Category Archives: Gothic Fiction

Watch the Wall, My Darling by Jane Aiken Hodge

Watch the Wall My Darling - Jane Aiken Hodge I had never heard of Watch the Wall, My Darling until it started appearing in my recommendations on Goodreads, and with such an intriguing title I knew it was a book I would have to consider reading eventually! First published in 1966, it seems to be out of print now in paperback or hardback format, but used copies are available and an ebook version has also been released.

Watch the Wall, My Darling is a gothic romantic suspense novel set on the south-east coast of England during the Napoleonic Wars. As the story begins, Christina Tretton, a young American woman whose father has recently died, is returning to her family’s ancestral home, Tretteign Grange. After encountering a gang of smugglers on the journey, Christina arrives at the Grange – also known as the Dark House – and is met by her Aunt Verity, her invalid grandfather and her handsome cousin, Ross.

Settling into her new home, Christina quickly takes control of the management of the house and the servants. Impressed with his granddaughter, old Mr Tretteign decides to change his will and leave the Grange to Christina – on the condition that she must marry either Ross or her other cousin, Richard. Christina insists that she has no intention of marrying either of them, but her two cousins, who each have their own reasons for wanting the Grange, have other ideas. Despite herself, she finds herself drawn to Ross, but soon discovers that he is involved in something very dangerous – and with England expecting a French invasion at any moment, the lives of everyone at the Dark House could be at risk.

I enjoyed this book – it was a fun, undemanding read with plenty of adventure and intrigue and a touch of romance. I kept being reminded of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate and Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, though this is not as well written or memorable as any of those, in my opinion. The historical background didn’t feel particularly strong and Christina felt more like a woman of the 1960s than the 1800s, while I didn’t find Ross quite as fascinating and attractive as she did. The introduction of two new characters towards the end of the book didn’t really add anything to the story either. Still, with smugglers, soldiers and spies, a crumbling abbey believed to be haunted, family secrets and an inheritance to be decided, there was more than enough to keep me happy!

And if you’re wondering, the title comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called A Smuggler’s Song:

“Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark
Brandy for the parson,
‘Baccy for the clerk;
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!”

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Bellman and Black William Bellman is ten years old when he hits a rook with his catapult and kills it. He and his friends had expected the bird to fly away before the stone hit it and are surprised to see it die. Just a small incident and William quickly moves on with his life, but as he grows older it seems that this brief moment of cruelty was much more significant than it seemed at the time.

William joins the family mill and through hard work and dedication he begins to rise in the world. As a rich, successful businessman with a wife and children he loves, life is perfect – but not for long. Soon, a series of tragic deaths start to destroy William’s happiness and he finds himself entering into partnership with a mysterious stranger dressed in black…

I found plenty of things to like about Bellman & Black but compared to Diane Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, it was disappointing. Although I didn’t love The Thirteenth Tale the way a lot of other readers did and consequently my expectations for this one weren’t too high, I definitely found her first book much more enjoyable than the second. Bellman & Black is packed with great, original ideas but I don’t think she was quite as successful at bringing all of these ideas together to form a satisfying story as she was with The Thirteenth Tale.

I think part of my problem with this book may have been that I just didn’t like William and felt somehow detached from him, so that even when he was going through times of tragedy and disaster I didn’t really care. And being able to care about William would have been a big advantage in a book where William was the only character who felt fully developed. Other characters come and go without the reader having a chance to get to know them properly; I thought William’s daughter, Dora, had potential but her character was never fleshed out enough for me to be able to warm to her.

Anyway, let’s move on to the things that I loved in Bellman & Black. Diane Setterfield has chosen to write about some fascinating aspects of Victorian culture and society! The first half of the book revolves around the running of a mill and we have the chance to learn about all the different areas of the textile industry, from the processes of producing and dyeing cloth to the benefits Bellman introduces to improve the welfare of his workers. In the second half of the book we explore the mourning business and the emporium William establishes in London as part of his deal with Mr Black (I kept being reminded here of Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise).

