Monday 26 August 2013

Review: One Thousand and One Ghosts, Alexandre Dumas (1849)

This small collection of short stories, linked by their retelling at a dinner party gathered under gruesome circumstances, is an eerie read. Dumas’s novella is about points of crossover – between life and death, science and superstition, the body and the soul, reality and fiction. Heads roll but continue talking, a vampire pierces his victim at night, criminals return to hang the hangman. Dumas begins (and ends) matter-of-fact-ly - the narrator is none other than the writer himself. What is terrifying is the commonness of these tales, despite their strangeness.

The guillotine
For the general reader: This isn’t gripping from page one, but the relatively slow opening is soon succeeded by an array of memorable and haunting stories once the scene is set. The intrusion of murder into the everyday is sudden and startling, and the initial, almost detective story opening, is replaced by a world in which nothing is certain and there are more questions than answers. Little is wrapped up, and while the guests may pose questions about the nature of existence, they certainly come to no conclusions. I found this gory enough to still be effective in a somewhat desensitised age. Highly recommended (if not for bedtime reading!).

For students: As well as (obviously) appealing to anyone with an interest in the Gothic, the novella is also an interesting example of literary responses to the French revolution, with its preoccupations with the guillotine, political intrigue and the lingering effects of national violence. Its viscerality (an eight year old drowning in the trough of blood at the Place de la Révolution, a worker being dragged into quicklime by the bodies of kings excavated from their graves) is in stark contrast to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which also deals with the threat of execution. The narrative technique employed for the dinner party stories reminded me of Wells’s (later) The Time Machine (1895), where occasional returns to the ‘real’ setting suddenly catapult the reader back to the ‘present’ in the same way. It could also be interesting to consider how the narration is gendered. The final story (and only one narrated by a female character, the pale and listless Hedwige) is very distinct from the others in style, with Hedwige’s ordeal recalling those of many virgins in Gothic fiction, and her slower pacing reminiscent of Ann Radcliffe’s style of suspense.

Which lesser-known work of nineteenth-century literature should The Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know here, on Twitter (@SVictorianist) or on Facebook!

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