This month we invite you to share with us Murder Most Gothic. From its deliciously spine-tingling eighteenth-century origins to contemporary forays into the genre from the likes of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, it seems that we can’t get enough of the delights of Gothic fiction. Here, Deborah Valentine shares some of her favourites.
Everyone has a favourite Gothic novel. From the eighteenth century we have the camp revelries of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and the delicious melodrama of M. G. Lewis’s The Monk; from the nineteenth, the sweeping romanticism of the Brontë sisters, the shivers of Edgar Allan Poe and a host of other best beloved authors. Even Jane Austen couldn’t keep her fingers out of the pie, writing a parody, Northanger Abbey – a story recently reimagined by Val McDermid – because to this day the genre continues to capture our hearts and imagination. Journalist John Crace goes so far as to credit Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca for teaching him to love literature. Certainly Margaret Millar owes a nod to the Gothic for her spine-tingling Beast In View, a Jekyll & Hyde variation set in a dubious Hollywood hotel.
Wild, mad and atmospheric, Gothic fiction is riddled with dark family secrets, often hints at forces beyond the rational and, of course, always leads to crime. But, for me, one of the outstanding features is the architecture, as much a character as the people themselves. Castles crumbling, manors imposing or abbeys bleak, they are the metaphorical framework for the lives within.
And no one does more visually captivating architecture than Carlos Ruiz Zafón. His cult classic Marina foretells the seductive qualities of his later The Cemetery of Forgotten Books trilogy, presenting an hallucinatory image of Barcelona, a city of love and loss and impossibly beautiful women, where happiness itself a portent of doom. Two youngsters with more curiosity than sense steal away to a cemetery to spy on a mysterious woman placing a red rose on a tomb; from there they are drawn into murder, madness and the macabre. These are the memories of a middle-aged man and permeated with wise melancholy, a hallmark of Zafón’s work. You’ll not find anything creepier, or more poignant.
In contrast there’s a sly humour to Joan Fleming’s Dirty Butter For Servants. Refreshingly, her heroine Mary Ann is no ethereal virgin but a full-grown plain-speaking Yorkshire servant. It’s just after the Napoleonic Wars, Mary Ann is living in Brussels when the lady she serves, concerned about her father’s relationship with his second wife, sends her back to the childhood manor to check on his welfare. She finds spinster step-daughters held captive by a miserly mother, while the browbeaten master prefers to live with his groom. Incestuously tangled relationships between servants and masters are set against an increasingly industrialised countryside where progress itself looms as a menacing shadow. It’s a delight.
Equally delightful is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, narrated by Flavia de Luce, a precocious student of chemistry and budding sociopath (or is this what 11-year-old girls are like?). Combining down-at-heel aristos, a distant father haunted by the death of his wife, dysfunctional sisters and a Tudor mansion, it’s a wonderfully screwy take on the Gothic. Reminiscent of Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle in its familial eccentricities, Bradley’s stories differ in that you are not sure how much you can rely on this lively narrator and whether she shouldn’t be locked up for public safety. Her obsession with chemistry (poisons, especially) is all-consuming and I learned more about science, far more engagingly, than I ever did at school.
Mr Splitfoot by Helen McCloy takes the classic elements of a snow storm, an old farmhouse with an ancestral curse and a pair of mischievous adolescents, and places them under the rational eye of forensic psychologist Dr Basil Willing. With a heady mix of philosophy, scepticism and ‘pushing their luck’ by tempting the devil, it’s been called one of the 100 best crime and mystery novels ever written. Rightly so.
But for sheer suspense it’s hard to beat Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Even more subtle and intimate than the fine TV adaptation, the author’s use of language, her compassion for her characters and her skill at shuffling the cards of detail make for a tantalizing mystery. It is a story that hints at the supernatural but of a type deeply rooted in human psychology, human longing. This is a Gothic tale told by a master, strongly influenced by Jane Eyre.
And her Bellman & Black takes us to the subject at the very heart of Gothic: death. Our fascination with it, our fear of it, its inescapability. As a child the eponymous Bellman kills a young rook – a bird with mythic associations. Horrified, he buries his feelings, pushes the incident out of his mind, and this goes straight to the book’s underlying theme: thought and memory and their relationship to life and death. It’s as brilliant a portrayal of an evolving workaholic as ever written. Haunted afterwards by a dark figure Bellman, as a successful businessman, makes a bargain with it and is consumed by building a grandiose emporium selling funerary wares. But for all his skills at accountancy, has he got his checks and balances wrong? Confronted grief or avoided it? A beautifully thought-provoking tale.
It is said that if you dream of a house, you are dreaming of the very facets of yourself. And perhaps that is why architecture is so important to this genre. Its fantastical structures lead us into the back rooms, the deepest darkest cellars, the cobwebbed attics of our own psychology. And through the window of these stories, we see how complex life is, if only we take the time to appreciate its richness.
Which is your favourite Gothic novel and why – was it unnerving, scary or just darkly atmospheric? Tell us about it, in the Comments section below.
Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website.