocaust. Since the novel primarily takes place in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the inclusion of the Holocaust is not surprising since Maturin used the Inquisition which was equally horrifying to its contemporaries.

The main character in the novel is Helen, an Englishwoman living in Prague and translating works into English. She befriends Thea and her husband. Before long, Thea is dying and Helen is there to help her after her husband abandons her, although it’s believed maybe Melmoth got him. Helen becomes paranoid about Melmoth after she learns more about her. Helen also has a guilty secret of her own that makes her susceptible to Melmoth’s seduction.

The book is divided into three parts, and I have to admit by the third part I kind of wondered if it was really going anywhere. The second part is the most entertaining, ending with an interesting scene where the main characters go to see the opera Rusulka, the story of a water sprite who asks a sea witch for help so she can become human and love a prince. In exchange, she gives up her voice. The storyline is very similar to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” although it uses slavic folklore as its origin. Thea comments in the novel that her husband always thought the opera’s main character a fool to give up immortality for love. After this scene is a rather drawn out and tedious new story to begin Part 3 before the novel gets wrapped up.

Despite the Rusulka comment that implies immortality is something to treasure, none of the characters embraces immortality in the end, so Melmoth is left to wander on, ultimately trying to seduce the reader to join her in the final pages.

Overall, Melmoth is an interesting take on its title character. I appreciated Perry’s tie-in to Wandering Jew figures, her mention of Maturin’s novel, which Helen remarks that no one reads, and also how she provides different spellings for Melmoth’s name, including Melmotte (likely a reference to Anthony Trollope’s character in The Way We Live Now (1875) who is believed to have been inspired by Maturin’s Melmoth). However, there are several sections that are just boring or documents that while referring to Melmoth do not really connect to the other parts of the novel or the characters. The story-within-a-story pattern is not as tightly woven as in Maturin’s novel. That said, Melmoth is only about a third as long as Melmoth the Wanderer, which itself is probably twice as long as it needs to be because of its overall wordiness and overly long paragraphs.

I also would have preferred a more guilt-ridden Melmoth. Instead, Perry’s character is less of a true Gothic wanderer character than a needy, codependent creature who is repulsive because of her neediness. There is nothing attractive about this Melmoth, who is unable to seduce anyone, unlike Maturin’s more glamorous Melmoth who seduces the beautiful Immalee.

That Maturin’s novel is still being read and appreciated despite its faults and that it has inspired Perry’s reimagining shows it still has the power to capture our imaginations. I don’t think Perry’s novel will ultimately be remembered, however, any more than is Balzac’s sequel Melmoth Reconciled (1835). Nevertheless, fans of the Gothic will enjoy some of its allusions and plays on the Gothic tradition.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City and numerous other books. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

 

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Contemporary Gothic Novels, The Wandering Jew

Melmoth the Wanderer: Grandfather to Gothic and Irish Literature

Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer will be celebrating its two hundredth anniversary next year, and it deserves to be celebrated since it is one of the most important Gothic novels of all time, yet few people who are not students of the Gothic have ever heard of it. Published in 1820, the novel was the most popular of the several novels Maturin, an Anglo-Irish and Anglican clergyman, published. It is also one of the last works from the Golden Age of Gothic Literature, ranging from roughly 1790 to 1820 when Radcliffe, Lewis, Shelley, and many other writers published notable Gothic novels. Most importantly, it had a huge influence on many other Irish and Gothic novels that followed it.

Charles Maturin (1780-1824) wrote several novels including historical fiction that predated Sir Walter Scott, whom he was friends with, and a popular tragedy, “Bertram.”

In this article, I will discuss a little about why Melmoth the Wanderer is an important Gothic novel, especially for its title Gothic wanderer figure and its anti-Catholicism, and then I will look at some of the other works it influenced.

Contribution to the Gothic Wanderer Figure and Anti-Catholicism

A good summary of Melmoth the Wanderer can be found at Wikipedia for those not familiar with the novel although I would encourage you to read it. Its stories-within-a-story technique, a common element of the Gothic, makes the reader wonder how all the stories will come together, but in the tale of Immalee, the full extent of Melmoth’s Gothic wanderer role is apparent. Melmoth is a member of an Irish family who in the seventeenth century was cursed and now wanders about Europe causing terror and tempting the innocent. He is not immortal, but he does have an extended life of about 170 years before he meets his fate at the end of the novel. Although he does try to tempt people, at times Melmoth feels torn with guilt, especially when he attempts to convince the innocent Immalee to marry him. Immalee was lost in childhood and has grown up alone in nature, innocent and childlike, but eventually, she is found and returned to her family in Spain. However, before Immalee is found, Melmoth visits her on the island and educates her in religion and other problems and hypocrisies of human society—or rather he miseducates her. After Immalee returns to Spain, Melmoth convinces her to marry him in a dark ceremony, and then she conceives his child. When her brother accosts Melmoth, Melmoth slays him and Immalee nearly dies from grief. She is then taken to the prisons of the Inquisition where she gives birth to a daughter. Because of her sin for loving a minion of Satan, she is condemned to lifetime imprisonment in the Inquisition’s prison, and her child is to be taken from her and raised in a convent. However, the child dies before it can be taken from its mother and Immalee dies soon after.

