Creepy Mansions in Hungary, Mexico and the Adirondacks

The cover certainly adds to the sense of mystery and ‘Old World’.

Márai Sándor: Embers (The Candles Burnt to the End), translated by Carol Brown Janeway, 1942 (published in English in 2001 by Alfred Knopf and in UK in 2003 by Penguin)

In theory this book that I read for London Reads the World Book Club should have appealed to me tremendously. It has that Central European sensibility, the author has been compared to Stefan Zweig, it mourns a lost world like Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy, critics say ‘it works as a novel of suspense whose denouement is as exciting as a detective tale’ and it all takes place in a gloomy castle at the foot of the Carpathian mountains.

And yet… although I enjoyed parts of it quite a bit, overall this book left me unsure.

The owner of the castle, a former general in the Austro-Hungarian army, has invited his old friend Konrad, whom he hasn’t seen for forty-one years for a formal dinner by candlelight. At this dinner, the General brings up all the resentment and pain that he has felt for decades because he is convinced that his (now dead) wife and his friend were having an affair and possibly planning to kill him. While it’s understandable that this might infuriate him, in actual fact the General has been nursing this grievance so much that it has stopped him from really living his life. There is more than a hint of homoeroticism about his feeling of betrayal by his friend, especially since he seems to value male friendship above and beyond any marriage. However, his greatest anger and regret is that he was never able to understand either his wife (or his mother) or his friend and their passion for music. The way he speaks about his wife gave me a very ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning vibe.

Whether we think of this as a metaphor of the old vs. the new generation (the General comes from a wealthy aristocratic family, while Konrad is from a more humble Galician background and then gets involved in merchant-type work in the Far East), I am not entirely sure if the author intended us to find the General as repulsive as I did (not that Konrad is pure as drive snow either), whether he is rejoicing or mourning the death of such old-fashioned values (or simply feels ambivalent about them). There were a few scenes from his childhood, where you felt that he might have become someone different, but he had no choice but follow the family tradition.

One could argue that the bitter, lonely old General with the victim mentality is the way that Hungary likes to see itself at certain points in its history – and I simply cannot tell if Márai condones or criticises this (it is much clearer that Banffy is highly critical of the inertia of the Hungarian noblemen). It certainly didn’t help when I heard that Hungary’s authoritarian PM Viktor Orban claims this is his favourite book, often quoting things such as: ‘The miracle is not that Hungary is the way it is but that it still exists.’

Yet the passages about Vienna in particular really resonated with me (this is where the two men met as youngsters attending the military school). Here’s what Konrad says about it:

Saying the word Vienna was like striking a tuning fork and then listening to find out what tone it called forth in the person I was talking to. It was how I tested people. If there was no response, this was not the kind of person I liked.

Vienna wasn’t just a city, it was a tone that either one carries forever in one’s soul or one does not. It was the most beautiful thing in my life… Vienna was like another friend. When it rained in the tropics, I always heard the voice of Vienna.

There are also some really beautiful descriptive passages (although one might argue that the General does go on a bit and that no guest would put up with such haranguing and whining for uninterrupted for chapters at a time). Although they seem to glorify hunting, they also give a description of the deep forest surrounding the castle, where the General has retreated to just a few rooms in one wing, and everything else is falling into ruin.

It is no longer dark, it is not yet light. The forest smells so raw and wild, as if every living thing – plants, animals, people – were slowly coming back to consciousness in the dormitory of the world, exhaling all their secrets and bad thoughts… The scent of wet leaves, of ferns, of crumbling tree trunks, of rotting pine cones, of the soft carpet of fallen leaves and pine needles slippery from the dew, rises up from the earth to assault you like the smell of two lovers locked in sweat-soaked embrace… It’s the moment when something happens not just deep among the trees but also in the dark interior of the human heart, for the heart, too, has its night and its wild surges, as strong an instinct for the hunt as a wolf or a stag.

