With Halloween upon us, now is the perfect time to curl up with a good, scary book. But if you’ve already read such standbys as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Shining, you might be in need of a suggestion. With that in mind, here are five absolute chillers that will have you turning pages deep into the night — and are guaranteed to have your teeth a-chattering as you pray for the sun to rise!
Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom
The elderly, disease-wracked Morrie is dying — immobile and helpless in what is soon to be his deathbed. Outside his New England home, the pained echoes of atrocities past — witch burnings, the slaughter of native peoples — can still be faintly heard. Once each week, as regular as the doomsday clock, he is visited by a much younger man — a man known, terrifyingly, as “Mitch” — who has arrived from the murder-pocked wastelands of Detroit. Mitch hovers above Morrie’s bed, extracting stories, memories, and anecdotes from the elder as if withdrawing his very blood. Morrie, unsurprisingly, withers as Mitch’s visits mount. Is Morrie’s terminal illness sapping his will to live? Or is he a victim of Mitch’s vampiric need for enough material to fill an easily giftable book?
It’s All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow
In It’s All Good, a pallid wraith of a woman named Gwyneth, all eerie eyes and jutting bones, drags us into the depths of her madness — a state in which simple, good-hearted folk might gobble down such witchy horrors as preserved lemons and quail eggs. Early on, we learn that Gwenyth shuns red meat — it is, perhaps, too close to the taste of human flesh — and any poultry raised inorganically. Her goal, she proclaims, is to “cleanse” her “system.” This obsession with scouring her bowels of the merest impurity raises a troubling question: what is so vile within her that it must be so harshly scrubbed away? And if we read her book, are we just as poisoned as she?
Crippled America by Donald Trump
In Crippled America, a glaring, angry madman called Donald guides us through a harrowing realm of poverty, violence, and ruin — a shattered deathscape that, if viewed through a certain prism, can begin to look like our own. As in other works of dystopian horror, Crippled America is vague on what has brought such pestilence, and at times Donald’s prose, as H.P. Lovecraft’s, becomes difficult to follow (“If you have laws that you don’t enforce, then you don’t have laws,” he writes. “This leads to lawlessness.”). At other times, however, he is as convincingly menacing as the Cryptkeeper himself — as when he declares his lunatic intentions to rule this ravaged land. It’s a far-fetched bit of plotting, to be sure — but just plausible enough to send a shiver down your spine.
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
Like Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Chicken Soup for the Soul is a collection of stories that, taken as a whole, form a mosaic of punishing psychological horror. Taking place in an eerie world in which humanity’s quirks and edges have been worn away — shades of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives — Chicken Soup for the Soul pounds the reader with sun-dappled tales of love, flowers, and workplace hugging. Chicken Soup for the Soul succeeds in terrifying by relentlessly piling false “goodness” upon false “goodness” — and for the quivering, goose-pimpled reader, the effect is that of being forced to eat an entire sheet cake at riflepoint.
The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell
A modern classic of terror, The Carrie Diaries tells the story of Carrie White, a fragile teenager who is born with telekinetic powers — powers that, as she matures, will allow her to avenge the high-school abusers who torment her endlessly. Bushnell controls the action with a firm and expert grip, allowing the horror of The Carrie Diaries to slowly build, a sense of dread permeating each page, until a catastrophic climax that stands as one of the…wait a minute — what? Oh. Really? Oh. Okay. So then..what’s The Carrie Diaries? Oh. Like a Sex and the City prequel? For fuck’s sake. That’s even scarier than whatever the hell it was I was originally talking about.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
For the first five months of this year I was too deliriously happy to pay much attention to anyone’s written words, including my own. I was pregnant, due in August. Though I knew when our daughter was born I’d read and write much less for a while, focusing my time and energy on her, I made only halfhearted stabs at parenting literature both practical (Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé) and philosophical (Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work). I gave up on other literature almost entirely. Most of what I read those months I read on the August 2015 Babycenter.com birth board, where other mothers with babies expected the same month as mine gathered to share their weird anxieties and basic biological ignorance. I forget now too much of what it felt like to be cheerfully, healthily pregnant with that so loved, so desired child. But I remember the Babycenter posts of other women like scraps of weird poetry recited in old dreams: will Kraft mac and cheese / make my kid dumber? If you live in a haunted house while pregnant / will your baby be the ghost reincarnated? We found out it was a girl and / my husband went outside to vomit.
