In my university English literature seminar group, we used to complain about historical fiction that suffered from ‘The Bakelite knob problem’. It read like an antiques catalogue, full of unintentionally hilarious descriptions of everyday things. Yet while the Bakelite knobs and corset fastenings of history can be over-imagined in historical fiction, psychological difference is often overlooked. There are endless historical stories with proto-feminist heroines, politically correct heroes and bigoted, moustache-twiddling villains.
Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, published in 1934 but set a hundred years earlier, doesn’t feature any distracting Bakelite knobs. Dinesen’s past is not full of furniture: it is an operatic stage-set of budding forests and frozen seas, jagged mountains and dusty roads. Treading the boards is a cast of characters with a pre-Freudian psychology as remote and alien from us as the mysterious creatures that scuttle in darkness across the ocean floors. The past is not another country: it is a different world.
Seven Gothic Tales is an apt title. All tales must have a teller, and Dinesen’s seven separate tales – all long, some long enough to be novellas – have multiple storytellers. There are tales within tales within tales, each opening on to the next like a series of Russian dolls. The themes are Gothic: doomed love affairs; the inevitability of fate; super natural forces.There are gloomy monasteries, ghosts, violent murders and bizarre plot twists including a nun who transforms into a monkey. But if you are looking for horror, this is the wrong book for you. There are very few blood-curdling screams here and a complete absence of cellars or instruments of torture: in Dinesen’s hands, the Gothic is more an atmosphere.
With its macabre spectacles and heightened emotions Gothic fiction can sometimes be dismissed as unreal and bombastic. Yet behind the grand edifice of the Gothic castle is there not a so
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