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Bluebooks and Gothic Chapbooks [Part I]

Laura Kremmel is beginning the last year of her PhD at Lehigh University, completing a dissertation that considers the ways in which Romantic-era Gothic literature picks up the theories of late eighteenth century medicine. She has published on both the Romantic and the Contemporary Gothic and is an active member of the International Gothic Association. She also runs the Gothic Reading Group at Lehigh and has been a long-time blogger for http://www.nassrgrads.com/.


A Bluebook version of Charlotte Dacre’s novel, Zofloya, from the appendix of the Broadview Edition.

Modern readers and scholars of the Gothic are accustomed to reading books of great length: The Mysteries of Udolpho and Melmoth the Wanderer both at around 700 pages and The Monk at around 500. This trait applies to many Romantic-era novels, but the Gothic seems to use its overabundance of pages in order to confront the reader with not one story or even two stories, but an extensive web of many stories and framing narratives, creating a text that feels even longer than its 500-odd page length. What is, of course, important to remember is that these novels are broken up into volumes, which would have been read individually and often out of order, so that these narratives within novels could often stand on their own tucked within the larger plot of the novel. And, somehow, these individual narratives always become somewhat related, even important, to that central plot, creating an expansive, complex tome. These are the Gothic texts we read and write about today, popular enough to have survived and to be republished.

But, what I want to discuss in this post is another type of Gothic text, even more popular than Gothic novels: the chapbook. Gothic chapbooks—or bluebooks, known for the color of their covers—often emulated more expensive and lengthier novels, such as Radcliffe’s and Lewis’s, or put a spin on recognizable and well-liked story structures. Rather than 500 pages, they ranged from a mere thirty-six to seventy-two pages, often tackling a highly-concentrated version of a novel-sized plot within that small number. Their small size and cheap materials also meant that they were much more economical, and, marketed purely as entertainment, they were considered far inferior to their counterpart novels, texts already facing a steady dose of criticism. Even today, they rarely enter into discussions of the Gothic, despite their key role in perpetuating the tradition. As Diane Long Hoeveler says, “Gothic bluebooks and chapbooks have been something of the stepchild of gothic scholarship, most frequently ignored because of their derivative nature, as well as their lack of artistic sophistication, depth, or significance.” [i] Their significance lies most evidently in their massive popularity with readers of all classes, though predominantly those of the lower classes: a cheap thrill for some and a guilty pleasure for others. Though the most prolific period for the production of original Gothic fiction is commonly considered to be the 1790s, chapbooks extended the lives of these novels through various levels of plagiarism and recycled tropes that were published through the early part of the nineteenth century until they morphed into other periodical formats. [ii] With so many chapbooks in circulation at the time of their publication, a good number have survived, but they are limited to archival usage and are only slowly making their way into digital access through websites like Marquette’s Gothic Archive. While I have merely made a small dent in the vast array of texts available, I will use the remainder of this post to point out some of the common traits of these Gothic tales in miniature.


Absolute Power of the Plot

The Gothic has often been criticized for being a plot-driven form of literature, and I will not dispute that this is not so. Yet, within the 700 pages of The Mysteries of Udolpho lie rich descriptions of settings, characters, philosophies, dialogue, and actions that do not immediately move the plot along. These details give a vivid sense of time, place, and character, allowing the reader to enter into the finely-crafted world of the narrative. Bluebooks strip away all this extraneous description; rather than creating a world, the bluebook creates a series of events. Every detail immediately connects to some sort of action or plot point. If an object or a mark is found on a character’s person, you can be sure that it will serve to identify his mysterious identity or to assist a helpless heroine, quickly and without meditation. A character who may seem to be a passerby in the beginning will surely return as the masked villain or enigmatic patron at the end. This means that every word in a chapbook is instrumental to its cohesive narrative. This focus on plot not only excludes character development and descriptions that forefront the beauty of language, but also elements like comic relief, which do nothing to further the action. Even the suspense of terror often falls by the wayside because it takes too long to develop, whereas horror exists in plenty for its ability to create an immediate effect via a quick sensationalized description of the grotesque, abject, or macabre: the only type of description generally permitted. [iii]


The Castle of Montabino; Or, the Orphan Sisters, by Sarah Wilkinson, 1810: Cover. University of VA Library