Although the novel was written by an Irishman, it’s important to note that Maturin had a low opinion of Catholics and was himself Anglican. The novel is the most extreme example of anti-Catholicism of all the Gothic novels I have read. Much of the novel is the story of Moncada, who is forced by his family members—themselves manipulated by the clergy—to enter a seminary and become a priest. Because he resists, Moncada is beaten, tortured, and locked up in a cell without light. The depiction of the Inquisition is overall very derogatory. Not that the Inquisition was not a horrible institution, but Maturin has no problem with depicting it in the most derogatory way possible, likely without any real knowledge of the institution.

A Sequel by Honoré de Balzac

This edition of Melmoth the Wanderer includes Balzac’s sequel, and an introduction by Julian Hawthorne, the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who referenced Melmoth in his 1828 novel “Fanshawe.”

At the novel’s conclusion, Melmoth’s prolonged life appears to end. However, because no one witnesses Melmoth’s death and there is no final body, the possibility exists that he lives on. Melmoth may not have died since it is believed that Maturin intended a never-written sequel in which Melmoth would return. Honoré de Balzac did write a sequel, Melmoth Reconciled (1835), in which Melmoth is able to find someone to take his place and thereby rest from his wanderings. This short sequel is lacking in Gothic atmosphere and effectiveness, but Balzac does retain the concentration upon Melmoth’s eyes which create a “piercing glance that read men’s inmost thoughts.” The French work is also progressive compared to British Gothic in that it allows the Gothic wanderer to rest, which would be denied to Gothic wanderers in British fiction until the Victorian period.

Influence of Melmoth the Wanderer on J. S. Le Fanu and James Joyce

In rereading Melmoth the Wanderer, I noticed many aspects and possible influences it may have had on literature that I had failed to notice previously when I wrote about it in The Gothic Wanderer. First is the opening scenes where John Melmoth comes to his uncle’s deathbed. This scene is written in a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted, and comical manner, despite the gravity of the situation. The manuscript John Melmoth reads that depicts life at the court of Charles II is also of this style. What surprised me was that these pages seem like they could have come straight out of J. S. Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard (1863). I’ve always thought that particular novel of Le Fanu’s to be almost unreadable, but the comical tone is very similar, suggesting that Le Fanu must have read Maturin. Notably, James Joyce is said to have been inspired by Le Fanu’s novel in writing Finnegan’s Wake (1939).

However, the influence of Maturin on Joyce is even more specific. In Chapter 14 of Ulysses (1922), titled “Oxen of the Sun,” Joyce uses a variety of literary styles that basically trace the history of the English language. One section of the chapter, lines 1010-1037, is written as a parody of Gothic novels, as scholars have long noted. Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated even notes that this parody owes a debt to Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard.

Note the similarity between this passage from “Oxen of the Sun” and the following one from Melmoth the Wanderer:

“The secret panel beside the chimney slid back and in the recess appeared…Haines! Which of us did not feel his flesh creep? He had a portfolio full of Celtic literature in one hand, in the other a phial marked Poison. Surprise, horror, loathing were depicted on all faces while he eyed them with a ghastly grin.”

In the penultimate paragraph of Chapter 1 of Melmoth the Wanderer, John Melmoth first sees Melmoth the Wanderer as follows:

“At this moment, John saw the door open, and a figure appear at it, who looked round the room, and then quietly and deliberately retired, but not before John had discovered in his face the living original of the portrait. His first impulse was to utter an exclamation of terror, but his breath felt stopped.”

John is shocked because he has already heard that Melmoth the Wanderer has lived well over a century and seen the portrait of this relative. The two passages are not obviously the same, but the entrance of a figure who causes shock occurs in both, and I suspect Joyce borrowed it from Maturin, whether consciously or not. Since Maturin was an Irish writer, Joyce was likely familiar with his work, though I am not aware of any scholars discussing Maturin’s influence on him, something that should be explored further.

Influence on George W. M. Reynolds

This painting by Eugene Delacroix is titled “Melmoth or Interior of a Dominican Convent.” It depicts Moncada being mistreated by the other monks for wanting to renounce his vows.

George W. M. Reynolds was the bestselling author of Victorian England and a key player in the Gothic renaissance that occurred in the 1840s and 1850s with the rise of the penny dreadful. One of Reynolds’ novels, The Necromancer (1851-2), tells the story of a man who has a bargain with the devil to marry seven women over the course of a couple of centuries so that they sell their souls to Satan; if he fails, his own soul will be lost. The plot of Reynolds’ novel recalls Melmoth’s effort to deceive Immalee into marrying him and agreeing to follow his God (Satan), although she never completely understands his purposes. That she ends up dead, and in the final scene of the novel, Melmoth is taken by the devil suggests that perhaps Melmoth had a similar pact with Satan. Maturin does not say this overtly, but Reynolds might well have read the novel, read between the lines, and expanded on the idea in his own book. Since so little is known about Reynolds, we do not know if he read Maturin’s novel or not, but it seems plausible given that he was obviously well-versed in the Gothic tradition.

Influence on Anthony Trollope

Scholars have not failed to note that the villain in one of Anthony Trollope’s greatest novels, The Way We Live Now (1875) is named Melmotte, a name that may owe a debt to Maturin’s Melmoth. Besides the name similarity, there is much confusion and many rumors about exactly who Melmotte is in Trollope’s novel. He is suspected of being Jewish because he is in finance, but beyond this, he is known for having lived in various locations—a type of wandering that makes him akin to the Wandering Jew, whose legend was a major influence on the creation of Melmoth the Wanderer. Among the possible backgrounds of Melmotte is also that he is Irish—his father believed to be an Irish coiner in New York named Melmody (Chapter 98), from whom Melmotte may have learned forgery. Melmotte, of course, claims he is English, wanting to rise in English society.

