Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne

Mediocre mystery in Transylvania
Jules Verne is known as a pioneering master of science fiction for penning such works as From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He did not, however, confine himself exclusively to the sci-fi genre. Of the 50-plus novels in Verne’s series of Voyages Extraordinaires, many of the works are adventure stories in what might be termed geographic fiction. Verne chooses an exotic locale and then creates a story based on the environment, culture, and history of that location. Such is the case with The Castle of the Carpathians, a Verne novel published in 1892. The story is set in Transylvania, now in Northern Romania but at that time part of Austria-Hungary. In his depiction of the region, Verne emphasizes the superstitious nature of its inhabitants, which allows him to dabble in the horror genre. Verne, however, has always been a champion of science over superstition, of the natural over the supernatural, so this venture into Gothic horror feels a bit halfhearted, like a Scooby-Doo mystery just waiting for the ghost’s mask to be pulled off.

Near the Transylvanian village of Werst there lies a massive, spooky castle of rough-hewn stone, resembling a ruin from some forgotten dark age. The owner of the castle, the Baron de Gortz, abandoned the estate 15 years earlier and hasn’t been heard from since, leaving the castle uninhabited. A shepherd in the neighborhood, however, spies smoke issuing from the chimney. Who is it that could be residing in the castle? Has Baron de Gortz returned? Have bandits occupied the castle, using it as their hideout? Could the fortress be populated by evil spirits or perhaps even the devil himself? There’s only one way to find out, of course, and that’s to venture into the castle and investigate, but what brave soul would dare enter this dark and forbidding edifice, the source of so many eerie rumors and ghost stories?

That’s basically half the book right there: the townspeople of Werst talking about how spooky the castle is. It is obvious that sooner or later the reader must be taken inside the castle walls, but Verne certainly makes you wait for it. He introduces a romance into the story and goes off into a Baron de Gortz back story that resembles a romantic opera of the era. When we actually enter the castle, it is a confusing array of passages and staircases. One would need a detailed floor plan to decipher all of Verne’s confusing directions. Overall, the plot spends too much time in the local inn with the chattering townspeople and not enough in the castle itself.

I actually like Verne’s non-sci-fi novels. I chose this book because I was interested in the Carpathians, a region not often covered in literature (at least not in novels translated into English). Verne’s depiction of the region, however, seems rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. It’s possible that Bram Stoker might have been inspired by this novel when he chose Transylvania as the setting for Dracula. Even if that’s true, Stoker took the concept much further and really excels in this genre, more so than Verne. The Castle of the Carpathians is not very successful as a horror novel or thriller. (The giant squid scene in Twenty Thousand Leagues is scarier than this.) As an adventure novel it’s rather boring, and as a science fiction novel there just isn’t a whole lot of science. The ending may have been surprising and innovative for the 1890s, but for today’s readers it’s pretty predictable. Really the only thing The Castle of the Carpathians has going for it is Verne’s inimitable style, charm, and enthusiasm. Fans of his will find this book mildly entertaining but not one of his better offerings.

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