Our daughter was not born in August. Her heart developed weirdly, wrongly, and she was stillborn in May. For the past six months I’ve been tending not to the baby I’d anticipated, but to the sorrow of having lost her, as tangible and time-consuming a presence as any tiny person. To say I’ve been miserable this year is both overstatement and understatement — because I have many good days, more good days than bad ones, and yet when the bad ones arrive they can sometimes seem so dark as to be almost unendurable.
To endure them, I read. I read Edith Wharton, detective novels, memoirs by chefs. The Night Circus. Frankenstein. Elena Ferrante, who left me embarrassingly cold. (As if grief were not isolating enough, I am apparently the only literary feminist of my acquaintance who is inexplicably immune to Ferrante Fever). I read the copy of Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time that my wonderful agent sent me — a witty, absorbing book in which no one feels too bad for too long. P.G. Wodehouse, Meg Wolitzer, Nancy Mitford, countless YA novels, cookbooks, chick lit. The Middlesteins. Dept. of Speculation. Rules of Civility. A Visit from the Goon Squad. In every one of these books I looked for, and in nearly all I found, shades of the awful, comforting truth: everyone despairs; nearly everyone survives.
Some books were more explicit about this than others, and these I devoured, though reading them felt sometimes like pressing down hard on a bruise. Matthew Baker’s melancholy and clever middle grade novel, If You Find This, follows a young narrator who confides in a tree in his backyard that he believes contains the soul of his stillborn brother — I waited anxiously for another character to disabuse him of this notion, but, kindly, no one ever does. Elizabeth McCracken’s story collection Thunderstruck captures the mundane and the surreal of grief, such as “the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention — as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin and materialized only at the sound of its own name.” Before this year, such a sentence might not have even registered with me — but by the time I read it, a few weeks after my daughter’s death, after the initial rally of support gave way to a lot of uncomfortable silence, I heard in it the delicious snap of truth. (I’m still reading, very slowly, McCracken’s memoir of her own stillbirth, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and have never felt so grateful for a book I’m too tender, most days, to open). And for the first time, I waded my way through T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a more haunting book than I’d expected, in which Merlyn prescribes for Wart the best cure for sadness: “Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”
I’d found my way to White through Helen Macdonald’s beautiful H Is for Hawk, a book that’s part hawking manual, part literary biography of T.H. White, and part meditation on grief. Macdonald writes about her experience training a goshawk, one of nature’s most vicious predators, in the wake of her father’s death; she interweaves this narrative with one of White’s own emotional pain and falconry. It’s a strange book — crisply written, funny, and wrenching, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. But this year, it also happened to be intensely familiar to me. “There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things,” Macdonald writes. “And then there comes a day when you realize…that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses.” Like Macdonald, my loss made me feel disconnected from the world I’d once inhabited. I thought of myself as a Grief Monster: a creature too sad and angry to be rightly categorized as human, unable to appreciate simple pleasures, sent into a tailspin at the sight of other mothers’ healthy babies. I could not imagine feeling normal around other people again; I could not imagine wanting to. Macdonald channeled her Grief Monsterhood into the wild, into her hawk, longing somewhat more than wistfully to achieve the bird’s isolation, her self-sufficiency. It doesn’t work that way, Macdonald finds, nor should it: “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”
Even before I was pregnant with her, when she was nothing more or less than a dream my husband and I shared of a cozy, sunny future, we’d given our first child a code name: Hawkeye. It was partly a nod to the Marvel superhero as written by Matt Fraction, mostly an homage to my husband’s love for M*A*S*H. We called her Hawk for short. We figured when she was born we’d give her a “real” name; we had one chosen and ready, but through what we then considered silly superstition, we never said it out loud much. When she died, it became impossible to think of her as anything but Hawk — impossible to separate the real, sweet, three-pound baby we’d held for a few quiet hours early on a morning in May from her infinite and unrealized potential. We’d imagined too many happy possibilities for the girl with the other name. For ourselves. So Hawkeye was the name we shared with the diplomatically unperturbed nurse who asked; Hawkeye was the name we wrote on the death certificate. Hawk is the name we call her still and always. It’s a word that can’t help but mean more to me now. Bird, daughter. Love, loss. Despair. Survival. Losing Hawk helped me understand that I remain stubbornly, sublimely human even when I’m hurting. Thanks to H Is for Hawk, her name reminds me that I want to be. Macdonald writes of dreams she’d had after her father died, anxious dreams in which a hawk glided out of her sight:
I had thought for a long while that I was the hawk — one of those sulky goshawks able to vanish into another world, sitting high in the winter trees. But I was not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields. I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.