Since Trollope spent considerable time in Ireland, it is not surprising that he was likely familiar with this Irish novel, which would have been quite popular in his childhood. Coincidentally, Trollope worked for the Post Office in Ireland and Maturin’s father was a Post Office official.

Influence on Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Dickens

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni (1842) is noteworthy for how it reversed the Gothic tradition by creating positive depictions of Rosicrucian characters with extended lives. (For a full discussion of Zanoni and Rosicrucianism in the Gothic tradition see my book The Gothic Wanderer.) Notably, Rosicrucians were known for life-extension and so Melmoth the Wanderer may have been influenced by the Rosicrucian tradition, which had already influenced other earlier novels such as Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne (1811). (Notably, George W. M. Reynolds’ novel Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7) features the Rosicrucian founder, Christian Rosencrux, as a character.) Bulwer-Lytton may have been influenced specifically by the end scenes of Melmoth the Wanderer when Immalee is imprisoned by the Inquisition and gives birth to a child who dies. In Zanoni, Bulwer-Lytton’s title character is a Rosicrucian who has lived a long life. He and his lover, Viola, are caught up in the chaos of the French Revolution, resulting in Viola giving birth to their child in prison. Melmoth dies long after Immalee when Satan comes to take him, but Zanoni ends up dying at the guillotine. However, hope remains in the image of the child born to Viola, who survives.

Notably, Zanoni was a major influence on Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859), particularly Sidney Carton’s sacrifice at the end of the novel, but also because of its many Rosicrucian elements, as discussed in my book The Gothic Wanderer. Therefore, Melmoth the Wanderer may be said to be the grandfather of Dickens’ novel.

Influence on Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was Charles Maturin’s great-nephew by marriage and adopted the name Sebastian Melmoth to protect his privacy and comment upon his state as an outcast following his famous trial and prison term.

It is well-known, but worth repeating, that Maturin was the uncle by marriage to Oscar Wilde’s mother. After Wilde was released from prison after serving a sentence for homosexuality, Oscar Wilde adopted the name of Sebastian Melmoth while he wandered about Europe. The name Melmoth implied he was cursed and a wanderer, and the name Sebastian referenced St. Sebastian, considered the first gay icon of the nineteenth century.

Numerous Other Influences

Melmoth the Wanderer influenced many other literary works in direct and indirect ways and has even influenced the creation of characters in movies and TV. The following list comes from Wikipedia, which includes a few of the works I have already mentioned:

  • In Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas (the basis for Roman Polanski’s film The Ninth Gate), Corso bumps into the mystery girl following him as she is reading Melmoth the Wanderer in the lobby of the hotel after seeing Fargas to review his copy of The Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows.
  • In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe, one of the major characters is named “Doctor Melmoth.”
  • In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Professor Humbert Humbert calls his automobile “Melmoth.”
  • In John Banville’s 1989 novel The Book of Evidence, the narrator steals an automobile from a garage called “Melmoth’s”; the make of the car is a Humber, an allusion to both Wilde and Nabokov.
  • “Melmoth” is mentioned in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
  • In Dave Sim’s Cerebus comic book (issues 139–150), there’s a writer named Oscar (homage to Oscar Wilde), who’s registered under the name “Melmoth” at his hotel.
  • In Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers metaseries, Melmoth is an antagonist of Frankenstein.
  • In Leonie Swann’s Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story, the mysterious sheep who has wandered the world and comes home to teach the flock what he has learned is named Melmoth.
  • The mysterious financier Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now resembles Melmoth in more than name.
  • In an 1842 review of Stanley Thorn, Edgar Allan Poe refers to “the devil in Melmoth” as an ineffectual seducer of souls.
  • In letters P. Lovecraft addresses Donald Wandrei as Melmoth the Wandrei.
  • A British magazine about surrealism was named Melmoth after the book. Melmoth was published from 1979-1981 and its contributors included George Melly and Ithell Colquhoun.
  • In the British TV murder mystery series Midsomer Murders the episode “Murder By Magic” (2015) included a mysterious country manor called Melmouth House, the home of an infamous rake-hell and paganist, Sir Henry Melmouth, who died, apparently, in a ritual pagan fire, hoping to be reborn from the ashes like the mythical phoenix.
  • In Marty Feldman’s movie In God We Tru$t (1980), Peter Boyle plays a con man and crooked street preacher named Dr. Sebastian Melmoth.
  • Peter Garrison named the aircraft Garrison Melmoth after himself and Melmoth the Wanderer.
  • Sarah Perry’s third novel Melmoth (2018) centers on a female variation of Maturin’s character, damned (like Richard Wagner’s Kundry in Parsifal) for denying the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The reason I recently decided to reread Melmoth the Wanderer was because I had heard about Sarah Perry’s new novel Melmoth. I will be reviewing that novel in my next article.

Even though Melmoth the Wanderer’s life appears to end at the conclusion of Maturin’s novel, it is clear his influence wanders on and likely will continue to do so for many years to come.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City and numerous other books. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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Anne Rice’s “Blood Communion” Ties Up Loose Ends and Ultimately Defines Lestat’s Role

Blood Communion is the fifteenth book in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series. By this point in the series, Lestat has been proclaimed prince of the vampires and established a court in his father’s chateau in France. Most of the vampires are delighted by this situation and they come to pay him homage and even to live at court, but there are still a few renegade vampires who want nothing to do with the court.

