I have no idea who is supposed to be depicted in that cover image, but jesus h. christ on a popsicle stick is he (she?) ever frightening.
Uncle Silas was a group read on my goodreads group, and qualifies as early gothic horror for purposes of R.I.P. It is an early example of a locked room mystery. It reminded me a lot of one Wilkie Collin’s sensation novels, and shared many of the same tropes. There were so many things going on this book that I could write pages and pages and still not cover it all, so I’m just going to blather on for about another few paragraphs, and then wrap it up.
Maud, the main character, was an archetypal Victorian heroine – innocent, unworldly, trusting, and endangered. There are Bluebeard elements to the plot, along with a smattering of Cinderella. It is frankly atmospheric, and LeFanu attempts to – and succeeds – in invoking a sense of dread and confusion in the reader.
The book begins:
It was winter – that is, about the second week in November – and great gusts were rattling at the windows, and wailing and thundering among our tall trees and ivied chimneys – a very dark night, and a very cheerful fire blazing, a pleasant mixture of good round coal and spluttering dry wood, in a genuine old fireplace, in a sombre old room. Black wainscoting glimmered up to the ceiling, in small ebony panels; a cheerful clump of wax candles on the tea-table; many old portraits, some grim and pale, others pretty, and some very graceful and charming, hanging from the walls. Few pictures, except portraits long and short, were there. On the whole, I think you would have taken the room for our parlour. It was not like our modern notion of a drawing-room. It was a long room too, and every way capacious, but irregularly shaped. A girl, of a little more than seventeen, looking, I believe, younger still; slight and rather tall, with a great deal of golden hair, dark grey-eyed, and with a countenance rather sensitive and melancholy, was sitting at the tea-table, in a reverie. I was that girl.
Divided into three volumes, the plot is generally broken into three sections. The first involves the death of Maud’s father. This is all scene-setting and background for the real action. Maud’s father is a frustrating character, and I remain aghast at his logic, which can be summarized as:
1. My brother has been accused of murder for financial gain.
2. I am dying, and I’m going to leave my daughter an enormous fortune.
3. Which will pass to my brother if my daughter dies before he does.
4. Yes, that brother. The one who has been accused of murder for financial gain.
5. Best idea ever: make him the guardian of my daughter!
6. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything, stupid man with the reasoning skills of a root vegetable. Everything can go wrong.
Volume Two takes us, with Maud, to Bartram-Haugh, the ancient manor house that is also the residence of Uncle Silas. And this is where things really start to get weird. There is a locked room mystery – the unresolved death of a man to whom Silas owed a lot of money in a locked bedroom at Bartram-Haugh – which is neatly solved at the end of Volume Three. Maud begins with a strong sense of duty, believing that she is going to prove that her uncle is not a murderer, that his expulsion from polite society has been unfair and unwarranted.
"The grounds were delightfully wild and neglected. But we had now passed into a vast park beautifully varied with hollows and uplands, and such glorious old timber massed and scattered over its slopes and levels. Among these, we got at last into a picturesque dingle; the grey rocks peeped from among the ferns and wild flowers, and the steps of soft sward along its sides were dark in the shadows of silver-stemmed birch, and russet thorn, and oak, under which, in the vaporous night, the erl-king and his daughter might glide on their aerial horses."
Well, things, not suprisingly, don't go well.
Things get going in Volume Two, and culminate, in Volume Three with a glorious collision of crazy. There are secret marriages, governesses with divided loyalties, laudanum addiction, peg-legged servants, and, ultimately, a bludgeoning with a pointy hammer. All in all, this book is a heaping platterful of Victorian gothic what-the-fuckery that must be read to be believed. Not that you will believe it, because it is all deeply far-fetched, and completely nuts, which, of course, makes it sort of awesome.
This is a minor classic, overall, but is strangely compelling. Like a trainwreck, I could not look away!