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I burst into 2014 all guns blazing, with a new year’s resolution to read all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time by the end of the year. In part, I was provoked into action by a friend of mine casually informing me, in response to my laments about parenthood sucking up all my reading time, that he’d squared away all seven volumes of Proust in the six months following the birth of his son. I was further emboldened by another friend setting up a Proust reading group, which was going to involve Skype-based participation from her nonagenarian grandfather, a retired Oxford professor of French. For reasons too numerous and banal to recount here, the whole thing never panned out, and I went ahead under my own steam — which limited vapor I predictably and depressingly ran out of somewhere between the end of the first volume and the first third of the second. My reasons are these: I have a child, and a thing called the Internet persists in existing.
What did I actually succeed in reading? Well, let me tell you, I read seven shades of shit out of Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins, a delightfully illustrated picaresque romp about a baby woodpecker who goes around pecking a lot of household items under the tutelage of his father, also a woodpecker, before finally settling down to sleep. I read Yasmeen Ismael’s Time for Bed, Fred! — or “Fred,” as my son calls it in his fondly shrill requests to have it read to him — which is about a dog who wears everyone’s patience extremely thin before finally settling down to sleep. I read Buster’s Farm by Rod Campbell, a pop-up book about a small boy called Buster who goes around pointing at, and sometimes petting, an array of farm animals, before finally finding a haystack in which he settles down to sleep. I also read a lot of other books in which children and animals get up to all sorts of adventures before finally settling down to sleep, none of which were even slightly effective as propaganda, but which I nonetheless think of with real fondness, and which no honest account of my year in reading could leave unmentioned.
I also read quite a lot of books which were more appropriate to my own reading age. I wanted to read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, but I felt I lacked the fortitude to commit to an 850 page novel at just that juncture, so I instead read The Rehearsal, her debut novel about a sex scandal in a girls’ secondary school; but unfortunately that was so brilliant that it left me wearily resigned to having to read The Luminaries as well. (I haven’t, so far, but I will, I will.) I read Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s novel about a world in the aftermath of a devastating epidemic and societal collapse, which somehow managed to be haunting and distressing and urgently entertaining all at once. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I only vaguely remembered having read the first time, and was deeply affected by its poetic portrait of perversity and loneliness and its dark ambivalence about the technological ingenuity of Homo Sapiens. And I loved the stories in Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air, all of which were appalling funny and lovely in their evocations of loneliness and sadness and middle-aged frustration.
Most of my reading this year — and this is a personal trend that’s been developing for a while now — was non-fiction. One of my favorite new books of 2014 was Leslie Jamison’s collection The Empathy Exams, which I praised intemperately and lengthily in The Slate Book Review earlier in the year. It’s a terrific book about the complexities and confusions of various types of pain; it’s audacious and elegant, ruthless and compassionate, and an exhilarating experience for anyone interested in the creative possibilities of non-fiction. As 2014 wore on, I was starting to worry that people might think I was getting paid off by that book’s publisher, Graywolf, because it seemed like they were putting out a weirdly high proportion of the non-fiction books I most admired (and raved about). I loved On Immunity, Eula Biss’s formally resourceful and intellectually invigorating exploration of the mythologies and anxieties surrounding the practice of vaccination, and had an enjoyably enlightening time of it with Geek Sublime, Vikram Chandra’s book about the history and culture of computer programming.