Blood Communion – a fitting end to the Vampire Chronicles, if it is the end.

The book begins with Lestat saying he is writing to the Blood Communion—the communion of blood drinkers. He reminds us that he wrote his previous books to document his and the other vampires’ stories, and also he writes again now because many vampire fledglings were not even born when he wrote his first books. As I read this, I thought how this book might be called The Gospel of Lestat because he is writing down his life story of how he has basically saved the vampires, all the years that he preserved Amel being included in them, Amel being the life source creature that allowed the blood drinkers to exist and which was present in Lestat for a while until it received its own body.

Blood Communion continually repeats what has happened in previous books to remind the reader of past events, but frankly, by this point, so many vampires are in the storyline that many of them I couldn’t remember at all. The number of characters and references to past events has become overwhelming, and I feel like the book needs a character list. Maybe an entire Who’s Who in the Vampire Chronicles volume is needed now.

The book is only 256 pages, and there are even a few pictures that take up some of that space. It is perhaps the shortest of the Vampire Chronicles, and not a lot happens in it, especially if one were to weed out all the flowery descriptive language Rice uses.

The only real plot is that the vampire Roshamandes is threatening the Court and the vampires want Lestat to destroy him. Before Lestat can act, Roshamandes attacks and kidnaps three vampires whom it is believed he kills. To make peace, Lestat agrees to be captured by Roshamandes (Spoiler Alert here). Lestat goes with Roshamandes, but before Roshamandes can hurt him, Lestat manages to fight him, eats his eyes, and destroys him with fire. The book goes on for another hundred pages after this, but that is the only moment of real action in it.

The remainder of the book is about preparing for a great ball that takes place in which the vampires come to pay Lestat homage, kissing his ring which depicts Medusa’s head on it. (Why a Medusa ring I don’t know. The symbolism, if any, was lost on me.)

At the end, the main purpose is summed up in Marius praising Lestat for giving his life for the Court by sacrificing himself in his battle with Roshamandes. The sense here is that Lestat is a type of Christ figure, willing to give his life for his friends. Now that the threats to the Court have been destroyed, Lestat has allowed his tribe to put aside hate and embrace each other. This reads like Lestat has conquered sin and allowed love to come into the world. Consequently, it is not surprising that Lestat is writing this book—it is his gospel about how all vampires can live in harmony—his preaching of love just as Christ preached love.

I admit the book falls a bit flat in its lack of any real storyline, but the depiction of Lestat as a Christ figure (Rice never comes right out and says Lestat is the Christ figure of the vampires, although it’s implied) is in keeping with Rice’s previous books. Its emphasis makes one feel like the story has finally come to a conclusion with peace and harmony among all the vampires. That said, Rice has not officially said this will be the last book, and knowing her, she will come up with more, but Blood Communion would work as a good finale to the series, which has, frankly, gone on long enough.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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The Snake’s Pass–Bram Stoker’s First Novel

The Snake’s Pass is one of those pseudo-minor classics that would have been forgotten if it were not the first novel written by the author of Dracula, one of the greatest of the nineteenth century novels. The book was published in 1890, only seven years before Dracula, yet it is a long way from Stoker’s masterpiece in plot and form. A fan of Dracula may not enjoy it, but a literary or Bram Stoker scholar definitely would. It is actually better written than Lair of the White Worm, a later Stoker novel, but not up to the quality of The Jewel of the Seven Stars.

The Valancourt Books edition of The Snake’s Pass, Bram Stoker’s first novel.

What sets the novel off the most from Stoker’s other Gothic works is a real lack of the supernatural in the novel. There is a legend of a snake king driven from Ireland by St. Patrick in the book, but nothing supernatural ever actually occurs in the novel’s pages. The mysterious shifting bog is not supernatural at all, and frankly, the dullest part of the novel since Stoker goes into great detail of the measuring and study of the bog, which is being analyzed to determine where a lost treasure may be found. The conflict exists between the villain, Murdock, who is willing to do anything to find this treasure, and Arthur Severn and his friends. Arthur falls in love with Nora, whose father is cheated by Murdock to gain control of his land which may have the hidden treasure on it.

The first half of the book is bogged down with descriptions of the bog until Arthur falls in love with Nora, and then a tender, but not terribly exciting love story occurs. The book picks up speed halfway, yet still moves relatively slowly until the dramatic ending scene during a storm where Murdock and the protagonists struggle to find the treasure. This final scene makes the book worth reading, both for itself, and as an example of the talent Stoker had already developed for pacing and drama which he would use consistently in Dracula.

The book is not for the general reader, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the British or Irish novel—it is the only novel Stoker set in his native Ireland. One wishes Stoker, as a more mature writer, had written another novel of Ireland, perhaps with vampires included.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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New Dracula Prequel Builds on Stoker’s Unpublished Manuscripts

Dracul, the recently published prequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written by his great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker, is a treat for both Dracula enthusiasts and Dracula scholars. The novel tells a fictional story about Bram Stoker’s childhood and early life from the 1850s through 1868, including his encounters with Dracula. Although the story is obviously fictional, the authors drew upon Stoker’s early versions of Dracula, including his handwritten notes, to create this spellbinding tale.

Dracul, a prequel to Dracula, allows Bram Stoker to meet Dracula face to face.

