Let’s Go Gothic
It is autumn now, and less than a year until Unspoken is released! So here begins my series of Gothic Tuesdays, in which on one Tuesday every month, I will talk about Gothic fiction and what about it calls my name all night long.
I am also going to have a Lady Sleuths Day, but I have not picked a day of the week for it. Maybe Thursday! Does Thursday sound sleuthy?
So my agent, the Lovely Kristin, had given up on getting me to write anything popular, because I am a monster who destroys all in my path! Or… I march to the beat of my own drummer, or something.
KRISTIN: So what’s this… thing that you want to write, then?
SARAH: Oh gosh okay wait till I tell you! It’s going to be awesome. You’ll see. It’s about a lady reporter who lives in a tiny English town.
KRISTIN: Always England with you…
SARAH: But this is different! Lexicon was cities. This is in the country, and that’s quite a different feel. You know what Stephen King called ‘The Peculiar Little Town’? Secrets. Beautiful surroundings. Oppressive feelings. And on the hill above the town, a house…
KRISTIN: Oh you’re writing a Gothic novel.
SARAH: … Beg pardon?
KRISTIN: I used to love Gothic novels! I love Mary Stewart!
SARAH: Mary Stewart? Didn’t she write books about Merlin? My book’s not about Merlin.
TRUE STORY: My book now has a Merlin mention in it. Irony’s ironic like that.
KRISTIN: You know, Gothic novels. A girl trapped in a house… not sure if her surroundings are sinister, or sure who she can trust…
SARAH: Wait, like Rebecca? Oh hang on, wait, I’ve read tons of books like that! Huh. You know, I never put it together that all those books with a similar theme were a genre and not, you know. A weird coincidence. Gothic novels! How about that.
KRISTIN: They were very popular… in the eighties. You want to write a kind of book that was popular thirty years ago. This is a terrible idea.
SARAH: Terribly awesome.
I then began on my epic Gothic Reading Fest. But Gothic novels did not begin in the eighties. Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, a super-famous classic Gothic, was written in 1794, and Jane ‘My Queen’ Austen wrote an affectionate parody of Gothic fiction, Northanger Abbey, in 1817.
This is a lot of past to cover! I thought I would take Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, which came out in 1839, as a good example of early Gothic, showing a lot of the stuff that later Gothics would be famous for.
… Later Gothics would be famous for being totally crazy.
So. The Fall of the House of Usher.
HERO OF USHER: Just going to visit my old school friend Roddy, it’ll be a jolly lark!
HERO OF USHER: … Goddamn this is a creepy house.
RODERICK USHER: I feel extremely unwell.
HERO OF USHER: Well, a name like ‘Roderick Usher’ would get anyone down. Buck up, old chap!
RODERICK USHER: No, seriously. I might be a vampire. And I think the flowers are out to get me.
HERO OF USHER: … Ooookay. You want to do some fingerpainting or something, Roddy?
RODERICK USHER: My house is the boss of me! It’s possible I’m in love with my sister.
HERO OF USHER: … She seems nice.
RODERICK USHER: She’s not well.
HERO OF USHER: Sure. She’s not well.
TELEGRAMS FROM USHER: SEND HELP STOP RODDY DEFINITELY ON THE OPIUM STOP.
RODERICK USHER: I have written a poem, and set it to music! ‘Paranoia paranoia everybody’s coming to get me…’
HERO OF USHER: Roddy please put the violin down.
RODERICK USHER: My house is alive! I can tell because the windows are breathing.
HERO OF USHER: I have a question about the house. IS THERE A DOCTOR IN IT?
SKETCHY DOCTOR: *is sketchy*
HERO OF USHER: … Goddamn.
RODERICK USHER: Have you read this book called ‘Staring Creepily At Dead People’?
HERO OF USHER: … No…
RODERICK USHER: It’s a very good read.
HERO OF USHER:
RODERICK USHER: My sister is dead.
HERO OF USHER: Right. Well, Roddy, considering the things you have decided are alive – this house, that flowerpot –
RODERICK USHER: It’s watching me…
HERO OF USHER: You definitely got your medical degree off the internet, is all I’m saying.
RODERICK USHER: I’m just going to bury her in the walls for now.
HERO OF USHER: … ‘S totally normal behaviour…
TELEGRAMS FROM USHER: THIS AIN’T RIGHT STOP DOCTOR MAD SKETCHY STOP LADIES IN WALLS STOP I AM COMING TO REALISE RODDY MAY BE A LITTLE ECCENTRIC STOP
HERO OF USHER: She is one fine-looking corpse. So lifelike. Well, time for tea! I fancy cucumber sandwiches.
