Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Black Monk: Gothic Wanderers and the Early Comic Book Superhero

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.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer's first penny dreadful serials.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer’s first penny dreadful serials.

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:

  • Agatha
  • Morgatani
  • Nemoni
  • The Crusader

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.

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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

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The Lancashire Witches and the Most Penitent Female Gothic Wanderer

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.

Mother Chattox and Nance Redferne.

Mother Chattox and Nance Redferne.

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.

 

Thomas Potts, the witch hunter in The Lancashire Witches. In this scene the female inn owner is giving him a difficult time.

Thomas Potts, the witch hunter in The Lancashire Witches. In this scene the female inn owner is giving him a difficult time.

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.

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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

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