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Picus the Thief, translated by Robin Bennett, is an original book that takes several traditional storytelling motifs and gives them new life through multiple reimaginings of legends and traditions.
Think of it as fairyland meets Camelot meets Dracula. It’s a little of all of those, and yet not strictly tied to any of them.
The title character, Picus, is a vampire, but he’s not your typical vampire—although there is a reference to Dracula as a sort of vampire ancestor—but that’s rather anachronistic—in fact a lot of things about this book are anachronistic. In any case, Picus is not only a vampire but he has fairy-like or, more properly, dragonfly-like wings. He is about the size of your forefinger, and as one of the human characters says when he meets Picus, to Picus’ displeasure, he’s kind of like a mosquito—he can fly and he sucks blood.
Picus is far from a scary vampire. One of his bites probably doesn’t hurt much more than that of a mosquito, so he’s not a bad guy. That said, vampires do think well of themselves; there’s plenty of vampire superiority in this book—a tone that vampires are better than humans—although I’m not sure that that isn’t all vampire propaganda.
To understand why it might be termed propaganda, we have to look at the book’s authorship. It is actually the first book in the Small Vampires series, which will provide a history of the vampires. The book was allegedly discovered in manuscript form in a curious way by Robin Bennett, who explains in the introduction how the strange book in an unfamiliar language eventually came into his hands. After some difficulty he managed to translate it. In short, he learned it was written by vampires, so obviously they will portray themselves in the best light. He also learned that there were people in the world who might be willing to harm him to get their hands on the book, and so he decided to publish it so there would be no one copy that could be stolen from him. All of this is explained in a very engaging way that made me realize that here was the typical eighteenth century Gothic novel technique of the mysterious discovered manuscript, but at the same time, it was written in a fun way that made me feel more like I was entering a playful and mysterious world akin to Narnia or Neverland.
And then the story starts and we are introduced to Picus. It is the year 266 A.D. we are told, which is rather odd and why I say the book is anachronistic since Dracula (if he was first the historical Vlad Tepes) lived in the fifteenth century, and eventually, Picus goes to Angleland at the time soon after the Romans have left—they wouldn’t leave in reality until about 410 A.D. and there were certainly no Angles in England at that time (but this is Angleland not really England). In short, Bennett, whom I suspect is the author despite his claims to being the translator, is writing pseudo-history and consequently everything in this book is “pseudo”—pseudo-vampires and pseudo-Arthurian legend especially.
Despite the vampires’ belief that they are superior to their cousins the Faies (fairies) and to the humans (who may have some distant relationship to both of these more supernatural beings, though the humans are magic-less), the vampires have some issues of their own. At least Picus does. He grew up in a dysfunctional home in which he was asked to murder his Sanguine—a wingless being the vampires have bred as servants and to feed upon. Picus’ refusal to kill his Sanguine led to his flight from home and his mother’s anger. Talk about dysfunction. Before the book ends, this mixed up family turns out to be more like Hamlet’s family than that from any happy fairy tale—come to think of it, most fairy tales do feature dysfunctional families—think of all those evil stepmothers.
Anyway, Picus makes his living as a thief, and we follow him from one theft to another until he finds himself being commissioned to enter the human world and steal the sword Exkylipr, which was forged in the belly of the Chalice and is one of the seven treasures. (Think Excalibur and Merlin collecting the Thirteen Treasures of Britain.) The humans were given the sword many years before, but now the vampires want it back, so Picus is sent to retrieve it. He ends up going to Camelon Castle, but he doesn’t meet any Arthur there. (There is an Art in the book, but he’s a vampire and runs a pawn shop—nothing kingly about him.) Instead, Picus meets an Ambrosias (no uncle to King Arthur but an old lady and the court physician). She is wise enough to know his purpose and eventually befriends him.
I won’t say more because I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but don’t look for an Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle in this book, and don’t look for your typical vampires, even though these vampires do have roots in Transylvania and the Carpathians.
Rather, expect a highly original take on old legends that is playful yet not lacking in adventure or even violence. There’s a feel of almost Irish leprechaun trickery here, a dash of Shakespearean revenge tragedy, and some beautiful prose worthy of Hans Christian Andersen. There’s plenty of whimsical creatures, complete with a glossary of them, an essay explaining magic in the vampires’ world, and even plenty of humor. For example, one of the funniest passages for me was “Gargoyles were also generally accepted to be the most nosey, pernickety, prissy and prying species on the planet after cleaning ladies….”
This is not a book for the die-hard Arthurian fan who likes depictions of the historical King Arthur. It’s more for fans who enjoyed the BBC’s Merlin. It’s also not for lovers of dark Gothic lore with all its angst or even the Twilight crowd—I think you’d be more likely a fan of The Addams Family or Young Frankenstein if you like this book—or maybe The Princess Bride. If you love fairies, I also think you’ll love these vampires, but perhaps not the fairies in the book—Queen Mab is about as awful as they come with her necklace made out of male vampire teeth, which has led to her nickname “The Tooth Fairy.” Actually, I loved hating her.
So it’s a little of everything—a little grotesque, a little funny, a little magical, and a little traditional. Plus, it’s a beautifully-designed book—the cover looks like a true lost manuscript or the kinds of books produced at the turn of the last century, and there are illustrations for each chapter, not of the characters, but of flowers and dragonflies that give it the feel of Victorian fairy tale books. I imagine many young adult readers will enjoy it, but adults may also feel here is some of the magic of childhood they knew that hasn’t been lost but only needs to be found again.
You can find out more about the “translator” Robin Bennett and the future books in this series at www.SmallVampires.com
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, and the upcoming Lilith’s Love and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com.
I just saw the new Tarzan film, The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård, and it is absolutely fantastic. In fact, I think Skarsgård may be the best Tarzan ever to hit the screen and the film also the best Tarzan movie ever made. Of course, Johnny Weissmuller is Tarzan for legions of movie fans, but as wonderful as he was, his depiction of Tarzan was not in keeping with author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vision—Burroughs’ Tarzan was highly educated and articulate, speaking in more than monosyllables. The other actors who have played Tarzan all had their good points, except perhaps Jock Mahoney—worst Tarzan ever. But no one now in my opinion holds a flame to Skarsgård.
Skarsgård is fabulous if for no other reason than his appearance. Not only is he appropriately tall, but he is muscular without being bulky, and has the lithe body Burroughs describes. He also has a fair number of scars on his body in the film, which is appropriate, including a noticeable scar on his forehead as he has in the books—a very Gothic element that scar—in the novels, it pulses and turns red when he grows angry—reminiscent of the mark of Cain and the Wandering Jew’s cross on the forehead—there is no Gothic or supernatural elements in this film, but nevertheless, it’s clear the screenplay writer knew the books. In addition, I thought Margot Robbie quite good as Jane also, and Christopher Waltz was an effective villain. I can’t say it was Samuel L. Jackson’s best role, but he did have a more minor part.
