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The Woman in White’s Influence on Dracula

Similarities between Wilkie Collins’ 1860 novel The Woman in White and Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula have long been noted by critics and readers. Recently, I reread The Woman in White with fellow members of the Trollope and His Contemporaries group online that I have long belonged to. During this read, several similarities between the two novels stood out to me and some of the other members, particularly Ellen Moody, which I will discuss here. Personally, I believe Stoker was influenced in numerous ways by The Woman in White, many of which he may not have realized himself.

An 1880 portrait of Wilkie Collins by Rudolph Lehmann

The biggest and most often noted similarity between the two novels is their structure. The Woman in White is written as a compilation of various documents and eyewitness testimonies by various people involved in the strange events depicted in the novel. Stoker adopted this same technique for Dracula. While previous novels had claimed to be collections of documents—for example, Samuel Richardson’s novels and all the epistolary fiction that followed—Collins was the first to have multiple characters compile documents for the purpose of sharing them with the public and documenting events to provide evidence of what happened. By comparison, Richardson’s characters’ letters are simply “discovered” by the author who claims to be their editor. Stoker goes a step farther than Collins in Dracula by even employing new technology, such as phonographs, to compile the record, but the results are the same—numerous pieces by different eyewitnesses that are put together to create a complete narrative.

Several similarities also exist between Collins and Stoker’s characters beginning with the villains. Our primary villain in both novels is a count and a foreigner. Count Dracula is from Transylvania while Count Fosco is from Italy. Several scholars have written about how Dracula may be a commentary on the concern of Eastern European immigrants coming into England and the need to hold back that threat. (For more details on this theory, see my book The Gothic Wanderer.) Such prejudice or racism directed at foreigners is also apparent in The Woman in White when Laura Fairlie’s aunt marries Count Fosco, thus resulting in her being disinherited and only able to collect her inheritance should her niece Laura die. Of course, Count Fosco is not a desirable husband, but that the foreigner is made into a villain still suggests a note of racism in the text. Another foreigner in The Woman in White is Mr. Fairlie’s servant Louie, whom Mr. Gilmore describes as “miserable”; Louie, far from being a villain, is subservient and mistreated by Mr. Fairlie, but disliked regardless.

The primary female character in Dracula is Mina Harker. In The Woman in White, it is Marian Halcombe. Notably, the women have the same initials. Marian is similar to Mina in several ways I will discuss below, but as Ellen Moody noted, Marian also takes on the role of Mina’s husband, Jonathan Harker, when she is seen crawling on the rooftops so that she can overhear conversations in other rooms to learn her enemies’ secrets. Similarly, Jonathan Harker makes explorations of Dracula’s castle, including going out on the ramparts to try to find a means of escape.

Hints of homosexuality and fear of it also exist in both novels. In The Woman in White, Mr. Fairlie is a weak and effeminate male who is constantly whining and acting like a hypochondriac. Notably, he is also much impressed by Walter Hartright, complimenting him on how strong he is when he first arrives at Limmeridge House, suggesting a sexual attraction or at least an admiration for men who are stronger and, thus, manlier, than he is. By comparison Marian is very mannish and dresses in mannish ways.

Bram Stoker may have had homosexual feelings himself. He liked to play with gender themes in many of his novels, including The Lair of the White Worm and The Man.

While there is no overt homosexuality in either novel, there is a definite fear of it in the novels’ subtexts. Most notably, in Dracula, the men all fear the count as the alpha male figure who has the power to defeat and, thus, emasculate them, including by taking their women from them. Dracula succeeds in taking Lucy from the men who love her, and then he attempts to do the same with Mina. The most horrifying moment in the novel is when the men discover the count with Mina. Dracula has broken into Mina and Jonathan’s bedroom and apparently overpowered Jonathan, who lies there unconscious while Dracula forces Mina to drink blood from his breast. While Dracula does not drain Jonathan, that he takes Jonathan’s woman is sufficient to show he has unmanned Jonathan. This fear of a more powerful male draining another male of their manhood is a subtext for homosexuality and specifically fellatio.

A similar, though less explicit, event happens in The Woman in White after Walter Hartright falls in love with Laura Fairlie. However, Laura is engaged to Sir Percival, who also is depicted in alpha male terms. Walter leaves Limmeridge House just before Sir Percival arrives. He apparently feels unmanned that the woman he loves could prefer Sir Percival. Consequently, the next time we hear of Walter, he is described by Mr. Gilmore as having been seen walking about London looking “pale and haggard.” In other words, by taking his woman, Sir Percival has drained the manhood out of Walter Hartright.

Stoker takes this image of Walter walking about London and reverses it in Dracula. When Jonathan Harker first sees Dracula at his castle, the count is pale. Later, Jonathan sees him walking about in London and notes how he has grown young, which he has done by drinking blood. Jonathan is also weak and pale by the time he leaves Dracula’s castle, having undergone a great shock. The female vampires wish to feed on him, but Dracula tells them “This man belongs to me.” Stoker gives no indication that Dracula has sucked Jonathan’s blood, but perhaps we are to read between the lines. Again, the sense is that one man can drain the life and manhood from another. Later, Dracula warns all the men, “Your girls that you all love are mine already. And through them you and others shall yet be mine, my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed.” In other words, if Dracula comes to control the men, they will be his inferiors and thus be unmanned. They will become beta males whose job is to assist the alpha male in fulfilling his needs—both food-wise and sexually.

I will not go so far as to say there is lesbianism in Dracula between Mina and Lucy, although some critics have speculated upon this and Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula shows the two women kissing. However, hints at lesbianism definitely exist in The Woman in White. Marian, as previously stated, is very mannish in her behavior and how she dresses. She is also very protective of Laura, like a man would protect a woman—this is understandable given that they are sisters, yet the subtext is still there. It’s also noticeable that in the end, Marian does not marry. Collins could have easily married her off to one of the lawyers or doctors who are minor characters in the novel if he wanted to end the novel with neatly tied up marriage knots. Instead, that Walter ends up living with two women, Marian and Laura, may be reflective of the fact that Collins himself had two simultaneous mistresses, although they never all lived together. It also suggests that Marian wants to remain close to Laura and also that perhaps she feels some attraction to Walter. Certainly, Marian is more Walter’s equal than Laura. That Marian is mannish suggests a male homosexual bond between Marian and Walter while also suggesting a lesbian connection between Marian and Laura.