When the novel opens, Bram is a sickly child growing up in Ireland during the potato famine. He nearly dies at birth, but his nurse Ellen Crone saves him, although no one is quite sure how. She continues to care for him during his illnesses and the family notices that afterwards, as he grows stronger, she becomes weaker. Over time, Bram and his sister Matilda continue to notice strange things about Ellen. At one point, Bram sees her naked limbs, which have the appearance of those of a wrinkled old woman, although she seems fairly young. They investigate her room and find the floor dirty and dusty with no sign of footprints. Ellen realizes they are curious about her, so she taunts Bram for going out at night to investigate her wanderings, all the while climbing the walls and ceiling like a spider. Many other strange incidents occur that make it obvious Ellen is not human, but then she disappears from the children’s lives for many years.

I don’t want to give away the whole plot beyond that, but it’s sufficient to say that Ellen has had dealings with Dracula, and as a result, Bram also encounters the great vampire. I found the book entertaining, although some readers might find the novel far-fetched and not like it’s lack of being accurate to Stoker’s biography—I am not aware that Stoker ever had a nurse named Ellen and could not find evidence of her in the recent Stoker biography by David J. Skal, Something in the Blood, or that he ever traveled to Munich to fight vampires. Regardless, the authors raise some interesting questions about Stoker’s writing of Dracula and the possibility that it was based on real events. Consequently, the novel’s afterword alone makes Dracul worth reading.

I won’t go into full details about the afterword, but here are a few points worth mentioning. At the end of Dracul, Dracula warns Stoker that he will be back to claim him when he dies. Of course, this is supposition on the authors’ part, but in the afterword they note that Stoker had himself cremated, which was unusual in 1912. The suggestion is that Stoker may have feared becoming a vampire like the corpse of Lucy Westenra in Dracula. More significantly, in the original manuscript of Dracula, which was titled The Un-Dead, Stoker wrote a preface in which he states that the novel’s events really took place. Of course, this literary trick—the claim that the book was based on true events to make fiction feel real—was around long before Stoker. Such claims were an effort to validate fiction and make it more reputable, as well as more interesting to readers. For example, in the early days of the novel, Daniel Defoe claimed Robinson Crusoe (1719) was a true story and Samuel Richardson claimed Pamela (1740) was a compilation of real letters. Neither claim was true, so there is no reason to believe Stoker’s tale had any truth to it either. Regardless, it’s fun—in a scary way—to think it might be.

For me, the most fascinating thing about Dracul’s afterword is how it builds on the recent scholarship that revealed the version of Dracula published in Iceland, known there as Makt Myrkranna and recently translated into English as Powers of Darkness, with a preface by Dacre Stoker, is not the same version of Dracula we have in English. According to Dracul’s afterword, Stoker’s publisher made him do serious revisions to the novel, including cutting the first 101 pages and changing the title, plus toning down the idea that it was based on true events. The publisher feared the Whitechapel murders of 1888-1891, blamed on Jack the Ripper, were still fresh enough in people’s minds that claims of vampires in England might cause a panic. (This fear may seem far-fetched to us, but let’s not forget the panic stirred up by Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of A War of the Worlds in 1938.)

The most recent biography of Bram Stoker.

Stoker, to get his novel published, went along with his publisher’s desire for changes for his English reading audience, but he did not make the changes to copies of the novel he personally sent to publishers worldwide. As a result, Powers of Darkness is a very different novel from Dracula in many ways, and in the afterword to Dracul, Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker suggest more foreign editions of Dracula need to be translated to see what other changes were made.

Also of importance is that the original manuscript of The Un-Dead still exists, minus its first 101 pages. The authors of Dracul state that it is now owned by Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft. He allowed them to view the manuscript after signing a disclosure agreement not to reveal what was in it. They can only disclose that the short story “Dracula’s Guest” is from the original manuscript and also that the manuscript begins on page 102, the page number of which has been crossed out and renumbered as 1. Stoker apparently cut the first 101 pages of the novel and they have been long missing, which is one reason Powers of Darkness is so interesting since Jonathan Harker’s time in Dracula’s castle is extended in that version.

Of course, the discovery of Powers of Darkness was a field day for Dracula scholars. Hopefully, more foreign editions of Dracula will be translated and published, but more importantly, we can hope that The Un-Dead will eventually be published. Unfortunately, Paul Allen died on October 15, 2018, so the fate of The Un-Dead will remain to be seen.

Powers of Darkness is the new translation into English of the Icelandic translation of Dracula. It reveals many surprising changes between the Dracula we know and the Dracula read in Iceland for over a century.

Finally, what fascinates me most is that anyone who has read Stoker’s other novels will admit that despite a few stirring passages, they largely fall flat beside Dracula. Certainly, as fascinating as Powers of Darkness is from a scholarly perspective, the writing is far from first-rate, and that can be said of most of Stoker’s other novels. I think this difference lies largely in the revision process Stoker went through to get Dracula published in England. According to Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker, Stoker’s editor, Otto Kyllman, worked with him for several months to reshape the novel, the two butting heads over what to cut and what to save. I had never heard of Kyllman before, but he seems to have been very astute as an editor. Surprisingly, he did not die until 1958, which means he must have been extraordinarily young when he was Stoker’s editor at Archibald Constable & Company. Unfortunately, I could find little online about Kyllman. His Wikipedia entry does not even give his birthdate, but it says he was the senior director at Constable & Co. from 1909 to 1950. This is a man whose editing career spanned more than half a century and who worked closely with such authors as George Bernard Shaw and May Sinclair. Surprisingly, Kyllman is not even mentioned in Skal’s biography of Stoker. While I don’t want to downplay Stoker’s genius in creating Dracula, one has to wonder how much credit Kyllman deserves for the Dracula we have today. It is definitely a topic that deserves more exploration.

