Friday, September 10, 2010

Books: This is monstrous!

Even by the the fairly generous unwritten rules of book marketing, the cover copy - "the original zombie story" and "Before Dracula . . . the first book to set a gothic horror story, featuring people who may or may not be dead, in Transylvania" - on the new translation of Jules Verne's The Castle in Transylvania is going to strike some folks as too much of a bait and switch.

The "zombie story" description is the least defensible: nothing in the book evokes zombies, neither the voodoo classic model nor the post-Romero flesh-eating variety. The comparison to Bram Stoker's classic is true in the details; but this is more a product of its careful categorial delineations than the impression it gives the reader. The book was written before Dracula. It appeared in French five years before Stoker's book was published and was available in English two years after its French publication. The plot does contain many gothic elements: crazed royalty, doomed beauties, rooting castles, obsession, and so on. It involves a member of Transylvanian royalty as the chief villain, and said baron is presumed dead and is thought by the locals to have some supernatural angle. But what it ain't is about is a vampire. Or any supernatural threat, actually. In fact, while there are some superficial echoes, The Castle in Transylvania bears no familial resemblance to Dracula. Readers who pick Castle up looking for the seminal literary zombie tale or a proto-Drac are going to leave feeling cheated.

Instead, Castle belongs more appropriately in a counter-tradition of gothic discontents. Running parallel to the rich gothic tradition, there's a loyal opposition of debunkers, satirists, and Apollonians who have found the genre trappings sorely in need of some deconstruction. Often for these critics, the crimes of the gothic are stylistic; from Austin's Northanger Abbey to Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm, the overripe melodrama and morbid self-seriousness of the genre has provided ample fodder to the parodist. In other cases, it is a conflict of world views. When Verne, a member of this latter tribe of anti-gothic scribes, pits human intellect against superstition and the unknown, he bets on the home team. This isn't to say that he's an optimist, exactly. Verne's most famous creation, the grim anti-colonial superterrorist Nemo, is proof enough that Verne didn't insist on a link between reason and morality. Still, for Verne, the world we know is full enough of possibilities for the sublime and the horrific.

Castle reflects this attitude throughout. The book's plot - the pacing of which perhaps too naked reveals its origins as a magazine series - is broken lopsidedly into two acts. In the first, the locals of a remote Transyvanian mountain village attempt to discover whether or not an infamous mad count, thought long dead, has returned to the ruined titular castle. This first act is full of inexplicable events and the sort of genre monkeyshines one expects from a gothic tale. Though even this is delivered with smirk. Verne's predictions - both the eerily prescient and the wildly off-base - and his intellectual bent are often praised, but his unjustly under-celebrated sly humor is on good display in this stretch, specifically in the characterization of the incompetent, pompous Dr. Patak, the village's inadequate "voice of reason." The second act, which finally introduces the book's real hero, flips the script entirely. Our new protag, Franz, shows up with a sack full of exposition and starts Scooby-Dooing the whole first of the novel. Before the last page is turned, the gothic weirdness of the novel has transformed into a mad science tale involving the slick deployment of imagined ancestors of Twentieth Century mass communications technology.

Verne's style further reflects his anti-gothic bent. The Transylvania of Verne's book isn't the mist-shrouded Western European's nightmare vision of their vaguely pagan, uncanny eastern neighbors. Unlike Stoker, who simply imagined the world he needed, Verne used the real country for his setting. Verne's book is packed with geographical, anthropological, and historical data about Transylvania. Too much maybe. Sometimes you get the sense that Verne never met a bit of research he didn't like. Where Stoker is content to tell you that Transylvania weather is mean, Verne prefers to discuss how various individual mountains in the Carpathians are famed for the curious microclimates they produce, the specifics of which he's happy to share.