If Marian is a pseudo-man, it is telling that she admits at one point she would also fold Count Fosco’s cigarettes for him like his wife does—a sign not that she is attracted to him so much as that she would be submissive to him, just as men fear being submissive to a more alpha male.

Connections to Dracula also exist in Marian and Count Fosco’s relationship. Although the count has no supernatural powers, he insinuates himself into Marian’s mind so much that she states she can recall his conversation and hear it in her head later as if he’s in the room. Similarly, Dracula and Mina are able to communicate telepathically. Later when Marian is sick, Dr. Dawson accuses Count Fosco of using mesmerism on her.

Dracula, of course, does have supernatural powers, including the power of mesmerism through his hypnotic eyes. Dracula also has power over other, weaker animals, including rats and wolves. Fosco has power over, or at least an affinity for, his mice and birds, and he is even capable of taming a great violent dog by telling it that it is a coward.

Secret societies also come into play in both novels. Toward the end of The Woman in White, it is revealed that Count Fosco has belonged to a secret society, The Brotherhood, and he has a mark upon him showing that he has been denounced by them—a mark reminiscent of the Mark of Cain that made the biblical Cain an outcast. While Dracula is not a member of a secret society, per se, the vampires are a sort of secret society in themselves. Similarly, the men are part of a “band” in their efforts to defeat Dracula. While it remains questionable whether Stoker was inspired by Vlad Tepes in creating Dracula, we know Vlad belonged to the Order of the Dragon, from which the name Dracula is derived. Vampires are also outcasts, unable to receive heaven’s salvation. At one point, Jonathan strikes Dracula on the forehead, resulting in a mark remaining there, again recalling the mark of Cain. Later, Van Helsing presses a Eucharistic host to Mina’s forehead and it also leaves a mark there, showing she is an outcast now that she has become Dracula’s minion.

The latest film of The Woman in White, which aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre in 2018.

It’s notable also, although Collins only drops the name, that we learn Fosco has belonged to several secret societies, including the Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucians claimed to have two major secrets: the elixir of life, which provided them with life extension and also the philosopher’s stone which gave them the alchemist skill of turning lead into gold. Fosco does not claim to have either of these secrets, but he does have chemical (if not alchemical) knowledge that allows him to administer drugs to Marian. As a side note, numerous critics have commented upon how Laura ending up in an insane asylum may have been based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton locking up his own wife in such an institution. Notably, Edward Bulwer-Lytton belonged to a Rosicrucian society himself, and the title character of his novel Zanoni (1842) is a Rosicrucian.

Finally, early in The Woman in White, Walter meets “the woman in white”—Anne Catherick. Dracula also has its woman in white—Lucy, who as a vampiress preys upon many children before she is put to rest.

I don’t think Stoker plagiarized from The Woman in White, but I think too many similarities exist between the novels not to believe he was heavily influenced by Collins’ novel. I am sure Stoker was aware of how he adopted from Collins’ novel a similar narrative structure for Dracula, but I think the way he took Collins’ themes and characters and developed them on a more supernatural level must have been done largely subconsciously. Clearly, The Woman in White had a profound influence upon Stoker beyond his own awareness.

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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, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. For more information about Tyler and his books, visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.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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Auriol, or the Elixir of Life: Ainsworth’s Rosicrucian and Faustian Novel

Originally published in 1844 in serial form as Revelations of London, William Harrison Ainsworth’s short novel Auriol, or the Elixir of Life is an interesting piece of Gothic literary history both for what it was influenced by and for the influence it had.

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

That influence was primarily upon George W.M. Reynolds’s novel The Necromancer (1852), which I previously discussed on this blog (The Necromancer), and the introduction to the Valancourt edition of that book by Dick Collins made me decide to read this one.

The theme of the elixir of life in Gothic literature goes back to early uses of Rosicrucian characters in Gothic novels. The Rosicrucians was a secret society supposedly founded by Christian Rosenkreutz. They claimed to know the secret of immortality and also the philosopher’s stone that would turn lead into gold. The first major novel that depicted the Rosicrucian theme was William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) and similar themes appeared in numerous novels that followed, including Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne (1811) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). (A chapter on the Rosicrucian influence on Gothic literature can be found in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.)

What makes Auriol stand out from its Rosicrucian predecessors is how it mixes its Rosicrucian theme with that of Faust. Of course, the Faust story had been around for centuries, treated in Elizabethan times by playwright Christopher Marlowe and more recently by Goethe. It was the Faustian pact with the devil in the novel that would go on to influence Reynolds’s The Necromancer.

The plot begins with a prologue set in the year 1599. Dr. Lamb is brewing a concoction that hopefully will be the elixir of life. As he is finishing it, in the street, Auriol Darcy is wounded in a scuffle after trying to remove heads on pikes from London bridge, which belonged to his father and grandfather. He escapes and is given refuge by Dr. Lamb, who reveals that he is Auriol’s great-grandfather. Dr. Lamb is ill and desperate to finish his potion, but not before he tells Auriol about it. When the potion is completed, Dr. Lamb is so weak he cannot lift it to his lips, and he begs Auriol to help him, but Auriol drinks the elixir for himself and lets Dr. Lamb die before rushing out in the street. What Auriol doesn’t know is that Dr. Lamb’s servant, a dwarf named Flapdragon, finds a few drops of the elixir left and drinks it so that like Auriol, he has become immortal. Flapdragon will figure in the plot going forward.

