The Mystery of the Black Tower by John Palmer

The Mystery of the Black Tower by John Palmer was first published through subscription in 1796.  The Gothic Classics edition published in 2005 by Valancourt Books features a complete list of all the original subscribers–an unusual legacy to leave posterity.  In the early days of the novel, before anyone was quite sure what a novel was, publishing by subscription was common place.  An author with a work to publish sold copies in advance, usually to friends, family and acquaintances.  Once enough subscribers could be found, the book could be printed.  If the publicity that followed was good enough, another edition would follow.

18th century Gothic novels are of interest to me because they represent one of the possible paths the novel could have taken.  Had Fanny Burney and Jane Austen not come along, dark stories with mysterious towers and elements of the supernatural might have become the 19th century novel, instead of stories about young women searching for proper husbands.  Gothic novels didn’t vanish, of course.  Elements of them can be found in many 19th and 20th century novels, and they are all the rage today.  Any novelist who has ever imprisoned a heroine in a tower owes a small debt to John Palmer.  He was the first.  (The Mystery of the Black Tower precedes even Grimm’s Fairy Tales which came out in 1812.)

But, in the end one must ask if the modern reader has anything to gain from reading The Mystery of the Black Tower other than satisfying the idle curiosity sparked by finding an unusual title in the Yale library stacks one rainy afternoon.  To answer this question read the passage from the book below.

“Indeed! Is it even so?” exclaimed Edmund, irritated at her indifference; “I know full well for whom I am thus scorned; the beggar Leonard has your heart: I , however, have your person; let then your love-sick swain tune his discordant pipe amidst surrounding branches, or beside some flowing rill; I will feast myself on more substantial joys.  You are in my grasp, remember, nor all the earthly, all the heavenly powers, shall tear you from me.”
     “Can you think so meanly of me,” she cried, “as to suppose your threats can terrify me into what my heart abhors? My innocence, like the solid rock that braves the billows, is proof against your menaces and arts, and alike despises your frothy eloquence and malice.”
   With fury in his looks, Fitzallon now darted from the room, and left the afflicted Emma to her sorrows.
John Palmer will never find a formal place in the English Cannon.  Not with writing like this.  And I don’t think many modern readers will be able to make it very far with prose like “I will feast myself on more substantial joys.”  As Abraham Lincoln once said, “It’s the sort of thing that appeals to people who like that sort of thing.”

That may be the best way to end this review of  John Palmer’s The Mystery of the Black Tower.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in the summer of 2010 when I was attending a summer seminar for teachers at Yale.  Wondering the stacks of the Yale library was one of the best things about that summer.  I found all sorts of intriguing books that I never would have come across any other way, sorts of books I had no business reading but really enjoyed anyway.  Of all the things that have disappeared from my live over the years as progress has continued to march on, I miss the stacks most.  There was something spontaneous about the wondering the stacks that wondering the internet will never be.  Long live the Dewey Decimal System!!!

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Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Paul Schreber

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness was an important work in the development of modern psychiatry.  Sigmund Freud based parts of his study of psychoanalysis on the book, though he never met Mr. Schreber.  Mr. Schreber was a judge in late 19th century Dresden–married with no children.  He had three bouts of “nervous illness,” each landing him in an asylum.   Eventually, he became well enough to live in society and to write a memoir.  It was published over the objections of his family who tried to buy up all of the copies.  Fortunately for Sigmund Freud, they failed.

Little was known about mental illness during Mr. Schreber’s lifetime.  Mr. Schreber hears voices and sees hallucinations, but he does not understand them as such.  To him, they are all real.  He does not seek to convince himself otherwise at all. Instead, he seeks to understand how the voices and hallucinations work, who or what is behind them and how must he deal with what they do to him.  He creates an entire cosmology consisting of two levels of gods at war with each other through him.  They seek to control his soul by controlling his nerves, which he understands as functioning through vibrations and as connected to forces outside of himself.  He describes one method of attack on his nerves:

Further, in the time I am discussing attempts were repeatedly made to cover my nerves with some noxious matter; it appeared as if the natural capacity of nerves to vibrate were thereby impaired, so that even I myself had at times the impression of becoming temporarily stupid.  One of the agents concerned was called “poison of intoxication”; I cannot say what its chemical nature was. From time to time also the liquids of the food I had taken were by miracle placed on the nerves of my head, so that these were covered with a sort of paste, and the capacity to think temporarily impaired; I remember distinctly that this happened once with coffee.

