Once Upon a Time There Was a Tavern (or a spooky old Gothic inn, anyway)…


I cracked open The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales last week and considered what short story I was going to read. Now, being an over-educated freak, I figured (at first) that I would read them in chronological order, as laid out by the book’s editors. But, as I read through the names of the stories, I was drawn to several stories from the twentieth century.

And, being unable to follow my initial plan, I lost my discipline and chose a story by its title—thereby destroying any ability (at least in my mind) to go back to the chronological strategy later. That idea had become obsolete.

And I regret that decision now…I think perhaps reading these stories in the order in which they were written might give the reader some nice feeling of progression—evolution, if you will—of Gothic Fiction over the centuries. As it was, I bounced around and had to try to contextualize the stories as I read. Oh well.

I still loved the stories. The first one that I read was:

“Blood Disease,” by Patrick McGrath.

Even though this story was penned in 1988, the yarn contained everything Gothic—I mean almost every single Theme that we might expect from a Traditional Gothic Tale right out of the 18th or 19th Century. It was great—A real throwback.

  • As always, there is a spooky old house, in a lonely austere countryside—away from any sort of civilization. This time the old house comes in the form of an Inn named (strangely enough) The Blue Bat.
  • There is a young woman whose indiscretions leave her at the mercy of dark forces (and I won’t give away the result of her lack of virtue, but one can surely guess).
  • There is a mysterious Monkey infected with a mysterious and (seemingly) supernatural disease.
  • And there is—of Course—Vampirism. Well the 20th century kind of vampirism—an obscure biological disease which drives a need for blood.

Gothic Fiction is all about the description—the ability to elicit a feeling of the Sublime—an exaggeration of senses that draws one beyond the senses. In this, the story is very similar to the masters of the 18th century, whereby adjective s and description of certain senses are effectively designed to take the reader beyond merely the sense. Take this excerpt for instance:

“Virginia laughed aloud at this. She opened her mouth and gave full, free tongue to an unrestrained peal of mirth that rang like clashing bells …”


“Late that night, when Congo Bill lay heavily sedated in sleep, and the moon hung suspended like silver ball over the black bulk of the Blue Bat, and a susurrus of night breezes whispered through the palely gleaming cornfields like a ghost, Ronald Dexter, in silk pajamas, rustled softly along the corridor and tapped on Virginia’s door.”

I think the imagery here is awe-inspiring. The senses incited by these passages is very reminiscent of the Stoker, or even more so, like Poe. Is there any question what fate awaits Ronald Dexter, or the craven-ness of Virginia in these passages—all done through the almost unbearable Gothic Descriptions like ”…peal of mirth that rang like clashing bells…”or “…whispered through the palely gleaming cornfields like a ghost…”?

Each of these excerpts casts the reader fully into the depravity and sheer desperateness of the situation. How could this man (the antithesis of honor) and this woman (the antithesis of virtue) fornicate as such on the bed while her incapacitated husband sleeps nearby…?

We can guess how this will end…it’s the how that is truly terrible in this story.

I won’t go into much more than that (for fear of spoiling the story), but to say that the story plays on the tried-and-true moral of virgin-whore, and man-as-savior. The story is quite a bit of fun, and keeps you guessing all along.

Next, I’ll let you in on another one that I read in this anthology—a story about an ancient evil vampire, as much Truth as Fiction.

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