Interestingly, Dr. Lamb got the recipe for the potion from a rabbi (unfortunately, Jews are believed to be sorcerers in many Gothic novels), and he knows there is a heavy price to pay if he drinks the potion. It turns out that for the potion’s power to remain effective, Auriol must capture young women and surrender them to a mysterious man named Cyprian de Rougemont, who himself is in league with the devil (a plot very similar to Reynolds in The Necromancer in which the main character must find six women to marry him so he can give their souls to Satan in exchange for his long life.)

I will not get into the entire details of the plot, but the story jumps ahead to the first book, set in 1830, when Auriol is busy trying to find his latest victim for Rougemont, although he also falls in love with her and tries, unsuccessfully, to save her at the last moment.

A section called “Intermean” is between the novel’s two books. This section is set in 1800 and concerns Cyprian de Rougemont. Here we learn that he made his own pact with Satan when he visited the tomb of his ancestor of the same name who was a Rosicrucian. His ancestor left behind a great treasure, but he cannot enter the room where the treasure lies and obtain it unless he agrees to surrender his soul to the devil. Instead, he decides he will get Auriol’s soul for the devil.

The Tomb of the Rosicrucian - an illustration for Auriol, by Phiz

The Tomb of the Rosicrucian – an illustration for Auriol, by Phiz, who also illustrated Dickens’s novels

The novel continues into the second book where relatives of Auriol and Rougemont’s victims try to rescue the latest girl before it is too late. They find themselves basically in a haunted house although the strange things they encounter are not engineered by ghosts but enchantments or mechanics.

However, no real conclusion to the tale is reached. Instead, Auriol awakes to find he is back in Dr. Lamb’s room and has been dreaming. This ending is severely disappointing both for not resolving the plot and for destroying the possibility that anything supernatural in the book actually happened. That said, the novel ends with Auriol saying, “I am satisfied. I have lived centuries in a few nights.” This line makes me wonder whether the book was a bit influenced by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was published the previous year—Scrooge is to be visited by ghosts over the course of three nights, during which time he reviews his whole past. The plot is similar except that in a few nights, Auriol experiences a future life for himself.

Ainsworth wrote several Gothic and fantastic stories, but Auriol is said to be the only one where he used this dream motif. It is an intriguing story until it gives up on itself—I suspect Ainsworth got bored with it or did not know how to resolve the plot. Fortunately, Reynolds saw the possibilities in it and was able to adapt it to create one of the great Gothic novels of the Victorian period in The Necromancer. Often, Ainsworth has been considered a superior writer to Reynolds, who has been seen more as his disciple, but at least in the case of Auriol and The Necromancer, the disciple surpassed the master.

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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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Best-Selling Victorian Author’s Werewolf Novel Fascinating

Until recently and only thanks to a blog by Interesting Literature, I had never heard of George W.M. Reynolds (1814-1879), and even Anne Rice in her novel The Wolf Gift (2012), where she mentions several early Werewolf novels and short stories, does not mention him, yet in his day, Reynolds outsold Charles Dickens as well as all the other well-known Victorian novelists, including the Brontes, Thackeray, Eliot, and Trollope.

Reynolds - a page from Reynolds' Miscellany - the beginning of Wagner the Wehr-Wolf can be seen at the bottom.

Reynolds – a page from Reynolds’ Miscellany – the beginning of Wagner the Wehr-Wolf can be seen at the bottom.

Why didn’t Reynolds’ fame endure down to the twenty-first century with his contemporaries? I suspect it’s because of the types of books he wrote. His books were Gothic and often serialized in the penny dreadful format. They also were derivative of other writers. He was clearly a reader of the great French novelist Eugene Sue, best known for his novel The Wandering Jew (1846) and also The Mysteries of Paris (1842-1843). Reynolds capitalized on Sue’s popularity by writing The Mysteries of London (1844-1848). He also capitalized on the popularity of the penny dreadful installments of Varney the Vampyre (1845-1847) by writing the similarly titled Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-1847). I have read both Varney the Vampyre and Sue’s The Wandering Jew and can clearly see the influence of these works on Wagner the Wehr-Wolf in terms of its style, complicated plot, and moral themes. The book is also very derivative of the early Gothic novels of a half-century before; in fact, it reads like it could have been written by a male counterpart to Eleanor Sleath, author of The Orphan on the Rhine (1798), although its plot and style is too far-fetched and simplistic to raise it to the level of Mrs. Radcliffe’s works. That said, there is much that is interesting and even remarkable about Wagner the Wehr-Wolf that makes the work deserve more attention.

To summarize Wagner the Wehr-Wolf’s plot would be tedious and it would be hard to follow. It’s enough to say it is full of twists and turns, remarkable coincidences, family secrets, a mysterious manuscript, bloody deeds, and supernatural events. The setting, other than the brief prologue that takes place in Germany, is primarily Florence, Italy in the 1520s, with some scenes on a deserted island and in Constantinople. There are a handful of main characters, but only two—Wagner and Nisida—really stand out. I will focus upon them and the main plot that involves them, while including a few additional comments about minor characters and the subplots to highlight their Gothic elements that add to the novel’s fascination.

Wagner is the true main character. When the novel opens, he is a ninety-five-year-old grandfather who fears he has been abandoned by his granddaughter and left alone in their forest home. He is visited by a mysterious stranger who gives him the gift of youth in exchange for traveling with him for a year and a half. Wagner agrees to the conditions—that in exchange for youth, he will become a werewolf for twenty-four hours once a month. He drinks from a vial to make the transformation to occur. I find this detail remarkable because most werewolf stories today show the werewolf transformation happening from being bitten by the werewolf. However, the vial seems more significantly to be an elixir of life that restores youth and gives extended life—this is noteworthy because the Rosicrucians, a mysterious and allegedly medieval secret brotherhood, were said to have two primary secrets—the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold. While the stranger who gives this gift to Wagner is not a Rosicrucian, we encounter Rosicrucians later in the novel.

