Friday, 21 August 2015

Olalla by Robert Louis Stevenson Review (Little Black Classics #19)


A man is invited to a dilapidated castle in the Spanish mountains to recover from an illness or something. The family who own the house are aristocrats who’ve fallen on hard times. The son is a bit of a simpleton, the mother is quietly crazy (until she isn’t), and the daughter, Olalla, is eerily beautiful. Nothing happens, then the narrator falls for Olalla but they can’t be together and then it’s over. 

Also, they’re… vampires?! 

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1887 short story is so damn subtle, finding out from other sources that this is supposedly a Gothic horror and that the aristocratic family were vampires (or something) completely threw me. Yes, it’s Gothic - crumbling castle in the mountains, check, very atmospheric - but horror and vampires - what?! 

They walk about in daylight just fine, don’t drink anyone’s blood, there’s no clue that Stevenson’s hinting they’re vampires at all. I guess that explains why they live in a castle and the townsfolk fear them? But that in itself doesn’t necessarily mean they’re vampires either. 

I don’t mind subtle storytelling and open-ended endings, for me, are the best but you’ve got to give the reader something and Stevenson gives the reader nothing at all with Olalla. The narrator doesn’t even have a name, we don’t know why the aristocratic family have fallen on hard times, there’s no story whatsoever, and it’s told in such a detached way as to be almost dreamlike. Give me a reason to care, show me something, anything besides our narrator wandering the halls! 

The absence of a story coupled with Stevenson’s overwrought, paragraph-long sentences left me completely indifferent to this minor work from the writer of Treasure Island and Jekyll/Hyde. I’ll have to take it at others’ words that this is a vampire story because I saw nothing of the sort myself. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a female vampire story that was published 15 years before Olalla, is far better and more satisfying a tale.

Olalla

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