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Suspending disbelief from a bell tower

Miloš Urban's latest novel in English takes Gothic fiction to gory extremes

Posted: October 27, 2010

By Stephan Delbos - Staff Writer | Comments (2) | Post comment

Suspending disbelief from a bell tower

Courtesy Photo

Urban is known for his macabre depictions of Prague.

The genre of Gothic fiction got its start in the 1760s, though its real heyday didn't come for another 50 years, when Romantic writers such as Mary Shelley penned their timeless classics. Novels in the genre tend to be high-octane thrillers of supernatural spills, chills and unsolved mysteries - nail-biting entertainment for the candlelit, pre-television crowd.  

Gothic novels have undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, albeit in watered-down form, with mega-hits such as Harry Potter and the Twilight series putting a youth-targeted spin on classic archetypes. Enter Czech novelist Miloš Urban.

Urban has made his name with nearly a dozen novels, many set in Prague, which have almost single-handedly revived the Gothic genre in Czech literature. The Seven Churches was published in Czech in 2001 to wide acclaim and is generally considered Urban's masterpiece. The recent publication of the novel in English introduces Urban's spine-tingling work to a wider audience.

The novel revolves around Květoslav Švach, an architecture fanatic and failed Prague policeman down on his luck. Things begin to change for Švach - who goes by the name "K," in a tongue-in-cheek authorial nod to Franz Kafka - when he discovers a man hanging upside down by his Achilles tendon in the bell tower of Saint Appolinaris' Church. A suspenseful murder mystery ensues as Švach is tentatively rehired by the police to help solve the crime.

The Seven Churches
By Miloš Urban
Translated by Robert Russell
Peter Owen Publishers 2010
303 pages

Ten Classics of Gothic Literature

1) The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, 1764
2) The Sargossa Manuscript by Jan Patocki, 1805
3) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1818
4) "La Belle Dame sans Merci" by John Keats, 1819
5) The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, 1831
6) "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe, 1845
7) Dracula by Bram Stoker, 1897
8) "The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft, 1928
9) Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin, 1967
10) The Shining by Stephen King, 1977

Matthias Gmünd, a dapper descendent of Austro-Hungarian nobility who has more than a passing resemblance to Karel Schwarzenberg, comes to Prague to help preserve a number of New Town's old churches which are in danger of being renovated. The plot thickens when architects connected both with Švach and Gmünd begin to be threatened, and finally, murdered.

Those who have visited Prague will feel acute pleasure reading The Seven Churches, if only because the bulk of the novel is set in the neighborhoods surrounding Karlovo náměstí: familiar territory to even the most short-term tourists. Anyone who has ever lamented the proliferation of neon lights and strip joints in the city center will empathize with Švach, who frequently - tangentially - rages against the dying of the classic architecture that makes Prague unique.

Indeed, Urban's most personal spin on the Gothic genre in this book is his approach to architecture, which, as the title suggests, figures significantly in The Seven Churches. Traditional Gothic novelists reveled in Gothic architecture and ruins, which they felt aroused feelings of suspense, and harkened back to a darker, more chaotic era. Urban goes several steps further.

Švach describes Functionalism - the architectural style favored by the communists - as "that pernicious product of the 20th century that has done so much to suppress human individuality and the diversity of our manmade habitat."

Such ranting is humorous, not to say insightful, but quickly becomes cloying, especially as it is so often repeated in bombastic, rhetorical terms, such as this dirge against modernist architecture that stretches on for several pages:

"Blind men laid to waste this venerable city because they could not see its beauty. Where was their humility before God? Was it not His children, their forebears who built these wonders? ? Imagine, too, a street, a crooked, winding or at least curving street, as narrow as a footpath in a sandstone gully, as dark as the depths of a rock pool. (Yes, that is beauty - but a beauty only visible to those of us who are worthy of it, for whom the phrase 'avant garde' is meaningless and 'new' is a dirty word). That is how Prague once was and how she should have remained for all time."

Ultimately, it is difficult to share Švach's fanatic views about architecture, no matter how strongly one feels about the state of buildings in Prague. These opinions, coupled with the increasingly strange nature of the murders taking place (or really, the fact that any murders are taking place, considering the low rate of violent crime in Prague), including a man whose legs are cut off and stuck atop a flagpole, bring The Seven Churches far beyond the bounds of credibility, but not, perhaps, of entertainment.

Extreme passions, bloodbaths and attitudes toward architecture bordering on the occult all have their place in Gothic novels. And readers of such novels are usually unrepentant in their enthusiasm, an attitude this reviewer does not share. That said, The Seven Churches is an extremely suspenseful novel set in the mother of all Gothic cities. The book is entertaining and enjoyable, if only as a mirror to see one's own urban experience reflected and contrasted, no matter how unbelievably.

Stephan Delbos can be reached at

Tags: gothic, milos urban, review, fiction, novel, seven churches, kvetoslav svach, books, book review, czech republic, czech, literature, culture.

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