Actually, the stranger turns out to be none other than Faust, well-known for selling his soul to the devil in works by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Goethe. Following the prologue, he does not appear again in the book and the narrative jumps ahead several years until we learn that after Wagner completed the prescribed eighteen months of traveling with Faust, Faust passed away.

That Wagner is changed by Faust is significant because Satan then appears after Faust’s death to tempt Wagner to seal a pact with him as well. Wagner is tormented by his werewolfism and longs to be freed from it, but Satan says he must sell his soul to him in exchange for freedom and additional power, something Wagner refuses to do, and at the moments when he is most tempted, he manages to send off Satan with a crucifix. (Reynolds would return to the subject of Faust in soon after in 1847 in his novel Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals.

Some of the novel’s best passages are the descriptions of Wagner as a werewolf. Here is the depiction of his transformation and the resulting violence that results in Chapter 12:

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In the midst of a wood of evergreens on the banks of the Arno, a man—young, handsome, and splendidly attired—has thrown himself upon the ground, where he writhes like a stricken serpent, in horrible convulsions.

He is the prey of a demoniac excitement: an appalling consternation is on him—madness is in his brain—his mind is on fire.

Lightnings appear to gleam from his eyes, as if his soul were dismayed, and withering within his breast.

“Oh! no—no!” he cries with a piercing shriek, as if wrestling madly, furiously, but vainly against some unseen fiend that holds him in his grasp.

And the wood echoes to that terrible wail; and the startled bird flies fluttering from its bough.

But, lo! what awful change is taking place in the form of that doomed being? His handsome countenance elongates into one of savage and brute-like shape; the rich garments which he wears become a rough, shaggy, and wiry skin; his body loses its human contours, his arms and limbs take another form; and, with a frantic howl of misery, to which the woods give horribly faithful reverberations, and, with a rush like a hurling wind, the wretch starts wildly away, no longer a man, but a monstrous wolf!

On, on he goes: the wood is cleared—the open country is gained. Tree, hedge, and isolated cottage appear but dim points in the landscape—a moment seen, the next left behind; the very hills appear to leap after each other.

A cemetery stands in the monster’s way, but he turns not aside—through the sacred inclosure—on, on he goes. There are situated many tombs, stretching up the slope of a gentle acclivity, from the dark soil of which the white monuments stand forth with white and ghastly gleaming, and on the summit of the hill is the church of St. Benedict the Blessed.

From the summit of the ivy-grown tower the very rooks, in the midst of their cawing, are scared away by the furious rush and the wild howl with which the Wehr-Wolf thunders over the hallowed ground.

An illustration from Wagner the Wehr-Wolf depicting his disruption of the funeral procession.

An illustration from Wagner the Wehr-Wolf depicting his disruption of the funeral procession.

At the same instant a train of monks appear round the angle of the church—for there is a funeral at that hour; and their torches flaring with the breeze that is now springing up, cast an awful and almost magical light on the dark gray walls of the edifice, the strange effect being enhanced by the prismatic reflection of the lurid blaze from the stained glass of the oriel window.

The solemn spectacle seemed to madden the Wehr-Wolf. His speed increased—he dashed through the funeral train—appalling cries of terror and alarm burst from the lips of the holy fathers—and the solemn procession was thrown into confusion. The coffin-bearers dropped their burden, and the corpse rolled out upon the ground, its decomposing countenance seeming horrible by the glare of the torch-light.

The monk who walked nearest the head of the coffin was thrown down by the violence with which the ferocious monster cleared its passage; and the venerable father—on whose brow sat the snow of eighty winters—fell with his head against a monument, and his brains were dashed out.

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Wagner continually commits manslaughter (it’s not exactly intentional murder) in his werewolf state, although the novel only shows us his transformation on a few occasions. Nevertheless, his situation is not hopeless and neither is he unredeemable.

But before mentioning Wagner’s redemption, I will turn to the other remarkable character in this novel—perhaps one of the most remarkable female characters in literature, Nisida.

If ever there was a villainess in a Gothic novel, it is Nisida. When we are first introduced to her, it is believed she is deaf and dumb, but it is soon revealed that she fakes these disabilities as a way to spy upon others. She’s also not above cross-dressing. And certainly not above committing murder to get her way. Early in the novel, this “noble” woman meets Wagner and they fall in love. But when she suspects Wagner is unfaithful to her by having an affair with Agnes (a young woman who had an affair with Nisida’s father and is now living with Wagner because she is the granddaughter he thought had deserted him in the forest), Nisida murders Agnes. When Wagner is arrested for the murder, he is unable to explain his true relationship with Agnes (his granddaughter barely believed he was her grandfather since he looks as young as her, so how will the court believe it?), so he is imprisoned. Nisida is not above cross-dressing as a man so she can visit him in prison. (He doesn’t yet know she murdered his granddaughter.)

Eventually, Wagner escapes from prison, and after a series of events, he and Nisida end up shipwrecked on a deserted island (interestingly, there is an island of Nisida off the coast of Italy, and it’s volcanic—perhaps a source for Nisida’s temper in the novel). Here Nisida reveals to him that she actually can speak and hear. She and Wagner experience a sort of island paradise experience—one that recalls Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and also the island scenes between Immalee and Melmoth in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) only it is not the female but the male who is more innocent here while the female is the tempter. During this time, Nisida feels overcome by Wagner’s beauty “so joyful, too, was she in the possession of one whose masculine beauty was almost superhumanly great” (Chapter 53), a hint at the eventual evolution of the Gothic Wanderer figure into the twentieth century superhero. But soon Nisida grows bored on the island. She also doesn’t like that Wagner every month leaves her without explanation (because he doesn’t want her to know of his werewolf transformation). She also longs to return to Italy to look after her brother whom she knows is in love with Flora, her maid, a marriage she is not happy about. Consequently, when Satan appears on the island to tempt Wagner again and he refuses to give into temptation, Satan next turns to Nisida to tempt her—not unlike the serpent tempting Eve in the garden of Eden. He tells Nisida that Wagner has the power to leave the island but refuses to share it with her. (The truth is that Wagner doesn’t have this power, but he will if he sells his soul to Satan.) Satan tells Nisida to demand Wagner transport them from the island, and if Wagner refuses, to question why he leaves her each month. Despite Nisida’s efforts and questioning, however, Wagner refuses to give in.

