The Mystery of the Black Tower by John Palmer

The Mystery of the Black Tower by John Palmer was first published through subscription in 1796.  The Gothic Classics edition published in 2005 by Valancourt Books features a complete list of all the original subscribers–an unusual legacy to leave posterity.  In the early days of the novel, before anyone was quite sure what a novel was, publishing by subscription was common place.  An author with a work to publish sold copies in advance, usually to friends, family and acquaintances.  Once enough subscribers could be found, the book could be printed.  If the publicity that followed was good enough, another edition would follow.

18th century Gothic novels are of interest to me because they represent one of the possible paths the novel could have taken.  Had Fanny Burney and Jane Austen not come along, dark stories with mysterious towers and elements of the supernatural might have become the 19th century novel, instead of stories about young women searching for proper husbands.  Gothic novels didn’t vanish, of course.  Elements of them can be found in many 19th and 20th century novels, and they are all the rage today.  Any novelist who has ever imprisoned a heroine in a tower owes a small debt to John Palmer.  He was the first.  (The Mystery of the Black Tower precedes even Grimm’s Fairy Tales which came out in 1812.)

But, in the end one must ask if the modern reader has anything to gain from reading The Mystery of the Black Tower other than satisfying the idle curiosity sparked by finding an unusual title in the Yale library stacks one rainy afternoon.  To answer this question read the passage from the book below.

“Indeed! Is it even so?” exclaimed Edmund, irritated at her indifference; “I know full well for whom I am thus scorned; the beggar Leonard has your heart: I , however, have your person; let then your love-sick swain tune his discordant pipe amidst surrounding branches, or beside some flowing rill; I will feast myself on more substantial joys.  You are in my grasp, remember, nor all the earthly, all the heavenly powers, shall tear you from me.”
     “Can you think so meanly of me,” she cried, “as to suppose your threats can terrify me into what my heart abhors? My innocence, like the solid rock that braves the billows, is proof against your menaces and arts, and alike despises your frothy eloquence and malice.”
   With fury in his looks, Fitzallon now darted from the room, and left the afflicted Emma to her sorrows.
John Palmer will never find a formal place in the English Cannon.  Not with writing like this.  And I don’t think many modern readers will be able to make it very far with prose like “I will feast myself on more substantial joys.”  As Abraham Lincoln once said, “It’s the sort of thing that appeals to people who like that sort of thing.”

That may be the best way to end this review of  John Palmer’s The Mystery of the Black Tower.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in the summer of 2010 when I was attending a summer seminar for teachers at Yale.  Wondering the stacks of the Yale library was one of the best things about that summer.  I found all sorts of intriguing books that I never would have come across any other way, sorts of books I had no business reading but really enjoyed anyway.  Of all the things that have disappeared from my live over the years as progress has continued to march on, I miss the stacks most.  There was something spontaneous about the wondering the stacks that wondering the internet will never be.  Long live the Dewey Decimal System!!!

3 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Black Tower by John Palmer

  1. I have been horrified to hear that my old university library is going to a 20% on the open shelves / 80% in the stacks arrangement when it moves soon. This will destroy the serendipity you describe here. I don’t think I ever read this book, but it does make me smile when the great new thing is all these gothic romances, and yet they were pretty well the earliest novels that existed. And he invented purple prose, too!

    1. Won’t they let you into the stacks? The Yale university library was probably two or three percent on the open shelves, it has over a million volumes I’m sure in several buildings. But there are stacks you can wander if you have a library card.

      1. I don’t believe so – they’re likely to be the ones with the movable shelving so they’ll be worried about people getting squashed. I’m so upset about the old building being destroyed that I haven’t looked at what’s going for a while, though!

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