As an aside, for a long time, English readers were spared some of the worse excesses of Verne's mania for trivia: translations of Verne intended for the casual reader often simply cut out his data dumps. This heavy-handed editing produced novels that emphasized narrative thrust and minimized world-building. The end result of this is that English-speaking fans of Verne have often missed out on some of the more curious details of Verne's works. For example, Captain Nemo's nationality changes between his first appearance in 20,000 Leagues and his final appearance in Mysterious Island. In the former, he's Polish. In the latter, he's Indian. This bizarro swap rarely features in English-language takes on the captain - usually he's just a generic white dude with no reference to the history given in MI or, as in Moore's League, he's straight out Indian with no explanation as to why he was previously a European. This isn't simply laziness on the part of various adapters: in many English translations, the details that reveal Nemo's identity in 20,000 simply don't show up.

Personally, I enjoyed Castle. Admittedly, I read it under extreme circumstances. My wife bought it for me it amuse me while I was confined to an ER bed with nothing else to entertain me except a television that we couldn't turn up the volume on. But even if you're not in a situation where you can't move because you're IV'ed up and you don't know where your pants are, I think the novel offers several distinct pleasures. First, the habitually detailed prose of Verne, when wed to a gothic framework, ends up suggesting the works of H. P. Lovecraft, with all its fake scholarly tone and strangely purple rigor. Second, Verne's worldview charts an interesting third-way between "uncanny is the bomb" and "but it could happen" theories of horror. Verne's story strips away the fear of the uncanny and replaces it with a sudden encounter with what, in later decades, we'd call television, radio, and recording technologies. That sounds mundane, but that ignores the mind-warping nature of the encounter for those at the collision. When first faced with Philo Farnsworth's plans for a working television system, one of the bankers he approached for for funding blurted out, "This is monstrous!" And it is. Verne takes away the threat of ghosts and demons, and it their place he gives us an image of a unseen master who holds a populace in in thrall through media tech and the constant grooming of their own unquestioned beliefs. Instead of spooks, he gives us the secret history of the Twentieth Century and beyond. And that's pretty scary. Verne was no horror writer, but his valuable contribution to the genre is the observation that an explicable monster is still a monster.

Publishers Melville House and translator Charlotte Mandell have done sci-fi and horror fans a real service in making this odd, neglected back into circulation.


Curt Purcell said...

ER? Are you okay?

CRwM said...

I'm good. There was a bit of scare, but now I'm back on my feet and taking a week of much needed R & R. All's well.

conflated said...

Good to hear your hospital stay proceeded non-horrifically ...

I always thought of Phileas Fogg as Jules' most famous creation. I loved JV's books, but Nemo and 20k left me a bit cold when I read it as a kid.

I ran into this old review of the fairly obscure Demon of Cawnpore trawling on the Onion the other day,39105/

Like the reviewer, I suspect I'd get a lot more out of 20k and the books like it today. Including the one you mention. And what's not to like about Verne being the ur-father of the Scooby Doo plot? That's something they could have bragged about on the cover.

Howard Beale's Ghost said...


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Sasquatchan said...

The intro to some H G Wells books contain an interesting topic of Verne and Wells.. Verne thought of Wells as a protege, yet Wells became more the master.

Funny that you talk about excised text, as that was similarly covered in the Verne v Wells. Wells simply put forth devices that worked (a very modern Sci Fi approach for the time), whereas Verne would go through convolutions to describe the mechanical details of his devices and contraptions..

Sarah said...

I could be wrong, but I think the Norton edition of Dracula bites off Verne a little and includes quite a few footnotes about things like the terrain of Transylvania. It's the copy of Dracula I had for school recently. I remember reading the footnotes and thinking, "well, that's cool I guess, but I'm not sure that I need to know this."

Gene Phillips said...

I read this under a paperback reprint entitled THE CASTLE IN CARPATHIA, but all I remember is some weird pseudoscience gimmick being used to explain away the supernatural stuff.

More recently I finally read Verne's "conclusion" to EA Poe's intentionally-unfinished novel NARRATIVE OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM. To say that Verne was too Apollonian to get what Poe was doing would be a Dionysian swamp of understatement.

Hmm, my word verificaation had the syllable "thrym" in it. Isn't that one of the frost giants Thor used to fight?