CARPE LIBRUM: ‘Castle in the Swamp’ is an enthralling Gothic novel set in old Carolina

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect new and old books—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

castleinswamp“Castle in the Swamp”
By Edison Marshall                                                          
Farrar, Strauss, 1948

A few years ago a gentleman asked me for books by Edison Marshall, whom he adored. Outside of shelving his works, I was unfamiliar with Mr. Marshall’s work. One of the titles, “Castle in the Swamp,” was billed as a romance set in old Carolina. As I have curiosity for books set in our area, it was enough to get it moved into my “to read” pile. Two weeks ago, I finally started it, and I have to say, I was absolutely enthralled. It is a Gothic novel set on a Southern plantation, before the Civil War, just outside Charleston.

Horror, romance, revenge, lust, and mystery make any story so compelling mediocre writing becomes secondary to the reading experience. Ursula K. Le Guinn talked about story as a gift—and if someone has that gift, everything else supports it or provide tools for telling the story. Marshall has a gift with the story he tells in “Castle in the Swamp.” The writing is not noteworthy; there is no remarkable turn-of-phrase that catches readers’ breath or stunning use of metaphor stays with them for months, if not a lifetime. But the story is fascinating as the mystery of who the main character is, or might be, unfolds.

Rescued from an orphanage in Philadelphia at the tender age of 7 or 8, Dan goes to live with a bent and physically twisted violin teacher who gives him free-reign of their hovel, except for one locked room. Well, what child—hell, what inquisitive human—can resist such temptation?
Every Sunday afternoon the violinist would lock himself in the room and serenade three painted portraits in the shrine. Then, one day, he tells Dan an abbreviated version of the story connecting these three portraits. A story of one stunningly beautiful woman, Madeline, and three brothers who loved her: The eldest, Bruce, worked on her plantation as overseer until he married her. When he died under suspicious circumstances, six months later she married the youngest brother, Ralph, who had become overseer after Bruce’s marriage.   Ralph is responsible for Dan’s adopted father’s physical state. He is the middle brother, and as children Ralph broke his back and he never healed properly. Ralph now reigns on the plantation. Dan and his caretaker begin a program of preparation for Dan to avenge his injury and uncle’s death.

Ah, but there is a snag! Dan falls in love with the beautiful Cleo, daughter of Ralph and Madeline. It is a cosmic connection that transcends time and space—and binds them across a universe they cannot understand. He arrives in South Carolina struggling with his determination to seek the vengeance he has dedicated his life to, but uncertain how to square it with his love for Cleo. Then he hits the next wrinkle: Apparently, Cleo has a

It is a cosmic connection that transcends time and space—and binds them across a universe they cannot understand. He arrives in South Carolina struggling with his determination to seek the vengeance he has dedicated his life to, but uncertain how to square it with his love for Cleo. Then he hits the next wrinkle: Apparently, Cleo has a half brother from Ralph’s first marriage. Saul, who is 10 years older than her, is a sadist and the heir apparent to the plantation. Saul smells danger, and indeed, he should. Dan discovers more about the horrifying past of the plantation: Saul’s mother conveniently died of a snake bite in her bed six months before Bruce’s death. Also, Bruce and Madeline had a baby who was killed in the same accident that killed Bruce. (Or did the child miraculously survive after all?) Multiple deaths on the plantation over the years have targeted those in a position to know pieces of the story, so the whole picture is now effectively shrouded in mystery.

It is Gothic fiction at its best, transported to the mystery and milieu of Antebellum South, with all the tropes of the genre: an orphan, a magnificent but foreboding castle, mistaken identity, a curse, a mystery, forbidden love, lust, denial, and the supernatural. The denouement is dependent upon a storm that rages and forces the ultimate confession before wiping the land clean to start again, freeing the survivors from the curse.

It is, in many ways, the classic journey of the hero from mythology, searching for the answer to the riddle, “Who am I?” What Dan finds is far more startling than he ever imagined when he began his quest—for him and the reader.

Make no mistake, this is not great literature or high art. Nor, frankly, does it in any way illuminate life in the Carolinas other than to depict the area as a stock backdrop for the story. As a piece of gripping entertainment, “Castle in the Swamp” wins. At each turn both Dan and the reader believe they have solved the mystery of the plantation, and by extension, Dan’s quest—only to discover another plot twist.

Though I love books that show me something new about myself and the world—and this one does neither of those things—I have to admit, I found it incredibly compelling. It’s like what TV movies of the week used to be in the ‘80s: pure trash with little redeeming value no one will remember in five years.Sometimes I crave a little bit of escapism in a world that presses with weight and necessity.

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