Before there was Dracula, there was Jules Verne’s The Castle in Transylvania. In its first new translation in over 100 years, this is the first book to set a gothic horror story, featuring people who may or may not be dead, in Transylvania.
“”It matters not whether we are dealing with native rocks piled up by natural means in distant geological epochs, or with constructions due to the hand of man over which the breath of time has passed, the effect is much the same when viewed from a few miles off. Unworked stone and worked stone may easily be confounded. From afar, the same colour, the same lineaments, the same deviations of line in the perspective, the same uniformity of tint under the grey patina of centuries. And so it was with this castle, otherwise known as the Castle of the Carpathians. To distinguish the indefinite outlines of this structure on the plateau of Orgall, which crowns the left of Vulkan Hill, was impossible. It did not stand out in relief from the background of mountains.What might have been taken as donjon was only a stony mound ; what might be supposed to be a curtain with its battlements might be only a rocky crest. The mass was vague, floating, uncertain.”
“And in the opinion of many tourists the Castle of the Carpathians existed only in the imagination of the country people. Evidently the simplest means of assuring yourself as to its existence would have been to have bargained with a guide from Vulkan or Werst, to have gone up the valley, scaled the ridge, and visited the buildings. But a guide would have been as difficult to find as the road leading to the castle. In the valley of both Syls no one would have agreed to be guide to a traveller, for no matter what remuneration, to the Castle of the Carpathians. What they would have seen of this ancient habitation in the field of a telescope more powerful and better focussed than the trumpery thing bought by the shepherd Frik on account of his master Koltz, was this :
-some 800 or 900 feet in the rear of Vulkan Hill lay a grey enclosure, covered with a mass of wall plants, and extending for from 400 to 500 feet along the irregularities of the plateau ; at each end were two angular bastions, in the right of which grew the famous beech close by a slender watch-tower or look-out with a pointed roof ; on the left a few patches of wall, strengthened by flying buttresses, supporting the tower of a chapel, the cracked bell of which was often sounded in high winds to the great alarm of the district ; in the midst, crowned by its crenellated platform, a heavy, formidable donjon, with three rows of leaded windows, the first storey of which was surrounded by a circular terrace ; on the platform a long metal spire, ornamented with a feudal virolet, or weathercock, stationary with rust, which a last puff of the north-west wind had set pointing to the south-east.”
“As to what was contained in this enclosure, if there was any habitable building within, if a awbridge or a postern gave admittance to it, had been unknown for a number of years. In fact, although the Castle of the Carpathians was in better preservation than it seemed to be, an infectious terror, doubled by superstition, protected it as much as it had formerly been by its basilisks, its grasshoppers, its bombards, its culverins, its thunderers, and other engines of mediaeval artillery. But, nevertheless, the Castle of the Carpathians was well worth visiting by tourists and antiquaries. Its situation on the crest of the Orgall plateau was exceptionally fine. From the upper platform of the keep, or donjon, the view extended to the farthest point of the mountains. In the rear undulated the lofty chain, so capriciously spurred, which serves as the frontier of Wallachia. In front lay the sinuous defile of the Vulkan, the only practicable route between the frontier provinces. Beyond the valley of the two Syls lay the towns of Livadzel, Lonyai, Petroseny and Petrilla, grouped at the mouths of the shafts by which this rich coal-basin is worked. In the distance lay an admirable series of ridges, wooded to their bases, green on their flanks, barren on their summits, commanded by the rugged peaks of Rettezat and Paring. Far away beyond the valley of the Hatszeg and the course of the Maros, appeared the distant mist-clad outlines of the Alps of Central Transylvania.”
“Hereabouts the depression of the ground formerly formed a lake into which the two Syls flowed before they found a passage through the chain. Nowadays this depression is a coal-field with its advantages and inconveniences : the tall brick chimneys rise amid the poplars, pines, and beeches, and black fumes poison the air which once was saturated with the perfumes of fruit-trees and flowers. But at the time of our story, although industry was holding the mining district under its iron hand, nothing had been lost of the country’s wild character which was its by nature.
The Castle of the Carpathians dated from the twelfth or thirteenth century. In those days, under the rule of the chiefs or voivodes, monasteries, churches, palaces, castles were fortified with as much care as the towns and villages. Lords and peasants had to secure themselves against aggression of all kinds. This state of affairs explains why the old fortifications of the castle, its bastions and its keep, gave it the appearance of a feudal building. What architect would have built on this plateau at this height. We know not, and the bold builder is unknown, unless it was the Rouman Manoli, so gloriously sung of in Wallachian legend, and who built at Curte d’Arges the celebrated castle of Rodolphe the Black. Whatever doubts there might be as to the architect, there were none as to the family who owned the castle. The barons of Gortz had been lords of the country from time immemorial. They were mixed up in all the wars which ensanguined the Transylvanian fields ; they fought against the Hungarians, the Saxons, the Szeklers ; their name figures in the ” cantices ” and ” doines’, in which is perpetuated the memory of these disastrous times. For their motto they had the famous Wallachian proverb, ^^ Da pa maorte^ ** Give unto death ;” and they gave ; they poured out their blood for the cause of independence, the blood which came to them from the Romans their ancestors.
A castle deserted, haunted, and mysterious. A vivid and ardent imagination had soon peopled it with phantoms ; ghosts appeared in it, and spirits returned to it at all hours of the night. Such opinions are still common in certain superstitious countries of Europe, and Transylvania is one of the most superstitious. Besides, how could the village of Werst put off its belief in the supernatural ? The pope and the school- master, the one charged with the education of the faithful, the other charged with the education of the children, taught their fables as openly as if they believed in them thoroughly. They affirmed, and even produced “corroborative evidence ” that were-wolves prowled about the country ; that vampires known as stryges, because they shrieked like stryges, quenched their thirst on humanblood ; that ” staffii ” lurked about ruins and became vindictive if something to eat and drink were not left for them every night. There were fairies, “babes” who should not be met with on Thursdays or Fridays, the two worst days in the week. In the depths of the forests, those enchanted forests, there wandered the ** balauri,” those gigantic dragons whose jaws gape up to the clouds, the ” zmei ” with vast wings, who carry away the daughters of the royal blood, and even those of meaner lineage when they are pretty! Here, it would seem, were a number of formidable monsters, and what is the good genius opposed to them in the popular imagination ? Simply the ” serpi de casa,” the snake of the fireside, which lives at the back of the hearth, and whose healthy influence the peasant purchases by feeding him with the best milk.
If ever a castle was a fitting refuge for the creatures of this Roumanian mythology, was ft not the Castle of the Carpathians ? On that isolated plateau, inaccessible except from the left of Vulkan Hill, there could be no doubt that there lived dragons and fairies and stryges, and probably a few ghosts of the family of the barons of Gortz. And so it had an evil reputation, which it deserved, as they said. No one dared to visit it. It spread around it a terrible epidemic as an unhealthy marsh gives forth its pestilential emanations. Nothing could approach it within a quarter of a mile without risking its life in this world and its salvation in the next. At least so it was taught in the school of Magister Hermod.
But at the same time this state of things was to end eventually, and that as soon as no stone remained of the ancient stronghold of the barons of Gortz. And here it was that the legend came in. “”
From Jules Verne – “The Castle in Transylvania” 1881
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