I also admit that the role of Opar in the film was rather disappointing—there was no stunning ancient city depicted and there was no priestess La, ready to try to seduce Tarzan. And yes, some of the vine-swinging was a bit far-fetched, but it was breathtaking regardless. The scene on the train is one of the best kickass action scenes ever filmed in my opinion. Overall, I was very impressed and will likely watch the film several more times—many of the Tarzan films are barely watchable once, by comparison. So overall, I give this film two thumbs up. I’m ready for a whole new Tarzan film franchise with ten sequels!
But why should we care about Tarzan here at the Gothic Wanderer blog? Because I believe Tarzan is the pivotal figure in the transition of the Gothic Wanderer figure into the modern day superhero.
Following is an excerpt from my book The Gothic Wanderer that describes why Tarzan is so important to the Gothic and superhero traditions.
Tarzan: The Gothic Wanderer Turned Superhero
Surprisingly, it would be an American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who would combine theories of evolution, the Imperial Gothic, and the Gothic wanderer figure to create a superhero Gothic wanderer free of guilt.
I realize some readers will think my discussion of Tarzan of the Apes (1914) is a stretch in terms of my defining it as being within the Gothic novel tradition, but it definitely has Gothic elements. The novel is also a celebration of Darwin’s theory of evolution in many ways. No longer does evolution distance man from God—it makes him like a god—Burroughs is especially fond of calling Tarzan the “forest god” throughout the twenty-four novels in the Tarzan series.
The opening pages of the first book, Tarzan of the Apes, are very Gothic. Lord Greystoke and his wife are aboard a ship taken over by a mutinous crew; the Greystokes see the captain and his loyal men slaughtered, but rather than kill the Greystokes, the mutineers decide to set the husband and wife ashore on the coast of Africa where they are forced to fend for themselves amid the jungle’s horrors. Eventually, the terrifying apes kill the Greystokes, but not before Alice Greystoke gives birth to a son, Tarzan, who survives because Kala, a she-ape, has recently had her own child die, so she adopts Tarzan as her son. Tarzan grows up among the apes, quite the Gothic wanderer in his outcast role among the tribe for how he is different. He is weaker than the apes, although he soon realizes he is smarter.
Gothic elements come into play when the boy discovers his parents’ cabin. Like a ruined castle full of secrets, here Tarzan learns the truth about his origins—that he is human. He also learns to read—discovering his father’s journal—one of those Gothic manuscripts that reveal family secrets. Evolution theory is used in the novel to show that while Tarzan is not physically as strong as the jungle’s beasts, he is able to use his father’s knife to kill them, and over time, he uses his intelligence to create weapons and set traps and prove his superiority, not only over the apes, gorillas, and other beasts, but ultimately, over the black natives of Africa as well—the text is very racist in this respect, but the product of Burroughs’ time. It is no accident that Tarzan is descended from English nobility—had his parents been French peasants or blacks, he doubtless would not have been so successful since evolutionary theories also resulted in racist distinctions. Ultimately, Tarzan’s superiority allows him to kill the apes’ leader, Kerchak, so Tarzan can take his own place as “king” of the apes.
Later, when Professor Porter and his party are marooned in Africa, Tarzan encounters not only Jane but also his cousin, William Cecil Clayton, who has inherited Tarzan’s ancestral estate in England because it is assumed Tarzan’s parents died and no one knows of Tarzan’s birth or existence. Tarzan eventually befriends the party, saving Jane from numerous dangers in the jungle—which provides plenty of moments of Gothic horror for everyone except Tarzan who is himself a Gothic horror to the Americans and English in the party, and later, to anyone in the series who crosses Tarzan and feels his wrath.
Eventually, Tarzan, with the help of a friend, is able to prove his identity as Lord Greystoke. At first, he conceals and renounces his heritage because Jane is in love with his cousin, Clayton, but everything is worked out for him in the first sequel The Return of Tarzan (1915). Tarzan’s inheritance goes back to the Gothic emphasis upon primogeniture and concerns over who has the right to inherit property and titles. Tarzan’s desire to keep his identity secret is also Gothic in the sense that he possesses a forbidden secret, one he fears will upset the social order, and especially Jane’s happiness. Tarzan is himself not all that keen on revealing his identity and going to live in civilization, which is full of hypocrisy, thieves, and liars—truly a more evil and Gothic place than the jungle where animals are incapable of lying.
In the sequels, Tarzan and Jane spend their time between England and their large property in Africa. Tarzan frequently goes off on adventures in the jungle, including visiting the lost city of Opar (in keeping with the Lost City genre that H. Rider Haggard first invented) and rescuing the occasional white person lost in the jungle.
Burroughs admittedly focuses on evolution far more than the Gothic in the novels. The most horrible creatures in the novels are actually mutants. For example, the ape men of Opar are evolutionary freaks of nature—not at all supernatural. In other novels, Burroughs makes it clear that the natives are superstitious and their religions fake. There is not space in this work to go into detail about all the references to religion and evolution in the Tarzan novels, much less in Burroughs’ other works—notably the Caspak series where characters evolve within their own lifetimes.
Burroughs turns on their head, or even rejects, Gothic themes by the way he treats religion and superstition. He also was clearly aware of many of his contemporaries and predecessors in terms of Gothic and adventure/lost city works. To this day, perhaps the best book on Burroughs’ works is Richard A. Lupoff’s Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure (1965), which includes a thorough discussion of Tarzan’s literary ancestors and his descendants. Most notable among his literary ancestors is H. Rider Haggard’s Nada and the Lily (1892), in which the main character Galazi slays a wolf, wears its skin, and finds he can command the wolves (Lupoff 225-6). Lupoff notes that we do not know Burroughs’ sources or inspiration but he analyzes the most likely sources.
Despite Burroughs’ usual rejection of the supernatural, he made one significant exception that confirms for me Tarzan’s role as a Gothic wanderer figure transformed into a superhero. Tarzan already had the typical hero and Gothic wanderer origins, but he was lacking the trait of having an extended life until late in the series. As decades passed and the novels remained set in the present day, Tarzan obviously had to be aging so Burroughs may have felt he needed a way to keep Tarzan young since obviously a fifty year old man would be less likely to perform incredible feats of strength, including wrestling with crocodiles. Consequently, Burroughs gifted Tarzan with immortal life—and he did it twice.
In Tarzan’s Quest (1936), Burroughs tells the story of two whites who seek the secret to longevity. The secret is held by a bloodthirsty African tribe that creates longevity pills composed of various ingredients, including parts of young girls; consequently, to gain eternal life by swallowing the pills, one must perform an act of cannibalism—reminiscent of Catholic theology where the consumption of the bread and wine are the literal Body and Blood of Christ and by accepting them, one accepts Christ, thereby guaranteeing one’s eternal life. By the end of Tarzan’s Quest, Tarzan has stopped the tribe from performing its rituals, but he is left with several of the pills that he, Jane, and a couple of other characters, including Nkima, Tarzan’s monkey friend, swallow; Tarzan, thereby, becomes immortal. This form of immortality might be dismissed as a scientific concoction, but curiously, Burroughs did not settle for it.
