Friday, September 14, 2007

“Uncle Silas” by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1865)

We forget sometimes that writers were producing popular literature hundreds of years ago, especially when a novel that’s been around for a century or two is still in print. Longevity makes it a “classic,” but readability and a thumping good narrative are what give it longevity.

Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s “Uncle Silas” was one of the last significant attempts at a full-blooded gothic novel after Maturin’s “Melmoth the Wanderer” in 1820 and before the phenomenal revival of the form with Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1897.

As the story opens, young Maud Ruthyn is living a blandly idyllic life (you figure it out) with her wealthy father. When he dies suddenly, she is told by his odd Swedenborgian friend Dr. Bryerly that she must go to live at the run-down estate Bartram-Haugh, the home of her paternal Uncle Silas. Silas will care for her until she reaches her majority, at which time she will inherit her father’s money. In the intervening years, Silas will be paid out of the estate for her upkeep.

One problem: if her own father was eccentric, Maud’s uncle is nuttier than a rest stop at Stuckey’s. In fact, most of his neighbors think that, years before, he slaughtered a Mr. Clark, to whom he owed money, as Clark slept in one of Bartram’s guest rooms.

Two problem: if Maud dies before she gets her inheritance, Silas gets it all. If she marries Silas’ repulsive son Dudley, Silas gets it all by taking it away from Dudley.

The novel is an interesting blend of the gothic—detailed landscape description, characters who wear evil the way Paris Hilton wears stupid, and a crumbling, near-ruin of a country house—and the more popular for the time sensation novel—a domestic setting, mysteries to be solved, and a sinister servant in the person of the French tutor Madame de la Rougierre. LeFanu plays with the supernatural—he is the author of the wonderful vampire story “Carmilla,” so he could play with the best of ‘em—but the book is really a study in psychological suspense.

Yes, the dialogue can get pretty stilted in that patented second-tier mid-Victorian author sort of way, and the three-volume stretching is all too obvious when Maud and Silas have confrontation after confrontation that are all cut from the same pattern: Maud accuses someone in the house of tormenting her, Silas listens and then dismisses her complaint as coming from just a silly little girl, she becomes angry, he becomes sullen and insulting, she rushes from the room. It’s the sort of thing that comes with the territory, but it is more than made up for in the parts that LeFanu could really get into to—those subtle hints that the mold and rot of the house and grounds have infested the souls of Silas and his household.

Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe the corruption and madness that have been growing in Silas all his life have tainted his physical surroundings.

Every fan of modern horror owes it to him/herself to look backward now and again to see where the contemporary genre came from. Many of the original gothic novels are deadly slow and about as chilling as a midday hike across Death Valley, but “Uncle Silas” isn’t one of them. Many of today’s go-for-the-jugular grossout-a-paloozas aren’t near as creepy.

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