I’m calling it like I see it: Wuthering Heights is a horror novel. If you’re familiar with the story, you might be laughing and nodding your head right now. For the benefit of those who either haven’t read it or are suddenly lost by declaration, let me first cover the basics of what’s on the surface. I’ll circle back around after that and explain my conclusions.
The story is told through the POV of two character narrators. The first is Mr. Lockwood, who finds himself lost in a storm in the book’s opening. He is the new renter of Thrushcross Grange who stops at nearby Wuthering Heights, the house of the landowner, Mr. Heathcliff, in hopes of acquiring a guide through the storm to his new lodgings. In a sequence that seems to delight in provoking the reader response of “What the hell is wrong with these people?!” (for how could there be any other response?), Emily Brontë leads us to our second narrator, Nelly Dean, who attempts to answer that very question in her own way. Her explanation, told in flashback, is the bulk of the novel.
Heathcliff is brought to Wuthering Heights as a young boy, where he nurtures a growing relationship with Catherine Earnshaw, who is seemingly caught between following Heathcliff (and thus following her true nature) and her pursuit of Edgar Linton, the resident of Thrushcross Grange. In a convoluted tale of desire and betrayal, Catherine rejects Heathcliff and her own nature to marry Linton in pursuit of social status. Heathcliff leaves for America, returning a few years later as a rich gentleman with an axe to grind. He still longs for Catherine, but it’s Linton’s sister, Isabella, that he marries. Love between Heathcliff and Catherine are acknowledged only upon her death bed, which only hardens Heathcliff’s heart even more, and is seen as a betrayal by Isabella. That’s part one.
Part two gets even more convoluted and nasty as Heathcliff takes his vengeance by maneuvering the children to his ends. He and Isabella had a son, Linton Heathcliff, and Edgar and Catherine had a daughter, Cathy Linton… because duplicating both first and last names across the board isn’t confusing at all for the first time reader. But this is how monsters work, through obfuscation. While the reader is breaking out a scorecard and trying to keep track of who is whom, we learn that the progeny are, in fact, hellspawn in the model of their parents: bitter, twisted, and selfish beyond reckoning.
By the time Nelly’s story catches us up to modern day, Mr. Lockhart has had quite enough and wishes to leave — as all sensible people would. But even that’s not the end of the story. Oh, no. With Heathcliff dead, young Cathy is sidling up to a new beau by the end of the novel, and Nelly couldn’t be happier. Our poor narrator has completely cracked in the wake of all this horror.
For the entirety of this story, I kept feeling like I was missing something key to the full understanding and appreciation. Then, reinforced with a character description of Heathcliff towards the end of the novel (which I will explain shortly), I found this quote that describes the novel almost perfectly:
“I’ve been greatly interested in Wuthering Heights, the first novel I’ve read for an age, ‘and the best (as regards power and sound style) for two ages, except Sidonia. But it is a fiend of a book — an incredible monster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from Mrs. Browning to Mrs. Brownrigg. The action is laid in hell, — only it seems places and people have English names there. Did you ever read it ?”
While I won’t necessarily agree with the highest of praise being heaped here, the key component I was missing suddenly makes perfect sense to me, though I suspect Rossetti had the wrong monster in mind. The characters in this book only seem like demons. With the leverage of another horror novel that features Rossetti as a character, I was quickly able to identify Heathcliff and Catherine for what they truly are: vampires. Yeah! I’ll even take it one farther. Heathcliff is sometimes considered to be a Byronic hero in classic literature, but even Byron’s friend and doctor, John Polidori, considered Byron to be a vampire. To make it even more direct, Heathcliff is actually described as a vampire in the closing chapters of the novel itself. Not just an apt metaphor, it seems. If you’re a fan of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, think of these characters as White Court, or psychic vampires. They do their little mating dance, enjoying one another and recognizing the other as a kindred spirit, then they take turns driving the proverbial stake into each others’ hearts. It turns out, their progeny are no better; vampires spawned more vampires. Everyone else around them is helpless, sickly, otherwise happier when they’re not around. Victims, by any other name See what I mean? This is a horror novel, thinly disguised as a brutal soap opera of a romance. And what better way to reinforce it all than by having the dead rise at both the beginning and the end of the story. Bookends it nicely in such polite, Gothic fashion.
Given what I’ve learned about Emily Brontë, it’s no surprise at all that she should be the sibling most capable of writing such a cruel story with a feigned veneer of hope and peace at the end. After witnessing the death of some of her siblings, and with herself with practically one foot in the grave by the time the book saw publication, it almost forces a reader like myself (who has experienced way too much of such things) to wonder just how much she has encountered from beyond the veil. Sacred or profane, it doesn’t matter; either experience will have lasting effects on a person. Trust me on this one.
The original version of Wuthering Heights comprised two volumes of a three volume set, alongside Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. When it came time to republish in 1850, Charlotte Brontë edited the novel, which is presumably the version I have experienced here. The Naxos presentation of the audiobook features two narrators in what can only be described as a phenomenal performance: Janet McTeer as Nelly and David Timson as Lockhart.
As with my experience with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, I found the writing style to be sophisticated and elegant without being so over-the-top as to be considered purple prose. The over-the-top nature of the story and characters, however, collects the most vile and selfish personalities ever to inhabit a single tale. It’s almost as if while Dickens was looking to pattern Ebeneezer Scrooge, he studied this book, combined all of the characters into one, and still couldn’t bring himself to be that dark and twisted. Nice try, though. When it comes to the supernatural, vampires of the most cravenly human sort can beat ghosts of Christmas, and nobody understands just how natural the supernatural can be quite like a Brontë. If you ever want to better appreciate just how normal and joyful your own life can be by comparison, read this book.
And if you do read this one… well, you’ve been warned. As Rossetti claims, it’s quite literally hell on earth in literary form. The smell of brimstone will linger for a while.
I truly feel sorry for those dogs…