Later in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion (1947), Burroughs has Tarzan explain that he has perpetual life because of a witch doctor he helped while in his youth and who had lived since the eighteenth century. The witch doctor bestowed extended life upon Tarzan in a lengthy ceremony. As a result, Tarzan looks like he’s still in his twenties (he would have been almost sixty by the time of the novel’s publication since he was born in 1888 in the novels. Tarzan states that he might still die by a bullet or from being killed by a wild animal, but he will not die of old age. This time, Tarzan’s immortality is the result of magic or the supernatural—what Burroughs commonly mocked as superstition in his novels, but here as Burroughs himself was aging—he would have been seventy-one when this twenty-second novel in the series was published, and he lived to complete only two more Tarzan books—he finally decided to let a little of the superstitious supernatural creep into the story to keep his character forever young.
Tarzan has now gone from having a typical Gothic origin to achieving Gothic immortality, but without the Gothic preconditions of committing a transgression that would make him cursed to wander and live forever. Instead, Tarzan chooses to extend his own life—just as he has always chosen to live life on his own terms.
I need not go into great detail about Tarzan being a type of superhero. He is really the first superhero character, the first one in the popular imagination, who would quickly become a staple of film and comic books and influence the creation of other superheroes. Not only does Tarzan have incredible strength and amazing athletic abilities, but he is highly intelligent (the literary Tarzan is a far cry from the grunting Johnny Weissmuller film version), and he creates his own form of justice in the jungle. He is the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s Superman, living by his own moral code and rejecting religious paradigms, long before the comic book Superman existed, and although Burroughs prefers terms like “forest god” for Tarzan—and the books are filled with hero worship type terms for him—in Tarzan and the Forbidden City (1938) he is even referred to as “this super-man” (115). Perhaps because Superman debuted as a comic strip in 1938, Burroughs felt he could not use that term but he liked it nevertheless and realized it could be applied to Tarzan so he hyphenated it. In fact, I would argue that Tarzan, because he is human unlike Superman with super powers and from another planet, is a superior creation as far as superheroes go.
In summary, Tarzan has little of the Gothic about him, yet he has Gothic origins in his lost family history, the manuscript he discovers, and his extended life. He has no guilt, and although he has nothing to transgress against, he would not live with guilt if he did commit a transgression. He is autonomous—what the nineteenth century Gothic wanderer had originally wished for but failed to achieve. He is man free of guilt and religion and able to live on his own terms.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is an expert on Gothic fiction and modern Arthurian fiction. He is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series which blends Gothic elements with Arthurian storylines. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com
When I saw that Valancourt Books had republished The Black Monk, or The Secret of the Grey Turret (serialized 1844-1845), I had to read it. I had previously read James Malcolm Rymer’s best-known works, Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood (serialized 1845-1847), the first full-length vampire novel in English and the precursor to Dracula (1897), and also The String of Pearls (serialized 1846-1947), which introduced Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street into English literature, so surely, I thought, The Black Monk would be an exciting Gothic novel.
Written as a penny dreadful like Rymer’s other works, this work predates Rymer’s two more famous novels, if we can truly call them novels. Certainly, the plot is tighter in The Black Monk than in Varney, but it also tends to be quite wordy, a sign that Rymer continually tried to drag out the story because it was popular with Victorian readers. For the modern reader, who reads it as a novel rather than a weekly serial, it feels overly long and many of the scenes and plots feel repetitive, but that aside, it is a fascinating book in many ways.
To try to summarize the novel’s plot would make it feel ridiculous, but there are some key elements about the novel and this edition particularly that make it stand out. First of all, I have long believed that the Gothic novel with its supernatural characters is the grandfather of the modern-day comic book superhero. In my book, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, I traced how Gothic wanderer elements, such as extended life and other supernatural powers, eventually culminated in characters like Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, Superman, and Batman. There is much about The Black Monk that feels cartoonish. This edition has a back cover with little cameo drawing of the main characters which makes them look like cartoon or comic book characters. The original woodcut illustrations are included in the book, but these are far less detailed illustrations than those in Varney the Vampyre, which look like book illustrations. The Black Monk’s illustrations look in many ways more akin to comic book drawings. Finally, this edition has an introduction by Curt Herr, Ph.D. The introduction is not so much about Rymer or the novel as it is about how penny dreadfuls were the precursors of comic books in terms of being thought to have a bad influence on youths. Both were also very cost affordable publications and were produced quickly and for the lower classes. Herr even mentions comic book burnings that were held by communities in the mid-twentieth century, and while most of the comic books he mentions as being burned are of the horror and crime variety, Superman is included among them.
It surprises me that, as Herr asserts, and which I believe, despite the surprise, that comic books and especially penny dreadfuls, were seen as immoral and glamorizing crime and evil. This is probably largely due to the people who condemned them not actually reading them. I am not a reader of comic books myself, although what little knowledge I have of the ones produced in this century makes me think there may be some merit to these charges, but the penny dreadfuls like the earlier Gothic novels, despite depicting criminals and sinners, always held a highly moral tone in which those who committed crimes were ultimately punished, and usually, the virtuous were also rewarded. Certainly, a great deal of subversive behavior and undertones exist in these books, but as Herr points out, the social problems that exist in society are not from reading fiction but from the poverty that causes people to break the law, often just to survive. I would add to that a lack of education. Those who act in an immoral manner, even if influenced to do so by reading such works, do so because they lack the intelligence to understand the messages in these works or to understand simply that crime doesn’t pay. This is the same kind of lack of intelligence that causes some children to jump off roofs because they think they can fly like Superman. It is not the literature but faulty thinking and poor judgment that are to be blamed.
As for The Black Monk, I think a good argument can be made that it has within it the seeds of the modern day superhero.
I won’t go into the novel’s full plot, but in brief, it begins when Sir Rupert Brandon, owner of Brandon Castle, leaves the castle after being grief-stricken over the untimely death of his wife, Lady Alicia. He leaves the castle in the hands of Alicia’s sister and brother, Agatha and Eldred, as well as his trusty knight Hugh Wingrove and the neighboring abbot. While Sir Rupert is away, Agatha plots with Morgatani, an evil monk, to get her revenge on Sir Rupert for spurning her love and marrying her sister instead. While there is a large cast of other characters in the book, there are only four who are really of great interest in terms of understanding the development of Gothic literature and the modern-day superhero. They are:
Let us look briefly at each one.
Agatha: There is nothing superhero-like about Agatha, but there is plenty that makes her an interesting Gothic wanderer. Female Gothic wanderer figures are few in number in Gothic fiction. Women tend more often to be the moral compass of the novels while the men are transgressors and guilt-ridden, a few notable exceptions being Fanny Burney’s Juliet in The Wanderer (1814) and Alice Nutter in William Ainsworth Harrison’s The Lancashire Witches (1849). Agatha is a very vile woman and intent on getting revenge on Sir Rupert because he chose her sister over her for his wife. Agatha plots to take the castle from him, and to do so, she falls into a romantic and sexual relationship with the evil monk Morgatani. However, she has moments where she feels remorse and regrets her evil deeds, but she is continually egged on by Morgatani, who displays disdain for her weaknesses and makes her false promises that he will be her lover and take her away from the castle once the revenge is completed. Agatha, unlike other Gothic wanderers of this period who show remorse, ultimately meets a bad end when she collapses in guilt and terror over her crimes.