Interspersed with William’s story are some shorter passages which discuss rooks and ravens – their appearance and behaviour, their roles in history and mythology, and every other aspect of rooks and ravens that you could possibly imagine. I’m not sure if these sections really added anything to the plot, but I liked the concept and enjoyed reading them.

Bellman & Black is described as a ghost story, though despite the Gothic touches and the foreboding atmosphere, I don’t really think I would agree with that description. William Bellman is certainly haunted, but it’s more of a psychological haunting than a physical one, so if you’re looking for a traditional ghost story you won’t find one here. This is the sort of book that will make you think and look below the surface for hidden meanings – and when you reach the final page you’ll be left to draw your own conclusions from what you’ve read.

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein I’ve had this book on my list for the RIP challenge for the last four years and finally, this year, I found time to read it! This was technically a re-read for me as I know I read it in when I was in my teens, but I had almost completely forgotten the story so it did feel as though I was reading it for the first time again. I also think I was maybe a bit too young to fully appreciate it the first time (I remember skipping through the ‘boring’ parts at the beginning to get to the parts with the monster).

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was written while Mary Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were staying at Lake Geneva with Lord Byron and John Polidori in the summer of 1816. Shelley’s novel is said to have come about as a result of a challenge from Byron that also led to Polidori’s The Vampyre (a story that influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and the beginnings of Byron’s own unfinished vampire story.

Frankenstein begins with some letters written by Arctic explorer Robert Walton to his sister in which he describes his voyage to the North Pole and how he saw a huge figure crossing the ice in a sledge pulled by dogs. Soon after this, Walton and his companions rescue another man, who is frozen and exhausted. His name is Victor Frankenstein and he tells Walton that he was trying to catch up with the giant figure they saw earlier. What follows is Victor’s story, beginning with his childhood in Geneva and his early interest in chemistry and other sciences. At university, his study of science continues and he secretly begins the construction of a human-like being which he plans to bring to life.

Victor’s experiment is a success, but after his creature is brought to life he panics and runs away, leaving the monster alone to fend for itself. The rest of the book follows Frankenstein’s nameless monster, abandoned and rejected by his creator, as he searches for acceptance and friendship. Meanwhile, Victor is convinced that he has unleashed a terrible evil upon the world and that he will have to destroy the monster before it destroys him.

Like Dracula, Frankenstein has become a part of popular culture, but most film versions of Frankenstein have very little in common with this book, so it’s still worth reading even if you think you already know the story. We probably all have an image in our mind of what Frankenstein’s monster looks like (green skin, bolt through the neck etc) but in the book, there are only a few descriptions of the monster’s physical appearance. We are told that he’s hideously ugly and much bigger than ordinary men, but he is also agile, intelligent and sensitive. The monster is also never given a name (his name is not Frankenstein, which is another common misconception) and Shelley refers to him most often as ‘the wretch’.

It’s the chapters that are told from the monster’s perspective that are the most interesting and also the most moving. Despite some of the horrific acts the monster commits, it would be difficult not to feel sympathy for him and anger towards Victor, who has created a living being and then abandoned it. The clear message of the book is that we need to think before we act and be prepared to accept responsibility for our actions. I think another thing Shelley is trying to show us is that rather than being born a monster we can become a monster because of the way we are treated by others. When we first meet Victor’s creature he is gentle and compassionate but after he is repeatedly rejected by society he begins to carry out violent, monstrous actions.

To the modern day reader there are some aspects of Frankenstein that are maybe not very satisfying or believable, such as the way the monster teaches himself to speak and to read. I would also have liked more details of the scientific methods Victor uses to create the monster and bring him to life, but I suppose that would have been beyond the scope of someone writing in the 1800s. As an early nineteenth century gothic novel, though, this is a true classic and I’m glad I took the time to re-read it.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

A lonely mansion, a young governess, two young children in white nightgowns, servants who seem to vanish into thin air, villagers who refuse to answer any questions, gusts of wind that blow up out of nowhere and disappear as suddenly as they came…

“You are not there, Father,” I cried. “I wake up at Gaudlin Hall, I spend most of my day there, I sleep there at night. And throughout it all there is but one thought running through my mind.”

