The Mistresses of Mayhem

As the days grow shorter, I begin to feel autumn’s chill through the drafts in my house which seems to penetrate the floor and slip up my pant legs then settle down deep in my bones. While running upstairs to retrieve wool socks for my cold feet I am reminded of the time of year and begin to long for All Hallow’s Eve and a month of ghostly tales. When I was a teenager, my girlfriends and I would gather around the television at midnight and dare each other to look at the spectacle originally written by Edgar Allen Poe or Mary Shelley. I would peer between my fingers which covered my eyes as my heart quickened and my stomach clenched in the inescapable mix of shock and horror. After a sleepless night of hearing the water trickle through the pipes in our family room thinking one of the undead crept around our scattered sleeping bags, I would rouse myself and smile looking forward to next week’s episode

Wikipedia defines Gothic fiction, sometimes referred to as Gothic horror, as a genre or mode of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance. When I think of authors of gothic horror the first to come to mind is Edgar Allen Poe. The Fall of the House of Usher(1839), The Pit and the Pendulum (1842), and The Telltale Heart (1843) are a few examples.

Many years before Poe was born, some of the early masters of the macabre were actually mavens. Ann Radcliffe first wrote The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne in 1789. This tale of a lonely woman included paranormal conventions interwoven with the very first vivid descriptions of nature. She gave natural explanations for the supernatural occurrences in her book making this genre acceptable for the first time in English society. She ended her chapters with cliff hangers keeping her readers flipping through pages.

1816 was known as “the year without a summer” for many in Europe. Mount Tambora erupted on an Indonesian island obscuring the sun for more for many months and creating a mini-ice age. Mary Shelley spent that summer in a villa on Lake Geneva, Switzerland with her husband Percy and friends including Lord Byron, and John Polidori.  Since the days were cold and nasty they spent many of them indoors reading ghosts stories. One day Lord Byron challenged each of them to write their own. Polidori created the vampire genre with the book, The Vampyre and Mary wrote Frankenstein.

Each author wrote gripping tales of suspense and terror keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. Speculation over their fascination with death and the supernatural in some cases seems obvious and in others not so much. Edgar Allen Poe’s mother was an actress who played Juliet when he was a young child. He found it confusing and upsetting to watch her die on stage every night. Eventually she succumbed to tuberculosis and died back stage. At 25 five years of age Poe married his 13-year-old cousin who died of the disease when she turned 25. Many historians believe that Poe’s tormented mind originated from the dread of contracting this white plague. He died mysteriously –most likely alcohol poisoning- at age 40.

Mary Shelley endured horrible headaches and passed away of a brain tumor at age 40 as well. Maybe that is why she came up with a monster made of bits and pieces from other bodies. She may have felt like getting a brain transplant!

I love that researchers couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary about little Ann Radcliffe.  She lived quietly with her husband and worked as an editor of The English Chronicle. She seems to have created these twisted tales without any documentation of torment, living until age 58. Her husband continued to support her writing by having the last of her work published after her death.

I have my own theory as to what motivated these authors. I began writing my own Gothic Fiction recently and can say that the thrill of writing them comes from being inside the character as I go through the process of typing out the words. No sooner have I set down the first sentence, does my own heart begin to race along with the story. Regardless of the personal fears the author may have had, I think they all enjoyed writing these thrillers just as much as their readers enjoyed reading them.

It is written that Ann Radcliffe passed the lonely cold winters writing her Gothic tales near a warm fireplace most likely feeling the grip of winter through the icy fingers of chilly drafts. My guess is she would have enjoyed our sleep-overs where we peeked out from our sleeping bags and glimpsed old black and white films of Frankenstein and Dracula. I wonder if Ann would enjoy Stephen King and what she would write if she were alive today.

Do you enjoy Gothic Fiction?

Who are your favorite authors today?

Illustration from Google  – Poe’s “The Raven” 

7 thoughts on “The Mistresses of Mayhem

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  1. I grew up watching Hammer Horror movies from a young age, courtesy of my mother and grandmother, so my interest in gothic horror seemed assured. Then when I was six or seven I saw Aliens, which blew my mind and all but guaranteed I would eventually become a Lovecraft geek. So, in a roundabout way, yes!

    I’ve never heard of The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, but as a natural sceptic it sounds intriguing.


    1. Thanks Master for stopping by Boulder, CO to read!! I have downloaded Radcliffe’s book on my Nook. I am trying to get up the nerve to read Stephen King’s latest “Mile 81.” Should be a thrill ride!!


  2. One of my readers assigned me “Frankenstein” and I am liking it. Victor’s sense of guilt that he can’t share is as vivid as anything in modern fiction.

    My list of favorite writers (besides Shelley) isn’t very Gothic: Debbie Macomber, Janet Evanovich, Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding and Cathryn Grant.


    1. Wow! That is great that you are ready the book. I love the word choices and descriptions they used back in the day. Being American my own vocabulary is so small. When I write I have to think outside the box!
      You listed a great group of writers!
      Thanks for stopping by to read!


  3. As Gothic in real life as in literature:

    Edgar Allan Poe’s wife and cousin Virginia, who was fourteen-years-old when the two of them married, died of tuberculosis in their Fordham cottage and had to be swaddled in Poe’s old army greatcoat because they couldn’t afford firewood. Edgar Allan Poe then wore that same coat to her funeral.

    Just incidentally, did you know that the word terrorist was the literary term chosen to categorize the earliest 19th-century female Gothic novelists, and that there is no known picture or description of what Ann Radcliffe, another mistress of mayhem, actually looked like, and that Fydor Dostoevsky (of all people) was very much influenced by her literature? In fact, Dostoevsky sought to stylize his plots with the same kind of Gothic suspense that Ann Radcliffe used and helped invent, but Dostoevsky also sought to inject those plots with philosophical meaning.

    “The Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum.”

    An early French critic referred to Dostoevsky as.


    1. Very cool! I knew there weren’t any photos or paintings of Ann, but I read she was petite.
      I actually had written a lot about Poe (who I find fascinating) and had to delete it since my post got so long…. I did not know about his greatcoat, about the word terrorist, or Dostoevsky! Thanks for the info!


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