Ontario-Set Vampire Novel Draws on Gothic Traditions

Michael Rowe’s debut horror novel, Enter, Night (2011) is a pleasant (though scary) surprise in horror fiction, or Gothic literature—the term I prefer—because it is a novel that feels very modern but draws very intensely upon traditional Gothic elements.

It is impossible not to give away some of the plot to discuss the novel properly, so this is a warning if you haven’t read it yet.

The novel was recommended to me by a friend who follows this blog. Because I live in Marquette, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior and Enter, Night takes place on the Canadian side of the lake, only a few hours’ drive from me, he thought I would be interested in it. I was very interested because of the inclusion of Ojibwa themes and history as well as French-Canadian history. These interest me because I am a writer of Upper Michigan history, am descended from seventeenth-century French-Canadian voyageurs who traveled the Great Lakes with the Jesuits, and am writing a biography of Charles Kawbawgam, the local nineteenth-century Ojibwa chief in the Marquette area. Therefore, a book that takes my favorite historical area and combines it with my beloved Gothic is sure to win me over—provided it is done well, and Michael Rowe pulls it off very well.

The novel’s primary modern section takes place in a small town in Ontario in 1972 not far from Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. I will not go into the plot of this section that covers about 340 pages. However, I did like that the young boy in this section is a fan of The Tomb of Dracula comic book series of the early 1970s and also watches the popular vampiric TV soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971), which shows Rowe is well aware that he is writing in a Gothic tradition. In the afterword, Rowe also mentions how his mother gave him his first copy of Dracula when he was ten. Beyond these references, I don’t know how familiar Rowe is with the rest of the Gothic tradition, but the last section of the novel suggests to me he is very familiar with it.

In the novel’s primary section, the town of Parr’s Landing is the victim of a vampire scourge. In the last section, we learn the origins of this scourge through a discovered manuscript written by a Jesuit priest in the seventeenth century.

Discovered manuscripts have been an element of Gothic literature since its beginning. Mrs. Radcliffe has her main character discover one in The Romance of the Forest (1791) and the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764) claims to be a discovered manuscript itself. In Enter, Night, the discovered manuscript reveals ancient shocking horrors. It tells the story of a Jesuit priest who travels to a mission where he has heard that terrible things have happened. The journey to this remote mission across the Great Lakes reminds me of the journey in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) to find Kurtz, who has basically become a madman and been set up like a god over the Natives. Like Conrad’s Marlow, Father Nyon, who narrates, will discover that the true horror is the person he has come to find.

While the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries had the purpose of trying to convert the Native Americans to Christianity, Father Nyon discovers that rather than spreading Christianity, Father de Céligny is spreading terror because he is actually a vampire. Father Nyon has already heard rumors of a possible weetigo (wendigo) in the area—wendigo is an Ojibwa term for a man who becomes a man-eater or cannibal; however, he had no idea that he would find not a cannibal but a true vampire in one of his fellow Jesuits. Father Nyon eventually realizes that Father de Céligny purposely left France to come to the New World so he could practice his vampirism more effectively, thinking himself safer in the New World where he would also have a large, innocent population to feed upon.

Rowe’s decision to make his vampire be a French Jesuit priest is interesting for many reasons. First, Rowe is drawing upon the Gothic theme of secret societies that alter world politics. The Jesuits were one of many such secret societies that the Gothic used. Specifically, in Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1846), the Jesuits are the great villains. For more on Jesuits and conspiracy theories, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesuit_conspiracy_theories.

Rowe does not directly blame the Jesuits, but rather, he shows how this vampire has infiltrated the Society of Jesus to use it as a cover for him to carry out his evil. As the sole Jesuit at his mission, he has the ability to feed off the Native Americans he has come to convert. This is practically an Antichrist role, placing him in the position to do the opposite of what he is intended to do. One can’t help but also wonder whether Rowe has in the back of his mind how many Catholic priests have used their positions to hurt rather than help their flock by engaging in sexual abuse of minors.

The vampire tradition has always played off the tradition of Christ, turning it upside down. In Catholicism, the Eucharistic bread and wine, through the miracle of transubstantiation, are turned into Christ’s actual body and blood. Consequently, when Catholics take communion, they are engaging in what may be termed a form of cannibalism. The vampire tradition draws upon this concept by showing a supernatural being that feeds upon others’ blood, and many Gothic novels quote the Bible, referring to the blood as being the life.

The influence of Dracula on Enter, Night is also present in Father de Céligny being a French aristocrat—actually a count. Similarly, Dracula is a count. Furthermore, the early Gothic novels of the 1790s served as a veiled commentary on the French Revolution, and later, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) would use Gothic elements to openly depict the French Revolution. (See my book The Gothic Wanderer for more on Dickens’ novel and how the Gothic responded to the French Revolution.) Aristocrats were frequent villains in Gothic literature, including in Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan on the Rhine (1798), and, of course, A Tale of Two Cities.

Another way Dracula influences Rowe’s novel is the spread of vampirism from one country to another. Dracula’s goal is to travel to England where there will be plenty of fresh victims for him. Many critics have discussed how Dracula is planning to invade and colonize England. Similarly, in Rowe’s book, a count plans to invade the New World to satiate his thirst and spread vampirism.

Vampirism has often been seen as a metaphor for the spread of disease, including venereal diseases and more recently AIDS. However, in Rowe’s novel, one can’t help thinking of smallpox and the other diseases Europeans brought to the Native Americans.

Of course, by the manuscript’s end, Father Nyon has managed to defeat Father de Céligny, imprisoning him in a cave, which he will eventually escape from in 1972 to terrorize the town of Parr’s Landing in the more modern part of the novel.

I think Michael Rowe has done a wonderful job of creating a true page-turner while clearly writing within the Gothic tradition and creating new twists on old Gothic themes. He is a modern-day James Fenimore Cooper in taking the Gothic from Europe and transporting it to the forests of North America. He also introduces homosexual characters in the modern section of the novel, another frequent though subtle and underlining theme in early Gothic fiction, especially in vampire novels. Consequently, it isn’t surprising that Rowe is the editor of two Queer Fear anthologies. He is also the author of several other horror novels I may just have to check out.

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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.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Gothic Novels, Dracula

One response to “Ontario-Set Vampire Novel Draws on Gothic Traditions

  1. ellenandjim

    My only comment — as I know so little — is to say how common it is today for historical fictions (gothic or not) to begin in the present time and go backwards and forwards. To collapse the present into the past so the present becomes haunted too Ellen

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