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The Midnight Bell: A German Story, Founded on Incidents in Real Life (Gothic Classics) Paperback – 13 Jun 2007
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Young Alphonsus Cohenburg enters his mother's bedroom and finds her covered in blood. She tells him his uncle has murdered his father, and orders him to flee Cohenburg castle forever to save his own life! A disconsolate exile, Alphonsus wanders the earth seeking the means of survival, first as a soldier, then a miner, and finally as sacristan of a church, where he meets the beautiful Lauretta. They wed and establish a home together, and everything seems to promise them a happy future. But their domestic tranquillity is shattered, when a band of ruffians kidnaps the unfortunate Lauretta! Alphonsus must solve the mystery of Lauretta's disappearance and the riddle of his mother's strange conduct. And when he hears that ghosts inhabit Cohenburg castle, tolling the great bell each night at midnight, the mystery only deepens...One of the greatest of all Gothic novels, The Midnight Bell (1798) features a blend of fast-paced action and spine-tingling suspence, pervaded throughout by a tone of profound melancholy. This edition, the first in forty years, features a new introduction by David Punter, one of the world's foremost experts on Gothic literature.
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It is a bit of irony that it is a piece of satire that, in part, has kept Francis Lathom's gothic classic The Midnight Bell: A German Story, Founded on Incidents in Real Life (1798; the Valancourt Books scholarly edition of 2007 includes an Introduction by David Punter) alive to the extent that it is. In her parody of gothic novels, Northanger Abbey (1818), one of Jane Austin's characters lists a number of "horrid" gothic thrillers that simply must be read and Lathom's The Midnight Bell is one of them. Jane Austin aside, The Midnight Bell has long been considered among the best of gothic novels and the finest one that Francis Lathom (1774-1832) wrote (Lathom also wrote non-gothic works.
Just as readers settle in believing Lathom is going to utilize a plot element from Shakespeare's Hamlet in which the son is warned by the ghost of his father that they boy's uncle is responsible for his murder with the ghost demanding revenge, Lathom takes his story in a different and wild direction. Hearing "a piercing shriek" at the "ghostly hour of midnight" Alphonsus finds his mother, "her eyes wildly fixed" while "her countenance betrayed the most visible signs of an agonized heart." She tells her son, "your uncle is innocent--one only way can save us both--fly far from hence--fly from me--fly from your uncle--take that purse--return not to the castle." Following his mother's demands, Alphonsus becomes an exile. He joins the German army and is wounded. With the defeat of the Poles and an end to war, he becomes a miner and later a sacristan. It is as a miner that he hears "tales of spirits and witches, to which the common people in that part of the country give much credit" as well as stories about himself and his mother which are invariably distorted versions of the truth. Alphonsus is left in despair and wonderment, tormented and in need of "some light on... [the] mystery" of his last night in the castle of Cohenburg with his mother "that preys upon... [his] breast."
Nothing in modern-day soap operas can come close to rivaling the ever changing, convoluted, far-fetched plots of gothic literature and Lathom's The Midnight Bell is certainly no exception which also accounts for its popularity as one of the great "horrids" of literature. Death is a constant specter never far away. Numerous characters that Alphonsus meets are related to or know someone who unknowingly plays a role in Alphonsus' life or the life of his uncle as the fates of various characters intermingle. Love, almost as intrusive as death, is passionate and shows up in the most unlikely places and times. Alphonsus falls in love with a young girl in the convent, Lauretta, on the eve of her taking the veil and is determined "to snatch her from the eternal gloom of monastic life." Both lust and illicit love also plays an equally fervent and disruptive role in the characters' lives. Ruffians and banditti step from the shadows at the most ill opportune times to commit dastardly deeds and alter the characters' fates and there is no absence of sudden events, including kidnapping and murder that rapidly alters the narrative flow and events. There are characters with concealed, secret identities who go about in disguise, body snatching, ghastly torture, and fierce prison escapes.