With so many bluebooks on the market, selection was made easy by chapbooks’ extensive titles, the built-in marketing strategy that advertised the main conflict of the text. In some of the most extreme cases, titles could resemble this 1801 chapbook: The Gothic Story of Courville Castle; or the Illegitimate Son, Victim of Prejudice and Passion: Owing to the Early Impressions Inculcated with Unremitting Assiduity by an Implacable Mother; Whose Resentment to her Husband Excited her Son to Envy, Usurpation, and Murder; but Retributive Justice at Length Restores the Right Heir to his Lawful Possessions. This example provides a strict outline of events, but not all titles were so forthcoming. Most titles simply included two short parts, such as Castle of St. Bernard; Or, the Captive of the Watch Tower (1810). Potential buyers could look for keywords that would indicate that the tale would be of their liking: since the bluebook could promise nothing but plot, the basics of the story provided a trustworthy sense of the product within. [iv]

While reading dozens of these short texts in the archive, I found that it was impossible to summarize the events: the chapbook itself is already pure summary. Nothing can be discarded without leaving a hole in the sequence of events. However, this also means that, within the narrative, a peasant may be as vital as a baron to the plot’s structure. While every aspect of the narrative may not be of the same importance, there is a shared investment in and ownership of the story as a whole on the part of every character and action that implies a narrative equality impossible in longer, more complex texts. In terms of narrative value, every aspect holds a piece.


Action Starts Immediately and Ends Abruptly

Bluebooks do not waste time easing the reader into their worlds. A few examples of first sentences:

The Haunted Tower: “It thundered and lightened, when some ruffians rushed out of some  bushes on Sir Egbert de Rothsay, who, after travelling through Italy and Germany, was crossing the Black Forest to go to his father’s castle, which was situated on its borders.” [v]

The Spectre Mother: “The heavy clock of Rovido castle had just sounded the last and        fearful hour of night, when a man (whose form seemed more than human) stole from the    concealment of a dark recess, and with slow and cautious steps, walked towards the inhabited part of the castle—a long dark cloak shrouded his gigantic figure, and the sable   plume of feathers that waved in his hat, shaded a face on which villainy had stamped her pale and terrific image; one hand held a small dark lantern, and the other was raised to his breast, to be assured, the murderous weapon in concealed, remained in safety.” [vi]

As is evident from these samples, little effort is made to set the scene or to introduce the characters in their own right: rather, the action becomes the setting, the characters merely vehicles for that action. We enter the narrative mid-scene, be it an attack, a storm, a plan unfolded under cover of night, a woman running through the woods in distress, a marriage, or several of these at once. Actions happen quickly, without ceremony, often filling a single sentence with a list of events without indicating reactions or consequences. The climax at which the tale begins is, more or less, the height at which it remains, with some fluctuation as new altercations begin and end, seemingly without any reestablishment of normalcy until the very end. The texts themselves exist within this sustained plot development, like a heartbeat that must maintain a constant rhythm of surprises and convenient coincidences lest the reader lose interest and turn instead to character development that is not there. When the heartbeat stops, the narrative comes to a swift close. In order to carry this action along, some events are foreshadowed by the existence of seemingly extraneous characters or objects that the reader comes to suspect will return, while other actions occur without warning and prompt very little follow up or explanation: characters may be unexpectedly poisoned, a birthmark may be revealed out of the blue, a child might be born without warning. Questioning the logic of these plot twists leads to few answers: the narrative has its own inner logic with which the reader must simply follow along or run to keep up.

Speaking is Doing

A later, 1820 version of The Castles of Montreuil and Barre. University of VA Library.

A later, 1820 version of The Castles of Montreuil and Barre. University of VA Library.

Emotions are unimportant unless they lead a character to madness or insensibility, in which case, they merely facilitate more action (raging or swooning). Some texts are astoundingly transparent about why this is. During a moment of clandestine marriage in The Castles of Montreuil and Barre, the reader is told, “To relate minutely the various emotions which passed in every breast, would be too trying for your patience: let it suffice, the sacred ceremony was performed, and Theodosia fainted in the arms of her husband.” [vii] Any time a character is caught thinking or reflecting on actions, the reverie is immediately swiftly by violence or gore When the character Margaretta in The Castles of Montreuil and Barre stays up late to consider the day’s events, she is attacked, bound, and kidnapped. [viii] So, when characters speak, it is not to articulate their emotions, to establish relationships with other characters, or to provide some insight into motives. Characters speak to shout warnings to each other, to offer exclamations of fright (expect lots of exclamation points), or, most frequently, to tell yet another abbreviated story. Thus, the main narrative takes on extra narratives just as Gothic novels do, but these narratives are even more truncated than the rest of the text and are often squeezed into deathbed confessions, contrived passing comments, and first meeting introductions. Thus, speaking introduces even more action into the plot, stories told simply and with little embellishment or deviation in style.