Eventually, a boat comes and takes Nisida back to the mainland, but Wagner stays behind, not wanting to live among humans because he knows he might hurt them as a werewolf. Nisida promises to return to him once she takes care of her brother, but meanwhile, Wagner despairs of ever being freed from his werewolfism. Then he has a dream in which an angel appears to him and tells him he has done much already to atone for his sins by resisting Nisida and Satan’s temptations. Consequently, he finds a boat and is told by the angel to take it to Sicily where he will meet a man who is 162 years old who can help him.

Wagner cannot imagine how a man can be 162 years old, but he arrives in Sicily and questions an innkeeper about such a man. The man consequently tells him he has heard lies about the Rosicrucians, including their legendary founder, Christianus Rosencrux, who would be 162 years old if the legends were true. The Roscrucians feature in many other Gothic novels, most notably Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842) but also Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian (1811) and the theme influences William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799). (For more on the Rosicrucian novel, see my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.) However, I was stunned to find that Christianus Rosencrux (a Latinized spelling of the German name Christian Rosenkreuz, which means Christian Rosy Cross—a reference to the blood on the cross of Christ) should be a character in this novel. Wagner soon realizes it must be Rosencrux whom he seeks, and that night, a mysterious stranger comes to him and leads him to Rosencrux.

I find this part of the story very interesting. The angel appearing to Wagner after he repents and prays for the werewolf curse to be lifted reminds me of the conversion of St. Paul when Christ himself speaks to St. Paul, telling him to go to a man who will heal his blindness. Here Wagner must go to a man who can help to heal his werewolfism. The scene also reminds me of the Ancient Mariner who goes to the hermit to have his sins forgiven in Coleridge’s famous poem.

Gustave Dore's illustration of "Shrieve me, Holy Man" - the scene in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner when the mariner seeks atonement from the hermit.

Gustave Dore’s illustration of “Shrieve me, Holy Man” – the scene in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner when the mariner seeks atonement from the hermit.

Wagner is surprised that the mysterious stranger knows he seeks Christian Rosencrux, but the stranger explains that the Rosicrucians are the servants of the angels who show them in visions what they must do to fulfill God’s will, and so he has come to bring Wagner to Rosencrux.

Rosencrux, however, doesn’t really do much for Wagner except point him toward the next part of his journey. He’s told to go to Florence to meet Nisida and that a circumstance connected with his destiny will occur there, including that he will be released from his werewolf curse when he sees two innocent people’s skeletons hanging from the same beam.

I don’t want to give away how the novel gets us to its conclusion—it’s convoluted to say the least—but after a series of events, Wagner does see the skeletons and instantly falls dead upon the sight of them. We now learn the skeletons are tied to a secret that has been the primary motivation behind Nisida’s actions, as she now explains everything to her brother and his new bride Flora before she becomes ill. Christian Rosencrux now appears and acts as her confessor. After Nisida dies, Roxencrux tells Flora and Francesco that Nisida is forgiven and can rest in peace.

The idea of redemption here is strange indeed. Typically in the earlier Gothic novels, a transgression results in damnation, but Varney the Vampyre was one of the first novels to depict a repentant and redeemed Gothic transgressor and Reynolds is following that format, although not quite as convincingly. Neither Wagner nor Nisida do anything to gain forgiveness—no acts of kindness required—just repentance, but while Wagner committed murder as a werewolf, it might be argued he cannot be blamed for what happens to him during his transformed moments. However, Nisida has cruelly murdered and her justifications for it make her sound more like she is psychotic than deserving of forgiveness; she even states in the case of killing a woman named Margaretha that the woman got what she deserved. Still repentance is enough, even if you are a liar and murderer.

The role of religion is interesting in the novel in terms of this redemption. Both Nisida and Wagner seek redemption and consequently die as Christians. But Reynolds is not as kind to non-Christians. One other main character in the novel faces serious temptation—Alessandro, Flora’s brother. Early in the novel, he goes to Constantinople to serve in Florence’s embassy there. In Constantinople, he finds a beautiful woman, Aisca, who tempts him to convert to Islam in exchange for enjoying her company. He does so and soon finds himself promoted until he is grand vizier to Solyman the Magnificent, who turns out to be Aisca’s brother. Aisca’s tempting of Alessandro is reminiscent of Eve tempting Adam—it is a woman who turns a man to sin, as earlier Nisida tempted Wagner. Today, we would be less inclined to see converting to another religion as a serious transgression, but Reynolds surely did.

The other temptation and the only real “sin” Alessandro (who becomes Ibrahim upon conversion) commits is that he falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Calanthe, and commits adultery with her. Aisca’s mother, however, finds out about his betrayal and has Calanthe drowned. Then Alessandro is warned that any woman he seeks to be with other than Aisca will meet the same fate. At the end of the novel, Calanthe’s brother, Demetrius, murders Alessandro in revenge for his sister’s death. It’s not clear whether Demetrius thinks Alessandro is the murderer, or just one who stole her virtue. In any case, Alessandro’s crimes are minor compared to the multiple murders Nisida commits, yet Alessandro does not receive redemption.

Surprisingly, while I think the novel is anti-Muslim because of how it treats Alessandro, it is not anti-Semitic. Another minor character, Isaachar, is a Jew who finds himself imprisoned by the Inquisition but is defended by a Marquis (himself an adulterer) and is ultimately rescued. Isaachar only survives two years after the torture he experiences in the Inquisition’s prison before he dies and leaves all his fortune to the Marquis (the Christian male adulterer gets off, but not the Muslim adulterer). Before his death, Isaachar gives some fine speeches defending the Jewish people as does the Marquis. Reynolds is clearly not against the Jews and saves his narrator comments for pointing out the Inquisition’s cruelty—if anything, he is anti-Catholic more than anti-Jewish, as is typical of Gothic novels.