Lathom's work frequently includes the now stereotypical "dark and stormy night," highly melodramatic dialogue, and ever changing settings which often include castles: be they a "stately mansion" or "a pile of ruins"--all of which are generally shadowy and treacherous. Readers need a tally sheet to keep track of the number of times female characters are in distress and react to sudden horrors by dropping senseless to the floor in a dead faint (not that the male characters in the book don't at times faint, too). Lathom ends both Volume I and Volume II of The Midnight Bell on cliff hangers.
Lathom pays tribute to The Bard with his obvious Hamlet-like set up at the story's beginning, numerous quotations from Shakespeare's works at the beginnings of his chapters, and with a wise and benevolent Friar Laurence-like figure, Father Matthias, who secretly weds Alphonsus and Lauretta and sees to their dispatch from the convent. There are times when The Midnight Bell is reminiscent of Lathom's contemporary, novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Although it takes away from the main narrative of the novel (as do many of the characters' extended autobiographical tales), Lathom's powerful tale within The Midnight Bell that chronicles one of the character's imprisonment in the Bastille rivals and foreshadows Charles Dickens' use of that historic edifice and prison in A Tale of Two Cities. Lathom obviously includes a number of these lengthy diversions because of the complexity of his plot-line and the need for characters to provide their back-stories and explanations for the many coincidences that exist in the novel. It appears as though it is also because of the convolutions that exist in the plot of The Midnight Bell that Lathom spends very limited time on any real character development with most of his characters being pretty much stock, one-dimensional, cut-out characters--even the protagonist, Alphonsus.
For a novel that begins with a supernatural edge to it, there isn't a lot of the paranormal in The Midnight Bell. Most of the novel's supernatural elements are provided by gossip and rumors of under-educated, superstitious peoples and anything resembling a real uncanny or inexplicable event is usually explained away as a natural phenomenon a few pages later. There is, however, a real sense of morality in The Midnight Bell and characters often rant or bravely take action against hypocrisy and the abuse of power by persons in position of authority at the risk of their own lives.
Once in the vicinity of his birthplace, Alphonsus hears wild and contradictory tales about his mother, father, uncle, and himself. Of the castle itself, "people do tell strange stories that it is haunted" and that a ghost "tolls the bell to call somebody in, that it may reveal the murder of its body to them, and frighten them into promising to revenge its death. Nobody goes near the castle on that account." It is also in the later portions of the novel with the arrival of Alphonsus in his homeland that Lathom's story becomes much more focused.
The Midnight Bell is an excellent example of the Gothic novel and well worth reading. Lathom creates a stirring, suspenseful "tale of horror" in Volume III of the novel that reaches a stunning and rewarding conclusion, the type of which has been entertaining readers for over two hundred years. [NOTES: (1) The Valancourt edition of The Midnight Bell "follows verbatim the text of the rare 1798 first edition... Errors of grammar, spelling, and usage have been retained, as have Lathom's (or his printer's) mistakes in the occasional French words..." (2) The Introduction by David Punter, Professor of English at the University of Bristol who has written extensively on Gothic literature, among other things, ties together plot and character developments in The Midnight Bell and the ever-present sense of melancholy that is in the novel to both the life of Lathom and Gothic tradition. Readers are advised to save the Introduction until after having read the novel itself, however.]
A contemporary reviewer lamented the "intricacy of plot" of The Midnight Bell, and the "hurry and confusion of incident" that left Francis Lathom little energy for character development.
It's certainly true that every minor character seems to have a shocking history that must be told, interrupting the main story line. Still, the main story line is fairly simple. Young Alphonsus is told by his mother, with blood on her hand, to flee the family castle and never return. He's not sure who's been murdered, his father or his uncle, or who murdered whom. But being an obedient son, he flees without question. Ultimately he will take courage and investigate the mystery. But not before multiple adventures befall him and everyone around him.
The young hero's meandering ill-funded life takes him from soldiering to mining to a cushy maintenance job in a convent, where he falls in love with a novice. The plot moves on to encompass love in a cottage, abduction, murder, torture, banditry, enslavement and imprisonment (not in that order). Fortunes, relatives and friends are lost and found.
I had no trouble reading The Midnight Bell from cover to cover. Improbable adventures have a certain appeal. But for me the value of the book is as a window into late eighteenth century reading habits. While contemporary critics generally abhorred Gothic extravagances, the public devoured them.