RODERICK USHER: *twitches* The sandwiches are alive.
HERO OF USHER: It’s been a week since we buried Madeline secretly in the walls, and Roddy is just not looking well! How are you doing, buddy? Got any dark secrets you want to tell me?
RODERICK USHER: Just listening to the faint scratching sounds and staring into the abyss…
HERO OF USHER: Can’t imagine what said dark secrets might be!
HERO OF USHER: ‘Twas a dark and stormy night, nobody was answering my telegrams, and in between the rolls of thunder I could hear these weird scratching sounds. Probably my imagination!
RODERICK USHER: Hey buddy!
HERO OF USHER: Hey buddy! I’m really freaked out tonight, I’m so glad you came to my bedroom wearing a manic expression! Can we cuddle?
RODERICK USHER: LET US BE AT ONE WITH THE ELEMENTS!
HERO OF USHER: Okay, I’m going to want you to shut the window, and come sit down, and I’ll read you a bedtime story and get you a cup of warm milk.
RODERICK USHER: The clouds are alive!
HERO OF USHER: … Of course they are, Roddy. Of course they are.
HERO OF USHER: Do you hear, like, crashing and screaming?
RODERICK USHER: Ahahahahahhaha! Ahahahahahahaha!!!!!!
HERO OF USHER: …. I think I hear crashing and screaming.
RODERICK OF USHER: All right! I’ll be straight with you bro! We totally buried Madeline alive! I’ve known for days! I could totally hear her trying to get out and starving to death and all!
HERO OF USHER: Uh, why did you not mention this earlier?
RODERICK OF USHER: Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t want to bother you and fuss around getting living people out of tombs. It is my aim to be the perfect host!
HERO OF USHER: …
RODERICK USHER: Yeah, I think that’s Madeline outside.
MADELINE USHER: I am wicked angry.
MADELINE USHER: … And I don’t feel so good.
TELEGRAMS FROM USHER: I’M NOT SAYING I SCREAMED LIKE A GIRL BUT SOMEONE WAS SCREAMING AND IT SURE WASN’T MADELINE STOP I WAS RUNNING AND MADELINE THREW HERSELF LIKE ON TOP OF RODDY SOMETHING VERY WEIRD GOING ON THERE STOP BLOOD MOON STOP MAYBE THE HOUSE EXPLODED I DON’T KNOW STOP I THINK IT WOULD BE BEST IF RODDY AND I LOST TOUCH STOP
This tale has a lot of Gothic stuff in it. One of those things is this…
YOUR BOYFRIEND: *is tall, dark, sinister, looming, maybe trying to kill you, definitely has secrets*
YOUR BOYFRIEND: *is a house, which is just another of many problems in your relationship*
Besides the Gothic Manor You Should Not Date, there’s also the fear of being helpless, trapped and stifled. Like, literally stifled. Buried alive. People get buried alive ALL THE TIME. Dudes do not have authority over ladies by virtue of being their fathers, husbands or brothers in quite the same way as they used to back in Roddy and Madeline’s day.
Parents still have authority over their kids like that. If they say ‘We are moving to No. 1 Atmosfear Lane, Murderville,’ you are moving.
And that fits pretty well, because that’s still family. Family is another theme of Gothic novels: the Ushers are just the beginning of Gothic Families That Ain’t Right. I love creepy families, their ties to each other, twisted love for each other, and giving them an ancestral home full of secrets does no harm.
One last theme of the Gothic novel: imagination. ‘Am I imagining this? Should I be afraid or not? Am I just being paranoid? Is someone trying to kill me, is that the sound of someone who’s been buried alive, is that a real ghost, or am I crazy?’ The abiding fear of your own mind, and all the shadows in its corners. It occurred to me that a beloved and terrifying imaginary friend would be a natural progression.
Jennifer Crusie, my favourite contemporary romance author bar none in all the world, has written a lot on her blog about Gothic novels, and I will definitely be devoting a Gothic Tuesday to her Gothic novel, Maybe This Time.
Next time we’ll be doing Jane Eyre and Rebecca, because Gothic Novels Have Two Mommies, and these are those mommies. Also expect references all over the place to Joanna Russ’s essay on the modern Gothic, Somebody’s Trying To Kill Me And I Think It’s My Husband. I don’t agree with all of it, but does it not have the best title in the world?
More fear, love, families and manors to come.