One final interesting aspect of this novel is the treatment of the Inquisition in it, and more specifically, that female torture is included. Earlier novels that depicted the Inquisition, notably Melmoth the Wanderer, depict male torture and come off being masochistic in their tone, but Wagner the Wehr-Wolf includes a convent where the women are forced to become nuns and those who attempt to escape are whipped. While Flora manages to avoid punishment when she is imprisoned in the convent, Giulia (the Marquis’s lover who is unfaithful to her husband), is not so fortunate, and later when she is tried before the Inquisition, her husband, the Count of Arestino arranges for her torture and takes great delight in watching her suffer and die (fortunately, the Marquis then kills him). In any case, women adulterers are punished while male adulterers are rewarded, provided they are Christian.

In the end, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf is one of the most violent and disturbing, yet completely entertaining Gothic novels ever written. The pacing and plotting never lags. If there is any reason for disappointment in it, it can only be because the werewolf scenes are minimal. Even while the novel feels like it belongs more to the 1790s than the 1840s, Reynolds was so popular in his day that it is surprising its popularity was not retained longer and its style makes it far more accessible to modern readers than many better known novels of the time.

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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 Introduction to “The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption”

If you’re curious about my new book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Gothic Fiction from 1794-Present, here is the introduction to the book, giving insight not only into what the book is about but also why the Gothic is so popular and why it matters today.

Introduction

Our Long Love Affair with the Gothic

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard—I saw them not—
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming,—
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”

         I love the Gothic. Most of us do, even if we don’t know exactly what the term “Gothic” means. It may mean different things to all of us, yet those things are closely related. Some of us might think of the Goth look where teenagers wear all black. Others might think of Gothic cathedrals. And a smaller percentage of us might think about classic Gothic literature—the great eighteenth and nineteenth century novels of Mrs. Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and several others.

We love the Gothic partly because we have a fascination with being scared. I love to be scared—I don’t go for the gory horror films of today, but I love suspense and the greatest Gothic literature builds up such suspense. But more importantly, Gothic literature reveals much about who we are, what we fear, and to what we aspire.

I was always fascinated with the Gothic—commonly called horror, or simply, when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, what was “scary.” I didn’t know the term Gothic and wouldn’t know it until well into high school, but I knew the Munsters, the Addams Family, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Broom-Hilda the Witch, and countless other characters in popular culture from that time who were often watered down children’s versions of the Gothic.

I remember the “Creature Feature” film being shown Saturday afternoons on TV50 from Detroit, and I loved Love at First Bite (1979) starring George Hamilton as Dracula—when it was broadcast on TV for the first time, my brother and I had a big fight over the TV (we only had one in the house in those days) because it was aired opposite Yogi’s First Christmas, which he wanted to watch.

I was the proud owner of the Weebles Haunted House complete with Weebles that “wobble but they don’t fall down”—including the witch with a removable pointy hat, a glow-in-the dark ghost, two Weeble children to be scared, secret panels, trapped doors, and a treasure chest with bats inside. All of it scary but wonderful!

In fourth grade, I was Dracula for Halloween—I remember still the thrill of running so my cape would flap in the wind, and I can still taste the plastic vampire teeth. Nor did I ever miss going through a Haunted House at the fair, and my friends and I commonly played haunted house, turning our bedrooms or the family room into a mansion of monsters and ghosts. Again, I was always Dracula.

And perhaps best of all, I owned the wonderfully dramatic record The Story of Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein from Power Records. This fabulous 33 1/3 record came with a read along book in graphic novel form (we called them comic books back then) and it combined into one dramatic tale the stories of its title characters. I played this record over and over again and still have my copy today. I constantly quoted it to others, including the pivotal scene when the werewolf (oddly not the Wolfman but Vincent von Frankenstein’s girlfriend Erika—Wolfwoman, I guess) attacks the Count, causing him to become enraged and reveal himself by declaring, “You dare!! You dare lay your paws on me! On me?! Low beast, you’ll die for this, die at the hands of the Prince of Darkness…FOR I AM DRACULA!” Recently, when I was working on this introduction, I dug out the record to engage in nostalgia and left it on my coffee table. My brother came over to visit and saw the record there and rolled his eyes. When I asked whether he wanted to listen to it, he said, “No, I never want to have to listen to that record again.” Apparently, I played it one—or maybe fifty—too many times.

But all these details could be dismissed as children’s games and just good fun (despite the fanatics who would ban The Wizard of Oz, or more recently, the Harry Potter books and films because they contain depictions of witchcraft). Only, I think on some innocent level that I could not have articulated when I was ten years old, I was even then searching for meaning—to understand the mystery of life, even if it were only the simplified notion of good and evil. I was a very religious child who had read the entire Bible by fifth grade, loved to play at being various characters from the Bible—mostly Moses or Jacob—and wanted to grow up to be a priest. So if I were such a “religious nut”—as one friend called me—how do I explain my fascination with horror and the supernatural?

And how explain my curiosity over an activity that countless children have attempted over the years? Yes, I am one of those many children who locked himself in the bathroom in the dark, stared into the bathroom mirror, and then tried to find out whether it was true that if I could say, “Bloody Murder!” one hundred times without blinking, the devil would appear in the mirror. But I was never able not to blink before I could say it one hundred times, or I would inevitably lose count.

Still, the quest for forbidden knowledge was strong in me at an early age. The fascination with Good and Evil thrilled me like it does many children, but I wanted proof that the supernatural forces of Good and Evil truly existed. Years later, when I discovered Percy Shelley’s lines quoted above, I was stunned by how perfectly he captured what I felt, his experiences matching mine of nearly two centuries later. And like Shelley, I eventually grew to love Intellectual Beauty.

