The nights are getting darker and there’s a chill in the air. The wind whips through the spidery branches, causing an unearthly howl to rip across the air; a warning to all to be wary of the shadows. A bolt of lightning streaks through the gloom, revealing a cabin that was veiled by the night. A solitary candle flickers within the icy glass, struggling against the darkness with its single-minded purpose of illuminating a speck of the night and offer some measure of warmth and comfort. Its sisters have long since fallen, despite the walls that surrounded them. Locked within armor of orange warmth and life, they were cast into the void of night, with the chorus of “trick-or-treat” to guide them to their eternity.
Light and dark, and the shadows in between, are often elements that are highly utilized within Gothic fiction. Along with ghosts, vampires and other figures of the wandering dead (or undead as the case may be), Gothic fiction ties into our fears of the unknown, illicit yearnings and superstition to create a realm where all the rules of society can be undone…and are not always able to be put to right. According to legend (or history, depending on who you talk to), much of gothic fiction owes its inspiration to a party that Mary Shelley hosted at Lake Geneva with Byron and John William Polidori; Byron asked everyone to compose a ghost story as a source of amusement, and that led to the birth of an unforgettable creature: Frankenstein.
The story focuses heavily on the man, Victor Frankenstein, and how he comes to not only create the monster, who remains nameless throughout the novel, but also reject him. The creatures’ response will lead him to become the definitive figure of a man and of a monster. There have naturally been many film versions about Frankenstein, but none have the presence that Boris Karloff had as the creature. Kenneth Branagh does give a very dramatic performance of Victor in the later version and combines elements from the later B movies into his version that adds a bit more flavour to the text. The latest film version, I, Frankenstein with Aaron Eckhart of Batman fame, picks up the story where the book ends and implies that the creature is still alive and fighting evil demons (in an Underworld kind of fashion). Excellent film, the CGI alone is worth a peek.
For those that enjoy a lighter touch, then I would highly recommend Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein. These are both wonderful spoofs that remind the viewer of the importance of human interaction and love.
John William Polidori, also there for the fateful party, would be known for writing The Vampyre, the first book that would incorporate vampires and romance into a cohesive form, which naturally leads into a discussion of Dracula, by Bram Stoker.
Said to have been inspired by a nightmare (though Stoker had been involved with extensive research into superstitions and folklore,) the tale of Dracula is filled with love, loss and above all, the boundary between the living and the dead. In the search of finding a better life for himself and his new bride Mina, Jonathan Harker becomes entrapped by the ambition of Count Dracula to expand his influence into London. Throw in a little bit of blood, wolves, superstition, and a few madmen to boot, and you a have tale that puts most folks to shame. But if the book is not as enticing as you would wish it be, by all means, watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Wynonna Ryder and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing. That versionwas the first version to introduce the concept of a love story between Mina and Dracula that has become the staple of all later versions, including the one currently in theatres. We also have the version with Bela Lugosi if a real classic appeals to you and the newer one with David Suchet (Poirot), Marc Warren and Sophia Myles for those with a Dracula fetish.
Now, no Gothic experience can be complete without including Washington Irving’s story of the Headless Horseman. Better known as today as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it tells the story of Ichabod Crane, who comes to Sleepy Hollow to be the town’s new teacher. Upon his arrival he falls head over heels in love with Katrina, the daughter of the Van Tassels at a fall festival. While Ichabod fails to ask for her hand in marriage, he is regaled by the tale of the headless horsemen who haunts the area.
Anyone who has seen The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the classic Disney version of the story, knows how the story ends, but the Tim Burton version with Johnny Depp takes a different tack, with more emphasis on the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow and their relationships, along with more witchcraft and, of course, blood. The supernatural elements, along with the more macabre aspects of the horsemen, have now evolved to add a touch of evil to the legend in the form of a TV series (season one available on DVD!). Adding a bit of comedy to the tale with the presence of a 18th century man appearing in the 21st century, Sleepy Hollow proves that not even death can stop love… or evil.
So on this night, where one candle, with nothing to neither aid nor hinder its presence, it continues to glow; to offer a beacon to those who can see nothing but the mists that hold them between worlds. And on this night, this single night of the year, when the veils between worlds fades away, this light is the only thing to stand between the hopes of life with the fears of death.
That is… until the candle dies.