Monthly Archives: June 2018

1816 French Gothic Novel Claims to Be By Mrs. Radcliffe

The French Gothic novel The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb (1816) is a fascinating piece of literary history if not a great piece of Gothic literature.

The novel, which claims to be by Mrs. Radcliffe and translated from English into French by the Baron de Langon, was actually written by Langon, who was not a baron at all. Etienne-Leon de Lamotte-Langon (1786-1864) loved to write forged books, books he claimed were by famous people, the most famous being the Countess DuBarry, for whom he wrote a popular set of fake memoirs.

The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb’s cover art by Mike Hoffman looks like it belongs on the front of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and does not reflect any scene accurately in the novel.

I will not go into detail about Langon, but I recommend interested readers peruse the introduction to the new edition of this novel published by Black Coats Press and written by Brian Stableford. Stableford is the translator/adaptor of the novel and his introductions are always worth the price of the book alone—I wish he would write an entire history of French Gothic literature. (Note that this edition of the novel refers to the author as “Lamotte-Langon,” but his Wikipedia page, only in French, says his name was “Lamothe-Langon.” See translated Wikipedia page here.)

Langon appears to be an overlooked author in the exploration of how English and French literature influenced each other, and a key figure in the leading up to the revival of the Gothic novel in the 1840s and 1850s. The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb is a testament to the popularity of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels in the 1790s and their translation into French. In fact, in 1799, another novel, The Tomb, was published that also claimed to be a fake translation of one of her books, although its true author is not known.

The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb begins with an introduction in which Langon claims to have received a manuscript of the novel from a relative of Mrs. Radcliffe. More than once he also makes comments that suggest Mrs. Radcliffe is dead—something many may have believed at the time, although she did not die until 1823, but illness had caused her to withdraw from the literary world and public life, which she had never participated much in anyway. Her last novel, The Italian, had been published in 1797 so her lack of further publication helped spread the rumor of her death. Of course, Mrs. Radcliffe had no recourse to people using her name in France, and many authors in the nineteenth century suffered from other authors stealing their books or concepts and even using their names. George W. M. Reynolds is one of the more famous examples, having written The Mysteries of London (1844-48) as a follow up to Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1846), and also Pickwick Abroad (1837-38) as an unauthorized sequel to Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1837-38), although he published them under his own name.

The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb starts out in such a manner that one could almost believe Mrs. Radcliffe did write it. We are introduced to Arembert, a lord who feels haunted by his past crimes. Then we meet a mysterious hermit whom the reader quickly realizes is Arembert’s older brother who allegedly went off to the Crusades and disappeared, but who we ascertain has a secret and is actually haunting Arembert by finding hidden passages into his castle and uttering doom and gloom statements like a disembodied voice. Soon after, we are introduced to Ademar, a young knight who knows nothing of his parentage, but the hermit tells Ademar he knows the truth of his birth and it will eventually be made known. Of course, Ademar turns out to be the hermit’s son and will eventually learn how Adembert committed crimes against the rest of the family.

This is all well-done—a good Gothic plot of revenge and guilt—but it’s not enough to carry off three volumes, so Langon introduces a love story for Ademar, and he sets it all against the Albigensian crusade of the thirteenth century. What results is a mix of Gothic novel, courtly and chivalric romance, and historical fiction, although Langon has no real concept of being historically accurate. One has to wonder whether he read any of Sir Walter Scott or Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809). Both Scott and Porter made more effort to be historically accurate in their books, which only predate Langon’s novel by seven or less years. This was the time period of the birth of historical fiction and Langon isn’t quite writing it, but he’s a pioneer in its development. In fact, the hermit himself—the rightful heir to a barony and a father in disguise—reminds one of how King Richard is in disguise in Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and Rymer’s The Black Monk (1844-45). You have to wonder, then, whether Scott read Langon.