As I reached my teen years, I discovered literature, having always loved to read, and soon novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and the works of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen became my primary fascination. It would be Jane Austen who really converted me into being a disciple of the Gothic. When I was about sixteen, I listened to an audio book version of Northanger Abbey with an introduction that explained the novel’s purpose as a satire of the Gothic novels, particularly of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Of course, I had to read Mrs. Radcliffe. Her novel had to be special ordered from the bookstore and although it was well over 600 pages, I devoured it in a week, reading it every free minute before and after school. The prose was beautiful, the suspense fabulous, the Gothic world frighteningly fascinating. I went on to read the rest of Radcliffe’s novels while I was still a teenager as well as reading other Gothic classics like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and William Beckford’s Vathek (1786). Dracula (1897) and Frankenstein (1818) followed, and in college when I discovered the Romantic poets, I could put all these books into context.

What was it about these books that thrilled me so much? Why did The Mysteries of Udolpho seem like such a wonderfully pleasant book to read, as well as a suspenseful page-turner? What about Dracula made me afraid to go to sleep, yet want to read it again—and enjoy the original novel so much more than the film versions of it—save for Coppola’s fabulous Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)? I don’t know that I asked myself that question until the late 1990s when my fascination with literature and my desire to be a novelist led me to being a Ph.D. candidate in the literature program at Western Michigan University. The result would be my writing a dissertation titled The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, which has now been expanded into this book. And I wasn’t the only enthusiastic student of the Gothic—at least two of my fellow doctoral candidates at the time also wrote about the Gothic in their dissertations.

Of all the subjects a person could write a dissertation on, why did I choose nineteenth century Gothic novels? I also loved Dickens, the Arthurian legend, Anthony Trollope, eighteenth century epistolary novels—why choose the Gothic over one of these topics? The reason was because I could relate to the Gothic; it resonated with me in ways those other great literary works did not at that time in my life. And I wanted to write about why it resonated with me, why I thought the Gothic mattered so much to people—I wanted to write what was called a “reader-response” dissertation, but I was dissuaded from it by my professors—told it would not be good for my academic career.

Now that I have long since left academia behind, I can straightforwardly say that academics too often forget that while they are the keepers of the culture, in order to pass that culture on, they have to show people why that culture matters—how it still relates to them. While at Western Michigan University, I had the opportunity to co-teach a class on the British Survey of Literature with Dr. Stephanie Gauper. During that class, she commented to me about my teaching, “The students like you because you make them understand how the literature is relevant to their lives. Most teachers don’t do that.” I always felt that was one of the greatest compliments I ever received. And while, in my dissertation, I made the mistake not to explain why the Gothic mattered and was still relevant to our lives, in this book, written for a wider audience, I wish to remedy that by stating that the Gothic is very relevant to our lives, that it speaks to us today, two hundred years after the great Gothic novels were written because what the people in the decades following the French Revolution and during the Victorian period dreamt, feared, longed for, and sought, is still what we dream, fear, long for, and seek today. The Gothic is perhaps the most relevant piece of literature for the twenty-first century, and its continuation in the novels of Stephen King and Anne Rice, the popular books and films of the Twilight series, and the countless vampire books, films, and television series being produced each year, testify to this fact.

But how does it speak to us? Why is it still relevant to us? Let me give one more example from my own history to make my point.

In the fall of 1995, I moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the same state as my hometown of Marquette, but nearly five hundred miles from home—in fact on a different peninsula—I might as well have been in another state, in some ways, in another country. I had culture shock in Kalamazoo—it was the big city compared to what I was used to—I didn’t know the people, the city streets, the weather, the mindset of those people. I was isolated, lonely, and downright miserable in Kalamazoo, wondering why I had ever made the decision to leave my hometown, but realizing the job market in Upper Michigan offered nothing for me, so I would have to go on to finish my degree, to become an English professor, and to take a job wherever one might exist—meaning I would never get to return home. I felt even more depressed and despairing when I looked at the future. If not for good friends and family and a telephone to talk to them on, I never would have gotten through those years. I would have defined these feelings as homesickness if I had not discovered a better word for it. That word I learned that first semester at Western Michigan University while taking a course on the Brontë sisters.

I decided in that class to write my final paper on the theme of colonialism in the Brontës’ novels. In my research, I came across the term “displacement” to describe the African character in one of the Brontës’ juvenilia. Instantly, I understood that word as perfectly describing my own feelings and experience. I was displaced. I was convinced that while I loved teaching and studying literature, I would never get to go home—I felt depressed when not terrorized by the thought. The job market in academia was such that it was unlikely I would ever find a tenure-track job at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. I foresaw myself moving from one university to another, always separated from my family and friends.

I stuck it out to finish my Ph.D. but my feelings of displacement did not get better. The job market—academia itself—was largely a nightmare—the MLA convention like a massive haunted house of pale young men in black suits, looking like blood-drained humans, fearful of interviewers yet hoping to be hired for tenure-track jobs. When I did find a job, it was a lowly one-year instructor position at Clemson University where I was given the equally “blood-draining” task of teaching up to 107 students per semester in a variety of composition and British literature survey courses (one literature and three composition sections). I had, consequently, upwards of five hundred papers per semester to grade and was paid $24,000 a year. And I had to do it in a hellishly hot climate I hated, while again feeling displaced. I have no doubt many people love Kalamazoo and South Carolina and I do not wish to disparage those places—my point is that I was unhappy and felt like a Gothic wanderer in them. Equally, we are all shaped by our individual preferences, likes and dislikes, and we all have different levels of tolerance. Here in Marquette, Michigan, I’m sure many people find our long winters and 200+ inches of snow per winter equally hellish, as roads between six foot snowbanks become like Gothic labyrinths, and bone-chilling temperatures seem like undeserving torture. Any place can be interpreted as “Gothic” if we so choose because Hell is in the mind—and the Gothic is nothing if not an exploration of human psychology and what we fear, as well as how we choose to let guilt and fear color our perspectives—one man’s transgression may be another man’s freedom.

