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Uncle Silas

September 23, 2009
When Miss Maud Ruthyn, heiress, is orphaned, she’s sent to live with her creepy old uncle until she reaches her majority. Said uncle is suspected of once murdering a man to whom he owed gambling debts. Oh, and if Maud were to die somehow before becoming an adult, Uncle Silas would get everything. Her father arranged it that way in his will to prove to the world that Silas isn’t a murderer. Maud gets the delightful experience of being the pork chop dangled in front of the starving wolf.

Deliciously gothicky, but there’s still plenty wrong with this novel by J. Sheridan le Fanu (better known for his short stories). For one thing, scary it ain’t. “And … there was a bloodstain … on the floor!” is about as intense as it gets. Did the Victorians scare easier than we do, or did the authors just hold themselves back? It’s a depressing prospect to think that we live in a scarier world than in 1899, but compared to Chernobyl, Silas’s murderous history is pretty tame.

Ah, Maud Ruthyn. How I love to hate her. Throughout the book she vacillates between a fainting flower petal and an imperious little brat who knows she’s better than the menials because of her education and good breeding. I know she would have made for an acceptable heroine in the 19th century, but cultural relativism can only be carried so far. I’m still allowed to be upset when she’s denigrating her own gender (The weaker sex? The weaker sex? I do beg your pardon?), failing to play an active role in the ending, or eerily echoing Robinson Crusoe:

‘I want your hand, cousin,’ she said, at the same time taking it by the wrist, and administering with it a sudden slap on her plump cheek, which made the room ring, and my fingers tingle; and before I had recovered from my surprise, she had vanished.

And if you were expecting a twist at the end, which would be reasonable to do in such a suspenseful novel, you will be disappointed. Le Fanu tells you over and over that a certain event is going to happen. And then it happens.

Now that I’ve told you everything that’s wrong with the book, I strongly urge you to go read it. If you’re the sort of person who read Frankenstein for fun, not for English class, you will love it. The point of Uncle Silas is the mood, not its illiberal characters or preposterous plot. The haunted house of Bartram-Haugh abounds with creaky rooms, opium addiction, gypsy prophecies, and … Swedenborgians. Le Fanu is a master of suspense. Just as soon as you’re dying to know what happens next, he slows the story down. He draws out each excruciating moment as the massive conspiracy surrounding Maud closes in on her. I read the last five chapters all at a gulp (nearly making myself late for work) and finished gasping for air. It was only about an hour later that I realized nothing particularly cool happened. Le Fanu just writes it so well. Definitely recommended for any fan of the Gothic style.

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