A Tale of Two Gothics

When I was a girl, [mumble mumble] decades ago, Gothic romance was very much in style. Two of the leading practitioners of the form were Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, although numerous other writers contributed. Many of my friends remember those books fondly, while admitting that they haven’t actually read one in a very long time. Gothic novels usually featured frightened heroines (often governesses or poor relations) trapped by circumstance in isolated (and sometimes crumbling) manors dominated by aloof and dangerous lords (usually harboring some tragic secret). Readers loved them. But the appeal of the Gothic faded over the decades. Authors turned to more contemporary romantic suspense, and readers followed.

Now and then an adventurous author puts her own twist on the Gothic tradition. Not long ago I happened to read two such modern twists on the Gothic romance in quick succession, two very different books with shared literary DNA: Dark Angel by TJ Bennett and Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Dark Angel is subtitled A Gothic Fairy Tale, and that is a very good description indeed. The story blends the tale of Beauty and the Beast with folklore and history in lush and elegant prose, producing a most unusual and remarkable paranormal romance.

Dark AngelWhen young widow Catherine Briton is swept onto the shore of a dark, foggy island, the only survivor of a shipwreck in the Irish Sea, she is determined to return to London and her duties there. When her rescuer, the Master of the mysterious island of Ynys Nos, tells her that no one ever leaves, she is determined to discover the secret—or the curse—that holds the land and its people in thrall.

Both Catherine and Gerard, the arrogant and imperious Master, are burdened with secrets and guilt. Catherine soon discovers that the people of Ynys Nos pay a terrible price for what might appear to be a wondrous gift. She finds herself locked in her room in Gerard’s castle, wondering why Gerard only appears at night. When she visits the village, where no one is quite what they would wish her to believe, she learns even stranger secrets. And although she feels duty-bound to return to her old life, both the island and her growing feelings for Gerard may make that an impossible dream.

Heroes Are My Weakness, on the other hand is a totally contemporary novel, but Phillips had me at the dedication—to Mary Stewart, Anya Seton, Charlotte Bronte, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney. Despite the fact that the Heroes Are My Weaknessheroine, a ventriloquist, holds conversations with her puppets, there’s nothing paranormal about Heroes. But Annie Hewitt is trapped on an isolated island, in the dead of winter, with no job and no prospects, by the terms of her inheritance. The owner of the mansion on the island, Theo Harp, is no stranger. In fact Annie has known him since they were kids, and can’t imagine ever forgiving him for what he did then. But it’s a small island, and she can’t avoid him for long. There are secrets from the past, nosy townsfolk, a creaky crumbling mansion—and quite a bit of Phillips’ trademark humor.

Dark Angel was nominated for an RWA RITA Award in 2014. I will be amazed if Heroes isn’t nominated this year. These two very different Gothic tales are both delicious books.

The Influence of Books, part 2

A few days ago I wandered through the works of three authors I remember fondly from my earliest reading days.  I moved into the adult section of the library when I was about twelve.  If there was much of a Young Adult market back then, I don’t remember it.  My parents were constant readers, and nothing on their bookshelves was off limits.  They figured if I was interested in a book, and understood it, I was old enough to read it.

I read mysteries (I remember reading a Perry Mason novel on an airplane trip to visit my cousins when I was eleven), romantic suspense, historical novels, science fiction, pretty much everything.  Looking back, I still couldn’t say that this author or that influenced me (or my future interst in writing) more than another.  But I do remember my favorites.

I suspect I share my most-remembered romantic suspense triumvirate with untold numbers of (mostly female) readers and writers:  Phyllis Whitney, Mary Stewart, and Victoria Holt.  When I did a little research this evening, I was struck by the fact that all three of these ladies lived–and wrote–for a long time.  I love to discover things like that.

Victoria Holt (whose real name was Eleanor Hibbert) wrote under several pseudonyms, perhaps because she wrote so many books, and perhaps to separate them by genre.  As Victoria Holt, she was famous for gothic novels like Mistress of Mellyn and Bride of Pendorric, from 1960 through 1993; those were my favorites.  As Jean Plaidy, she wrote an astounding number of novels based on the lives of English royalty, published from 1945 through 1996.  As Phillipa Carr, she wrote another series of English historical novels between 1972 and 1993.  She published under at least five other names, too, before she died in 1993, at the age of 86, on a cruise ship somewhere between Greece and Egypt.  Probably planning her next three books at the time.

I was surprised but pleased to learn that Mary Stewart, also an English writer, is alive and living in Edinburgh, where she recently celebrated her 96th birthday.  My own favorite Stewart books were her Merlin saga, beginning with The Crystal Cave in 1970.  Ask around, and you’ll hear titles like Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, and The Moon Spinners listed as favorites.  Stewart “only” wrote about twenty-five novels, published between 1954 and 1997.

Phyllis A. Whitney, the American of the trio, died in 2008, still reportedly writing at the age of 104.  She wrote dozens of novels between 1941 and 1997.  I remember reading her books regularly in the 60s and 70s, but I had missed quite a few when I read her obituary.  I went out and picked up several of her later books, written in the 1990s, and they were just what I remembered, suspenseful stories steeped in setting and locale.  She also wrote an excellent Guide to Fiction Writing, much loved by at least two generations of writers.

Did my love for the work of these three writers set me on the path toward writing romance?  None of them would have considered herself a writer of genre romance.  Holt wrote more historical fiction (an entirely different genre than modern historical romance) than anything else.  Stewart wrote historical fantasy in the Merlin series and contemporary suspense in the majority of her novels.  Whitney won the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America in 1988.

But there was romance in all their novels.  The romance may not have been the main plot, or the main selling point, but it was always there, and generations of readers and writers still read and love them for it.