'You speak like a heroine,' said Montoni, contemptuously; 'we shall see whether you can suffer like one.' – The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, Volume III, Chapter V
Eighteenth-century Gothic novels, such as those consumed so avidly by Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe (and affectionately parodied by their creator) in Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey, are perhaps an acquired taste. We found it an easy one to acquire, because they are just so much darned fun. There are villains, obvious ones such as the evil Montoni and not-so-obvious such as his wife, whose pride and shallow midlife neuroses not only made poor Emily St. Aubert miserable but led to her own destruction; there are heroes such as the rather wet, er, brave Chevalier Valancourt; there are fair maidens abounding, not only the lovely and talented picture of perfection Emily, but her friend Blanche de Villefort; there is even comedy in the silly domestics such as Annette and Dorothee.
We can (and do) laugh at Emily for fainting at every opportunity, but she really does get to have some thrilling adventures, and everything comes out perfectly at the end. One really cannot blame Catherine Morland for wanting an adventure of her own so much that she made one up, especially since circumstances were so obligingly similar to those in her favorite novel. Like many young ladies today who take their sparkly vampire stories just a little too seriously, Catherine loved The Mysteries of Udolpho not wisely but too well, and learned a lesson from the experience. In Nachtstürm Castle, a novella sequel to Northanger Abbey, Catherine is married, settled, and ready for and deserving of a proper heroine’s adventure.
As the story begins, the newlywed Tilneys prepare for a trip to the Continent, following the same path traveled by Emily St. Aubert in Udolpho. Mr. Tilney, we learn, has continued his delightfully teasing ways, even going so far as to dress as a gypsy and deliver a “fortune” to his bride. Catherine sees through the deception, even as she enjoys it (as does the reader).
In Paris, an encounter with a real gypsy, as well as a real Englishman, sends the Tilneys to Nachstürm Castle, high in the Alps and as windswept and mysterious as any heroine could wish. A series of strange occurrences there are not as confusing to Catherine as one might expect, as she assumes, not unnaturally, that Henry has planned the whole thing for her enjoyment. Henry, meanwhile, has some adventures of his own, and the reader cannot be so sanguine as to whether our heroes will prevail. Who is the mysterious Donna Fortuna, whose portrait looks so much like Catherine? What is the mystery surrounding Young Will, whom everyone says is the former master’s natural child, but who claims to be the legitimate heir? And what is up with the oh-so-creepy Edric, steward of Nachtstürm?
Like the P&P sequel, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, Nachtstürm Castle is an homage to the Gothic novels, with all the expected conventions: a half-ruined castle, creepy servants, a mystery to solve, and a touch of romance. Ms. Snyder, clearly as well-read as her heroine, skillfully uses archaic spellings, language, and structural conventions, which serve to increase the charm of the work; we were particularly fond of the chapter subheadings, which have a truly 18th-century ring to them. Like the original Gothics, there are occasional asides for descriptions of picturesque landscape, and digressions into didactic commentary for the benefit of the reader. Those familiar with the original Gothics, and who appreciate the fun of them, will get a few giggles out of these digressions.
Many Austen paraliterature writers pander to the Darcy fans, turning the phlegmatic and frankly rather cranky Darcy into a brooding action hero, shooting rapists and becoming a ninja warrior or a distinguished statesman and whatnot; we were delighted that for once our own favorite Austen hero, Henry Tilney, has been elevated to truly heroic proportions, all the many capes of his great coat flying as he performs his own stunts. If even the most hardened Darcy-lover doesn’t swoon at least a little bit over ActionHero!Henry, then you are just made of stone and that is all there is to it.
While Nachtstürm Castle is at times fantastic and other-worldly, it never takes itself too seriously; like the novel which inspired it, it is delivered very much tongue-in-cheek, and engages to entertain the reader not only with a series of thrills but with a knowing, literate humor, and fortunately without the cringe-inducing earnestness of much Austen paraliterature. If you love Northanger Abbey and its adorable heroine and witty hero, we think you will find Nachtstürm Castle to be a very nice story indeed