He is not speaking of a metaphorical paste covering his nerves, but of reality as he understands it.  Clearly he is mad, but at no point does he doubt the reality of his delusions.  He does not understand why he is the only one who can see the strange things he sees, but this does not disprove the miraculous events he experiences. Instead it elevates his own status, making him more important in the grand scheme of things.  The fact that he is the only one who knows that the coffee he drinks is turning into a paste that attacks his nervous systems rendering him temporarily dumb makes it no less a fact.   His doctors try to tell him otherwise, but how can he deny the evidence of his own senses?  He never does.

Reading Memoirs of My Nervous Illness one can’t help but wonder about other people who have claimed to see visions and to have experienced the miraculous.  Mr. Schreber’s cosmology explains his world.  There are no events that happen to him that cannot be explained through his theory of vibrations and the forces that try to stop or control them.  Is what makes him crazy the same thing that makes someone else a saint?  When does the madman become a visionary?

While Memoirs of My Nervious Illness is an entertaining and englightening read, it is not an entirely easy one.  I don’t think it can be read as a novel, but it can be read as a character study.  There’s no plot arc to it, but as the book progressess the reader grows to understand Mr. Schreber to the point where he almost becomes believeable as though his life were a novel.  File this book in the fiction section, and his story of forces trying to control his actions is as believeable as any told by an unreliable narrator.  File it in the non-fiction and he becomes a paranoid schizophrenic.  In either case, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is fascinating reading.

I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in the summer of 2010.  This was one of the books I found in the Yale library while I was taking a summer course for teachers on Canterbury Tales.  I read all sorts of obscure literature, some of it very obscure, even more obscure than Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.  

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The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

I death of ivan ilychsee now that I was wrong about Leo Tolstoy lacking a sense of humor.  At Amatuer Reader’s suggestion I took another look at the opening chapter of The Death of Ivan Ilych–it’s pretty funny.  Funny in the same, slightly off-kilter, dark way that Gogol and Dostoevsky are funny.

The Death of Ivan Ilych opens with the departed character’s friends arriving to provide comfort to his widow.  She is more concerned with her own situation, understandably.  What will become of her? How much Ivan Ilych suffered in his final days and hours and how his suffering upset her.  It was all very hard on her.  Ivan Ilych’s friends are sorry that he died, but not as sorry as they are relieved that it happened to someone else instead of them.  And who will they get to replace him at the whist table.

After the first chapter the novella leaps backwards in time to give us the life and death of Ivan Ilych, an ordinary man who did fairly well in the world but not well enough to leave much of a mark.  The final half of the novella tells the story of his illness and death in a way that kept reminding me of Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis”  which is about a man who wakes up one day to discover he has become a giant insect.

Ivan Ilych’s experience of illness is quite like Gregor Samson’s transformation.  The illness arrives suddenly and without explanation.  Neither his doctor’s nor his family are able to help him or comfort him or even really understand what he’s going through.  No treatments provide relief; there is no cure. As his illness progresses, Ivan Ilych becomes detached from the world, isolated much like Gregor Samson did.  In the end, both are completely alone whether they are among people or not.  In the end, Ivan Ilych loses the ability to speak and becomes isolated inside his body, aware of what is going on around him but unable to comment just like Gregor Samson.

It’s been a while since I read Kafka, so I’m relying on long-term memory here, but I think the two would make a very interesting pair for a college seminar, maybe a high school AP English class.  More adventurous book clubs could do the two together as both are quite short.  My own book club would never have gone for it since both are quite sad, too.

Not really sad.  Reading each didn’t make me sad so much as they made me thoughtful, contemplative perhaps.  I can’t recall exactly how I felt about the end of “The Metamorphosis”but The Death of Ivan Ilych left me feeling a quiet satisfaction.  In the end Ivan Ilych loses his fear of death.  While he doesn’t exactly welcome its arrival, he’s undisturbed by it in a way that I found kind of comforting.  Tolstoy even gives him a moment of joy as he sees the final light.

The Death of Ivan Ilych was an excellent read; it now on my retirement re-reads shelf.  I’m sure I’ve got a copy of Kafka around somewhere, too.

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Sunday Salon: The TBR Triple Dog Dare Month One Check In

TBR Final DareDid you dare?  How are you doing?

It’s been a month, one-third of the way through, how is everyone doing with the TBR Triple Dog Dare?

So far it’s been pretty easy for me this time around–probably a result of doing it for so many years now I’ve lost count. I’ve developed something of a taste for my own TBR shelves lately anyway; I’m not all that interested in what’s new and current these days.  I do still find quite a few books that are “new to me” from reading book blogs, but I don’t have the same sense of urgency about keeping up with current titles that I used to have.

