Francis Lathom’s 1798 novel The Midnight Bell is another of the “horrid books” referenced in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (along with The Necromancer and The Castle of Wolfenbach). And this one is really quite interesting.
While it has plenty of the features that made these novels so easy for Austen to mock - the generally overheated style, the outrageous coincidences, the unlikely plotting and the inevitable triumph of virtue - it has other compensations. It’s entertaining, which of course was all it was ever intended to be. And it’s structurally very interesting.
Gothic novels often used devices like multiple narrators and having large chunks of the plot told in the form of letters. The Midnight Bell takes this technique to an extreme. The story consists of stories within stories within stories all fitted together like Chinese boxes. The main plot occupies a few pages at the beginning and a few pages at the end. Everything else consists of digressions, but the digressions do eventually serve to tell the main story. As each new character appears he or she relates her tale and they all have a bearing on the original plotline. And Lathom executes this technique with considerable skill.
We have a haunted castle of course, a castle left deserted after the mysterious murder of the Count Cohenburg. The castle is left empty of all inhabitants but every night at midnight a bell is tolled within the castle tower, leading to local legends of ghostly visitations. After the count’s slaying his distraught widow throws out a few hints as to the identity of the murderer and then summarily orders her son to flee. Before he goes she extracts a solemn promise that he will never return to the Castle of Cohenburg or attempt to see her again.
Being a young man he naturally finds it difficult to avoid the temptation of trying to unravel this mystery. He meets a succession of people whose stories will in time be proven to intersect with his own. He also of course falls in love and as in any good gothic novel his future happiness that of his wife are dependent on finding a solution to the mystery.
I’m not going to make inflated claims for this book. It’s no literary masterpiece but if you’re a fan of the gothic it’s definitely worth a read.