And while my personal example may not seem nightmarish to most, it was like torture to me at the time, and it was in the midst of that nightmare that I began my doctoral dissertation. I chose to write about the Gothic wanderer because I felt myself to be like a Gothic wanderer, displaced and wandering through the mysterious maze of academia and the academic job market. In the chapters that follow, while I will discuss the Gothic novels themselves without commentary on how their themes relate to our lives today—something I don’t doubt my readers can figure out for themselves, let me here briefly list a few examples of how these Gothic wanderer figures speak to who we—men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from all races and religions—are today, and who we have always been.

The Gothic’s popularity arose at the time of the French Revolution as people questioned the legitimacy of their government—the monarchy—as well as the governments that replaced it, and the entire social order and its institutions, especially organized religion. Paranoia and conspiracy theories were common—our political concerns have not changed much today and continue to be reflected in our fiction. Just as the early Gothic novels theorized that certain secret societies were manipulating the French Revolution, today, we are no less fascinated by conspiracy theories—whether it be Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code with its alleged revelation of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the lost bloodline of Christ’s children via Mary Magdalene (the Gothic has always loved to pick on the Catholic Church), or beliefs that the government is withholding information from us about everything from terrorists to UFOs. In the twenty-first century, the U.S. Government has even been accused by some of staging the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Concerns about the patriarchal system, legitimate children, and the sanctity of the family were common in early Gothic novels—how much more today when divorce is prevalent and children are frequently born outside of marriage, mothers take men to court and have DNA paternity tests given to verify who a child’s father may be, while in politics we hear about the need to return to “family values.”

The Wandering Jew is one of the key figures in the Gothic, and although we may not be cursed to wander like him, our jobs and the economy often force us to move to unfamiliar places, to find employment in sectors we feel uncomfortable with, to experience displacement. At the same time, the Wandering Jew is a metaphor for the plight of the Jewish people. The effects of the Holocaust—a horror the nineteenth century Gothic novelists never could have imagined—still haunt us, and the Jewish people still struggle with prejudice and violence directed against them, even after having a homeland established in Israel.

The Rosicrucian Gothic wanderer is obsessed with finding the secret to eternal life. Are we any less obsessed with it today when we value youthfulness, and when studies predict that half of Americans born in the late twentieth century will live to see age one hundred? The Gothic fascination with life-extension continues for us today.

The Gothic concern with gambling is no less relevant today. Gambling in Gothic literature is viewed as a transgression, a way to achieve wealth to advance oneself in society, and consequently, it usually results in destruction for the gambler and his family. Today, gambling is an even bigger problem than it was two centuries ago. We constantly hear tales of lottery winners who waste their millions, only to become bankrupts. We know of people who invest in the stock market, or worse, get taken advantage of in Ponzi schemes, only to lose everything. We continually worry about the economy, and most of us continue to have financial difficulties or an unhealthy relationship with money, while longing for wealth that we falsely believe will solve all our problems.

Working conditions became a Gothic concern with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. In Dickens’ day, horrendous working conditions were being fought against. In the early twentieth century, the rise of unions helped to solve many of those problems, establishing an eight-hour work day and the weekend. But how many of us today find ourselves working long hours? What industry did to the Victorians, modern technology has done to us, making us connected 24/7 and perhaps improving communication but also resulting in expectations to work constantly.

Perhaps no novelist in all of literature has been more visionary or speaks more to our time than the Gothic novelist Mary Shelley. The issues in Frankenstein are the very issues of stem cell research, cloning, and the other quandaries of science we continue to argue over today. The need for responsible science is now more important than ever. In The Last Man, Shelley introduced the fear of a worldwide plague which today remains a terrifying possibility. Shelley’s vision of the future is frighteningly accurate in many ways. In recent decades, the scare of AIDS and the bird and swine flu have made people fear worldwide human extinction as a possibility. The possibility of nuclear war and biological warfare has made it possible that man could someday be responsible for his own extinction, unintentionally, or intentionally. The recent film Contagion (2011) is just one of many works that speak to these fears.

In the Victorian period, a religious crisis arose with the introduction of theories of evolution. Organized religion began slowly to lose its hold over people. Those shifts have only continued to the present day. The understanding that we are spiritual beings having a human experience has become a mantra in recent decades. More and more people have quit subscribing to organized religion but come to describe themselves as spiritual, and this desire to connect with our spiritual (supernatural) selves has led many down less traditional Western paths, including to eastern religions, beliefs in reincarnation, listening to entities who channel their messages through humans, an emphasis upon “the Goddess,” and the creation of new religions such as scientology. In many cases, a general move away from institutional Christianity has not led to atheism but what might be termed a spiritual reawakening that allows humanity, if not the autonomy from God that Milton’s Satan sought, then at least the “faith, hope, and self-esteem” that Percy Shelley dreamt of for humanity.

The vampire is the nineteenth century Gothic wanderer figure who has remained most popular in the twenty-first century and continues to be reinvented. Despite his “evil” nature, he has become glamorous and attractive; the lines between good and evil have been blurred; we now have dark heroes and sympathetic villains. The continuing popularity of the vampire two centuries after he was first introduced to English readers speaks to how much the Gothic still influences our lives today.

While the bulk of this study will cover nineteenth century British Gothic fiction, I will offer in the epilogue some insight into how the themes of that period’s Gothic literature have continued and been transformed in twentieth and twenty-first century literature, some still noticeably Gothic, such as Stephenie Myer’s Twilight series and Anne Rice’s vampire novels, while other influences are hard-pressed to be termed “Gothic” but still have Gothic elements or owe a debt to the Gothic, including such popular figures as Tarzan and Batman.

The Gothic wanderer is still with us today; he has lost a lot of his angst over the centuries, but the figure still fascinates us. This study will hopefully help to explain a little of why we love the Gothic—because we discover in the Gothic wanderer our very selves.

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. and Gothic Wanderer

October 31, 2011

Marquette, Michigan

The Gothic Wanderer is on sale now and available by visiting www.GothicWanderer.com

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