The description of the castle is also very evocative: it is a mix of the ‘East’ European splendid isolation and wilderness (‘the forest with bears’, as the Emperor of France calls it) and West European extravagance. But now it too stands sinister and haunted, resentful and claustrophobic:

The castle was a closed world, like a great granite mausoleum full of the moldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating gray silk or black cloth. It enclosed silence itself as if it were a prisoner persecuted for his beliefs, wasting away numbly, unshaven and in rags on a pile of musty rotting straw in a dungeon. It also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses. Door-latches gave off the traces of a once-trembling hand, the excitement of a moment long gone, so that even now another hand hesitated to press down on them. Every house in which passion has loosed itself on people in all its fury exudes such intangible presences.

I should say that I’d read the book more than 20 years ago in Romanian translation and was convinced it was set in Transylvania but there is no specific mention of a place, other than that it was a territory formerly belonging to Hungary, and since the author was born in Košice in eastern Slovakia, at the foot of the Ore Mountains, it might be safer to assume that the castle is located around there.

Sylvia Moreno Garcia: Mexican Gothic, 2020.

The cover does not feature the house, surprisingly enough, so only very slightly hints at the horrors within.

The line about the mushrooms and the mildew quoted above certainly chimed well with this book, written in English by this American author of Mexican heritage. Her rotting mansion is even more isolated and sinister, the host’s intention is even more evil and the suspense escalates into real danger.

Set in Mexico in the 1950s and inspired by a real silver mine town with an English cemetery, the book tells the story of spoilt wealthy socialite Noemi, who is sent by her father to this isolated mansion High Place, to see what is happening with her beloved cousin Catalina, who married in great haste the (impoverished) heir of this (now closed) silver mine and has been locked up in that eerie house ever since.

All the great Gothic tropes which appear accidentally in Embers are very deliberately placed here. There is plenty of suspense, plenty of surly and untrustworthy characters, graveyards and nightmares, shadows creeping about at night. The writer breathes new life into these clichés through the strength of her main character (I was less convinced by some of the others). Noemi might be completely alone and helpless, she might start doubting herself, but she is not stupid, not easily intimidated, she does not give up. I imagine her as the Katharine Hepburn character in High Society. The atmosphere is brilliantly creepy – the house itself becomes more than a setting, it is a character all by itself, the source of fear and danger.

The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, evoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired, slats missing from a couple of shutters the ebony porch groaning as they made their way up the steps to the door, which came complete with a silver knocker shaped like a fist dangling from a circle. “It’s the abandoned shell of a snail,” she told herself…

While I guessed some of the story of the house and the family, there were still some surprising twists there, although the ending was slightly disappointing. However, for me this book was not about the plot as much as about the atmosphere – and it certainly had that in spades.

Julia Bartz: The Writing Retreat, 2023.

The third book I also enjoyed more for its atmosphere than its plot, although originally it was the plot that drew me in. It’s interesting that the American cover is anything but subtle and features the Gothic house in the Adirondacks where most of the story takes place, while the UK cover opts for subtlety and atmosphere.

US cover
UK cover

As a writer, who hasn’t dreamt of winning a coveted month-long writing retreat in an idyllic location, especially one that is tutored by an author you hugely admire? For Alex, who has not been having much success with her dream of becoming a published novelist, it certainly seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She is not about to let the fact that her former best friend Wren will also be there spoil her delight. Nor the fact that the house has a reputation for being haunted. But when their tutor Roza starts playing nasty mind games with the participants, and Alex becomes a little too obsessed with the history of the previous owners of the house, things take a nasty turn.

At first glance, however, the house seems plush and extravagant rather than sinister (although any place with no mobile or Wifi reception should raise suspicion):

We zoomed through the entryway into a large front hall that rose at least fifty feet above us. An enormous marble staricase swept fown from a second-floor landing. Large paintings filled the walls – to the left, abstract shapes, to the right, looming figures. A chandelier hung suspended over the staircase, casting light with hundreds of electric candles. The space was grand, majestic, and a stream of giddiness filled my veins.

What is interesting is how all this optimism and luxury starts to look menacing a few chapters later. But I guess you can tell even from this brief excerpt that the author is no Shakespeare. The other two books were certainly better written. The premise for this one was interesting, and I read it quickly enough, but it did all descend into a rather implausible mess towards the end. Fast food consumption book for my taste, which is a bit of a shame, as I think this premise could have led to even more interesting and subtle things.