The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne

by Ann Radcliffe

OK, you may not grant this four stars but I will. It’s a delightful little book about an ill-considered attempt to avenge a murdered father, star-crossed lovers, dungeons, castles, treachery, ghostly sounds, and a lucky accident of birth.

I know how I have this book: As a young man, I read HP Lovecraft’s “Horror and the Supernatural in Literature” and decided to read all the writing he mentioned. Mrs. Radcliffe featured prominently in this essay, and HPL always referred to her as “Mrs. Radcliffe”. (Pre-Internet, so I had to literally go to a museum and look her up to find out her first name was “Ann”.)

Anyway, the best way to think of Mrs. Radcliffe these days is the forebear of “Scooby Doo”. Although predated by Horace Walpole, Mrs. Radcliffe basically created the Gothic horror/romance in its dominant form, with secret staircases, evil uncles, whistling winds that MIGHT BE GHOSTS! and other clichés that would become the “Old, Dark House” genre.

Now, keep in mind that the movie “Old, Dark House” came out in the ’20s, and was sort of the bubble bursting for those particular horror tropes, which survive to this day and, as I said, are immortalized in the “Scooby Doo” cartoon series, and you get a sense of how profound an impact Mrs. Radcliffe (who was born in 1764!) had.

I do not know if this is her first book, but it’s an early one, and a good starter to see if this is the sort of thing you’ll like. Spoiler alert: You probably won’t. She is very much a creature of her time and her prose is, well, not exactly florid, but lacking the spareness popular today on the one hand, and lacking (e.g.) the poetry of Mrs. Austen.

Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen’s nod to Radcliffe, and it’s probably better than any of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels, or at least possessing of a neoclassic sensibility more suited to modern tastes.

(This paragraph coming up could be considered a little spoilery so maybe stop reading here if you aren’t familiar with the tropes of the Gothic horror.)

But I love this stuff, and really enjoyed this book, even though I knew—and this should not be a spoiler to anyone who has read a book written between 1750-1925—for example, that the star-crossed lovers would be saved by a suddenly revealed accident of birth. (Edgar Rice Burroughs used this device repeatedly in the Tarzan series: You can’t get married because you’re not noble/not white! But wait! You secretly are!)

It’s a fun window into how people used to think. All the swooning ladies and would-be heroes constantly having their characters tested. The dark castles with their secret dungeons and even more secret passages. The romantic tying of noblemen’s characters to the fates of their kingdoms. Etc.

This edition has a glossary and some explanatory footnotes in the back, so if you’re interested in dipping your toe in to the genre and period, this is not a bad start.

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