Morgatani: Morgatani is a true Gothic villain. He has Gothic wanderer elements in terms of his supernatural abilities, but he never presents himself as in any way sympathetic to the reader. He is firmly in the Gothic tradition, his Italian background making him reminiscent of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Schedoni in The Italian (1797). He is also an anachronism because the novel is set in the twelfth century but he is a Jesuit, and the Jesuits did not exist until the sixteenth century. The novel itself is somewhat anachronistic, beginning in 1204 in the time of King John, but then later telling us it is the time of King Richard I (1189-1199) and that Richard is a prisoner on the continent during the Crusades so John is trying to take his throne. This plot has some similarities to the Robin Hood legend and also causes Herr, in his introduction to the novel, to suggest it is a revision of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). I would not go so far as to call it a revision of that novel, but it certainly does share some similar elements and themes. The Jesuits are frequently depicted as villains in Gothic novels, most famously perhaps in The Wandering Jew (1846) by Eugene Sue; they are considered highly knowledgeable and know secrets or are involved in conspiracies, using their knowledge to manipulate society and political events. Repeatedly in the novel, Morgatani suggests that he knows things most people don’t because he is a Jesuit. Despite his religious connections (or perhaps because of them since the Gothic is notoriously anti-Catholic), he denies the existence of God, and while his origins are never made clear, he tells Agatha he is not immortal, but neither is he human. When he finally dies, the mystery of his origins remain unclear. That said, he clearly has supernatural abilities, at the very least, he possesses superhuman strength. This is significant because characters like the devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) also have great strength, making them able to rip up trees. However, strength is also something that will later be associated with superheroes. The mid-nineteenth century is transitional in how Gothic wanderers are morphing into heroes. For example, Jean Valjean has superhuman strength in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862), a novel that is not supernatural but still has many Gothic elements in it, including that Valjean is a wanderer, and a transgressor, a fugitive from the law; he is a villain/criminal in the eyes of society, yet the novel’s hero. Morgatani also leads a charmed life—an arrow fails to kill him early in the novel. He will only die as a result of his own alchemy when the turret explodes and crumbles; alchemy is another activity Gothic wanderers tend to indulge in—a transgression because it is against God’s natural laws to try to change the elements.
Nemoni: Nemoni is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. He is considered a madman, and he lives like a wild man in the forest; others believe him to be a wizard. This suggests that he is also supernatural in some way, although there is no evidence in the novel that he has any supernatural abilities. He is mostly insane with only a few lucid moments. His insanity comes from his desire for revenge upon Morgatani after having seen Morgatani cause the woman Nemoni loved (or his sister; the novel contradicts itself) to be destroyed. This woman was in a convent in Italy, and Morgatani tried to seduce her sexually. When she refused, he accused her of immoral behavior, resulting in her being buried alive in a wall of the convent. Nemoni is also a nod to the Arthurian tradition. Sir Lancelot becomes an insane wild man who lives in the forest, his love for Guinevere driving him to madness. Merlin also has a period in early life of being a madman in the forest, which is a parallel to Nemoni being called a wizard. Eventually, Nemoni does get his revenge, though he dies in the end, but not before he gives Sir Rupert the information that he has two children he didn’t know existed, which thereby restores the social order for the novel. No matter how scary a Gothic novel might be, the social order is always restored in the end.
The Crusader: This last character is the real superhero of the novel. He arrives at the castle while Sir Rupert is away and attempts to put things to rights. All the while, his identity is kept hidden because he wears a velvet mask. He is described by Eldred as “a whopper,” meaning he is large and strong, true heroic elements, yet his mask is more reminiscent of the Gothic. It is interesting that his name in the book is “The crusader”—he is the masked crusader, but that is not such a far cry from the “caped crusader,” Batman. In the end, it amounts to the same thing—he is fighting crime to see the castle saved and returned to its rightful owner. The astute reader will guess his identity before the novel is over—he is King Richard, and his return restores the social order to not only the castle but also to England.
The Black Monk is a curious blend of Gothic and medieval pseudo-history, as well as a blend of heroes and villains. It shows early comic book elements in its pictures and its action adventure style plot. While I would not call it a seminal Gothic text, it certainly shows how the Gothic was evolving in the nineteenth century, showing us both a repentant Gothic wanderer in Agatha, not yet ready to be redeemed—I would argue that Varney the Vampire is probably the first true Gothic wanderer to be allowed redemption—and heroes who disguise their identity to fight crime—something that will eventually lead to characters like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and yes, Batman.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com
William Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches, published as a serial and then in book form in 1849, has the distinction of being one of the most popular Gothic novels ever written and one of the few that has never been out of print—indeed, the only one of Ainsworth’s many novels that can make that claim. Why has it been so popular? I think because its subject matter is so very shocking.
The novel is based on the real events of witch trials that were held in 1612 in Lancashire, England and specifically around Pendle Forest. Numerous books have been written about the witch trials, and I do not intend to go into the historical details of them here, but their popularity since the mid-nineteenth century has largely been due to the success of Ainsworth’s novel.
As an American, I had never heard of the Lancashire witch trials until recently, but I have long been familiar with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 that took place in Massachusetts. In this day and age, we look back at our ancestors’ belief in witches with shock and amazement, wondering how they ever could have believed in such a thing. Their minds seem to us warped, brainwashed by religious fervor and a belief that life was constantly a battle between good and evil for possession of their souls. Cotton Mather, who witnessed the Salem witch trials, wrote a history of them, Wonders of the Invisible World, by which he tried to justify what happened at the trials, but which today reads like false evidence to condemn women who were likely outcasts or simply old and frightening to the young girls who accused them.
Consequently, I expected The Lancashire Witches to take a skeptical and rational tone, explaining away any sense of the supernatural about the trials and to come out on the side that the witch trials were unjust and an example of superstition taken to extremes.
A lengthy prologue hints at the supernatural, and yet everything that happens in it could be explained away by natural events. The prologue takes place in 1536, when the monasteries are being dissolved by King Henry VIII. Abbot Paslew is fighting to save his abbey from destruction. Demdike, a man who is believed to be a warlock or some sort of supernatural agent, offers to save the abbot and help his cause if he’ll do him a favor. Demdike wants Paslew to baptize his child, but Paslew refuses because Demdike’s wife is a witch. Later, Paslew learns that Demdike is a former monk whom he was once jealous of and, therefore, harmed him. Demdike has now returned for revenge. In the end, Paslew is executed, but not before he curses Demdike’s daughter, saying she will live a long life beyond ordinary women, but a life of woe and ill.
