Books to Love: Let's Get Gothic
Confession, dear readers. I love a good Gothic. There I said it. Laugh if you will, but I really could care less. They’re like popcorn to me; you know, a great snack that’s almost healthy. I wouldn’t make a steady diet of Gothics, but, by golly, they’re a delight, especially in October, when the light is waning and the temperatures begin to hold just the right balance of chill and crispness in the air.
While I don’t ordinarily theme my reading material, I find that the seasons sort of dictate the literature that I want to read. In October, I read Gothics. The month was made for it. When I was compiling my list, I realized there were certain constants occurring in the plots of the novels.
Trope #1: The Enterprising Heroine
The main character is always an independent women. Usually she’s not beautiful, but definitely attractive. More often than not, the novel opens with the reason why the heroine needs to seek employment. Her circumstances are always unique in some manner, such as her father had an eccentric career that exposed her to an odd upbringing but afforded her a particular set of skills that make her employable. In many Gothics, she’s just procured a position in a household as a governess. Governesses abound in Gothics.
One such example of this trope is found in Victoria Holt’s first Gothic, The Mistress of Mellyn.
In shades of DuMaurier’s Rebecca and Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Mistress of Mellyn is an excellent example of the revival of the Gothic sub-genre of romantic suspense. Martha Leigh, our heroine, has taken a job as a governess to Connan TreMellyn’s difficult daughter, Alvean. Her arrival at Mount Mellyn is reminiscent of Jane Eyre’s arrival at Thornfield Hall; imagine all things dark, dreary, and mysterious (nothing says mysterious like fog and mizzle). Regardless, Martha settles into her new life rather well, ingratiating herself with the staff swiftly. Alvean, Martha’s pupil, takes a little more time to crack, but you can’t fully blame the child. How is a young kid supposed to behave when her mother abandons her to run off with her lover, only to die in mysterious circumstances? What’s worse is that her father seems to have no time for her now that he’s been widowed. Alvean is desperate to ingratiate herself with her dear old papa. She thinks the best way to do this is through horses. Only problem: not only can Alvean NOT ride, she’s terrified of all things equestrian, namely horses. In rides Martha on her white charger; an accomplished horsewoman, Martha takes Alvean in hand and teaches her the finer points of riding. They bond over this. Furthermore, Alvean is not the only one who gains Conan TreMellyn’s attention this way; Martha is now on his radar, too. And, as fate would have it, Martha is drawn to this man of mystery and strength. She’s heard tales, stories of his great passion for his wife, stories of his great anger at her betrayal, stories that both pique and frighten. Couple the gossip with the ghostly presence that seems to haunt the corridors of Mount Mellyn, and she’s faced with a conundrum. Should she stay or should she go? Well, intrepid as she is, she stays. She’s invested and she’s straight up curious. Martha plunges into the past and starts to dig up ghosts and secrets, and, along with those secrets comes the thrill and suspense and mystery, for, as we all know, there is always someone who doesn’t want the secrets told. In this case, that someone goes to rather great and complicated lengths to frighten our heroine off. Truly, death treads perilously close to our erstwhile Martha on more than one occasion. Is it TreMellyn, who seems to grow more and more smitten with her as the novel progresses? Is it TreMellyn’s mistress? Is it the rather spirited and somewhat deranged girl TreMellyn allows to live in the manor? Or is it the spirit of TreMellyn’s departed wife come to haunt any woman who would try to take her place within her hallowed halls?
Trope #2: The House
There is always a house- a manor, a chateau, a castle, a large, sprawling mansion- in possession of a chilling history. Was it a monk walled up behind a tapestry while the Roundheads and Cavaliers duked it out during the English Civil War whose apparition now creaks the floorboards in the dark of night? Or perhaps the dead wife of the current lord of the land haunts the halls, having perished under highly suspect circumstances? Regardless, there’s always a behemoth of a home with an past. And we must not forget the minstrels' gallery. There's always a minstrels' gallery to say nothing of the tapestries.
Rona Randall’s Dragonmede is the novel I associate the most with this motif. Dragonmede, after all, is the name of the sprawling, overbearing, oppressive mansion and estate chock full of mystique.
Our heroine, Eustacia. is endearing, noble, and naive. She possesses a good heart, and I can forgive her many foibles because they come from being young. Eustacia has a whirlwind romance with Julian Kershaw of Dragonmede. They marry after one month of courtship and Julian whisks her away to his country seat in the south of England where she meets his frigid lush of a step-mother, his effeminate step-brother, Christopher, his invalid father who is incapable of speech, his widowed Aunt Dorcas now full-time nurse to her enfeebled brother, and her son, Dr. Nicholas Bligh. Aside from Aunt Dorcas, the reception Eustacia receives at her husband's home can only be described as glacial. Even the servants give her cool glances compounding the lack of welcome she senses the moment she steps through the imposing doors. Then everything begins to change. The first day of her arrival, she discovers that Julian has a jilted fiancée, Victoria, daughter of the wealthy neighboring landowner, who is rather raw about the whole affair. Then Julian begins to show signs of cruelty and a touch of savagery, as Victoria calls it. Pretty soon, Eustacia is questioning the motives of everyone around her, including those of people she thought she would never question in the whole of her life, such as her mother. Who can she trust? Certainly not her husband? And not her mother? Aunt Dorcas seems friendly, but what secret proclivities is she hiding? Would she like something to happen to Eustacia and Julian, so that her son could inherit Dragonmede? What about step-mother Miriam? Is she so enamored of her son, Christopher, that she would try to bring an untimely end to the woman who could produce the next heir of Dragonmede? As these questions begin to take shape in Eustacia's mind, a string of events unfolds that casts deeper shadows of suspicions on all those whom she would normally turn to in need and leave her thrust into a darkness that can only be eradicated by shedding the light of truth on it. But is the truth too terrible to face?
