Paul Murray is an Irish diplomat and writer. His biography of Lafcadio Hearn won the Koizumi Yakumo literary prize in Japan in 1995. His latest work, From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker has just been published by Jonathan Cape. Here he chooses his top 10 novels in the older gothic tradition.
1. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole published what is generally recognised as the first gothic novel almost two and a half centuries ago. The Castle of Otranto (1765) created a confluence of medievalism and terror that has mutated and endured ever since. Stoker may have paid an oblique tribute by featuring Walpole’s kinsman, the 17th century prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in Miss Betty (1898), his next novel after Dracula.
2. History of the Caliph Vathek by William Beckford
William Beckford’s History of the Caliph Vathek (1786) merged the 18th century fashion for oriental tales with the newly-established gothic tradition. Byron and Mallarme, among others, admired this work, which HP Lovecraft considered caught well the “shadowy spectral horror of the Saracen spirit”. A fascination with, and fear of, the east was a feature of the gothic novel.
3. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Radcliffe’s 1794 work anticipates Stoker’s ability to describe landscapes unseen by the author. The final chase of Count Dracula across Europe by his righteous band of pursuers also recalls Radcliffe at her considerable best. She has a masterful ability to suggest the supernatural without ultimately invoking it. Hugely, and deservedly, popular in her time.
4. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
One of the most vicious, rip-roaring and entertaining novels of the entire gothic genre. Written by an MP, its reactionary political message – an attempt to revive the horror of the intertwined threat of the Spanish and the Papacy at a time when they had been displaced as the main threat to the British state by the new ideology of the French Revolution – is clearer in retrospect. It shocked even Byron when it appeared in 1796.
5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Together with John Polidori’s The Vampire (the first fictional vampire tale), Frankenstein (1818) emerged from the high jinks, featuring the Shelleys, Matthew Lewis, Polidori and Byron, at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. It created a monster rivaled only by Count Dracula in the global consciousness. It also contains a reference to the monster as a vampire and anticipates Dracula’s multiple narrator technique. It marks a confluence of the gothic and romanticism.
6. Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin
Representing the beginning of the Irish gothic tradition in 1820, it is considered by some the greatest of all gothic works. Representing a significant stride in the evolution of the genre, Melmoth profoundly influenced some of the most important writers of the 19th century, including Scott, Thackeray and Baudelaire. Balzac grouped Melmoth with Moliere’s Don Juan, Goethe’s Faust and Byron’s Manfred as one of the supreme allegorical figures of modern literature. Maturin’s relative, Oscar Wilde, symbolically took the name Sebastian Melmoth when he went into exile following his release from prison.
7. Salathiel the Immortal by George Croly
Now almost forgotten, the Reverend George Croly was a friend of the Stoker family. In Salathiel the Immortal (1829), there are similarities of predicament between Salathiel and Dracula (as well as with that of Melmoth the Wanderer). Salathiel led the mob which promoted the death of Jesus, in return for which he was condemned to the misery of the undead state. A reshaping of the Wandering Jew legend which underlies so much of the gothic genre, including Melmoth the Wanderer. Like Maturin, Croly was a Church of Ireland clergyman.
8. Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood by James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Pecket Prest
Published in 1847, the year of Stoker’s birth, this penny-dreadful contained over 800 pages of often confusing text. It did, however, create some of what would become the stock characters of the vampire tale, especially its central European vampiric aristocrat with ambitions to be master of a great English house and a taste for the blood of young virgins. He is possessed of glittering eyes that fascinate his victims and fang-like teeth. The staking of one of his victims established one of the most potent images of the genre while the elderly and wise Admiral Bell anticipated Van Helsing. Varney represented the first full-length vampire novel in fiction and probably also the first significant fantastic adventure story.
9. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Like Oscar Wilde’s slightly later Dorian Gray and Stoker’s Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1887) achieved a dramatic effect by bringing the terror of the primitive, or the peripheral, ‘other’ home to the heart of empire. A play based on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was put on at the Lyceum by the actor Richard Mansfield in 1888 with limited success. Like Dracula and Frankenstein, it became a major magnet for movie makers and is now embedded in the mass consciousness.
10. Dracula by Bram Stoker
Don’t believe those who tell you that Dracula (1897) does not need to be read: no movie to date has done justice to a long and complex work. Arguably the greatest, certainly the most popular gothic novel of them all. It has been reinterpreted afresh by each succeeding generation, a sure sign of a masterpiece, and still generates oceans of critical comment, some of it profound, some unintentionally hilarious, much of it just plain silly. Stoker would have been amazed (he replied to one earnest American correspondent that he clearly knew more about Dracula than he did himself!).