When the first book of the novel opens in 1612, we learn that Mother Demdike, believed to be the most powerful witch in the neighborhood, is the cursed daughter of Demdike. Although she is only seventy-six, that age would be quite old in the seventeenth century, so she seems to have fulfilled Paslew’s prophecy in the eyes of the locals, although to the modern reader, the prophecy might still be seen as stuff and nonsense. Another woman, Mother Chattox, is said to be her rival as a witch, and Chattox’s granddaughter, Nance Redferne, is also believed to be a witch. As the local people become more adamant against witches, Nance is actually thrown into the river to prove she is a witch, with the old belief that if she drowns, she’s innocent, but if she floats, she’s a witch—her life destroyed either way. Nance floats, but she manages to make her escape before she can be destroyed. However, the reader thinks nothing of Nance floating. She still appears to be innocent, at least by modern standards.
In short, the novel seems to this point to be suggesting that witchcraft is not real. In another early scene, Thomas Potts, a lawyer and witch hunter, is talking about witches and Alice Nutter, a widow, seems to think it foolishness. The interest in witchcraft at this time was largely due to King James I, who had published his book Daemonologie (1597) about necromancy, and he was adamant in his desire to stamp out witches, believing them a serious threat to the social order and to all good Christians. Alice Nutter, however, remarks that people are now out finding witches just to gain the king’s favor. As a result, Alice seems like the voice of reason in the novel…or does she protest too much?
Later in the first book, it becomes clear that Ainsworth’s novel is truly set in a supernatural world. Mother Demdike has a daughter, Elizabeth, who in turn has three children: a son, Jem; Alizon, a beautiful young woman; and Jennet, who is a disabled and deformed little girl. No one can believe that beautiful Alizon is really Elizabeth’s daughter, and later it is revealed that she is actually the child of Alice Nutter. The mix-up of children is a long story, but it’s a common Gothic element to have children whose parentages are a mystery. In any case, one would think that Alizon was freed from being associated with witches as a result of finding out her true parentage, but then it is revealed that her mother, Alice Nutter, is herself a witch.
In the most stunning scene in the novel, Alizon has become ill and is lying unconscious. Her friend Dorothy is with her, and they are at the home of Alice Nutter. When Alice does not think anyone is watching, Dorothy spies on her; she sees Alice open a chest and take from it a vial that she drinks; then Alice seems to disappear before Dorothy’s eyes. Unable to restrain her curiosity, Dorothy also tastes the liquid and feels strange energy coursing through her. She then gives a few drops to Alizon to revive her. Soon the liquid causes the two young women to float off the ground and they find themselves outdoors and then floating through the air until they arrive at a gathering of witches. There among the witches is Alice Nutter, and she is fighting with Mother Demdike over whom Alizon truly belongs to.
I will not spoil the scene for readers by describing it further, but it is the most shocking and surprising moment in the novel because when the women begin floating, the reader begins to wonder whether the drink has caused them to hallucinate or the novel truly is depicting a world where the supernatural is real. As the novel continues, it becomes clear that the supernatural events and the witchcraft are all true.
Numerous more scenes follow as Potts and other community leaders try to stop the witches. However, all this focus on witchcraft in the novel is really to highlight the Gothic theme of redemption and salvation. Early on, Alizon tries to love her spiteful little sister Jennet, and even when she learns Alice Nutter is her mother, Alizon wishes to stay with the Demdikes to try to save Jennet’s soul. Unfortunately, Jennet is not worth saving. Ainsworth uses her disability to make her into a grotesque, something far from politically correct today, but it is effective for the sake of the novel. In the end, Jennet betrays her family to save herself.
More importantly, Alice Nutter begins to repent for her own pact with the devil. Several times in the novel, she is confronted by a spirit who does her bidding, but when she tries to end her pact with Satan, the spirit tells her she cannot and it is too late. She has a contract with Satan and must sacrifice someone so she may retain her powers and live longer. Demdike and Chattox have similar contracts. Consequently, they wish to sacrifice Alizon, and Nutter will not allow it. The witches are constantly vying against one another and at one point Chattox tries to help Alice Nutter to get revenge on Mother Demdike.
As the witch hunters become more powerful and determined, they manage to capture and destroy Mother Chattox and Mother Demdike, but Alice Nutter, though captured, escapes and goes into hiding. While a fugitive from the law, she devotes herself to praying and repenting to save her soul, while constantly visited by the spirit who tries to make her change her mind, warning her it is too late for her ever to save herself. Alice even ends up with a red brand on her brow, a sign that she belongs to the devil—a sign linked to the Mark of Cain that many Gothic Wanderer figures, including the Wandering Jew, typically have; later Mina Harker will have such a brand in Dracula (1897).
At this point, the likelihood of Alice’s salvation could go either way. In earlier Gothic novels from the 1790s up until the 1840s, the Gothic wanderer figure who has committed a transgression usually ends up condemned and unredeemable, but in the 1840s, what may be termed the second golden age of the Gothic took place with the introduction of penny dreadfuls and novels by Rymer, Reynolds, and Ainsworth. In such works, Gothic transgressors began to work out a way to salvation, one such notable work of the time that allows redemption being Varney the Vampyre (1847). Ainsworth was likely beginning to pen his novel as Varney the Vampyre was being serialised and the Gothic, in general, was undergoing a revolution in terms of being more sympathetic to transgressors. Another Gothic wanderer figure is the Rosicrucian, who is also typically condemned in earlier novels, but in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842), the title Rosicrucian character is actually more of a superhero than a transgressor for seeking forbidden knowledge. Consequently, Alice Nutter has a better chance at redemption than she would have in a Gothic novel of a half-century earlier.
In the final dramatic scene, Alizon prays with her mother as the demon tries to take Alice. At that point, a mysterious man, dressed as a Cistercian monk, intervenes and scares off the fiend. He then tells Alice her soul has now been saved, but she will still need to face earthly punishment, which Alice understands and accepts. When the monk is asked who he is, he replies that he is one who sinned deeply but is now pardoned—in his attempt to help others redeem themselves, he has himself been redeemed.
Alice now places herself in the hands of the law, but before it can condemn her to death, a curse that the Demdikes placed on Alizon and her lover Richard is fulfilled. Both die before Alice, but as a result, before her death, Alice has a dream of Richard and Alizon in a garden, and she knows she will soon join them there.
Ainsworth has created a truly extraordinary novel. The Lancashire Witches is also one of the most historical Gothic novels ever written. He researched it extensively and visited all the sites depicted in the novel. That he chose to make the witches real and focus on the supernatural is shocking and yet understandable given the time and the trend for Gothic fiction. The Victorians probably were not prepared for more scientific explanations of witches or how hysteria and misunderstanding people could overcome a community. They had no modern psychology to try to rationalize such things, although they were advanced beyond their ancestors, who actually condemned the witches. More importantly, Ainsworth wanted to write a story that would sell. I admire how he used historical details and even had King James make an appearance at the end of the novel to set all things right in terms of condemning the witches. (That said, the last part of the novel in which King James is featured drags and feels anticlimactic, filled with hunting scenes that could have easily been trimmed down.)