“And that is?”

“This house is haunted.”

This House is Haunted This House is Haunted is a wonderful Victorian-style ghost story and a perfect October read.

It begins in London with a public reading by Charles Dickens, attended by young schoolteacher Eliza Caine and her invalid father, a big admirer of Dickens. As they walk home in the cold after the reading, her father’s health worsens and he dies shortly after, leaving Eliza blaming Dickens for his death. Alone in the world, Eliza decides to answer an advertisement in the newspaper and finds herself being offered the position of governess at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk.

Arriving at the train station, she experiences what will be the first in a series of unexplained and increasingly sinister incidents when she feels a pair of ghostly hands try to push her under a moving train. Eliza survives this attack and continues to her destination where she meets her two young charges, twelve-year-old Isabella and eight-year-old Eustace Westerley, but it soon becomes obvious that something is wrong. Isabella and Eustace appear to be alone in the house and won’t tell Eliza where their parents are or when she will be able to speak to them. As she slowly pieces together the truth about Gaudlin Hall and learns the fates of the previous governesses, Eliza begins to fear for her own life.

I loved this book. It reminded me of The Séance by John Harwood, though there were shades of lots of other novels too, from Jane Eyre to The Turn of the Screw. Dickens is another big influence; as well as the author himself appearing in the book’s opening scenes, the characters also have suitably Dickensian names, such as Mr Raisin the lawyer, who has a clerk called Mr Cratchett. I really liked the narrator, Eliza, and it was a pleasure to spend 300 pages in her company. The author has obviously made an effort to create an authentic Victorian narrative voice and it worked well, though I did notice a few inaccuracies and words that felt too modern.

Although this is a very atmospheric book, I didn’t find it a very scary one – it’s too predictable and the ghostly manifestations are a bit too ridiculous (the tone of the novel seemed to be somewhere between serious ghost story and parody). But this didn’t make the book any less enjoyable, entertaining and fun to read and once I got past the first few chapters I didn’t want to put it down.

I highly recommend This House is Haunted if you’re looking for something ghostly and Victorian to read as we approach Halloween – I enjoyed this much more than The Woman in Black!

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

Dragonwyck - Anya Seton Sorry for neglecting my blog recently…I’ve had a busy two weeks at work and haven’t had much time or enthusiasm for blogging. Luckily I have a week off now and will be able to catch up on telling you about all the books I’ve been reading, beginning with this one, Dragonwyck, which I read for the R.I.P challenge.

I had been looking forward to reading this book for a long time, having been a fan of Anya Seton’s for years and also being a lover of both historical fiction and gothic novels. Dragonwyck is a combination of both – it includes some typical gothic elements (mysterious deaths, a mansion with haunted rooms and an old servant who tells tales of ghosts and curses) but it also has a fascinating and thoroughly researched historical background.

One day in 1844 Abigail Wells, wife of a Connecticut farmer, receives a letter from her rich cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn, offering to take one of her daughters into his home as a governess for his own young daughter, Katrine. Eighteen-year-old Miranda is the one who is chosen and she is thrilled to be given this opportunity to improve her situation in life. Nicholas is the Patroon (landowner) of a large estate called Dragonwyck in Hudson, New York, and after growing up on her parents’ farm the naïve and romantic Miranda is immediately captivated by the handsome Nicholas, his luxurious home and his aristocratic lifestyle.

Soon she becomes aware that she is falling in love with Nicholas and is sure he feels the same way – the only problem is, Nicholas is married. When tragedy strikes at Dragonwyck, Miranda’s life is transformed again, but this time she begins to uncover some of the house’s dark secrets and to learn the truth about her mysterious cousin Nicholas. As Anya Seton explains in her author’s note introducing the story: “All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time inevitably confined to English castles or Southern plantations…”

As a gothic novel I didn’t find Dragonwyck particularly creepy – although it’s certainly a very dark book, with an oppressive, unsettling atmosphere. But the real attraction of this book for me was its wonderful historical setting that gave me some fascinating insights into areas of American history I hadn’t read about before. We learn about the Patroon system, for example, which began when landholders in the Dutch colony of New Netherland were given power over large areas of land, similar to the feudal system in medieval Europe. This led to an uprising of the tenants known as the Anti-Rent War and this forms a large part of Dragonwyck’s historical backdrop. We also learn about the Astor Place Riot during William Charles Macready’s performance in Macbeth and about the steamboat captains who would race each other on the Hudson River with total disregard for the safety of their passengers, sometimes with fatal consequences.