I also relished every sentence of Objects in This Mirror, Brian Dillon’s new collection of critical and personal essays. The range of topics here is a testament to his versatile curiosity as an observer of culture. Whatever he’s writing about — 19th-century illustrated guides to hand gestures and cravat tying, the aesthetics of ruins, his relationship with the work of Roland Barthes, the Dewey Decimal Classification system, the poetics and politics of slapstick — the casual exactitude of his prose and his formally playful approach to his subjects makes him one of the most consistently interesting and elegant of contemporary essayists.
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Heading to London in the near future? Stop by the British Library’s new Terror and Wonder, which bills itself as the UK’s biggest Gothic exhibition in history. To whet your appetite, you can read this Guardian piece by Neil Gaiman, in which the Sandman author names Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the apex of Gothic fiction. Related: our own Hannah Gersen on Frankenstein and the “Year Without a Summer.”
Alright, look: Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is big. Like, really big. In every sense of the word. At just under 1,200 pages, the book tackles the subject of the novel in English, a 700-year history. Its pages are densely researched and necessarily erudite. The print is small, and the thing weighs over six pounds. It took me over two months to read it in its entirety. Like I said, it’s big.
But I am going to try to convince you that The Novel is one of the most important works of both literary history and criticism to be published in the last decade, surpassing even such monumental works as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America and John Sutherland’s The Lives of the Novelists. The reason Schmidt’s book is so effective and important has to do with its approach, its scope, and its artistry, which all come together to produce a book of such varied usefulness, such compact wisdom, that it’ll take a lot more than a few reviews to fully understand its brilliant contribution to literary study.
Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, hear me out. First, let’s begin with Schmidt’s approach and its relation to his project’s inevitable place in the canon. Schmidt states, in his introduction, his intention to allow the story of the novel to be “mainly told by novelists and through novels.” Thus he completely eradicates the presence of critics. Rather than a snide excision, this technique enormously improves his enterprise, for what is the most basic element of the novel’s narrative than influence from one practitioner to another? Here we are given Edith Wharton’s preference of calling the Gothic “the eerie,” and Virginia Woolf referring to same as “a parasite, an artificial commodity, produced half in joke in reaction against the current style, or in relief from it.” Here we learn of Jane Austen’s commendation of Maria Edgeworth and how Charles Dickens’s viewed the estate of Sir Walter Scott as “a warning to himself”:
I saw in the vile glass case the last clothes Scott wore. Among them an old white hat, which seemed to be tumbled and bent and broken by the uneasy, purposeless wandering, hither and thither, of his heavy head. It so embodied Lockhart’s pathetic description of him when he tried to write, and laid down his pen and cried, that it associated itself in my mind with broken powers and mental weakness from that hour.
We learn which of H.G. Wells’s novels Henry James viewed as expressing Wells’s “true voice.” We learn that Jonathan Franzen puts Elmore Leonard in the same “entertainer” category as P.G. Wodehouse. We read Michael Crichton’s review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: “The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong…He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties.” (Schmidt refers to Crichton’s career as “almost cynically contrived, fiction as speculation.”) I could go on and on with examples, but the point is that, here, collected in one place, we have the largest repository of the greatest novelists’ opinions and views on other novelists. It would take the rest of us going through countless letters and essays and interviews with all these writers to achieve such a feat. Schmidt has done us all a great, great favor.
The approach coupled with the scope (covering, as it does, a huge swath of time) results in maybe the most complete history of the novel in English ever produced. As Schmidt writes early on, he “set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel,” which basically means he precludes strict emphasis on historicity, movements, and linear evolution. Instead, he focuses on influence––that beautifully organic (yet inexact) process of thoughts begetting thoughts, ideas begetting ideas and styles begetting styles––which, Schmidt’s book implicitly argues, matters much more than the cultural context of any of the works.
Take, for example, Thomas Love Peacock, a marginal figure now but an important one in his time and, in many ways, the history of literature. The way in which Peacock is presented in The Novel typifies Schmidt’s multitudinous achievement. First of all, Schmidt gives Peacock (like he does for every writer discussed at any length) a short biography, replete with insights into how his circumstances relate to his work: after a lengthy hiatus, it was only after Peacock’s wife died that he “began again, more fluently” to write. Secondly, Schmidt, an uncannily astute critic, punctuates this section (like all sections) with critiques of the authors’ work: Peacock’s “masterpiece,” Crochet Castle (1831) is “marred by a strain of anti-Semitism” and “complemented by a vexing hostility to the Scots and their Caledonian hubris.” Moreover, Peacock himself…
…is memorable for the brightness of the entertainment, the leavening and sweetening of the verses breaking the dialogue, changing the key of a description. How various are Peacock’s poetic registers: he can do the voices of the Romantics (Byron in particular), and he can do his own voice.