The Lancashire Witches is a truly powerful and surprising Gothic novel, and Alice Nutter is probably the most memorable female character who seeks redemption in any Gothic novel I have read. It is honestly surprising to me that while the novel has never been out of print, it has not become a household word, taking its place perhaps just a rung below Dracula and Frankenstein among the truly great Gothic novels.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com
Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) is generally regarded as an author of realism, but she was influenced by her famous great-uncle, James Fenimore Cooper, to create Gothic forest and island scenes in her early novella Castle Nowhere (1875) set near the Mackinac Straits, and while her later works are always set within the real world without any traces of the supernatural, she still used many Gothic elements to enhance her themes.
Woolson’s third novel, Jupiter Lights (1889), was regarded by many at the time of its publication as Woolson’s best work. After her death, however, Woolson—despite her first novel Anne (1882) being a bestseller in its day—was largely forgotten, and even when women’s texts were revived in the later twentieth century as a result of the women’s movement, Woolson remained in the shadows. I find this surprising because the heroine of Jupiter Lights, Eve Bruce, is one of the most surprising and even desperate heroines in literature, a woman not afraid to act as needed in a moment of crisis, and a character whom I believe Woolson was using to comment on and reverse old Gothic and biblical stereotypes about women. However, her rebellion against a patriarchal establishment through the pseudo-transgression she commits may have resulted in the men who determined the literary canon and even women who thought the novel went too far from celebrating this novel’s extraordinary achievement.
Gothic novels are frequently about a transgression that the main character commits and then feels deep regret over. As I’ve explored in detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer, the Gothic novels of the 1790s and beyond were highly influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), a retelling of the Garden of Eden story. In both the Bible and Paradise Lost, Eve transgresses by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, and that story has been used for centuries to justify making women second class citizens to men. Can it be any accident then that Woolson names her heroine Eve? It is a heavy name to bear, so I believe Woolson knew fully her intentions in using it for her main character.
The novel begins in the years following the Civil War. Eve has been living in England but now returns to the United States. Her brother Jack had married a Southern belle, Cicely, and then died during the Civil War, but not before leaving a son, also named Jack. When Eve arrives in the South to visit Cicely and her nephew, she quickly learns that Cicely has remarried to a man named Ferdie. Eve is shocked by this second marriage when she is herself still grieving her brother. Soon after, she decides Cicely is not a fit mother for Jack and she begins to plot how she can take away Jack and raise him herself. To some degree, Eve seems overly emotional in her grief, and while she does not consider kidnapping Jack, she does continually try to convince Cicely to give him to her, thinking Cicely neglects him.
During this time, Ferdie is in South America on business, but when he returns, Eve soon learns the truth about Ferdie and Cicely’s marriage. Ferdie is an alcoholic, and when he is in his drunken stupor, he can explode into a rage; he is not above beating Cicely, and even worse, he once broke little Jack’s arm. Ferdie also suffers from more than drunkenness; he has a hereditary type of madness that at times consumes him. Woolson’s biographer, Anne Boyd Rioux, notes that Henry James was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, whose The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared in 1886. We don’t know whether Woolson, who was close friends with James, read Stevenson’s book, but Mr. Hyde is not such a far cry from the same kind of tormented man who can turn into a monster that she depicts in Ferdie, and not unlike Milton’s Satan, who changes from an angel into a demon, Ferdie has “hell within him” and is largely helpless to dispel it.
Eve is horrified at the danger to her nephew that Ferdie represents, so she plots even more to get Jack away, but before she can accomplish it, the family goes to Singleton Island to visit relatives. While there, Ferdie flies into one of his drunken rages and it is clear he intends to murder Cicely. In the night, Eve flees from the house with Jack and Cicely. They journey through the swamps to reach a boat to escape in during the most Gothic scene in the novel. With Ferdie pursuing them, the women climb into the boat, but Eve, realizing Ferdie will be upon them before they can push off, in desperation, shoots Ferdie. Then leaving his fallen body behind, the women make their escape.
Cicely feels that the only safe place for them to go is to Ferdie’s brother, Paul, who lives far away in a mining town called Port aux Pins, on Lake Superior, in Upper Michigan. The women journey there, all the while dreading both that Ferdie will pursue them and also that Ferdie has been killed. The words Woolson uses here to describe Eve’s agony are significant:
“But, once away, the horror had come, as it always does and must, when by violence a human life has been taken. She had dropped the pistol into the Sound, but she could not drop the ghastly picture of the dark figure on the sand, with its arms making two or three spasmodic motions, then becoming suddenly still. Was he dead? If he was, she, Eve Bruce, was a murderer, a creature to be imprisoned for life,—hanged. How people would shrink from her if they knew! And how monstrous it was that she should touch Cicely! Yet she must. Cain, where is thy brother? And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. Would it come to this, that she should be forced at last to take her own life, in order to be free from the horror of murder? These were the constant thoughts of that journey northward, without one moment’s respite day or night.”
The mark of Cain is a frequent Gothic theme. The Wandering Jew and other Gothic Wanderer characters carry the mark of Cain on their brow, a sign that they are murderers or transgressors, and, therefore, cursed by God. Eve believes the only way to free herself from her guilt is to commit suicide, which is also a common Gothic theme. Many Gothic wanderer figures, including the Wandering Jew and the title character of James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre (1846) seek to destroy themselves. These two characters, in particular, often try to drown themselves or jump into volcanoes, but the sea and the volcanoes spit them up, refusing to let them die. Eve does not go so far as to attempt suicide, but later in the novel, she will try to lock herself away to prevent her murderous act from continuing to hurt those she loves, especially Paul.
While in Port aux Pins, the women remain silent about what happened to Ferdie. In time, Paul receives news that Ferdie was shot, and two negroes are suspected of having shot him. Eve then believes she is cleared from suspicion, but she holds guilt within her heart, even though she felt obligated to shoot Ferdie to save Cicely and Jack’s lives that night.
Cicely has fallen into a sort of mental illness by the time they reach Port aux Pins, so she is unable to provide any clarity about what happened to Ferdie. She only knows that she loves him and she wants to return to him when she learns of his gunshot wound, although Paul and Eve persuade her otherwise. She falls into great despair when she then hears that Ferdie has died.
Ferdie’s death leaves Eve in anguish over the belief that she is a murderer. Her anguish is all the greater because now she is falling in love with Paul. Added to that, Paul declares that if he ever finds out who killed Ferdie, he will shoot that man. He says he could never forgive his brother’s murderer—it must be blood for blood. Matters become more complicated when soon after, Paul and Eve confess that they love each other. However, Eve says she cannot marry him because a barrier lies between them. Paul thinks she means that she loves another man, and Eve lies when she confirms that she does because she feels she could not bear his anger and hatred if she confesses that she killed his brother.
Meanwhile, Cicely is consumed with grief over Ferdie’s death. She now curses Paul for not letting her go to him before he died, saying, “If you trust anyone, I hope that person will betray you,” an eerie foreshadowing for the day when Paul will likely learn the truth about Eve and the murderous act she committed.