There are also a few brief appearances by real historical figures, most notably Edgar Allan Poe, but these felt as if they had been woven naturally into the story rather than name-dropping for the sake of it (in fact, the Poe episode does have a significance to the plot which only gradually becomes apparent later in the story). The main focus though, is on the three main fictional characters – Miranda, Nicholas and the doctor, Jeff Turner – and you’ll notice I haven’t said much about any of those three, because to attempt to explain why I liked or disliked each character would risk giving away too much of the story.

I did enjoy Dragonwyck but not as much as some of Anya Seton’s other novels (and I don’t think it really comes close to the brilliance of Jane Eyre or Rebecca, two books that it has been compared with). I do love reading ‘older’ historical fiction novels like this one though, as they seem to somehow have a completely different feel from modern ones. This book was published in 1944 and there’s a film too from 1946 with Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. I haven’t seen it, so I’d be interested to know what it’s like and how faithful it is to the book.

As well as this book, I have now read Katherine (one of my favourite historical fiction novels), Green Darkness, The Winthrop Woman, Avalon and Devil Water. If there are any of her others that you think I should look out for, please let me know which ones!

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner My sister gave me a copy of this book saying it was one of the weirdest books she’d ever read and she thought I would love it. I’m not sure what that says about my reading tastes, but she was right anyway because I did love it!

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published in 1824, was written by the Scottish poet and novelist James Hogg. I had never come across Hogg and his work until now and was interested to learn that he was a shepherd who taught himself to read and write and became a friend of Sir Walter Scott. This, his most famous novel, is part horror story, part murder mystery and part gothic fiction, but it also incorporates elements of religion, Scottish folklore, the supernatural and even some humour and satire.

Robert Wringhim, the ‘justified sinner’ of the title, is a young man who has been raised by his adoptive father, a Calvinist, to believe he is one of the chosen few, destined for a place in Heaven regardless of the sins he commits in life. One day he meets a mysterious stranger who calls himself Gil-Martin and who seems able to change his appearance at will. Wringhim allows the stranger to convince him that it’s his duty to “cut sinners off with the sword” and that he doesn’t need to worry about committing murder as in this case it’s the right thing to do and he is sure to be saved by God anyway. In his Private Memoirs and Confessions, he describes how he falls under the spell of the sinister Gil-Martin and how, when he begins to have doubts about his new friend, he starts to descend into madness and desperation.

Robert Wringhim’s Confession is presented as an authentic document that has been discovered under unusual circumstances a century later. It is introduced by a Narrative written by a fictitious editor which gives a supposedly factual account of Wringhim’s life and the crimes he is involved in. The Editor’s Narrative also forms the third and final section of the novel and attempts to explain how the Confession was found and what it might mean. But instead of helping to clarify the story, the Editor actually makes things more confusing and sometimes even contradicts what Wringhim has said. Neither narrative seems to be very reliable and at the end of the novel, we have to decide for ourselves what really happened. For example, it’s not clear whether Gil-Martin is a product of Wringhim’s imagination or whether he is a real person or even the Devil.

This book kept me gripped from the first page, but it was quite a challenging story to read. There was a lot of Scottish dialect and while that’s not something I usually have a problem with, many of the words used here were unfamiliar to me and I was constantly turning to the glossary at the back of the book. There were also a large number of Biblical references on almost every page and again, I found that I kept needing to refer to the notes. It wasn’t completely essential to recognise or understand all of these references, but it was important to know how the various characters were interpreting them. Finally, there are no chapter breaks – the middle section, the Confession, forms one continuous chunk of over 100 pages, making it hard to find a place to stop reading.

