Friday, March 22, 2013

The Horror of It All: The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797), by Mrs. Carver

Within the walls of her monstrous Abbey, [Mrs.] Carver intimately illustrates horrors which haunt the reader long after putting her book down....Like the cold grasp of a dead hand, her images and themes refuse to let go.  They pull us into the dark grave to lie with the clutching corpse....[W]e have no escape from the terrors that await us behind the closed door or beyond the darkened grave....

--Curt Herr, Introduction to the 2006 Zittaw Press edition of The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey: A Romance (1797)

Zowie!  Who could resist this description?  And the front cover illustration of this nicely produced volume doesn't hurt either, when it comes to luring readers desiring to sup on horrors.

You must admit
this is a killer cover
Sadly, however, I found The Horrors of Oakendale something less than a nightmare feast.

When reading it, I couldn't help thinking how much more exciting the book might have been had Curt Herr--according to his interesting website, a Gothic and Victorian scholar, Vampire Historian, and Public Speaker--written it in 2007, judging by his his enthusiastic and colorful introduction.

On the plus side, the book is short--less than 50,000 words, I would guess--and easy to read (so easy that I didn't think footnotes explaining the meaning of words like harangue were really necessary).  And the story is classic Gothic, to be sure.You see a lot of the Gothic tropes cropping up again and again in mystery and suspense tales, right up to the present day.

Debauched (and married) Lord Oakendale, having determined that he will have his way with the genteel, beautiful orphan girl Laura, sends her to his remote and crumbling Cumberland mansion, Oakendale Abbey.

The Abbey is rumored to be haunted by all manner of ghastly creatures, don't you know, and the wicked nobleman thinks that by the time he comes to visit Laura (who is accompanied only by her dimwitted maid, Mary), she will literally fall into his arms and let him do just what he will. This seemed rather a daft plan to me, but then I'm not an English lord, drat it, and I suppose I fail to comprehend the mysterious workings of the mind of such an exalted personage.

What horrors lurk in the Abbey at night?

Anyway, once she finds herself in the dismal Abbey, the virtuous and rather plucky Laura insists on exploring the nasty old dump, thereby encountering such things as:

a skeleton in a coffer! (coffer is defined in a footnote too)

a man's shadow in the gallery!!

an eyeball staring at her through a crack in a wall!!!

worst of all, the hanging corpse of a woman!!!! (this last item finally sends Laura into a faint, understandably)

What happens next?  Well, you'll just have to read it for yourself won't you?  Let's just say that all is not as it seems!

Could this distinguished gentleman be Mrs. Carver?
Quite possibly so!
No doubt these horrors were rather thrilling in 1797, but on the whole it's all rather tame stuff today.  And the way the tale is told, with so many extended asides to detail past events (Laura's story of her life, told over cups of chocolate to a kindly old gentlewoman, is a 24-page monologue), enervates the suspense and mystery elements.

Curt Herr makes this book sound much darker than it actually is, in my view.  I think things are rather happily--not to mention improbably--resolved for our heroine and her beloved at the tale's end, though Herr believes that Oakendale Abbey will leave readers with lingering doubts about the rational order of the universe.

The most interesting and original plot element of The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey is one I can't mention (it's a spoiler), but I will note that it points to the true identity of the author, "Mrs. Carver."

Sir Anthony Carlisle, eminent surgeon
and, probably, Gothic novelist
The question of the authorship of this novel actually is a fascinating one.

It turns out, according to a 2009 article by Don Shelton, that "Mrs. Carver" probably was a man, Anthony Carlisle.  Later knighted, Carlisle was a surgeon to Westminster Hospital at the time Oakendale Abbey appeared, which certainly would explain the realistic (and for the time gruesome) medical detail that pops up in the Mrs. Carver novels.

The pseudonym Mrs. Carver likely was a pun, playing on Carlisle's profession (surgeons carve people up, get it?).  Shelton's piece on Carlisle is very interesting, and you should read it if you are interested in the Gothic novels.

Reprints of Gothic and Sensation novels seem to flying off the presses these days.  I'm all for this, though unless one is a devout fan of the genre or a specialist in it, I think one will have to admit that many of these books are routine.  I think the The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey is on the whole an unexceptional Gothic.  It's a quick, light read with a fairly intricate plot and some historical interest, but after the lights are turned out  it won't be haunting this reader!


  1. I'm quite a fan of the gothic so I'll keep a lookout for this one.

  2. I was bored with this one and never finished it. The element of scholarly pretension in the edition is also a bit irritating like those vocabulary lessons in the footnotes you mentioned. I thought if I did like it I would end up doling a lot of money for other Zittaw Press offerings, but I soon forgot about the book and the publisher until I read this review. Valancourt Press has the best offering of genuine Gothic novels. Several years ago they reprinted all the "Horrid Novels" mentioned in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Some of those still have the power to raise your eyebrows if not your hair. I'd recommend any of those. Charles Maturin, whose two books are still in print, is still in my estimation the best of the Gothic shock writers.

  3. What timing! I just ordered this (and Bungay Castle, also from Zittaw Press) yesterday. I wanted to order one of the Valancourt Press offerings but it was a bit pricey. Based on your review (and John's comment) it might have been a better purchase...

  4. Darrell, that is pretty amazing timing. Yeah, Valancourt Press has a lot of enticing stuff.

    Dfordoom, Oakendale wasn't a bad book, just not as horrifying as the introduction and the blurb make it sounds, at least not to me.

    John, yes, I did find some of the footnotes superfluous, and this is even as someone who did a ton of annotated footnotes for my Todd Downing book, Clues and Corpses. By the way, Downing was familiar with Radcliffe and Walpole, mentioning them in connection with Mignon Eberhart and other thirties writers.

  5. They pull us into the dark grave to lie with the clutching corpse....[W]e have no escape from the terrors that await us behind the closed door or beyond the darkened grave.... horror