Carpathian Castle: An oddball in Verne’s canon

Carpathian Castle by Jules VerneCarpathian Castle by Jules Verne

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhen 35-year-old Jules Verne managed to sell what would become his first published novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, to the already long-established literary publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, in 1863, little could the two Frenchmen know that this was just the beginning of a decades-long association. Hetzel was already a well-known Parisian figure, having previously released works by such luminaries as Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Honore de Balzac. Verne, the future “Father of Science Fiction,” was an unknown commodity in 1863; a lawyer who found his true calling as a writer of adventure tales (just as this reader’s personal favorite author, Englishman H. Rider Haggard, would do 20 years later). Five Weeks in a Balloon initiated a series called “Les Voyages Extraordinaires” that would ultimately expand to no less than 54 titles… all the way until Verne’s final novel, 1905’s Invasion of the Sea. For the most part, these titles consisted of tales of scientific speculation (such as 1864’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1865’s From the Earth to the Moon and 1870’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) and outright adventure stories highlighted by prodigious amounts of authorial research (such as 1866’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, 1873’s Around the World in Eighty Days and 1898’s The Mighty Orinoco).

The 37th of these Extraordinary Voyages, however, may be the oddball in Verne’s canon: Carpathian Castle (aka The Castle of the Carpathians), a Gothic novel with decided overtones of horror and the supernatural, and which, after being serialized, was initially published by the Hetzel group in 1893 (Hetzel himself had passed on seven years earlier). But even in this tale of dark and eerie doings, Verne could not resist shining in a ray of science and rationalism. I originally picked up this novel because I’d heard that it served as a possible inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (released four years later), but as it turns out, other than the Transylvanian setting, the two works are wholly dissimilar, and no vampiric elements are to be found in the Verne work whatsoever.

Rather, in Carpathian Castle, the reader is introduced to the inhabitants of Werst, a village “of so little importance that most maps do not even show its position.” Into the humdrum life of the small community comes some great fear and excitement one day: A stream of smoke is seen coming out of a chimney of the long-abandoned titular castle, a supposedly haunted pile that had been shunned since its owner, the Baron de Gortz, disappeared over 20 years earlier. In the book’s first half, Nic Deck, a young, intrepid forester, and the town’s “doctor,” Patak, climb to the top of the Orgall Plateau to investigate, and barely escape to tell a tale of strange lights, booming noises, spectral manifestations and electrical discharges. In the book’s second half, the young Count de Telek and his man Rotzko, visitors to Werst, hear of these eldritch occurrences and decide to investigate themselves. Five years earlier, both de Gortz and de Telek had been obsessively enamored of the great Italian opera diva La Stilla, a dual infatuation that had ended in tragedy in Naples. Is it any wonder, then, that de Telek cannot refrain from exploring the supposedly spirit-ridden abode?

If Carpathian Castle can be said to have any overriding them – other than the purpose of taut, suspenseful and fast-moving entertainment – it is the conflict between superstition and rational science, as the world nudged closer to the 20th century. And perhaps it is no surprise on which side the “Father of Science Fiction” lands quite squarely. I don’t wish to spoil any of the novel’s surprises for potential readers, but let’s just say that all the spectral mishegas in the book winds up having a decidedly plausible/scientific explanation. In most novels, such a legend as the beech tree outside the castle having the ability to predict the structure’s demise would be eerily borne out; in Verne’s work, it is shown to be pure bosh, just another ignorant superstition of the uneducated peasants. Par for the course with Verne, some of his scientific predictions turn out to be remarkably on the money; indeed, the author, in this novel, may have been the first to suggest the possibility of using hologramlike setups and prerecorded music to simulate a performance by a deceased artiste. Verne glorifies such sciences as electricity, optics, and sound recording in this novel, while pooh-poohing superstition and ignorance. Still, how Verne would have been astounded had he been able to see some of our modern-day 21st century wonders; perhaps he would have shown a little more restraint in saying that the electrical gizmos of 1893 had been brought to their “highest perfection… the illustrious Edison and his disciples had completed their work”!

Carpathian Castle is a comparatively short yet densely written Verne tale. It is replete with obscure bits of Roumanian history and mythology (better brush up on your Rosza Sandor, staffi, balauri and zmei!), actual place names (Klausenberg, Kolosvar, Vulkan, Leany Ko) and folk customs; as usual, Verne’s research here is nearly impeccable. (And I say “nearly” only because Verne makes the curious mistake of telling the reader that Negoi is the highest peak in the Carpathians, whereas a quick glance at a map of Roumania will clearly show that it is rather in the Transylvanian Alps.) The book can also be accused of some very mild anti-Semitism, although the usurious Jewish moneylender is more Verne’s target here, rather than the religion/race as a whole. The book is surely one of Verne’s lesser-read creations today, and is surely minor stuff compared to some of his other classics listed above. Still, it is a fun, exciting read, and, as the oddball in Verne’s oeuvre, will surely be of interest to fans of this seminal author.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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5 comments

  1. Rachel A Hyde /

    I read it years ago and loved it too, for the reasons you state. A good mix of fantasy and SF with some rather neat predictions for the future and I love the sidestep from cliche regarding the beech tree! H Rider Haggard is my favorite fantasy author too, very underrated these days and wrongly accused of being racist.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    I am with you 100% on that, Rachel. I believe one of the main reasons why Haggard was accused of being an anti-Semite was the insane Jewish villain, Jacob Meyer, in his 1906 novel “The Spirit of Bambatse” (aka “Bonita”). But in his 1911 novel “Red Eve,” the Grey-Dick character takes especial pains to defend the Jewish people. AND Haggard was a pro-Zionist himself, from what I have heard. Just having one crazy villain character be a Jew, out of dozens of his other memorable villains, does NOT an anti-Semite make….

  3. Sandy Ferber /

    And as for Haggard being racist, why, in practically every book of his that takes place in Africa, he takes pains to point out the nobility of the native races, and to demonstrate how they are often more decent and humane than the white Europeans there. Haggard was anything BUT a racist….

  4. Sandy, I know he spent time in Africa and had great affection for the continent and for the people he met there, but he was a product of his time. I think his books do have a Euro-centric… or, well, British-centric (nobody would accuse Britain of being Euro-centric) attitude and an unconscious sense of innate superiority. I’m basing this on books like She, and the Quartermain stories, so maybe I don’t have a complete picture.

  5. Sandy Ferber /

    You’re absolutely right, Marion. Haggard was an Englishman through and through, and no doubt felt that his country had a right to its imperial claims. But he never treated his African natives as ignorant heathens or dirty savages; they were always noble and with a proud culture all their own. Just read his Zulu trilogy (“Marie,” Child of Storm” and “Finished”), as well as his truly awesome “Nada the Lily,” and you will see how elegiac he could get when talking about that people….

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