Generally, I’m a bit tired of the genre of Gothic fiction, though I have enjoyed the few that I’ve read for the blog (see The Animated Skeleton and The Witch of Ravensworth). One other caught my eye when I was perusing books to read: The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797), by Mrs. Carver:
What did I think about it? I was a trifle disappointed by the story, though it definitely is a unique Gothic novel.
What caught my eye about the tale was the blurb for the Zittaw Press edition, pictured above:
Combining the best of 18th century sentimentality with a violently horrifying tale, Carver accentuates terrifying events and grotesque imagery in a manner rare for even the most extreme Gothic writers of her era. Written in 1797 and out of print for almost 200 years, Mrs Carver’s classic Gothic novel accentuates horror with a vice like grip. Once it grasps you- it does not let go. What is the secret of the abbey? Those who know are as silent as the grave…
I’ve commented before about the pattern most Gothic novels follow: many spooky things happen during the course of the novel, but in the end those spooky things turn out to have a rational, even relieving, explanation. I’m sure there have been studies done about why this pattern was followed; personally I suspect that the audiences of that era needed a bit of reassurance that the world was, in fact, a rational place. To a modern reader like me, such endings are a bit of a letdown. Oakendale Abbey, however, seems to promise a bit more genuine horror, which intrigued me.
The story follows the adventures of a young lady named Laura, who has been consigned to live in the supposedly haunted Oakendale Abbey. She has been banished there by the lecherous Lord Oakendale, who seeks to break her spirit so she will consent to be his mistress. There is more the story of Lord Oakendale and Laura, however, and a major point of the novel is revealing their histories.
Laura, however, is undaunted by the stories of haunting, and undertakes an exploration of the Abbey. This makes Laura a standout amongst Gothic heroines, who are often the “swoon first, ask questions later” type. She quickly encounters frightening, seemingly supernatural, events, but remains determined to uncover the Abbey’s secret.
The novel did hold me quite captivated, not in the least because of scholar Curt Herr’s copious text notes, which foreshadow truly horrifying events in the book’s climax. Herr is also the editor of the magnificent Zittaw Press edition of Varney the Vampire, and for that his impressions carry some weight with me.
And he’s right, to some extent: the revelations concerning the haunting are much more horrifying than the standard Gothic tale. However, there is still a “natural” explanation, albeit a nasty one, so I found things still a little bit of a letdown.
A little more irritating to me was the dramatic change of heart of the main villains late in the novel. It reminded me of a scene from the end of the underappreciated 1985 cowboy comedy Rustler’s Rhapsody; after the film’s climax, the narrator points out that these movies always end in a party: bad guys are friendly, people who were killed show up, etc. It’s quite jarring and detracts again from the overall effect of the tale.
In summary, Oakendale Abbey is a standout Gothic novel for its strong female heroine and its genuinely ghastly events. However, like many Gothic novels, it has a bit of a disappointing ending. Those who enjoy the Gothic style of storytelling and would like to read something a little different will find it worth checking out.