Dracul is a fun read for those who like novelizations about famous authors, but it’s more than that—in a roundabout way, it helps to add another piece to the mystery of Dracula and how it came to be the incredible novel it is, one that has captivated our imaginations for 121 years and counting.

Thank you to Robert Burke for bringing Dracul to my attention.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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The Lady of the Shroud: Bram Stoker’s Failed Return to Dracula’s Roots

Few people realize that Bram Stoker wrote a total of thirteen novels. Dracula (1897) has eclipsed all the others in popular culture, although The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1907) and The Lair of the White Worm (1911) have both had film versions and both return to the supernatural themes that made Dracula such a success. In The Lady of the Shroud (1909), Stoker again used supernatural themes, but this time, the supernatural is not real but simply a figment of the main character’s imagination. These seemingly supernatural moments in the novel are uncanny and enticing, but ultimately unconvincing, and the reader finds it far-fetched that anything supernatural is happening long before the main character realizes it. Consequently, the novel falls short as intriguing fiction or even coming close to the power of Dracula.

One of the many dramatic covers of The Lady of the Shroud.

The Lady of the Shroud is built around an entrancing idea: a mysterious woman wearing a shroud appears only at night in an Eastern European land that makes the main character extremely curious about her. And, of course, attracted to her. The concept is attractive, but Stoker cannot maintain the interest once it is revealed that she is not a ghost or vampire but a mere mortal woman. Furthermore, Stoker fails to create a plot with enough action to maintain the pace or interest of the book. A short summary of the plot reveals there really is little plot at all.

The novel is written as a series of documents, a style hearkening back to Dracula, which itself was inspired by the style of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. It opens with the death of Roger Melton and several letters and journal entries, primarily of his great-nephew Ernest Melton, who expects to inherit since his father is the head of the family and he will succeed him. Ernest is obnoxious and insulting in his remarks about all other members of the family whom he thinks himself better than, especially his cousin Rupert Saint Leger. Unfortunately, Ernest is the most interesting character in the novel, completely oblivious to what a prick he is. When Rupert inherits the estate, Ernest is not happy.

We then follow Rupert for the remainder of the novel. Rupert’s inheritance of more than a million pounds is conditional upon his living for a year in his uncle’s castle in the Land of the Blue Mountains on the Dalmatian coast. This is a completely fictional and oddly named country. It is a small country striving to maintain independence against the Turks and basically recalls Romania or Transylvania in Dracula. Soon, Rupert befriends the locals and helps them acquire weapons to fight the Turks.

The title character of the novel now enters the story. On a dark, wet night, she seeks shelter in Rupert’s room, mysteriously appearing there, and asking for permission to warm herself by the fire. He agrees, and although she is dressed in a white shroud, he does not ask questions of her. She flees in the morning, but expresses her gratitude to him and promises to return. Her repeated visits only at night and her wearing of the shroud eventually make him consider she may be a vampire. The suspense about her identity continues because he never asks her questions. She here recalls images of Lucy Westenra after she has become a vampire in Dracula and also the “woman in white” in Collins’ novel. Regardless, Rupert falls in love with her. Then he visits the local church and finds her lying in a glass-topped coffin in the crypt, a sign she is dead, or rather, the undead. However, that she visits him but never seeks to seduce or bite him makes the reader quickly realize she can hardly be a vampire.

Here the lady is floating in coffin in the ocean – the crypt does flood but the coffin never becomes a boat.

Before we know it, without learning his female visitor’s identity, Rupert has promised to marry her, no matter what that marriage will mean—even apparently losing his soul. This decision very much recalls the dark marriage that occurs in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) between the accursed Melmoth and the innocent Immalee, except for the gender reversal of who is innocent here. Even after the nighttime marriage, which turns out to be an Eastern Orthodox ceremony conducted in the church, and not some sort of Black Mass, she tells him while she loves him, she must continue to live in the crypt.

The truth about Rupert’s new wife is revealed when she is kidnapped from the church by Turks. The locals then tell Rupert she is not dead but alive, named Teuta, and daughter of the local Voivode, who has been traveling in America. She had fallen into a trance and been declared dead, but when she woke, the local clergy and political leaders spread a story that she was a vampire. She chose to live up to this story, apparently to protect herself and trick the Turks, by lying in the crypt, but when it had flooded, she had sought the warmth of Rupert’s castle. Of course, once kidnapped, the Turks realize she is not dead.

Rupert now leads a rescue party. However, he has barely saved Teuta before it’s learned that her father has returned and also been kidnapped by the Turks. What follows is the most dramatic moment in the book when Rupert uses his airplane to save the Voivode. He does so by lowering Teuta down from the airplane to where the Voivode is imprisoned in the castle, and then he raises the two back up. At this point we are told Rupert is a giant man and incredibly strong since he can pull up two people into his airplane. Prior to this, no mention is made of Rupert’s great size and strength so the moment is a surprise to the reader. Soon after the Turks are defeated and then the happy ending is prolonged for about two hours’ worth of dull reading.

