Come October, when readers' eyes turn toward the chilling and macabre, bookstores pull from the shelves their copies of Poe, Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson, to entice with plots, images and characters long identified with Halloween. But if your copy of Dracula is so well-worn you'd like to retire it for a year, consider starting with one of the titles below.
Supernatural Tales - Vernon Lee
With a dense, description-heavy style reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, Lee flits through time and place in a collection of six stories which shows her to be one of the sadly neglected masters of the Gothic genre, while also evoking each setting down to the most minute of details. (Indeed, her diffuse sentences coil so intricately around material inventories that the reading demands close attention yet rewards with fully three-dimensional worlds capable of transporting the reader straight into the delightfully ominous atmosphere she is describing).
Not only are the subject matter and settings wide-ranging ("The Virgin of the Seven Daggers" even travels to Spain), but Lee proves herself a technical chameleon by employing a variety of styles and narrative modes. A personal favorite, "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady," reads like a Grimm fairy tale, while "The Legend of Madame Krasinska" unfolds piecemeal, nesting tales inside tales, all with an eye to the storyteller's authority to transmit his portion of the plot.
But above all, this is a collection which thrills, which lures readers into a richly evoked setting, then disorients, causing them to question those most basic of assumptions about their own era's so-called enlightened ideas. And isn't that the goal of any good Gothic tale? As the narrator of the story "Amour Dure" reminds us:
We smile at what we choose to call the superstition of the past, forgetting that all our vaunted science of to-day may seem just such another superstition to the men of the future; but why should the present be right and the past wrong? (120)
My Fantoms - Theophile Gautier (translated by Richard Holmes)
With language both sensuous and melancholy, Gautier's prose is marked by contrasts: Eroticism commingles with death, the physical is simultaneously sublime, grim happenings adopt the guise of whimsical imagery, and "reality" is overlaid with layer upon layer of dream or hallucination, such that the reader traverses the narration on uncertain footing.
Those hoping to find in these stories the typical Gothic tropes will not be disappointed. Burial imagery abounds, and a standout story, "The Priest," features one of literature's earliest examples of a female vampire in the dazzling Clarimonde. Indeed, femmes fatales feature prominently in the whole collection, yet each is, by and large, a transcendent figure, not just sexually desirable but the embodiment of Love in the abstract. This, then, is where My Fantoms surpasses the genre; this is the redemption overarching Gautier's ambivalence about art. For these stories show love to be the antidote to death, and art is its potent elixir, capable of reaching across the centuries to connect souls. As Arria Marcella, a resurrected Pompeiian beauty, explains to the modern protagonist in "The Tourist":
It is faith that creates gods, and it is love that creates women. No one is truly dead until they are no longer loved. (143-4)
Gautier, Théophile. My Fantoms. Trans. Richard Holmes. New York: New York Review of Books, 2008. Print.
Lee, Vernon. Supernatural Tales: Excursions into Fantasy. London: Peter Owen Publishers, 1987. Print.