However, it was definitely worth having to make a bit of extra effort; this is one of the most fascinating and original classics I’ve read and I can’t believe it isn’t better known. I thought it was much better than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is the book it reminded me of most. I’m also surprised that, as far as I’m aware, it has never been adapted for film or television. Some parts of the novel are very visual – the atmosphere of the dark wynds and closes of Edinburgh; the description of the rainbow seen by Robert Wringhim’s brother, George; and some of the scenes where Wringhim finds himself hounded and tormented by fiends and demons. I loved this book and am very grateful to my sister for recommending it!

A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott

Until recently I hadn’t realised what a diverse writer Louisa May Alcott was. Like many people I read Little Women and its sequels as a child – and Little Women is still one of my favourite books – but I never thought about exploring her other fiction until now. A Long Fatal Love Chase is a suspense novel, written in 1866 but never published in Alcott’s lifetime (it was eventually published in 1995). I didn’t even know Alcott had written books like this, so I’m glad I have now been enlightened!

Rosamond Vivian, eighteen years old at the beginning of the novel, lives with her cold-hearted grandfather in a mansion on a remote island. Bored and lonely, feeling unloved by her grandfather, Rosamond longs for some adventure in her life. When she loses her temper with the old man one day and tells him she would gladly sell her soul to Satan for a year of freedom, it seems that her wishes are about to come true.

That same day, Phillip Tempest arrives (during a storm, of course) to do some business with Rosamond’s grandfather. Tempest, who we are told resembles a painting of the demon Mephistopheles, is handsome, charming and surrounded by an aura of mystery. Rosamond is instantly attracted to him and soon Tempest sweeps her away with him on his yacht. But Rosamond’s happiness doesn’t last for long. When she makes some shocking discoveries about Tempest she decides to leave him…but it seems Tempest is not prepared to let her go.

The rest of the story is, as the title suggests, a long and fatal love chase in which Rosamond flees across France, Germany and Italy from chateau to convent to asylum with Tempest never far behind. The tension builds and builds; almost every chapter ends on a cliffhanger as Rosamond finds herself in danger yet again. With Tempest growing more and more obsessed and increasingly devious in the methods he uses to track down her hiding places, will Rosamond ever be able to escape?

As you’ll be able to tell by now, A Long Fatal Love Chase is not like Little Women at all, but that shouldn’t be a problem as long as you’re not expecting it to be (which I wasn’t). Just be aware of its sensational nature and be prepared for something over-the-top and melodramatic. There’s a lot of symbolism too and as well as the Mephistopheles reference I mentioned earlier there are many other allusions to mythology, art and literature, particularly Shakespeare – with a character whose name is Tempest, I suppose that’s not surprising!

If you have read Little Women and remember Jo writing her novels, it’s easy to imagine Jo sitting in her garret writing a story like this and persuading Meg, Beth and Amy to act out some of the scenes with her! It wasn’t the best book of this type that I’ve read, especially in comparison to the more complex sensation novels written during the same period by Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Ellen Wood, but it was still exciting, entertaining and also quite daring for its time, with its themes of obsession and stalking. It has a lot in common with early gothic novels by authors such as Ann Radcliffe too, though with the advantages that this one is easier to read and Rosamond is a stronger character than the heroines of Radcliffe’s books.

Apart from Rosamond, the other characters in the novel are less well-developed and tend to represent either the good side of human nature (the priest who becomes Rosamond’s friend and confidant) or the bad (Tempest). From the moment he first appears in the novel, Tempest is such an obvious villain and there are so many hints and so much foreshadowing, that it’s easy for us, as the reader, to know that he is not to be trusted. Rosamond is a young, naïve girl (though not without a lot of courage and spirit) being taken advantage of by a ruthless and manipulative older man, and it takes her a lot longer than it takes the reader to discover that something is not right. But despite so much of the plot being predictable, some of the twists did still take me by surprise and the ending was not quite what I had expected either!

If you’ve enjoyed this book, I would also recommend Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart – although they were written almost 100 years apart I thought they had a very similar feel.

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