(Holland House Novella 2016, 136pp, £7.99)
McTavish Manor is a new Gothic novella from Lancaster based Spanish author Inés G. Labarta that takes old forms and blends in new techniques to produce fascinating & original results.
Set in the eponymous remote Highlands house in 1803, McTavish Manor initially adopts the classic Gothic epistolary framework. Dr. Charles Bisland flees a rejected proposal to find work with the increasingly strange McTavish family. We see the household first through the Doctor whose own secrets are hinted at, then through the black maidservant who Mrs McTavish calls “my dubh” and in the journals of McTavish herself. As winter isolation progresses so does the madness in the household. The dubh is attacked by wolves, the lecherous scullion assaults the maid, and the Mother indulges her scientific curiosity to explain all.
Bisland ‘s chapters become increasingly desperate, pleading in self-justification for unstated transgression. The dubh invokes Yoruba mythology and hints at a stolen slave history. Her febrile descriptions of events she sees part of are scattered with French, Spanish and Yoruba phrases. The Mother uses gaelic, not just dubh but Mr McTavish is always mo duine. References to scientific substances, techniques and historical texts in Latin abound. This is not a simple read.
Yet for all the details Labarta includes there’s no dryness. There’s attempted scientific evidence explanation for the violent episodes “hydrophobia” for example. Mrs McTavish is depicted almost as an obsessive like Victor Frankenstein, though perhaps Angus Cauldhame or Al Binewski are better examples from contemporary fiction.
Labarta uses different prose styles to both distinguish her viewpoints and to develop a nightmarish and visionary display. Words and even long paragraphs are struck through, the multiple languages are undefined, historic scientific terms are in the regular vocabulary. Labarta’s references are to that transitionary era where alchemy was supplanted by science. The doctor has history with Edward Jenner. She quotes traditional Scottish folk songs in Gaelic and invocations or prayers in Yoruba and expects her readers to understand. The result is complex and I think deliberately ambiguous.
Who and what is the villain? The rabid wild dogs? The bhampair of the cook’s hysteria? Mad scientist Mrs McTavish with her monstrous experiments on her own family? The blood obsessed Doctor with the disgraced past and the reliance on poppies? The servant convinced of orishas and abiku controlling the rest? Even a final letter doesn’t quite clear things up, suggesting instead various further twists.
The traditional Gothic incorporates an element of transgression, whether social, sexual or scientific. Labarta has all of these entangled. Scenes of raging insanity abut dark and illicit eroticism and taboo scientific questing. The result inverts Dracula’s classic playing of several symbolic roles to have roles played across several individuals to disorienting, but gripping effect.
I drove his bloody hands all all over my body until I was blessed in crimson. Lust bit inside when I brought them between my legs. I moved my hips forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards. (p80)
Oil of turpentine 5 pt
Venice turpentine 1 pt
Oil of lavender 2 oz
Oil of rosemary 2 oz
We have to wait one day.
The twins sleep. One in the cellar, the other in my bed.
Later. We do not have enough cinnamon. I am substituting ginger. (p74-5)
There will be no metaphors in this letter, no allegories or similar artifices, only the raw truth about your cousin’s miserable soul, which started to fall into corruption the very first time he confronted the Highlands & the rain threatened to dissolve his rational mind. She was there, an ebony body that does not belong to this land where sun is so scarce. You told me about her in Edinburgh, a mysterious, fascinating servant, exotic and lacquered as a scorpion. (p85)
Inés Labarta’s control of language is exquisite and precise, distinguishing characters and situations, and allowing for frenetic action and atmospheric revelations. Her characters each have implicit back stories that intrigue but don’t quite explain everything. Her plot a bouillabaisse of Gothic tropes with a multicultural and modern seasoning.
McTavish Manor is a significant new addition to contemporary Gothic literature.