Innominato, William Gilbert

Innominato: The Wizard of the Mountain

by William Gilbert (1867, repr. Cambridge: Oleander Press, 2009)

ISBN 9-780906-672716 ● £7.95

First published in two volumes in 1867 from hidden manuscripts replete with tales of sorcery, vampires, family secrets, child-spectres, and murder: not THAT book – this one:

Innominato. The Wizard of the Mountain by William Gilbert (1867, repr. Cambridge: Oleander Press).Innominato

Here’s the enticing publicity blurb:

An array of spellbinding tales from a noted author at the height of his powers, this collection marks the eventual return of a lost classic to the ranks of Victorian horror and dark fiction. Compelling Gothic themes, exotic environs and engrossing plots are populated by a range of both pure and evil characters: decaying vampires, beautiful virgins, sinister phantoms, marauding bandits… These and more await in this collection of deliciously ghoulish and macabre stories as well as the Innominato himself: known to have made himself much beloved and yet also a man ‘much dreaded for his sanguinary propensities.’ Good or Evil? You decide…

Steeped in the high morality of the Victorian era each of the eleven tales has its own blend of gothic. The dialectic of rationality v. superstition and Christian grace v. good works provides the tension in most of the tales, although some, such as ‘The Last Lords of Gordonal’, an early vampire tale, provide the shock-value of pure gothic horror:

A ray or pure moonlight now penetrated the room, as if to prove that the light of day had fled. Teresa, again transformed into a horrible vampire, flew at her husband, and throwing him on the floor, fastened her teeth on the half-healed wound of his throat. (p. 147)

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Taking the most obvious gothic trope of the found manuscript, the tales are mediated by an unidentified traveller who, “in the spring of 1840”, visited the area around Lake Como, Italy. One night, lost and disorientated, he stumbles across an ancient ruin. From a visiting curate he learns of “indistinct traditionary rumours respecting the old ruins being haunted by the ghost of a certain necromancer” who lived in the 14th or 15th centuries. He also learns of attempts by “the late priest of the parish” to “throw light” on the traditions and becomes interested in his “confused mass of papers […] comprised [of] a series of legends connected with the castle, all exceedingly fantastic; and if some were not absolutely original, they were obviously founded on local traditions.”

In his introduction the traveller remarks on “the rugged fantastic tops of the Reségone – that mountain so graphically described by Manzoni at the commencement of his admirable tale of the ‘Promessi Sposi’ ”.  I Promessi Sposi [The Betrothed], Alessandro Manzoni’s triple-decker novel was a literary sensation on its publication in Italy in 1827 and it remained so for the rest of the nineteenth century. Departing from Scott’s realist historicism, Manzoni’s novel depends on revealed truth to show the workings of God in history. Crucial to the novel is the moment when the violent robber baron known as ‘Innominato’ (the Unnamed) miraculously denounces his criminal past and converts, through a found love of God and belief in Christian morality, to a good life. Manzoni shows his conversion as a miracle of grace working through corrupt humanity. In contrast, through the figure of the ‘Innominato’ Gilbert questions what happens to those already living good lives who struggle with religious belief. In ‘The Innominato’s Confession’, the supposed necromancer admits that, “although I had profound respect for religion and sound faith in its truths, these qualifications were more according to instinct than to reason. Theology I did not care for as a study, while I had a great love of science.” Acceptance into the priest-hood provides the means by which he can undertake “an investigation as to the affinity between religion and science, and an opportunity to prove, if possible, that the latter might be brought forward in support of the former.”  His “investigation” leads him away from religious study. However, as he continues to perform supposedly good or benevolent works, the reader is forced to question the source of his powers.magic mirror, gilbert

Gilbert wove his moral gothic message throughout his writing. A professed Christian he was deeply opposed to organised religion, believing that human behaviour rather than corrupt humanity led to criminality and degrading behaviour. Known today as the father of William S. Gilbert (he of H.M.S. Pinafore light opera fame), William Gilbert (1804-1890) was a British naval surgeon turned novelist and social reformer. His publications included a reformist pamphlet, ‘On the Present System of Rating for the Relief of the Poor in the Metropolis’ (1857), a biography of Lucrezia Borgia. Duchess Ferrara, 2 vols (1869), several novels, such as The Landlord of “The Sun” (1871), as well as short story collections, such as the Magic Mirror. A Round of Tales for Young & Old (1866). Shirley Hall Asylum: or, Memoirs of a Monomaniac (1863), published around the same time as he was writing the first of his ‘Innominato’ tales, is narrated by inmates and/or escapees of a mental institution. Chapter XI, ‘The story of a Clergyman who applied to the Devil for Consolation and received it — and the results’ (167-227), is most likely a prequel to Innominato.

His short stories were serialised in British magazines, such as the Argosy and out of these he published, amongst other book collections, The Wizard of the Mountain (London: Strahan & Co, 1867); a two-volume collection of stories centred on the mysterious astrologer and ‘wizard’ figure known as the ‘Innominato’ (the unnamed).

With Innominato, Oleander Press has unearthed a little-known gothic masterpiece. An introduction that traced connections and intertextual borrowings between Gilbert’s fiction and the gothic tradition and clear bibliographic information would add greatly to the reading experience. Merely scratching the surface reveals the rich intertextual hints and allusions in Gilbert’s fiction: the ‘found manuscript’ tradition (noted above), the Italian setting, as in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Polidori’s 1819 tale, The Vampyre and Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), names associated with the gothic, (Doctor Onorfio/Conrad/Teresa), time-period (Crusades), Byronic connections (Villa Diodati/illegitimate children/death and the child-spectre Diodato in ‘The Robber Chief’). It would also be helpful to know whether Gilbert altered or revised the text of any of the tales for the collection. For example, ‘The Last Lords of Gordonal’ was first published in three parts in the Argosy, July –September 1867.

NOTE The original text of the story is reprinted on the Gaslight website [click here for original text]

It would also be fascinating to compare Gilbert’s moral gothic with Hogg’s and also to compare Gilbert with Herman Melville: both naval men-cum-authors and both adapting gothic tropes in their writing. Hopefully, Oleander Press’s modest reprint will generate interest in William Gilbert so that, at the very least, his writing will be included in modern gothic study guides and textbooks.

 Some useful links:

Click  HERE  to link to a list of William Gilbert’s publications

Oleander Press have an ingenious plan to adapt Innominato for graphic novel serialisation – see their website for more information:

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