There is no real plot after this. The Voivode is happy to have Rupert as a son-in-law. The people want to proclaim the Voivode their king but he says he is old and that Rupert should be king. Rupert feels Teuta should instead rule since she is the Voivode’s rightful heir, but she declares she is not like modern women “in an age when self-seeking women of other nations seek to forget their womanhood in the struggle to vie in equality with men!” In other words, men, not women, should rule. Stoker’s sexism is obvious here. Worse is Teuta’s statement, “I speak for our women when I say that we hold of greatest price the glory of our men. To be their companions is our happiness; to be their wives is the completion of our lives; to be the mother of their children is our share of the glory that is theirs.” (Oh, Teuta, I liked you far better when I thought you were a vampire and not a submissive women ready to surrender your identity and crown to your husband. Unfortunately, your creator was a product of his time.) Following Rupert’s coronation is a visit by the obnoxious cousin Ernest, who is soon made to leave the country for how rude he is, and then comes the birth of Rupert and Teuta’s child. The novel drags on and on during these scenes before finally ending.

Yet another floating coffin.

With The Lady of the Shroud, Stoker has made a novel out of a simple concept that would have made a nice short story. The atmosphere is powerful in the middle of the novel, but once the truth about the lady is revealed, it falls into a male fantasy adventure in which an Englishman becomes king over the inferior locals and saves the day. Here we have Western supremacy over the East much like in Dracula where the count, being from the East, is ultimately a degenerate and may represent the Eastern European immigrants who were coming into England at the time. One also has to wonder whether Stoker, in creating Rupert, had Lord Byron in mind with his efforts to liberate the Greeks.

Ultimately, The Lady of the Shroud has little story and provides little interest. Even returning to the Eastern European setting of Dracula fails to rekindle the count’s magic. The Lady of the Shroud is only interesting to Stoker scholars and fans as a curiosity. It’s as if the leftover pieces of Dracula were sewn together to create something that resembles a complete novel.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

 

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Dracula’s Rival: The Beetle by Richard Marsh

Richard Marsh’s Gothic novel The Beetle first appeared in 1897, the same year as Dracula. Originally published in serialization as The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man in the magazine Answers from March 13 to June 15, that autumn it was published in book form with a new title, The Beetle: A Mystery. The title change is apt since it is more concise and focuses on the chief horror of the story. However, the original title is significant because it identifies Paul Lessingham as the main character. Lessingham does not occupy a major chunk of the narrative, yet he is in some sense responsible for the horrible events that unfold.

The Beetle is about an androgynous human-like creature who shape-shifts into a beetle and may have sources in Ancient Egypt, scarabs, and the cult of Isis.

Before discussing the plot and the novel’s Gothic elements, it’s worth noting that few literary critics have given The Beetle much attention, even though the novel outsold Dracula upon its initial publication. It was immensely popular and was never out of print until 1960. It even inspired a 1919 silent film and a 1928 stage play. As late as 1997, a radio play of it was produced. However, only in recent years have literary critics started to take notice of it.

This article will explore The Beetle’s Gothic elements, suggest why it fails beside greater Gothic novels like Dracula, and why it deserves a place of significance in the history of its genre, although it more draws upon its Gothic predecessors than inspired later Gothic works.

The novel is divided into four books, each told by a different character. Each section is a document or report compiled by Champnell, the inspector in the case. These different narrative voices and the idea of documents compiling a novel suggest an influence of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Notably, Stoker would use a similar format in Dracula.

In Book 1, Robert Holt, an unemployed and homeless clerk, seeks shelter by entering through an open window into a house. Inside the house, he sees glowing eyes from which he is unable to draw his gaze. Even when he realizes the creature he sees is not human, he finds himself unable to flee. Eventually, the creature approaches him and “mounts” him, crawling up him. The description of this encounter is very sexual, the creature even coming to his “loins.” Given the book’s title, the reader assumes this creature is the beetle. It is described in sticky, wet terms that make it sound female, and yet also male. Later, a light comes on and the creature disappears. Holt finds himself in a room with a man in a bed. This man throughout the novel will also be described as an Oriental and an Arab. Like the mysterious creature, the man also has hypnotic eyes, and he orders Holt to undress. Unable to resist, Holt is left standing naked before the man. The man, with female features, ultimately kisses Holt, which seems to be a way of feeding upon him. Toward the end of the novel, Holt is found with scratches on his neck and he appears to have been drained of life, reminiscent of vampire behavior, although the beetle is clearly not a vampire. The scenes with Holt are the most disturbing and intriguing of the entire novel. I won’t go into further detail about them but they are filled with sexuality and homoeroticism.

Eventually, Holt is ordered by the strange man to go to the home of Paul Lessingham, a member of Parliament, and rob him. He is told if Lessingham catches him, to utter the words “the beetle” to scare him off. Holt, unable to disobey, does exactly what the strange man says. Lessingham catches Holt in the act of robbery, but he shrinks back in horror when the words “the beetle” are uttered. Holt then flees.

The second book is told by Sydney Atherton, who sees Holt fleeing from Lessingham’s home and goes to warn Lessingham. Atherton is in love with Marjorie Lindon, who is in love with Lessingham.