So, I’ve been reading from my own TBR shelves, four books at a time currently, having a great time.  I’ve not found anything really wonderful yet, but I have been enjoying myself quite a bit.  Right now I’m reading The Visitor by Sheri Tepper, a post-apocalyptic fantasy that is good escapist fun so far; The Man Who Watched Trains Go By by Simenon which is dark, very dark, creepy and suspenseful; the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Series which is sadly not as good as the first two were so far; and The World Rushed In a massive first hand account of the California Gold Rush.

I just finished Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich which was not funny at all.  The other Russian classic’s I’ve read have all be pretty funny, at least at times, but Tolstoy seems to have no sense of humor at all.

All of the books but the Ferrante one have been gathering dust on my TBR stacks for some time now, at least a couple of years each.  It’s good to finally get to them.  I’m doing 100 to 150 pages a night which has really cut back on my Netflix/Hulu addiction.  Good for me but bad for Hulu I guess.  They’ll get over it.

I’m cheating a little in that I am reading YA books for school.  I picked up two books from my school library and had my students vote on which one I should read.  It was a very close vote but I’ll be reading something called The Boys of Fire and Ash by Meagan McIssac later today.  Having my students vote on what I should read really got them interested in the books.  The “loser” is in a students hands as we speak.

We’re doing Book Bingo this semester, too, which is also paying off.  I’m doing it along with them which has been making them much more aware of reading.  No one has a bingo yet but a few students are very close.  I had them do a little assignment about reading where they calculated how many books they could read in a semester if they only read 20 minutes a night on school nights only.  Turns out, they were very surprised by how much they could read and  by how much more that would be than what many of them usually read.  That and Book Bingo has already got a few of them reading much more than they did last fall.

And no one has to take an Accelerated Reader quiz either.

So what have you found in your TBR stacks?

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The Truth of Spiritualism by Rita (Mrs. Desmond Humphreys)

I was looking for a book called A Husband of No Importance by “Rita.”  I’ve been looking for this book since graduate school.  It’s mentioned in a couple of books I read for my thesis project on late 19th century New Women novels, and I hoped to find a copy in the Yale libraries.  No luck.  But they did have The Truth of Spiritualism by the same author.

So I went off into the stacks  where way up on the 8th floor in a largely forgotten corner I found an entire bookcase of late 19th and early 20th century books on topics like spiritualism, phrenology, automatic writing, and a wide assortment of other long disproved pseudo-sciences.  I’m here for six weeks, why not give ’em a go?

In The Truth of Spiritualism Rita is not telling the truth that Harry Houdini would tell.  She is a believer, and her book is both an answer to the claims of skeptics and a reassurance to fainthearted followers.  She devotes chapters to the history of the spiritual movement, to seances, to manifestations, automatic writing and materialization.  After she has explained what spiritualism is and how it works, she offers several chapters dealing with the prevalence of fraud and the  proof she has found to counter the charges of critics and doubters.

Of course, even someone with only a passing understanding of evidence can shoot holes in her proof.  Take for instance this passage supporting the existence of a world beyond our own and of automatic writing as proof of its existence:

Recently a book of experiences entitled Letters from a Living Dead Man has made some stir in the world of psychic research.  The letters are all from the “other side” and written down by the author as given.  They form an interesting record of that “other side” when the spirit entity goes thither.  The entity uses his automatic subject as a means for informing those he has left behind of his personal experience and condition.  Not only do those letters deal with the war, with the sudden translation from life to death, but also with the laws of nature on another plane, and the possibilities of spirit communion.

“Rita” never questions the validity of the sources she cites to prove the truth of spiritualism.  She simply accepts Letters from a Living Dead Man as true because its author says so and because she believes it.   I doubt any professor or high school English teacher anywhere would accept such evidence in a term paper.

So why bother with a book like The Truth of Spiritualism beyond satisfying a passing curiosity?  You can tell by now that I am not a believer.  Not at all.  But my partner C.J. has an aunt who makes part of her living as a psychic.  We have a good friend who says she has the ability to communicate with pets both living and dead.  A very close friend of mine is currently working with a psychic to communicate with her daughter.  “Rita” does get to this profound point about spiritualism, I think accidentally, late in her book:

The converts to spiritualism have been mostly those who have suffered personal bereavement and failed to find any comfort in ordinary religious teaching.

If you’ve been there, then you know what it’s like.  I doubt any church can ever provide a satisfactory answer to someone who has lost a daughter and few seem willing to treat the loss of a pet seriously enough to provide the comfort many people need.    This may be why The Truth of Spiritualism is still in print, 90 years after it first appeared while so many other books gather dust on the 8th floor of the  stacks at the Yale library.


This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in the summer of 2010.  That summer I spent six weeks studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with a group of high school teachers courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  One of the best things about that summer was that I got full access to the Yale library.  It was a kind of dream come true for a life-long book nerd like me.  

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