Finally, consumed with guilt, Eve confesses to Cicely that she shot Ferdie. At this knowledge, Cicely goes mad. She begins reliving the events of that night and thinks they are on Singleton Island again where they were the night they escaped from Ferdie. Madness is also a common theme in the Gothic, although typically only the women go mad, such as Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, or they are accused of madness and locked up, as in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.
When Cicely eventually regains her senses, she sees Paul and Eve together and realizes they are in love. She then threatens Eve with telling Paul the truth, but before she can, the novel’s most dramatic and, for this reader, terrifying event occurs.
Jack is placed in a boat on the beach and inadvertently the boat gets washed out into the lake before anyone can stop it. Eve quickly gets into another boat and begins paddling out onto Lake Superior in pursuit, while Cicely finds a man to get another boat and follow her. The scene is terrifying because Lake Superior is enormous, and several times, the women lose sight of Jack’s boat. Many times they must call to Jack on the lake and listen for his cries and then try to follow in that direction, sometimes seeing the boat, sometimes losing sight of it. Woolson refers to the women here as “wanderers” as they cross the lake on their desperate quest. Living as I do on the shore of Lake Superior, I can well-imagine how terrifying as well as realistic this scene is and how nearly impossible it would be to catch Jack’s boat.
Eventually, the women are able, despite the wind and waves, to find Jack, aided somewhat in the night by the lightning flashing in the sky. They get close enough to Jack’s boat to pull it behind theirs, but then it becomes filled with water and Eve has to jump into it to grab the sleeping Jack as it capsizes. For a moment, Eve and Jack are underwater, and then they come back to the surface. Eve hands the boy to Cicely and somehow they make it to shore.
Cicely is now so grateful to Eve for saving Jack that she promises not to tell Paul the truth about Ferdie’s death. The near drowning is almost like a baptism for Eve, as if to redeem her sins, since she gains Cicely’s forgiveness. She has also had to sacrifice her life for another’s here, just as Christ did.
But despite Cicely’s promise, Eve is consumed with guilt, so she finally tells Paul the truth, including all the details of how Ferdie threatened their lives.
The women now return South with Jack, but Cicely remains mentally unstable. She wants to return to Singleton Island and the place where the murder happened. When she and Eve go there, she loses control of her emotions and tries to choke Eve, declaring, “How do you like being dead?” Fortunately, she then faints and Eve carries her “sister” home. This scene is significant with the wording “sister” because in the Bible, Cain tells God that he is not his “brother’s keeper” and yet Eve, who equates herself with Cain, is now caring for her “sister.” She acts more like a Christian than a murderer here, and in doing so, she is replacing the Old Testament law of vengeance with the New Testament gospel of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy.
Paul now follows the women South. He finds Eve and proposes to her, telling her he understands why she shot Ferdie and that she was brave to do it, but she refuses his proposal, saying he will hate her later. She then flees to Europe without Paul knowing, and Paul is angry when he learns that Cicely did not try to stop her. Cicely only replies that she wants to make Eve suffer.
At this point, Dr. Knox, who had attended Ferdie when he was dying, returns from a trip abroad. He had gone just after Ferdie had died so he had never been able to communicate the details of Ferdie’s death to Paul. He now tells Paul that he had cured Ferdie of the bullet wound, but Ferdie died soon after from a series of drinking sprees.
Relieved by this news, Paul goes to Italy to find Eve. She is in a “retreat center,” but Paul fears it is really a convent and that she is planning to take vows. Gothic novels are full of convents in which women are often forced into vows. The women at the retreat center tell Paul no one is being forced, but Paul is desperate and even violent as he pushes people aside and tears through the building until he finds Eve and takes her in his arms, and so the novel ends, with the assumption that Paul tells Eve she is not guilty of murder.
I find this novel fascinating because Woolson is clearly rejecting and reversing the role of transgressor in her character Eve. While Eve is ultimately relieved from the guilt of being a murderer, she is also not afraid to stand up to the patriarchal system that enslaved women—in this case represented by Ferdie, who is the true Gothic monster of the novel. In other words, Eve’s attempted murder of Ferdie, which can be seen as a rebellion against the patriarchal system, is not the transgression society would have us believe. The final scene where Paul tries to free her from the convent suggests that the old secrets often contained in monasteries and castles in Gothic fiction are now free to see the light of day. In fact, that no one is forced to take vows in the convent suggests that women no longer need be imprisoned in their lives by men or religion or social pressures.
Paul’s violent entry into the convent is also an act of defeating the past, like a storming of the Bastille, and pushing away the old to make way for the new. Would it be too far to equate Paul with St. Paul, preacher of the New Testament? After all, his last name, Tennant, might be translated as “tenet,” which isn’t a far cry from “testament.” Just as Christ redeemed mankind and replaced the Old Testament with the New, so Paul can love a transgressive woman and in a sense redeem her, though in truth, she needs no redemption for she is not a transgressor since she is not guilty of murder.
In the Bible, Eve says that the serpent made her eat the fruit. Modern language has turned this concept into the phrase, “The devil made me do it.” The same may be said in this novel, if Ferdie is seen as the devil. Eve did what she had to do to protect herself and Cicely and Jack, and in that sense, shooting Ferdie was self-defense. It was not a true transgression. Even so, when Eve learns that she is not a murderer, she also need no longer feel like she is cursed and bearing the mark of Cain. Instead, she is free to marry Paul—in a sense, she is redeemed by the “good news”—the gospel—that he preaches to her of her innocence, which frees her from what may later have been the confinement of a convent.
Eve Bruce is a true Gothic wanderer both justified in her transgression and redeemed even though it turns out she never needed redemption.
Even the most ardent feminists would not publicly advocate murdering an abusive husband, even in self-defense, and so I suspect that is why this novel and Woolson have not yet been embraced by feminist scholars. Even so, Eve Bruce is a true champion for women’s rights and one of the most powerful female characters in literature, a woman with a guilty conscience who nevertheless acts when necessary to protect those she loves. She is a female Gothic wanderer and one of the most extraordinary ever created.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com
On September 12, 1866, the musical extravaganza The Black Crook premiered at the 3,200-seat Niblo’s Garden on Broadway. It would run for a record-breaking 474 performances and enjoy numerous revivals throughout the United States for the rest of the nineteenth century.
Today considered the first true American musical, The Black Crook was the result of a dramatic group joining forces with a Parisian ballet troupe. While a few new songs were composed for the show, such as “March of the Amazons” by Giuseppe Operti and “You Naughty, Naughty Men,” with music by George Bickwell and lyrics by Theodore Kennick, much of the music was adapted from other earlier sources.
The music must have filled a great amount of the show since it ran for five-and-a-half hours, yet the libretto of the play is only 62 pages and takes a little over an hour to read. Unfortunately, the libretto, as recently published by the Historical Libretto Series, contains little of the lyrics. The libretto is available at Amazon. Most commentaries on the play never mention the plot other than to say the story was badly written, but it really wasn’t that bad and quite typical of the day.