But what makes Peacock as rendered by Schmidt so fascinating (and Schmidt makes countless writers function this same way) is way he’s contextualized within the framework of other writers. John Fowles, Schmidt tells us, referred to him as “Austen-drowned Peacock,” as Peacock “came in the wake of another writer whose success eclipses his as surely as Shakespeare’s eclipses Ben Jonson’s.” Austen has, in the centuries since, become the esteemed figure; Peacock may have had a better position in the canon if it weren’t for such basically arbitrary timing. Moreover, Peacock was the man who inspired Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry, a vital work of criticism, “though all references to Peacock have been edited out of modern editions.” Further, Peacock relationship to Shelly and his wife Mary, leads to many odd synchronicities. Peacock’s book Nightmare Alley (which itself has much in common with Austen’s Northanger Abbey) was published the same year as Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818. Shelley’s novel nearly succumbed to the same legacy of Peacock, namely that it almost didn’t have one. “Half a century ago,” Schmidt writes, “in The English Novel, Walter Allen did not mention Mary Shelley,” for her book “remained a feature of children’s horror literature” and “was not taken seriously.” But Shelley, who resented her husband’s patronage of Peacock (who became her husband’s executor), has since been critically reconsidered, while Peacock remains in the formidable shadows of extraordinary contemporaneous women.
I’ve barely even scratched at the first third of Schmidt’s book here, but I have to accept certain limitations reviewing Schmidt’s masterpiece. There is simply too much to represent to you. Later, as the story moves closer to the present and the structure of his book takes considerably more radical forms (such as the virtuoso chapter “Truths in Fictions, the Metamorphosis of Journalism”), Schmidt furthers his technique and, more importantly, his almost/kind of/sort of thesis, which is that the novel’s refusal to be accurately categorized, or concretely defined by such-and-such characteristics, is its principal quality. It has an almost osmotic ability to absorb features from various other sources, to combine elements from art and reality to depict something closer to actual lived experience, yet still remain stubbornly artificial, autonomous, so that the distinctions between art and life are starkly clear. Consequently, the novel form’s multiplicity allows, like novels themselves, for dimensions of inexpressible depth. Despite all of Schmidt’s hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, in the end the only term he has for this quality is a “something.”
Which brings me to Schmidt’s astounding artistry. None of what I’ve described above would have mattered in the least had Schmidt’s prose been a snoozer to read. But in every way possible––from entertaining style to convincing authority to elements of undeniable personality––Schmidt’s writing is a triumph of critical acumen and aesthetic elegance. Unafraid to insert his opinions, Schmidt declares, for example, that David Foster Wallace’s “importance as writer…is in the essays he wrote and the original ways in which he wrote them,” not his novels. About Samuel Richardson, Schmidt proclaims in exasperation: “Yet how tedious Samuel Richardson can be!” He defends Stephen King, saying that although his “bibliography is vast…the novels are generally substantial and serious in intent.” Again, I could go on and on. Similarly, Schmidt is willing to invoke personal memories while discussing a text. On James Fenimore Cooper, he notes that his father read The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) to him and his brother because Cooper’s novels were “assumed to be good books for reading aloud,” and that he, Schmidt, was “haunted” by “scenes of brutality.”
Schmidt occasionally surprises with the beauty of his prose––as when he writes of William Beckford that in Vathek: an Arabian Tale (1786), “The reality of the novel merges with the stage paste of romantic masque”––as well as his humor. He notes that Mary Shelley was “linked to that of the American writer Washington Irving,” but that a romance was unlikely, “Irving being a confirmed bachelor or, modern biographers suggest, ‘a confirmed bachelor.'” Or when he finally arrives at a full-on chapter about Modernism, he opens it with this cheeky introduction: “It is not possible to postpone the high tides of modernism any longer,” as if, like history itself, he tried valiantly to resist it.
