The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 7: THE OLD ENGLISH BARON by Clara Reeve

From a look at some criticism of this novel, amateur and professional, current and historical, many readers might dispute my including it as part of my series of horror reviews.  There seems to be a general sense of disappointment that this early Gothic novel skimps on the atmosphere that is generally expected in a work of that description.  I say, give it a break!  The form was still in its infancy and Reeve was trying something new.  Maybe what she tried isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it deserves to be judged on its own terms.

Personally, I found it a very compelling read.  Sure, there was a pang of disappointment when I noticed the lack of dark trappings to be found in Shelley’s Frankenstein or Lewis’s The Monk, but The Old English Baron goes its own way quite successfully.  Reeve’s plot is a page-turner (although the love story is a bit pallid), and her characters are interesting and fully fleshed out people, not just types.  Perhaps most intriguingly, the book functions as a genuine historical novel.  When I was reading The Monk (which I loved, don’t get me wrong), I frequently forgot it was set earlier than when it was written.  The historical setting was just window dressing.  Reeve manages to make her narrative truly live in the medieval era.

On a related note, The Old English Baron illuminated for me some links between genres that had previously been rather confusing.  Over the years, I’ve come across references to the Gothic form that seemed to connect it to the mystery genre.  As recently as the 1930s, you can find references to the Tod Browning directed version of Dracula that refer to it as a “mystery.”  I had always found all this somewhat puzzling.  Reading Reeve’s novel started to clear things up.  With just a few changes, The Old English Baron could function as a tightly constructed detective story.  It’s a shame Reeve did not live into the era of early mysteries.  She could easily have been one of the first giants of the form.

I suppose my connecting this book to mysteries and historical fiction will cause some groans from fellow horror fans.  There are ghost scenes in The Old English Baron, however.  No, there are not enough of them by our standards, and they’re a little low-key.  That being said, I still found them pretty darned spooky in their own way!

The Old English Baron has major historical interest for anyone who cares about the development of the Gothic.  On its own, it’s a fine novel.  At times, I found it slender, but only in the sense that I wanted more.  That’s pretty good for a novel over 200 years old.  As always, my advice is to read books for themselves, not for what they’re “supposed” to do.  The Old English Baron is more than worth reading for itself.


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