Saturday, 26 October 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Lost History of Dreams, Kris Waldherr (2019)


The latest novel I’m reviewing as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on works of fiction set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first, is Kris Waldherr’s The Lost History of Dreams, which came out earlier this year.


Waldherr’s debut work of fiction will delight fans of Victorian Gothic. There’s a brooding poet, who spends most of the novel in a coffin, as his fans and relatives argue over where he should be laid to rest. Our protagonist is a post-mortem photographer who’s haunted by the ghost of his wife. And the wider cast includes women who are all afflicted by something—be that grief, madness, consumption, or preternaturally white hair.

The settings are also well wrought, adding to the oppressive mood. Yes, there’s a creepy mansion, with an abandoned wing. There are rooms so gloomy our main character can’t see whom he’s speaking to. And you can’t get much darker than a hovel in the Black Forest, where some of our characters end up. Even a chapel constructed entirely of glass and the English seaside get a Gothic makeover. This is a novel with a consistent aesthetic and this is the focus on every page.

Kris Waldherr
It’s a little harder to connect with the characters. Robert Highstead, the main character, has a tragic backstory in the loss of his wife and an academic interest in Ovid, but it’s hard to describe his personality otherwise. He’s reduced to more of a frame narrator type (think Wuthering Heights or Lady Audley’s Secret) with Isabelle, the teller of the story-within-the-story about the poet and his wife, stealing the show. This is a novel that gives more nuance to its women than the men. The poet, Hugh de Bonne, for instance, comes off as your standard-issue Gothic villain, despite the devotion he inspires in his loyal followers.

Still, if you’re looking for a great Halloween read, look no further. All love stories are ghost stories in disguise,” Waldherr tells us, and you’ll find few historical novels this year that are better costumed.

What novel should the Secret Victorianist read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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