When a character speaks, trust develops instantaneously, often triggered by a single meeting and its few words of persuasion. Characters become easily convinced to leave their homes, to marry strangers, to adopt new families, etc, based on these short interactions. And, such alterations in values or loyalties remain steady through the rest of the narrative, usually in alignment with the reader’s own. To incite another character to take up part of the narrative by adopting a quest or running from a danger may be the only purpose for the speaker and, in a narrative in which everything must have its use, speaking often leads to a character exiting the plot, primarily through a dramatic death. Regardless of who enters or exits the plot and how, however, the rare event of a character speaking signals some kind of development in the story.


Death is Not the End

A very typical illustration from The Midnight Groan; or The Spectre of the Chapel: involving An Exposure of the Horrible Secrets of the Nocturnal Assembly (1808) from RictorNorton.co.uk

A very typical illustration from The Midnight Groan; or The Spectre of the Chapel: involving An Exposure of the Horrible Secrets of the Nocturnal Assembly (1808) from RictorNorton.co.uk

When a character dies after speaking, this death usually sticks: as a reader, we have seen it happen, and there is little reason to doubt what we have seen. However, many deaths within chapbooks, particularly those that occur within smaller narratives or “off page” do not actually occur. In other words, just because a character thinks he or she sees someone dying, does not automatically equate to a certain death. Often, these characters exit the action for a time, then return at the last minute, creating a plot twist, one that often rescues the hero/heroine or discloses vital information. For example, in The Hag of the Lake [ix], the title character shows up at the second marriage of a Baron who is rumored to have murdered his first wife and their son. However, the chapbook ends with the revelation that the Hag is his first wife, who has been spying on him for nineteen years, and their son just happens to be a youth who appears at the castle around the same time, unaware of his true identity. The exposure of their true identities stops the wedding that might have been fatal for the new bride. Mistaken deaths come in several forms: some are accidental, while others are orchestrated. In the case of the Hag and her son, peasants had come to the rescue to adopt the boy and to ensure that he eventually claimed his heritage. In The Haunted Castle [x], the central character Julian stumbles across the funeral of his lover, Jemima, but he later discovers that one of her maids died, and her servants passed off the body as Jemima’s so that she could avoid a forced marriage. This twist is, of course, not discovered until the end when Julian unexpectedly saves her from robbers in the woods.


Count on Closure

Despite the number of plot threads twisting through bluebooks, the story must end happily, with everything restored to its right, moral order. The villains must be punished, those who have been martyred must receive their rightful due—justice and acknowledgement—and the lovers must marry, obtain fortune, and live happily ever after. The closure usually occurs in one or two sentences, packed full of neatly tied loose ends. As Franz Potter writes, “The abrupt shift in plot signals a hasty resolution,” and this resolution leaves no room for reflection or extensive moralizing.[xi] The resolution, then, is a necessary destination, but not the focus of the bluebook: more important is the series of events, scandalous and shocking, that are then placated and made safe for consumption by the conservative ending that brings the reading experience to an abrupt halt. But, more likely than not, there would be another exciting bluebook ready at hand to jump into action again.

[i] Hoeveler, Diane Long, Gothic Riffs: Secularizing the Uncanny in the European Imaginary, 1780-1820 (Columbus, Ohio State UP, 2010), p. 198.

[ii] Potter, Franz J., “Bluebooks,” The Encyclopedia of the Gothic (Chichester, West Sussex, 2013), p. 77.

[iii] Potter makes this point in “Bluebooks.”

[iv] Potter, Franz J., Literary Mushrooms: Tales of Terror and Horror from the Gothic Chapbooks, 1800-1830, (Crestline, CA: Zittaw Press, 2009), p. 9.

[v] Gilberne, Charles, The Haunted Tower; or, The Adventures of Sir Egbert de Rothsay (London: R. Hunter, 1822), p. 8.

[vi] Anonymous, The Spectre Mother or, The Haunted Tower (London: Dean & Munday, 1820), p. 7.

[vii] Anonymous, The Castles of Montreuil and Barre; Or the Histories of the Marquis la Brun and the Baron la Marches, the Late Inhabitants and Proprietors of the Two Castles: A Gothic Story (London: S. Fisher, 1799), p. 12.

[viii] Ibid, 38.

[ix] Jolly, William, The Hag of the Lake; Or, the Castle of Monte Falcon (London: J. Lee, 1812). Said to have been “founded on the Grand Romantic Melo-Drame, Performed at the Royalty Theatre.”

[x] Anonymous, The Haunted Castle; Or, the Child of Misfortune: A Gothic Tale (London: T. Maiden, 1801).

[xi] Potter, “Bluebooks,” p. 76.


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