Sunday, August 8, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Western Gothic

So Damon got a copy of The Castle of Wolfenbach for his birthday - guaranteed horrid by Isabella Thorpe, and she wasn't kidding around: apparently central Europe in the early 19th century was sufficiently lawless that the natural response of an honest person finding one woman with her throat slit and another missing was to conceal the corpse in a trunk and not alert any authorities. And reading it reminded me of a story I blocked out during some idle time at a temp job in the mid-90s.

At that time, I had been reading J. Sheridan LeFanu's Uncle Silas, which somebody or other described as the most frightening book in English literature or something like that. But I remember feeling that the heroine had access to resources she wasn't exploiting due to artificial limits in her world view. Most of Uncle Silas's power over her was due to isolation; most of her isolation was due, not to the absence of people, but to a mutual assumption that the people around her weren't really there. She also was helpless in ways that seemed to me unnecessary.

This is often my reaction when confronted with a vulnerable 19th century British heroine. We are so used to modern Gothics, in which our own sensibilities are reflected back in time via spunky heroines, that when we read the authentic originals the feminine upper middle-class ideal of the British 19th century - trapped in a straitjacket of social convention and without many essential life skills, like cooking and cleaning - we are apt to want to slap them more than to commiserate with their helplessness.

American heroines of the same vintage do not suffer from the same contrast. Though contemporary authors often complain of the deficiency in household education of the young American woman, their outlook on life is much more aggressive, and their social milieu is such that, when an author wants to isolate one, she can be removed right away from all human contact and thrown on her own resources in fact, rather than merely being taken to a "lonely" manor where the only faces she sees are those of servants and "rustics," on whom she depends for her daily necessities without ever attempting to befriend. (The heroine of Castle of Wolfenbach is at least grateful to a faithful servant, but she can't sleep in a cottager's bed and it never occurs to her that she should learn to cook.)

So I plotted out an extended Gothic parody in which an Uncle Silas-like figure lures the orphan daughter of an estranged son and heir back to England. The time is post Civil War, so she's feeling a financial obligation to get what she can out of her father's legacy for her mother and little brothers and sisters; and she stymies her villainous uncle at every turn by taking an interest in the wrong things. A debut in society is stressful and sinful (all that dancing and card-playing!), but she takes a lively interest in the sheep, horse breeding, and farming operations. The local tenants and managers, though disconcerted by her at first, are hardly likely to be indifferent to a potential heir who wants to learn from them rather then just extract money from them; though any of them who are mismanaging or corrupt will soon be put in an awkward position with her evil uncle. She has an understanding with a young man back home, so the romantic candidate her uncle puts forward doesn't stand a chance. When sinister servants try to intimidate her, she threatens to have them fired and does for herself. And the familiarity with basic mechanics and firearms she developed in the course of helping her mother run the ranch during the War is of signal assistance to her in circumventing the nefarious death and rape traps her uncle puts her into when he realizes he can't control her by the social means he intended. In the end she'll work out that he was lying to her about what the will says and find that the terms give her power over him (otherwise he'd hardly be so hot to manipulate and put her out of the way), and use it.

The heroine's name was Beulah, because it was the least romantic one I could think of.

The trouble with this story, of course, is that done properly it would be a lot of work, very long, and appeal to a narrow audience; a kind of extended fanfic for a genre rather than a specific work. Time and energy are finite.

The closest I ever came to writing this was The Light in the Tower at Mulder Manor, which I need to dig out and make available in its entirety for the delectation of the sort of people who like this sort of thing - a fanfic I did years ago for the AOL x-phile boards, the first paragraph of each chapter of the X-files triple-decker Gothic novel, which I justified to myself as an exercise in being funny on purpose and writing to an audience, but also allowed me to write lines like "He said her name as if sucking an orange" and glorious run-on polysyllabic sentences like "Certainly not from her previous employer, who was still wroth as a result of her thrusting his grown son into the fishpond -- despite the fact that she had at once extricated him from that predicament; and, indeed, it was the young man's own cephalopodian tendencies which had suggested the fishpond to Dana as the proper habitation of his person."

Now, of course, we have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and steampunk, and I have once again dallied behind the curve where I might have leapt ahead of it. Oh, well.

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