But it is the narrative, as told by Schmidt, that wows. He is able make a story with no “characters,” a novel with no “plot,” feel as dramatic and absorbingly propulsive as the best kinds of fiction. Part of this has to do with Schmidt’s apparent passion, which appears on every single page, but most of the tome’s energy comes straight from Schmidt’s preclusion of a strict critical approach. He wants to tell a story, not espouse indirectly the import of a given critical approach. Thus, he combines biography, analysis, memoir, and history into a hybrid monster, a modern Prometheus revitalized by Schmidt’s ambition and skill. He’s just so damned sensible, it’s hard to not follow his voice wherever it goes.
That Schmidt refuses, in such a lengthy work, to provide an overall assessment of the novel itself (save for his “something”) remains the book’s greatest strength. As Susan Sontag points out in her seminal essays “Against Interpretation” and “On Style,” the tendency to reduce a given work down to what it’s really saying is gravely erroneous. The illusory distinction between “form” and “content” is needless and harmfully furthers the notion that a “curtain could be parted and the matter revealed.” Style is not, in other words, the mere packaging of content, to be ripped open for the present inside. For anyone to try to objectively name the true “meaning” of an individual novel––i.e. to state the work’s content––would be, ultimately, doing a disservice to the art. Schmidt, too, understands this, that novels––as well as the story of the novel––are not to be reduced to an ingestible and comfortable conclusion. Rather, the story itself is all the meaning we need.
To reiterate: Schmidt has done me, you, all of us, a heroic favor in telling this story. In one single volume, he has synthesized myriad biographies of vastly contrasting artists, the nonlinear trajectory of their influence (good and bad) on each other, the various forms the novel has taken over its celebrated history, and a singular voice that pushes this complex tale along. The Novel: A Biography is a big book, yes, but it is also a big book, a piece of academic, intellectual work that doesn’t succumb to the insular (and boring) habits of much academic, intellectual work. It is a monumental achievement, in its historical importance and its stylistic beauty. The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure––the ultimate unreliable narrator––that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him. It is, itself, a work of art, just as vital and remarkable as the many works it chronicles.
In winter of 1814, British sailors recorded seeing “clouds of ashes” at the peak of Mount Tambora, a volcanic mountain in the East Indies. A few months later, in the spring of 1815, Tambora exploded with huge, jet-like flames, a column of fire known as a “Plinian” eruption, after Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But Tambora burned hotter than Vesuvius, and it was so powerful that it ejected rock, ash, and other materials into the stratosphere, where they remained suspended, wreaking havoc on global weather patterns for the next three years. 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer”—a relatively mild title for a year that brought famine, disease, and poverty. In the United States, there was snow in June, destroying crops and bringing the country’s first economic depression. In Ireland and China, unremitting rains flooded fields; while in India, monsoon season never arrived. Bacteria flourished in these stagnant, impoverished conditions, and outbreaks of typhus and cholera can be traced back to that dreary, volcanic winter.
I learned these and many other historical details from Gillen D’arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World. Tambora is a new book, but one I discovered haphazardly, through that great portal of haphazardness: Wikipedia. I was fact-checking an overwrought simile (re: procrastinating) and landed on the Wikipedia entry for Frankenstein, where I learned that the great fictional monster was the indirect result of “The Year Without Summer.” I’d never heard of “The Year Without Summer” and in its addictive way, Wikipedia provided a link to an article on the subject, which in turn provided a link to the 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, which in turn provided a link to the Pacific Ring of Fire, which in turn led to an article about plate tectonics, which in turn led to a page about super-Earths, which in turn led me to wonder about the origin of the universe and what is the meaning of life on Earth, which I believe is that state of existential confusion to which all Wikipedia rabbit holes eventually lead. I am grateful that on this particular foray, it only took six steps—and also, of course, that it led me to read Tambora, which gave me a glimpse into a startlingly dramatic period in history.