Before the novel is over, we have a series of adventures in which princesses are kidnapped and rescued, Adembert admits his past crimes and dies a death deserving of a villain, and all is revealed regarding the hermit’s past. Unfortunately, Langon has a bad sense of how to end a novel dramatically. The secrets are revealed fifty pages before the novel is over and then we are subjected to several concluding pages to wrap up the plot, followed by the hermit telling his story at length, and rather unnecessarily since we’ve already figured out he is Arembert’s brother—this disordered ending destroys the novel’s pacing and dramatic conclusion and shows that Langon really wasn’t quite up to what he was trying to pull off.

Regardless, there are things to admire about the The Mysterious Hermit of the Tomb. It does keep the reader engaged for the first seventy or so pages before it falls into the chivalric plot and loses its Gothic suspense. I do not want to fault Brian Stableford as translator because he has done a wonderful service through Black Coats Press in bringing numerous fascinating French Gothic novels into English, but I think even he must have found this book trying as evidenced by the numerous typos throughout the book that make it difficult to read, and the tense often shifts from past to present, though that may be the fault of the author rather than the translator.

Langon does not seem to hold a high place in French or even French Gothic literature, but he did write several novels along those lines, including The Virgin Vampire in 1825 (also available through Black Coats Press). He also wrote novels of manners, and most significantly The Police Spy (1826) which is one of the first pieces of crime fiction, and although it does not seem to have had a major influence on the genre, Stableford in his introduction suggests it may have inspired Eugene Vidocq’s book Memoires (1828), a fake autobiography by Vidocq, a French criminal and criminalist. Vidocq’s book is considered the godfather of crime fiction and is known to have influenced later authors including Poe, Balzac, and Feval. Furthermore, although Langon quit writing before the age of the feuilleton—the novels serialized in newspapers that brought about the revival of the Gothic in France and indirectly in England in the form of penny dreadfuls, including such French works as Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-43) and The Wandering Jew (1846), and in England, James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1846-47) and George W. M. Reynolds’ Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-47)—he certainly was a forerunner and likely an influence upon the movement.

I am left wondering whether English writers read Langon in French—I don’t know that he was translated into English prior to Stableford’s translation—and how his works may have affected the development of the British Gothic novel. Certainly, they had minor influence on the French Gothic novels of the early nineteenth century, which in turn had influences on the British Gothic.

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

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Anne Rice’s New Novel Plays Upon Classic Gothic Rosicrucian Themes

Anne Rice and her son Christopher Rice recently published their first collaboration: Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra (2017). This book is a sequel to Anne Rice’s The Mummy: Ramses the Damned (1989), although it can be read as a stand-alone novel. (I read The Mummy so many years ago I scarcely remember it, but I wasn’t lost at all in reading this book.)

Ramses the Damned, sequel to Anne Rice’s The Mummy

Warning that if you haven’t yet read Ramses the Damned, there may be some spoilers in my discussion.

In the previous novel, Ramses II was the mummy who came back to life. Actually, we find out that long ago he had obtained an elixir of immortality from a Hittite priestess and had never died but lived for approximately twelve centuries, from roughly 1200 BC to 1 A.D., spanning the time from his own reign to that of the celebrated Cleopatra. He and Cleopatra had been friends and he had been her advisor, but when she begged him to give the elixir to Marc Antony, Ramses refused, and then when Antony died, she killed herself. She had herself refused the elixir when Ramses had previously offered it to her. In despair over Cleopatra’s death, Ramses then went into a deep sleep for nineteen centuries, only to be woken by an Egyptologist just prior to World War I. Eventually, Ramses gave the gift of immortality to the Egyptologist’s daughter Julia and her father’s friend Elliott. Ramses also spotted an unknown mummy in a Cairo museum and realized it was Cleopatra, so he sprinkled some of the elixir on her, bringing her back to life, although because she had died, she appears to be a sort of monster, manic and only having partial memories of the past.

