Reading The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales

The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Chris Baldick, Editor.
Oxford University Press, originally published 1992; Second edition 2009.

This has been on my “to-read” list for several months, since about the time that I wrote my post on American Gothic Tales, an anthology I’m quite fond of. One of the commenters on the post, while generally praising the collection, took issue with editor Joyce Carol Oates’ definition (or non-definition) of gothic fiction.

I think Oates here is conflating the gothic, horror, black comedy, and social commentary genres. In the end, the stories in the anthology are good, but I think that a collection such as The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales or Oxford’s Late Victorian Gothic Tales represented a truer sampling of what is conventionally meant by “gothic” (although without the focus on American authorship.)

— Theophrastus, from his comment on my earlier post

So, of course, I found The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. By coincidence, Anil Balan over at Ghost Cities recently wrote a post discussing gothic fiction and its history, so I won’t rehash what he’s already said quite eloquently. I’ll just quote editor Chris Baldick’s pithy one-liner:

Gothic fiction is characteristically obsessed with old buildings as sites of human decay.

Nice, if oversimplified. According to Baldick, the theme of gothic fiction is the tyranny of the past; the decaying mansion or other claustrophobic physical space that serves as the setting for the story symbolizes the inability of the protagonist to escape that past. Historically, the “tyranny of the past” was the tyranny of the Catholic Church (gothic has its origins in Protestant countries, particularly with “the British and Anglo-Irish middle class”). As this tyranny faded into history (as far as readers were concerned), it was replaced with more relevant forms: family skeletons, repressive social mores, patriarchal society.

And that is the definition that Chris Baldick used to select the stories in this collection.

The collection is organized chronologically, beginning with mostly anonymous tales (and “fragments” of tales) from the late eighteenth century. Honestly — they’re very bad. This is telling you more about me than you probably want to hear, but what those early examples reminded me of the most is bad erotica. The same breathless run-on sentences, the same complete disregard for narrative logic so that the story can make its way through the same obligatory checklist. By which I mean, all the gothic tales of this period run through the same list of required motifs (clammy disembodied hand, mouldering castle, full moon, evil monk, dead or abducted beloved woman, blah blah blah); bad erotica, naturally, has a different requirements list. Perhaps the same enthusiasm, though.

The second piece in the collection begins with the sentence “A Portuguese gentleman… was lately brought to trial for poisoning his half sister by the same father, after she was with child by him.” One can see both why the literati hated gothic fiction, and why its fans devoured it so.

Photo: Nina Zumel

Baldick puts the beginning of quality writing in this collection at Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). Poe himself referred to his writing in this vein as “grotesques and arabesques”. The stories in this style are not my favorites from Poe’s work; I prefer the psychological horror, like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Black Cat”. But it was good to re-read “House of Usher” in the context of this anthology because I could see both how closely connected it is to its predecessors in the gothic tradition — and how much better it is than what came before, as well.

For me the beginning of the good stuff came one story later, with Sheridan Le Fanu’s “A Chapter in the History of the Tyrone Family” (1839), which I posted about recently. I liked how Le Fanu wove the Gothic themes into a sunnier atmosphere than is usual, and his criticism of the practice of marrying one’s daughters off for advantage (this theme shows up again, with a different slant, in Thomas Hardy’s “Barbara of the House of Grebe” (1891)). The little ghost story at the beginning is extraneous, but cute.

Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844) stood out for me as well; it reminded me a bit of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman”. Again, the atmosphere was not stereotypically gloomy. I liked the ambiguity that surrounded the characters’ moral stature in the tale. Who was the bad guy here? Was it the evil scientist Rappaccini? Was it the jealous professor Baglioni? Or was it the judgmental protagonist? Beatrice was the innocent — but were there any good guys?

Edith Nesbit’s “Hurst of Hurstcote” (1893) was a classic ghost story, and a good one. Ellen Glasgow’s “Jordan’s End” (1923) and Eudora Welty’s “Clytie” (1941) have nothing supernatural about them at at all, but definitely fit the definition of gothic, and linger in your mind after reading. I loved Angela Carter’s reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty, “The Lady of the House of Love” (1970).

There were several of the usual suspect in the collection: Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1930) were both in American Gothic Tales, as well — but I can never read “A Rose for Emily” too many times. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” (1926) — not one of my favorites; Ambrose Bierce, Clark Ashton Smith, Joyce Carol Oates herself.

A few things you might not expect. I’ve read Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892) before, of course, though I’d never thought of it as gothic. Borges’ “The Gospel According to Mark” (1970) is another story I wouldn’t have thought of in this context, though it fits the general definition.

What would Chris Baldick have done with Joyce Carol Oates’ selection of authors? We know he picked “Rappaccini’s Daughter” rather than “Young Goodman Brown” and “Man of Adamant” for Hawthorne; “The House of Usher” instead of “The Black Cat” for Poe. I would guess “Kerfol” rather than “Afterward” for Edith Wharton. “The Ghostly Rental” or perhaps “The Jolly Corner” instead of “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” for Henry James — The Turn of the Screw would be too long. Maybe “Godliness” from Winesburg, Ohio instead of “Death in the Woods” for Sherwood Anderson? “The Lovely House” seems like a good choice for Shirley Jackson.

I’ll leave you all to finish the game. Many of you would be better at it than I am, anyway. I can’t help noticing that when I can imagine Baldick’s alternative choice, I often prefer the choice that Oates actually made — as fiction, if not gothic fiction.

In the end, that observation sums up how I feel about The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. It’s more thematically consistent, and has some wonderful selections; I’m glad I read it, but as a collection of stories, I still prefer American Gothic Tales. Even if it should have been called “American Tales Joyce Carol Oates Really Likes.”

Still — recommended.

2 thoughts on “Reading The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales

  1. Great post. I’m currently reading up on why we still like gothic stories, what’s in them for us today, and what does a modern gothic look like? Fascinating genre!

    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      I like Baldick’s characterization of gothic as symbolic of the way the past can trap us. Maybe that’s why it still has appeal today, since a modern reader can still experience that sensation (even it the “tyranny of the past” they are trapped by isn’t the tyranny in the story). And as a literature of resistance, I can see that it can appeal to certain types of writers, as well.

      It’s too bad the book only goes up to 1991 or so — it would be interesting to see what the editor would have picked going forward. I just picked up an anthology called The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanDerMeer. Weird fiction isn’t identical to gothic, but there is some overlap — and this collection goes right up into the 21st century. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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