The third book is told by Marjorie, presenting her view of her love affair. Her father is opposed to the marriage, not liking Lessingham’s politics. Because of Lessingham’s political speeches, the delivery of which might be termed preaching, and because of his first name, Lessingham is called “The Apostle” and “St. Paul” by Atherton. What Marjorie doesn’t know is the story of Lessingham’s past. Lessingham had once traveled to Egypt and there had been walking down a street when he heard a woman singing. He went into the building and found it was a type of nightclub. The woman he heard singing eventually drugged him, and before he knew it, he had lost about two months of time being her sex slave while in a drugged up state. He refers to this woman as the Woman of the Song. This woman has many literary predecessors, notably La Belle Dame Sans Merci, whom Keats wrote about and many of the Pre-Raphaelites painted—a woman who takes men to her fairyland as lovers and when they return to the real world, they find a significant amount of time has passed in what seems just hours. The woman’s ability to take control of a man also recalls H. Ryder Haggard’s novel She. Lessingham only has dim memories of what happened in the den where he was held captive, although he believes human sacrifice is among the crimes committed there. Finally, in a rare moment where his captor forgets to drug him, he is able to escape.

As the novel progresses, it’s realized that the Woman of the Songs, a member of the cult of Isis and perhaps not human but some sort of creature forgotten by history, has traveled to England. It turns out she is the Beetle and also the strange man in the bed whom Holt first met. She is apparently androgynous or able to shift her appearance. Her hypnotic eyes, of course, have predecessors in the hypnotic eyes of the Wandering Jew as featured in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and vampires, including Stoker’s Dracula, although earlier vampire novels like Polidori’s The Vampyre and Rymer’s Varney the Vampire are more likely influences. A more contemporary source may have been George Du Maurier’s Trilby, in which Svengali hypnotizes and controls the female title character. Prior to The Beetle, hypnotic eyes were attributed to male Gothic figures and they usually controlled men, but Trilby is, to my knowledge, the first novel in which a woman is controlled by hypnotism, and The Beetle is the first novel in which a female character is able to mesmerize another with her eyes.

The novel concludes when Marjorie is kidnapped by the Beetle/Woman of the Song. In fact, Marjorie is forced to dress in Robert Holt’s clothes (who by now is lying close to death) and then make her way to a train station to be smuggled out of England. The implication is that she will become the Woman of the Song’s next human sacrifice. Fortunately, Champnell, the police inspector, who narrates the fourth and final book, along with the help of Atherton, is able to rescue Marjorie in time.

The novel is fascinating for its use of hypnotism, its use of an ancient creature—the Beetle appears to be thousands of years old—its homosexual and homoerotic renderings that are very similar to but surpass the homoeroticism in Dracula, and its treatment of a threat from the East upon England, just as Dracula has been read as a novel about the threat of Eastern European immigrants upon England.

However, the novel ultimately fails to succeed because it never fully explains the mystery. We never understand what the creature is or how it metamorphoses; unlike Dracula, whose role as a vampire is illuminated by Van Helsing’s knowledge, the Beetle is never understood. We do not know how or why the creature becomes a beetle; is the creature cursed like someone who turns into a werewolf is, or is it is some strange creature who was overlooked by zoologists and got written out of evolution theories? At the end of the novel, we are told that Champnell has read a report of a discovery of a hole in the ground in the East where several strange creatures are found dead after an explosion, and we are to assume the Beetle was one of these non-human creatures, but while this makes us feel assured that the threat is over, it does not explain what the Beetle is. Equally unsatisfactory is why the creature comes to England. Paul Lessingham’s past experiences in Egypt allow us to understand that it is the same creature he experienced that has now comes to England. The creature says it wants revenge, but what Paul did, other than escape, is not clear. The creature apparently kidnaps Marjorie as revenge since Paul is engaged to Marjorie, but none of the creature’s motives are really ever made fully clear.

Ultimately, however, what causes the novel to falter, in my opinion, is that Paul Lessingham is not a Gothic wanderer figure—although tormented by memories of the Beetle while in the East, Lessingham is not a transgressor—he did nothing to deserve his torment, and he has no guilt over his past—just simply a horror of an event that occurred in his past. While he apparently brings the creature to England in the sense that it follows him there, he does not intentionally unleash such evil. Of course, in Dracula, no one is at fault for Dracula coming to England either, but Dracula himself is the Gothic wanderer. We learn enough about his past in the novel to know he has committed a transgression—made a pact with the devil by studying in the Scholomance and in the mountains, and thus he is damned, and we know when Dracula is destroyed at the end that an expression of relief comes across his face, a sense that he is glad to be released from the vampirism that fills him. The Beetle’s ending is less satisfactory. It is apparently destroyed, but all that is left is a sticky mess and a lot of unanswered questions. We never learn what the creature was, how it came to be what it was, or why it commits human sacrifice, if that is even what it was doing.

I will not say this is the final word on The Beetle or Richard Marsh. Marsh (1857-1915) actually wrote about eighty novels and stories, none of which have received much critical attention. Several others deserve to be explored, including The Goddess: A Demon (1900) about an Indian sacrificial idol that comes to life with murderous intent, The Joss: a Reversion (1901) about an Englishman who transforms into a hideous idol, A Spoiler of Men (1905), in which a gentleman-criminal renders people slaves to his will through chemical injection, and A Second Coming (1900) which imagines Christ’s return in twentieth century London—another case of the ancient and the modern coming together. I have not read any of these novels, just seen short descriptions of them, but because their themes are similar to those in The Beetle, they may hold further answers into Marsh’s thinking about these themes that will further illuminate a reading of his best-known work.

The Beetle’s popularity definitely struck a chord among its readers, and though eclipsed by Dracula, and understandably, it remains fascinating in many ways. Marsh’s popularity in his day makes further study of him and his works a worthy pursuit for a fuller understanding of Gothic literature at the dawn of the twentieth century.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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