Last year, I read and wrote a blog about George W.M. Reynolds’ fabulous Gothic novel, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. I enjoyed the novel so much that I was not at all surprised that Reynolds was the bestselling author of his time, outselling even Dickens.
Consequently, this year for Halloween I decided to read The Necromancer (1851-2), the third and last supernatural novel Reynolds wrote. (The other being Faust (1847), which was actually a prequel to Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7). While I did not find The Necromancer quite as full of twists and turns and fascinating characters as Wagner, it was nevertheless a compelling story, and the recent edition by Valancourt books was also highly valuable for its lengthy introduction that provided biographical detail about Reynolds, who remains little known today, as well as an afterword by Dick Collins that traces the influences of other writers upon The Necromancer. Certainly, Reynolds should hold a place of esteem among Gothic writers if not a place in English literature.
The necromancer of the title is Lord Danvers, a man who has made a pact with Satan to obtain several incredible powers, including perpetual youth and the ability to change his appearance. In exchange, he must, over the course of 150 years, convince six women to elope and marry him, thus allowing Satan to take their souls. Danvers began his pact in 1390 and the novel opens in 1510 when he has acquired the soul of Clara Manners, his fifth victim. It then jumps ahead six years. We are not fully let into Danvers’ secret until toward the end of the novel, but it is clear from the beginning he has supernatural powers and is up to no good.
Each of Danvers’ victims has family members who have sworn to gain their revenge on him for what he did to the woman he abducted from their family. What these people do not know is that Danvers is one person and not several generations of men, due to his ability to change his age and appearance, and that he takes on numerous different first names.
The major plot concerns Musidora, a young woman with a secret she will not reveal that has made her more quiet and hard than in her youth. At this time, King Henry VIII is unhappy with his wife, Katherine of Aragon, and it is believed he will divorce her and find a new wife. Musidora’s relatives convince her father to have her visit them since they live near the palace of Greenwich. They are in disgrace with the king but believe that Musidora is so beautiful that King Henry will fall in love with her and then they will be restored to their former positions at court. Things go precisely as planned, and soon Musidora has agreed to marry Henry. A secret wedding is held in which he produces a document from the Pope testifying to the annulment of his previous marriage and his ability to marry again. A violent storm erupts as soon as the marriage is over, and before long, all is revealed, including that Danvers has been impersonating Henry.
As these events develop, the novel intersperses the tales of Danvers’ other five victims, as told by their relatives or descendants. I found these stories rather tedious since it’s clear Danvers will convince the maiden to elope with him each time, and they rather slowed down the action. But they do explain the reasons behind the revenge each family seeks.
In the end, Musidora escapes from Danvers’ clutches and marries her cousin and many more years go by. St. Louis, a relative of one of the other victims, and in the king’s favor, meanwhile, is visited by his ancestress in a dream and told to go to the Holy Land. There he meets the father of another victim who warns him that Danvers’ time to finish his contract with Satan is running out and he must stop him from capturing his last victim. The old man gives St. Louis a crucifix to aid him in his efforts.
St. Louis returns to England, and with Musidora’s help, goes to Danvers’ castle on the Isle of Wight where Danvers is about to abduct his last victim. Musidora prevents him by using the crucifix to open the castle doors so she can make her way to Danvers and Marian, the victim, who turns out to be Musidora and Danvers’ daughter (the long held secret of Musidora’s youth). Danvers is horrified that he has nearly destroyed his own child and repents. Musidora then prays for him as Satan comes to take him, but her prayers are fruitless. The other souls of the victimized women are released and sent to heaven, but Danvers goes to Hell with Satan.
I found the story rather long, but not without a great deal of excitement and wonderful Gothic trappings. The Afterword in the Valancourt edition by Dick Collins was full of interesting information about Reynolds and his literary predecessors, citing some works I could clearly see as sources for the novel, such as Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1846) and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Sue’s use of a family line of descendants is apparent as an influence in the generations bent on revenge in the novel, and Melmoth the Wanderer’s efforts to seduce young maidens is clearly an influence as well. Other typical Gothic trappings include the incest plot, where a father nearly abducts his daughter—a plot that hearkens back at least as far as Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), and the ghost that haunts the family—in this case, St. Louis’ ancestor appearing to him in a dream—a plot that goes back to at least Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1795) but also has origins in much earlier legends like that of the serpent-fairy Melusine, who cries whenever one of her descendants dies at the castle of Lusignan. However, Collins cites several other sources for the novel, most notably William Harrison Ainsworth’s Auriol, or The Elixir of Life, a work I will have to add to my reading list.
Perhaps most interesting of all to me was the role of the crucifix in the novel. I may be wrong, but I think this is the earliest use of a crucifix in Gothic fiction to fight evil, although rather than warding off evil, it contains powers to open doors. One has to wonder whether Bram Stoker read The Necromancer and was influenced to adapt the use of the crucifix in Dracula. Another possible influence on Dracula is how Danvers drives his coach allowing him to cover incredible distances in impossibly quick times—there is one particularly dramatic scene where he promises to take Clara Manners’ father to her at his castle and they arrive in just hours for a journey that should have taken much longer. It reminded me of Jonathan Harker’s coach ride to Dracula’s castle, although that journey does not defy the barriers of time, but still is full of mystical atmosphere.
Certainly, The Necromancer is a much overlooked Gothic novel that deserves a key place in the history of Gothic literature, both for its use of previous Gothic literature and its likely influence on Stoker and other Gothic successors. I would especially advocate that readers interested in the novel read the Valancourt edition because Dick Collins’ afterword alone is worth the price of the book for all its information about what has for the last century been a very obscure Gothic text from the early Victorian period but that was widely read and influential in its day.
Now that I have read two of Reynolds’ novels, I plan to go on and read his first supernatural one, Faust, as well as his most popular work, The Mysteries of London, so stay tuned for future blogs.
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 historical fantasy series, The Children of Arthur. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com