The show was a smash hit and the scanty costumes of the female cast raised quite a scandal. The New York Times called it “trashy” and the Rev. Charles B. Smyth, writing in the New York Herald, warned, “Let husbands and parents and guardians who value the morals of their wives, their daughters, and their wards, bear a watchful eye, and keep them out of the walls of Nible’s [sic] during the rein [sic] of The Black Crook.” Despite such warnings, the female costumes were rather modest compared to many today, though bare arms and lower legs could be seen.
More importantly, the musical was the product of its age’s fascination with the Gothic. When I first heard the title of this play many years ago, I assumed it was about an African-American thief and was perhaps a racist play created in the aftermath of the Civil War. Instead, it owes more to the European Gothic tradition than to anything American for its sources. Nor is the play very original in its Gothic themes. The playwright, Charles M. Barras, wrote the script after having been influenced by seeing a performance of the German Romantic opera Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber.
I had never heard of Weber’s opera before, but after researching it, I think it clearly contains many Gothic elements common to the time period. It was itself obviously influenced by the Faust legend. In the opera, the main character, Caspar, whose soul is to be forfeited to the devil on the following day, hopes to obtain three more years of grace by substituting a young forester, Max, in his place. Caspar calls upon Samiel, the Black Huntsman, for assistance; however, in the end, Caspar is taken by Samiel instead of Max.
This basic plot of an evil character making a pact with the devil or a demonic being to gain a soul for the devil in exchange for youth or longer life was a frequent plot in other Gothic novels of the time as well, notably William Harrison Ainsworth’s Auriol, or The Elixir of Life (1844) and George W.M. Reynolds’ The Necromancer (1851-52). Earlier novels also focused on the idea of life extension, usually a Rosicrucian theme, such as William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). What is interesting is that while I have studied the Gothic in literature, the Gothic also permeated into music, and so a Gothic opera would influence the first Gothic musical probably more than Gothic literature did. One is left wondering whether Der Freischütz also influenced Reynolds and Ainsworth’s novels.
The Black Crook opens in the Hartz Mountains in the year 1600. Rodolphe is betrothed to Amina, an orphan girl whose foster mother, Dame Barbara, disapproves of the match because Rodolphe is an unsuccessful painter while Amina has had an offer made to her by a nobleman, Wolfenstein. When Wolfenstein comes to marry Amina, he has Rodolphe locked up in a dungeon.
Meanwhile, Hertzog, whom men call “the Crook,” is reading out of a cabalistic book, gleaning dark knowledge in forbidden paths. He has a servant, Greppo, whom he saved from drowning so Greppo obeys him. Greppo provides some comic relief in the story, but he also plays a role that reminds one of Caliban in The Tempest with Hertzog as a type of Prospero since Hertzog can summon spirits. Unlike The Tempest, however, Hertzog’s spirits are not bound to obey him but rather have some control over him. Hertzog longs to extend his life, so he makes a deal with Zamiel, a demon spirit, whom he summons. (Note the similarity between the spellings of Zamiel and the Samiel of Der Freischütz.) Zamiel promises Hertzog that for every soul he gives him, he will live another year; therefore, he can live forever if he continues to provide souls. This is similar to how in Reynolds’ The Necromancer, Danvers must convince six women to elope and marry him over the course of 150 years in exchange for incredible power; all those women’s souls are then lost to the devil. Zamiel tells Hertzog to begin by trying to capture Rodolphe’s soul since Rodolphe is in prison and likely to do anything to escape and marry the woman he loves.
Act II opens with Hertzog coming to Rodolphe in prison and offering to help him. Rodolphe, however, knows Hertzog is a sorcerer and does not trust him. Hertzog persists by telling Rodolphe that Amine is actually of noble birth, and therefore, Rodolphe will need gold so he can buy a noble status for himself and be worthy of her. He tells Rodolphe that there is gold in a mountain that he can get, and he gives him a magnetic ring to guide him to the gold. Since Greppo is a tiresome servant, Hertzog sends him with Rodolphe. He believes Rodolphe will become greedy in his quest and this will lead to both Rodolphe and Hertzog’s deaths.
However, once in the mountain caverns, Rodolphe manages to rescue Stalacta, the queen of a group of fairies, gnomes, and other beings. While disguised as a dove, she stumbled into a charmed circle of Zamiel’s. This rescue means that the fairies now protect Rodolphe. Stalacta warns Rodolphe that Hertzog has ill intentions toward him, and she gives him a circlet with a jewel to kiss if he’s in danger, and she will then come to his rescue.
In Act III, Rodolphe appears in costume at a masked ball at Wolfenstein’s castle. Wolfenstein and Rodolphe end up in a fight and Rodolphe kisses the circlet, leading to Stalacta and her fairies and nymphs arriving to rescue him. They are dressed as Amazons, hence the best known song from the show, “The March of the Amazons.”
In Act IV, six months have passed. Rodolphe and Amina have long since fled and Wolfenstein is searching for them. Once again, he finds them and once again Rodolphe kisses the circlet and Stalacta and company come to his rescue. This time, Wolfenstein is slain. Hertzog now appears and summons his fiends to burn down the forest to stop Rodolphe and Amina from escaping, but when Rodolphe again kisses the circlet, a rock opens and they enter a grotto. By now, a year has passed and Hertzog’s time to capture a soul has passed, so he is dashed into a flaming chasm that must have been a magnificent scene on stage. The play ends with a beautiful scene of Rodolphe and Amina, along with Greppo and Carline, a woman he loves, in the realms of Stalacta.
There are some subplots and some humorous moments amid the action, but that’s the basic plot. It is not a brilliant plot, but the Gothic atmosphere in the play is quite dramatic, and the special effects must have been magnificent as they depicted illuminated books, skeletons and other Gothic style monsters appearing on stage, costumed Amazons, a burning forest, a masked ball, a flaming chasm, and a beautiful grotto. As much as the story and the music are combined to make a musical, we can never underestimate the power of spectacle to wow an audience, and The Black Crook must have been a very impressive spectacle to keep audiences entranced for five-and-a-half hours.
By the time The Black Crook premiered in 1866, most of the great Gothic novels had been written. Gothic literature had had its heyday in the 1790s, and there had been a Gothic renaissance in the 1840s and 1850s with the popularity of penny dreadful literature. The Black Crook marked the end of this period that was heavily influenced especially by German Gothic literature, or in this case, German opera. But what a dramatic and spectacular show—this very unAmerican musical in its theme and setting—to become the first American musical. It’s not surprising then that the musical has ever since been a very popular vehicle for other Gothic tales that became popular musicals from Phantom of the Opera to Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula, just to name a few shows from more recent decades.
It is unlikely we will ever see a new stage production of The Black Crook. There was a 1916 silent film made of it, but even that does not appear available to the public. But you can view some photos of the production at YouTube. And we can dream of how splendid it must have been. What’s not to love about a grotto of fairies, a scheming villain in a pact with a devil, and an army of Amazons in “trashy” costumes.
Happy 150th Birthday to the American Musical!
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com