To get back to “The Year Without Summer” (which at this point in July sounds like a marvelous situation) and the creation of Frankenstein, you must transport yourself to a storm-lashed villa on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. There, sitting in front of a roaring fire, is Percy Shelley, Mary soon-to-be-Shelley Godwin, Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and also, Lord Byron’s doctor (whose presence is somewhat irrelevant, but who I will include, anyway, in the spirit of Wikipedia). This privileged, literary bunch has been driven indoors by unseasonably cold weather, driving rain, and spectacular thunderstorms—all due to Mount Tambora, although of course they don’t know it. Bored and perhaps tired of reciting poetry, they decide to have a contest for who can tell the best ghost story. Mary’s late entry is a tale about a student, Victor Frankenstein, who discovers how to bring life to inanimate material. Frankenstein uses this power to create an eight-foot tall “creature” who is never given a name, but who eventually kills Frankenstein’s wife and escapes to the North Pole. It’s not a ghost story but a monster story, one inspired by Shelley’s extensive readings into science and myth.
Wood argues that Frankenstein was also inspired by the stormy, Tambora-induced weather, and that “the pyrotechnical lightning displays” raging outside Shelley’s villa windows were written into the novel. He cites a passage from Frankenstein in which a teenaged Victor Frankenstein witnesses an oak tree catching fire after being struck by lightning: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared and nothing remained but a blasted stump.” This is Frankenstein’s moment of inspiration, or as Wood writes: “In the fierce smithy of that Tamborean storm, Frankenstein is born as the anti-superhero of modernity—the ‘Modern Prometheus’—stealer of the gods’ fire.”
That small extract gives a taste of Wood’s prose style, which can veer toward over-the-top, but one of the things I liked about Tambora was its generous dose of literary criticism. Not only does Wood mention the influence of Tambora’s volcanic weather on Frankenstein, he also writes about the ways that Shelley’s 1826 post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, may have been inspired by the cholera epidemic that emerged in the wake of Tambora. Wood also discusses the poetry of Shelley’s fireside companions, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley; and in his chapter on China, Wood quotes from the verse of Li Yuyang, who chronicled the heavy rains and flooding that came as a result of Tambora: Rain falls unending, like tears of blood/from the sentimental man/Horses sink and shudder/like fish in the rippling water. Reporting on the effects of Tambora on America, Wood turns to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, whose Edenic vision of America and in particular, his home state of Virginia, was challenged by the inexplicably cold weather brought on by Tambora. Even more challenging was the real estate bubble and economic depression that followed The Year Without Summer, thanks to what we would probably now characterize as “fluctuations in the global marketplace.”
Today, we understand very well how the weather affects local, and even global economics. (And in fact, while I was reading Tambora, I heard a radio story on NPR’s Marketplace about the ill-effects of this past long winter on the American economy.) We may also have a better understanding of how the weather, and in particular severe weather, affects literary imagination. It doesn’t take an especially sensitive critic to link the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic novels to headlines like “Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat By Military” and “In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melts in 25 Years.” But the extent to which the human imagination can actually understand and foresee global environmental change is harder to gauge. It’s telling that many post-apocalyptic novels focus on the survival of an individual or a family or perhaps a very small group of people. The story has to be scaled down, otherwise the prospect of a post-apocalyptic future is too big, or maybe just too depressing, to imagine.
With Tambora, Wood doesn’t have to imagine anything—or maybe it’s fairer to say that he doesn’t have to make anything up. He frequently has to imagine what it would have been like to experience extreme weather, disease, and famine, without any scientific understanding of why it is happening. Wood acknowledges this problem in his preface: “The formidable, occasionally mind-bending challenge in writing this book has been to trace cataclysmic world events the cause of which the historical actors themselves were ignorant.” He sees the eruption of Tambora and its devastating after-effects as a case study for rapid climate change, arguing that the years post-Tambora offer “a rare, clear window onto a world convulsed by weather extremes, with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden, radical shifts in temperatures and rainfall.” Wood further argues that the influence of Tambora on this period of history has been overlooked because “the Tamborean climate emergency followed hard upon the devastations of the Napoleonic Wars and has always remained in the shadows of that epochal conflict.” I like that Wood uses the word “epochal” to characterize the importance of the Napoleonic Wars, because an epoch is also a unit of geological time and seems to hint at the irony that Wood is exposing: human societies have been mostly profoundly shaped by environmental factors thousands of years in the making, yet we continue to look to recent historical events (usually wars engineered by Great Men) to understand our predicament.