Review: Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen
It’s nearly Halloween, and to that effect I will be reviewing two collections of short stories this week that will have you delightfully shivering in your shoes while also brushing up on some fine literature. First up is Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales.
Known in Denmark as Baroness Karen von Blixen, Isak Dinesen was her chosen pen name upon publishing Seven Gothic Tales in New York, 1934– three years after her return from Kenya. Best known for her memoir Out of Africa, which was written three years later and then forever immortalized by the on-screen romance of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, Isak Dinesen was writing from a place of desperation. As any who have read or seen Out of Africa will know, Dinesen left Africa with her farm having failed, her marriage broken and over, her body recovering from serious illness, and her heart shattered by the death of her true love. Writing, it seems, was to be her tool in forging an entirely new life.
Like many books now considered favorites and classics today, Seven Gothic Tales had its difficulties in reaching the printing press. It was rejected by several British publishers before the small American publisher Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, which incorporated into Random House two years later, decided to take a chance. It was a gamble that paid as the book was an immediate sensation across the country.
The collection consists of short stories primarily taking place in the 19th century and are sufficiently grotesque to earn the modifier “gothic.” In the introduction to The Folio Society edition, renown novelist Margaret Atwood notes, “Many of Dinesen’s tales are placed long ago and far away; but whereas with [Robert Louis] Stevenson the choice was primarily for aesthetic [in New Arabian Nights], for Dinesen there is another layer of significance. For she was gazing back at that late Victorian and Edwardian golden age of tale-telling across a vast gulf: not only the years during which her own earlier life had ended up as wreckage, but also the First World War, which had smashed the social fabric of belief, status, and social convention which had held sway in the two centuries before it. Dinesen can see that vanished country as if through a telescope.”
The stories are challenging in their way, and I found many elements unexpected—Dinesen is reaching for shock value as the stories are more disturbing than they are suspenseful, and she is certainly not committed to happy endings. Yet they are an intriguing glimpse into the emerging 20th century writer looking back at what was the relatively recent past. What a contrast for us who can only speculate and romanticize the Victorian era.