- Two from Valancourt Books
VALANCOURT BOOKS is a small, independent press focusing on neglected eighteenth- and ninteenth-century fiction, particularly novels in the realm of horror, the supernatural, and the Gothic; a special strength of the catalog is fin-de-siècle works with queer themes. (They [End Page 289] have recently begun a line of mid-twentieth-century works as well.) James Jenkins, editor and publisher of Valancourt, has envisioned the mission of the press to be making these forgotten novels available to scholars and common readers through new editions with introductions and apparatus (the latter where appropriate; one of the praiseworthy points of Valancourt’s publications is the care taken to appeal to a general audience as well as to professional literary critics). The two works under review here, Tenebrae (1898) by Ernest G. Henham and The Lady of the Shroud (1909) by Bram Stoker, are fairly representative of Valancourt’s catalog. Both editions are quite attractive, with valuable apparatus, and while the quality of the novels themselves might be a question for critics, Henham’s and Stoker’s works offer rich veins into the themes of the period in which they were written and the workings of their genres and tropes.
Tenebrae in particular is fascinating; this reviewer found it to be turgid in some places and utterly compelling in others. Henham (1870–1948) was the reclusive author of a number of what one might consider fantasy/sci-fi novels, many under the pseudonym John Trevena; in its queered horror Tenebrae has echoes of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in its intense representation of a disordered inner life it might remind one of Huysmans’s À Rebours. The novel is a veritable treasure trove of fin-de-siècle Gothic motifs and tropes: an unnamed narrator living on a gloomy forested estate at the top of a cliff overlooking a wild sea (and the dark and stormy nights that go along with the landscape); a raving uncle rendered mad by drinking bizarrely colored potions he makes in the cellar; a mysterious dark-haired woman who is the heroine but also vaguely vampiric; the regular hallucination of malevolent spiders and toads—all of this taking place primarily in the narrator’s diseased mind. The plot turns on the narrator falling in love with the dark-haired woman, only to find that his own brother, to whom he serves as guardian and for whom he obviously harbors incestuous feelings, has won her. In a jealous rage, the narrator murders his brother and hurls the body into the sea. Inspired by readings of the Cain and Abel story, the narrator works himself into feverish visions and trances, and the aftermath of the crime prompts a nightmarish spiral into remorse on the part of the narrator and revenge on the part of the woman who has lost her lover.
In addition to Henham’s interpretation of Gothic themes and motifs, Tenebrae is of interest for its narrator and the psychological portrait that emerges through the depiction of his perspective; as the novel [End Page 290] progresses it becomes increasingly clear that the boundary between fantasy and reality has disappeared for him. His judgment of people’s feelings and motives disintegrates along with his moral judgment. An inflated sense of self, of his own strength, and of his ability to love and be loved all contribute to his downfall. Gerald Monsman’s introduction elucidates many of these themes and critical issues with wit and learning; Monsman, a well-known and prolific scholar of the Victorian Gothic whose work is no doubt familiar to readers of ELT, orients us to Henham’s bizarre world and makes an excellent case for the reclaiming of Tenebrae by providing an enthusiastic and well-informed introductory essay.
The author of The Lady of the Shroud is more well-known, thanks to the fame of Dracula; although none of the eleven...