The plot of the second novel continues this storyline, although I won’t go into the plot’s full details. What is most interesting in the second novel is that Rice introduces Bektaten, an ancient queen who lived about 6000 B.C. Bektaten was the original owner of the elixir of immortality, although I don’t believe we are told exactly how she came into its possession. Bektaten has been wandering the earth for millennia, accompanied by two faithful servants—they are the last survivors of the ancient African land of Shaktanu. The only other survivor of this ancient civilization is Saqnos, who had once served Bektaten and had also become immortal from the elixir. However, he stole the elixir and sprinkled it on his warriors, thinking it would make them fearless in battle since they would be immortal. Saqnos wanted his warriors to overthrow Bektaten, but now that they are immortal, they have lost any desire or need to fight, and Bektaten makes her escape.

Later, Saqnos realizes he didn’t have the proper ingredients for the elixir; as a result, his warriors became “fractals,” only living two hundred years before they die. Over the centuries, Saqnos has given this diluted elixir to his many followers, only to suffer a great deal of grief when they die. During all this time, he has also sought Bektaten to get from her the full recipe for the elixir.

While the other characters—Ramses, Cleopatra, Julia, and Sybil, an American novelist who seems to be a reincarnation of Cleopatra, and consequently, seems to be stealing the resurrected Cleopatra’s memory—are more at the center of the plot, for me Bektaten and Saqnos are the most interesting characters in the novel, and the most sublime Gothic moment in the entire novel is when Bektaten displays that she has the power to take back the gift of immortality and takes it from Saqnos. Saqnos’ terror over this situation is the best in the novel, although it shows he has learned nothing through his long life. Most Gothic Wanderer figures in nineteenth century novels see their immortality ultimately as a curse when they continually must grieve the deaths of all those they love, and they often seek to end their lives unsuccessfully.

I won’t discuss more of the plot, but just briefly mention that Rice is drawing upon old Rosicrucian novel themes through her use of an elixir of immortality, a theme used in countless Gothic novels of the early nineteenth century from Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne (1811) to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842), probably the greatest of all Rosicrucian novels. The Rosicrucians were a medieval order supposedly founded by Christian Rosencreutz, who had himself discovered the secret of immortality. Although likely fictional himself, Rosencreutz reputedly founded the Rosicrucians, who claimed to be helpers of mankind and possess the secrets of extended life via the elixir and also the philosopher’s stone that can turn lead into gold. The Rosicrucians, in turn, supposedly had occult knowledge from ancient civilizations—civilizations like Rice’s ancient fictional Shaknatu, the kingdom Bektaten once ruled. For more about Rosicrucians in nineteenth century Gothic literature, see my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.

That Ramses the Damned is a collaboration between mother and son is also worth noting. So how does it rate beside Anne Rice’s other works? I have to admit I thought Christopher Rice’s first two novels, A Density of Souls (2000) and The Snow Garden (2001), were pretty terrible and never would have been published if not for his being Anne Rice’s son. That said, his next novel, Light and Day (2005), was a vast improvement, and he has since come into his own as a novelist. His style is not as lush and decadent as Rice’s so I suspect he wrote more of the novel than she did. Several reviewers have complained about the lack of style. I also will say there is a definite lack of plot and more just simple focus on characterization. Plotwise, it is one of the weakest of Anne Rice’s novels, but stylistically, I found it rather a relief. Some of Rice’s later novels, especially those with Lestat, tend to be so stylistic in terms of the dialogue as to be largely unrealistic, and yet that is part of Lestat’s strange appeal. None of this decadent, flowery language is an issue here. Christopher Rice’s more straightforward style seems to dominate, although the themes are definitely Anne Rice’s. The only part of the novel really rich in Anne Rice’s atmosphere is the last fifty or so pages, where the more flowery language felt very appropriate.

Ultimately, I would not say this is Rice’s best novel, although I think I liked it even more than The Mummy. It is, whatever its flaws, a fascinating book for its treatment of immortal characters who are not vampires. I would welcome another sequel and also to see Bektaten work her way into Rice’s vampire novels farther down the road, just as the Mayfair Witches eventually did. I think any true lover of classic Gothic will find much of interest in these pages.

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

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