The Monster Made by Man: A Compendium of Gothic Adaptations
Edited by Franz J. Potter
US Trade Paperback
Publication DATE: 11-15-2004
200 Pages; $14.95
Date Reviewed: 02-10-2005
Reviewed by: Mario Guslandi © 2005
The so-called canonical Gothic fiction is represented by a group of famous novels including Horace Walpole's 'The Castle of Otranto' (1764), MG Lewis' 'The Monk' (1796), Ann Radcliff's 'The Italian' (1797), Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein' (1818) and Charles Maturin's 'Melmoth the Wanderer' (1820).
But in addition to those well-known novels, at the time when the Gothic genre was starting to fade, there flourished a popular derivative , the "trade Gothic", usually taking the form of the short story. Literary critics mostly regarded the trade Gothic with contempt as a corrupted, minor form of Gothic fiction, supposedly of low quality. These tales often appeared as chapbooks produced by the pen of the most prolific and elusive of the authors, Anonymous, being mostly -- but not always -- adaptations, abridgements or plagiarisms of the standard Gothic novels. In some instances, however, the Gothic short story simply took inspiration from the atmospheres and themes of canonical Gothic to develop into new plots. The popular and commercial success of trade Gothic, although considered with a supercilious attitude by many critics, made it possible for this genre of fiction to reach a larger body of readers, not only because the booklets were available at a cheap price, but also because of the limited length of time required to read a whole story. To be frank, Gothic novels, even in their most accomplished expressions, can be cumbersome to read, even for an educated audience.
H.P. Lovecraft in his seminal essay 'Supernatural Horror in Literature' defines 'The Castle of Otranto' as "tedious, artificial and melodramatic" and, while praising the merits of Maturin's 'Melmoth the Wanderer' recognizes that the plot exhibits '...tedious length, digressive episodes, narratives within narratives'. Admittedly, this is not an easy pill for the average reader to swallow.
Hence, the popular diffusion of shorter pieces of fiction, borrowing or recycling themes from the longest works to create simpler, more straightforward yarns able to entertain without boring. Nowadays trade Gothic short stories are become extremely scarce, when not entirely untraceable.
In 'The Monster made by Man', Professor Franz Potter, a long-time expert and enthusiast of trade Gothic fiction, has assembled a number of tales mostly published between 1825 and 1830 in serial magazines and Gothic omnibuses. He's published this unusual anthology under his own small imprint, Zittaw Press. The book includes nine stories, all by anonymous authors, an extremely interesting and learned Introduction, historical notes and a rich bibliography.
The title story, 'The Monster Made by Man', is an adaptation of the Frankenstein theme, influenced by elements of R. B. Peake's drama 'Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein', which in turn was inspired to Mary Shelley's original novel. 'The Wanderer, or 'The Magic Phial!' is a short, loose adaptation of the myth of the wandering Jew, who was the central character of Maturin's book. It's a very dark, atmospheric tale, developing the subject in an offbeat manner and maintaining even today its charm and its ability to disquiet and subtly scare.
'The Black Forest, or The Cavern of Death' -- oddly enough, the adaptation of an early, anonymous Gothic tale rather than of one of the canonical Gothic novels -- effectively revisits the theme of usurpation and revenge with the intervention of supernatural forces.
ETA Hoffmann's novel 'Die Elixiere des Teufels', was published in German in 1816 and subsequently translated and adapted in English by R. T. Gillies in 1824 as 'The Devil's Elixir'. A captivating, supernatural story of temptation, passion and punishment, the novel has been the source and inspiration of more than one gothic short story, two versions of which, 'The Mysterious Bottle of Old Hock', and the more moralistic 'Saint Anthony's Flask' are reproduced in the present volume.
Another double take is the inclusion of 'The Dwarf, or the Deformed Transformed' and 'Arnaud the Devil!, Or The Dwarf', two stories derived from Joshua Pickersgill's 'The Three Brothers: A Romance'. This complex novel was originally published in 1803, mixing the themes of deformity and depravity with the classical deal with the Devil. The former short adaptation greatly simplifies the novel's complex plot, whereas the latter contrives to abridge the plot, preserving the original flavour of dark brutality attributed to Pickersgill's work.
The traditional Gothic subject of the dead directing the living to identify and punish the author of a wicked deed is retold in the sinister tale 'The Skeleton Witness -- A Spanish Romance', whose sources of inspiration are too many to be mentioned here. In spite of its lack of originality and its naïve final denouement, the story still manages to engross the reader.
The final tale, 'The Midnight Embrace', is derived from Sarah Wilkinson's 'Albert of Wenderdorff or The Midnight Embrace'. 'A Romance from the German' is a ghostly yarn aptly blending the time-honoured themes of seduction, betrayal and revenge so dear to Gothic fiction.
To the reader already familiar with the topics and paraphernalia of Gothic literature, the tales collected in this volume won't provide any unpredicted novelty. The subjects are tried and tested, the plots reassuringly traditional, the outcomes easily foreseen. However, compared with the original archetypes, these stories have the obvious, undeniable virtue of being simpler and quicker to read, much to the reader's advantage. Naïve and shallow as their themes can appear, those tales maintain their ability to fascinate and entertain. By no means a minor literary product, the trade Gothic still shows the reasons for its popular success. Predictably, that literary chameleon Anonymous displays a variety of styles and writing skills, but surprisingly the overall quality of the narratives remains consistently good.
If you're neither an academic nor a literary scholar, you may just enjoy the tales without bothering to browse the editor's annotations. However, I strongly advise you to do so because they are enlightening and definitely worth reading.