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The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, edited by Chris Baldick, Oxford University Press.


Chris Baldick makes clear in his thoughtful introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales how the Gothic tale differs from such related genres as the horror story, the supernatural story, and the ghost story. The Gothic tale, Baldick explains, was initially inspired by Protestant fears of a return to the Catholic terrors of the Inquisition. The first Gothic tales featured mad monks, torturers, and gloomy dungeons. Later, the genre branched out to include family curses and ghosts, menacing old houses, haunted castles, and innocent women held captive against their wills, all the familiar props of the present-day Gothic tale. What is common to all Gothic tales, Baldick argues, is a menace from the past stifling a claustrophobic present. In the Gothic tale, the past is fearful, the present threatened. Depending on the historical situation at the time of writing, a Gothic tale can be either revolutionary or profoundly conservative in its implications. One can imagine present-day Russian writers creating Gothic tales about communist gulag bosses.

Baldick's assemblage of tales runs from the earliest examples of the Gothic in the 1770s to the present day, the newest story being written in 1991. Included are works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jorge Luis Borges, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Angela Carter, Robert Louis Stevenson, Eudora Welty, and many others.

The earliest stories are the weakest, simply because they seem so primitive in comparison with more recent work, but they do display a delightful manic quality, inspired as they are not by any pre-existing genre's conventions but rather by the author's inner traumas seeking release in language. The better of the more recent Gothic stories, and Baldick has selected many of these, rework the traditional elements in new and inspiring ways, ways that suggest--again--a personal stake in the story materials, as if the author is reacting to some haunting psychic reverberation stirred to the surface by the materials.

Among the most striking examples of this kind of story is Alejandra Pizarnik's "The Bloody Countess," a story based on the real-life Hungarian Countess Bathory, murderer of six hundred young girls. Pizarnik turns this horrific bit of history into a sophisticated and chillingly sadistic tale which ends with a surprising description of the bloody countess: "She is yet another proof that the absolute freedom of the human creature is horrible." Instead of fearing the past and its power to limit the present--the typical stance of the Gothic tale--this story celebrates limits to human behavior, screams out for limits to human behavior. In short, Pizarnik uses Gothic conventions to reverse the absolutes of the Gothic genre.

Just one of the many entertaining stories here.

--Thomas Wiloch