Trope #3: The Male Love Interest
There are a few constants here. He’s devastatingly handsome. Always. I have never once seen this otherwise. Furthermore, he’s in possession of that je n’ais se quoi that makes him supremely cool in every single situation. He’s like James Bond on steroids. Yep, he’s cool, he’s debonair, and he’s so entirely mysterious you can make it through most of the novel thinking he’s potentially the bad guy.
Madeleine Brent’s Tregaron’s Daughter has the perfect example of this in Lucian Farrel.
Beginning in Cornwall, this novel follows Cadi (Caterina Tregaron) from the storm swept coast of Cornwall where she lives with her fisherman father to the comfort of her adopted family’s English country estate to the grandeur of her lost grandmother’s Italian villa. From the beginning, we know that Cadi has been having a recurring dream of a man- who we find out is actually Lucian Farrel; sometimes this dream leaves her feeling supreme joy, other times it terrifies her. She first meets Lucian when she saves the life of his uncle, Mr. Morton, when he gets caught in a treacherous undertow off the coast of Cornwall. Later, when the Morton’s adopt her into their family after the death of her father, she is thrown together with Lucian again. He is a figure of mystery and his past is not one of which to brag; in fact, if gossip is to be believed, he’s a bit of a scoundrel. However, Cadi is a woman who knows her own mind, not to mention of a woman of discernment. These stories of cowardice and dishonor don’t jive in her mind. Before she can fully delve into the truth, however, an unexpected discovery takes her from the safety of England to Venice. Is she truly an heiress? Is there untold wealth laid up for her? And, if so, is she now a target for the nefarious? Is the seemingly new attention Lucian pays her because he wants her or her money? Is there someone actively trying to prevent her from inheriting? Cadi’s heart is not the only think imperiled; so is her life.
Trope #4: The Paranormal
Most Gothics have a paranormal twist to them. Sometimes the paranormal elements are explained away when the mystery surrounding the heroine is fully revealed. Other times, the supernatural is simply that: supernatural.
Simone St. James’ moody, atmospheric novel Lost Among the Living is the perfect embodiment of this.
Set in post WW1 England, this book follows the story of Jo Manders, a woman whose husband, Alex, has been missing in action for the last three years. He was a pilot during the war and his plane was shot down over Germany, his body never recovered. Since he’s still listed as missing in action, she cannot collect widow’s pay and is therefore forced to seek employment by any means possible. Alex’s battle-axe of an aunt takes her on as her personal secretary. The story opens when they are returning from the continent; Aunt Dottie’s son, Martin, is back home at Wych Elm House after his convalescence and Dottie wants to be with him. Martin is a mess, dealing with the trauma of surviving the horrors of the war as well as the guilt that comes with that, not to mention the physical injuries he suffered. He’s content to hole away his days with his hypodermic and morphine bottles. Robert, Dottie’s husband, is a cold, sometimes cruel fish, with no regard for his wife or even his son. In fact, he seems to hate his family. Needless to say, the atmosphere upon Jo’s arrival at Wych Elm is tense and unfriendly. Then she sees a ghost. Truly. She sees an apparition. And what does she do? Well, she does what any enterprising Gothic heroine does; she investigates. Turns out the ghost she saw was that of Robert and Dottie’s deceased daughter, Frances, who threw herself to her own death rather inexplicable three year ago, just before Alex disappeared somewhere over Germany. Jo ferrets out secrets and discovers that the whole of Frances’ life, she seemed to live a paranormal existence in which she could see spirits. Hers, it seems, was a soul in torment. It would explain her suicide, but Jo’s not convinced. There’s more to the story, and she’ll do anything to discover the answers, regardless of the dangers. Needless to say, family intrigue abounds, and Jo quickly discovers that even the long held beliefs she has about her husband may be built on a foundation as feeble as the sand.
One of the things I appreciated the most about this book was the actual writing. Simone St. James is an exceptional author, not only in her plot lines, but also in her way with words.
There are more Gothic novels on my TBR list: Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden; Eve Chase’s Black Rabbit Hall; Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting; Susan Howatch’s The Devil on Lammas Night; Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…
And, of course, there are many others I adore but did not list; shout out to Diana Tyrell’s On the Edge of the Woods.
Now you’ve heard mine. Are there any Gothic novels you think are stellar? They don’t have to be acclaimed; there’s no judgement here. Do you even like Gothics? If not, what would you recommend to help me branch out? I just love to meet new books, especially when they are recommended by friends. And, I hope, dear readers, we might call each other friends here.
(Quick shout out to Guillermo Del Toro for helming Crimson Peaks. That movie is the perfect watch when the sun slips below the horizon and the October evenings lengthen a little each day. If you don’t want to read a Gothic novel, I offer you this movie as an alternative to get your Gothic fix. Sheer perfection. And… Tom Hiddleston, which seems a little redundant, doesn’t it?)