Books: More News of the Dark Foundling

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WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Brontë; 388 pages

RETURN TO WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Anna L 'Estrange; 365 pages

Pinnacle Books; $1.95 each (paperbacks)

HEATHCLIFF by Jeffrey Caine; Knopf; 246 pages; $7.95

Nightmares and dreams, through which devils dance and wolves howl, make bad novels." So wrote an American critic upon reading Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights soon after it was first published in December 1847. As so often happens, the reviewer was wrong. Emily's tumultuous tale of Catherine Earnshaw and the dark foundling Heathcliff, of the passion that raged between them across the Yorkshire moors, easily endured critical barbs and long ago became an English classic. If anything, the novel's popularity has grown steadily in the past 130 years. It has been filmed several times, most memorably in 1939 with Laurence Olivier in the role of Heathcliff. U.S. readers can now choose among more than 20 different editions of the book.

To which Los Angeles-based Pinnacle Books has added yet another. Why? Because the firm has also published Return to Wuthering Heights and hopes that the Brontë novel will serve as a teaser for its sequel. Fair enough. The more copies of Wuthering Heights available the better, for it is unquestionably the best of the hundreds of derivative gothic paperbacks published each year. Both Emily Brontë and her sister Charlotte (Jane Eyre) helped raise gothic fiction to the level of art. Before them, emotion-churning novels had been ludicrous affairs, monsters produced by the sleep of 18th century reason. The sisters' works domesticated gothic terror and made it seem, because it arose in a homely and familiar setting, more terrible still. The Brontës knew better than to assert the supernatural; much more chilling to insinuate it while denying its existence.

Emily's leap of genius was to have the story of Heathcliff and Catherine's blighted love told by Lockwood, a prissy outsider, and by Nelly Dean, the prim housekeeper who had witnessed most of the novel's events. Such narrow-minded story tellers were ill-equipped to understand a raging natural force like Heathcliff, much less to sympathize with his condition. The greater their shock at Heathcliff s behavior, the more they condemned him, the clearer it became that Heathcliff existed on a plane beyond the grasp of normal comprehension. Emily also wisely kept the man offstage much of the time. Rumors of monsters are usually more impressive than the creatures themselves.

This hint of ineffability has contributed much to the allure of Wuthering Heights. It has also, coincidentally, prompted two writers to fill in some of the things Emily did not say. With few exceptions (notably T.H. White's revisitation of Gulliver's Travels and Nicholas Meyer's further adventures of Sherlock Holmes), sequels of books, written by someone other than the original author, have been shameless ripoffs. Oddly enough, Wuthering Heights is still sufficiently vital to sustain its parasites.

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