David Knight
David Knight

It’s The Omen, all over again. Not the 1976 horror flick or its 2006 remake, but a new edition of an early Gothic novel of the same name published by Guelph founder John Galt.

Last fall’s re-issue of The Omen is a kind of Scots-Goth mash-up that might help explain part of the city’s origins — all bound up in a 19th-century novel whose first edition is held in the U of G Library’s extensive Scottish archives.

Before Galt arrived in then-Upper Canada in 1827 as head of the Canada Company, he had gained fame in his home country for writing novels and stories of rural and small-town characters.

Born in 1779, he eventually wrote more than 80 books; he died in Greenock, Scotland, in 1839.

The Omen was an early Gothic novel among such contemporary titles as The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764 by Horace Walpole, says David Knight. A Guelph fine art grad, he’s an archeologist and amateur historian who edited the newly re-issued novel.

During a launch event in November 2013, Knight said this was the first Galt novel published in the city that the writer founded.

The new release is produced by Publication Studio Guelph, a books-on-demand venture in Guelph.

Knight wrote a foreword and included contemporary reviews of The Omen, including a favourable piece written by Sir Walter Scott.

That was perhaps appropriate.

Says Tim Sauer, a retired U of G library archivist who collected much of the Galt material: “When Galt was translated into any of the European languages, it was common to attribute authorship to Sir Walter Scott.

“For a short time, Galt was as popular as Scott in some reading circles, and since most of both authors’ books were published anonymously, it was common for authorship to be confused in the early 1820s.”

Knight says literary influences on Galt included Lord Byron. Galt travelled around the Mediterranean with the poet and even wrote a Life of Byron in 1830. A manuscript of that biography also occupies the Galt archives in the McLaughlin Library.

In The Omen, a young narrator confuses memories of the future and the past. He is stalked by the ghosts of predestination, mistaken identity and encounters with the past.

Sauer says the novel “deals with what we would now call parapsychology, or tales of the supernatural, although it is rather a mild story compared with modern tales of vampires, the walking dead.”

Galt published the novel in 1825, just two years before founding Guelph. Knight believes the Gothic nature of the novel crossed the ocean with him and fed into the new settlement here.

Pointing to architecture, including the Church of Our Lady and the Petrie Building on Wyndham Street, Knight says Guelph’s downtown feels Gothic to him.

Not just that: He says the city evokes an even earlier writer.

Byron worshipped Dante Alighieri, says Knight. He thinks the connection to the medieval Italian poet flowed through to Galt, who likely still had The Omen in mind when he founded Guelph in 1827.

He named the new town for King George IV, whose family name was Gwelf. But Knight thinks we can infer something of the soul of the place by looking further back — all the way to the medieval Italy of Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy.

Exiled from Florence, Dante was completing the final part of the Comedy when he moved to Ravenna in 1318. He died three years later and was buried in Ravenna. Knight spent time there on digs during an extended European sojourn.

Dante’s family was connected to the Florentine Guelphs, who supported the pope against the holy Roman emperor, backing the Arezzo Ghibellines.

After the Ghibellines were defeated, the Guelphs fought among themselves, splitting into Black and White factions. When the Black Guelphs took over Florence, Dante was exiled and gained the protection of the White faction.

The feud – and the family name of Guelph — surfaces briefly in the Paradiso section of the Divine Comedy.

Knight thinks there’s something of Dante in downtown Guelph – or if not him, then certainly Gothicism.

Referring to Galt, Knight writes, “His choice of the name Guelph for his new settlement in Upper Canada may have been a multi-layered, sublime message.”

Says Melissa McAfee, special collections librarian: “We have a good Galt collection and probably one of the only places collecting Galt. If you wanted to do Galt, this is one of the places to do it.”

McAfee is ambivalent about The Omen itself. “I like the story. It has wonderful description of nature and a feeling of something original.” She’s less keen on Galt’s “flowery prose” and a style that she feels is too abstract and, at the same time, too “misty-eyed.”

The Omen is one of just a couple of Galt’s novels that incline toward the mystical and the occult, says Gil Stelter, history professor emeritus.

“It’s a stunning story, a very well-written story. By 1825, he’s at the peak of his writing ability,” says Stelter, who is writing a Galt biography.

He says the novel might also have foretold something else for its author. “The Omen represents his increasing foreboding before he goes to Canada that this is not going to work out.”

After running afoul of his employers, Galt was dismissed and recalled to Britain, where he was imprisoned for several months after failing to repay debts.