Sally Startup, on her Brian Stableford blog, provides the parallax on this one.
Review: The Mad Trist: A Romance of Bibliomania, Brian Stableford, 2010.
The third installment in Stableford’s August Dupin series is indeed about bibliomania, the enchantment of print, its ability to put voices in our heads and suggests thing. It’s about a lot of other things too: esoteric and feminist works by Elizabethans and the possible identity of their authors, curses and cursed books, witches, medieval romance, sibling rivalry and sexual awakening, the evolution of literature, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”.
As Dupin, who doesn’t appear in most of this story, says, “Nothing is ever simple . . . Not, at least, when it is subject to proper rational analysis”.
As with all the installments in this series, Stableford has worked to make each one self-contained. You can start anywhere in it except with the last book. (Yes, I’ve read them all and plan to review all of them.)
Our story opens with our still unnamed narrator off to visit his friend in England, Richard Carstairs.
Before he boards the ferry, Comte St. Germain shows up to give him a book. He wants it given to Dupin when the narrator returns to Paris. It’s a peace offering by St. Germain after the events of the preceding book in the series, Valdemar’s Daughter.
The book is The Mad Trist, the book Roderick Usher reads in the Poe story.
Also waylaying the narrator on his trip is one Stephen Coningsby. He’s a Bibliomaniac. It says it right on his card. He wants to buy the book. The narrator refuses. It’s not his, after all, and Coningsby warns him not to read the final chapter.
On the coach to the ferry, the narrator meets the charming and attractive Frenchwoman Madame Poyet. They have a spirited discussion on Gothics and medieval romances. They discuss how a “trist” could be a romantic rendezvous, and it could be a mad one because love was often viewed in the past, including in medieval romances, as a sort of insanity. Spontaneous passion was regarded as disruptive to the social order and marriages arranged for political and economic reasons.
The narrator discusses The Mad Trist with Poyet though he hasn’t read it all yet. The narrator reads the opening chapter of the story to her. There is an innocent damsel in distress who Ethelred the hero wants to save, but there is also her wicked sister who he suspects is a witch bent on sabotaging his efforts and lusting after him. What surprises the narrator, and he mentions this to Poyet, is that Ethelred is conflicted in his feelings and may actually desire the witch. This is unusual for a medieval romance, this portrayal of a hero as less than virtuous. Ethelred slays the witch but Poyet points out that, in fiction, death is not always final. The narrator mentions to Poyet “The Fall of the House of Usher” in this regard and notes Usher’s behavior makes no sense.
Before they depart, the narrator speaks of Burnt Oak Lodge, the house of his friend, and the tree that gave the place its name. Poyet, putting her self-proclaimed ability to predict how stories end, spins a fanciful invention about it being the tree a witch was hung from.
At Burn Oak Lodge, the narrator notes that Imogen and Esmeralda, 20 and 14 respectively, have grown into attractive girls. They are Carstairs’ wards after the death of their parents. Being of an age to be interested in the opposite sex, they compete for the narrator’s attention.
The narrator had hoped for a nice holiday discussing English Romantic literature with Carstairs, a scholar of it. But Carstairs interest have moved on to the history of his home these days.
The narrator mentions that he has brought The Mad Trist along and Coningsby’s attempt to buy it. Carstairs knows of Coningsby. He’s a devotee of a theory that a great occult conspiracy saved England from the Armada and, convinced of their magical powers, wrote the Black Book. Coningsby thinks The Mad Trist may be the Black Book.
Here things get complicated with numerous real and imaginary books mentioned which may connect a putative cabal of English magicians that included John Dee and the Queen. Or, maybe, those connections really go to Her Protection for Women, a real work of Elizabethan feminism and whoever was behind its pseudonymous author, Jane Anger.
As the narrator reads a chapter of The Mad Trist to the Carstairs every night, things get weirder and Imogen and Esmeralda vie more for the narrator’s attention, echoing the two sisters desiring Ethelred. And the narrator’s dreams – dreams are an important theme and motif running all throughout this series – get more sexual, not only with Poyet appearing in them but the two girls. But the house also begins to speak to him, or, at least, something in the house.
As Dupin notes in the end, literature – printed dreams – can suggest all kinds of things to us. And sometimes the suggestions they make lead to tragic consequences.
Is it a fantasy or realistic tale, a story of curses or suggestibility? As Dupin says, there is “no strict division between the magical and the psychological”.
Of all of Stableford’s Dupin stories, this is probably the most complex and rich in its allusions, one of the high points of the series. It’s a celebration of fiction’s magic but ends on a cautionary note not to let ourselves become possessed by that magic.