Gothic Dreams

I had gothic dreams last night. Most likely the product of working on the finale of my novel. Not that it’s gothic at all… For those of you aren’t familiar with gothic romance, it’s all dark and stormy nights, tons of angst, and heroines who are too stupid to live. Literally. I’m not familiar with the early beginnings of the genre, but think Jane Eyre, the author Barbara Cartland, or for that matter, much of the Victorian novels. Brooding heroes any sane woman would look at, slip into the powder room, and climb out the window to get away from.

But none of the girls in these books seem to have the sense God gave a goose. I never read many gothics, and the ones I did read were because there was nothing else. Or, in the case of Barbara Michaels, because I knew her work as Elizabeth Peters and wanted to see… Bleah, no. Looking back as an adult and an author, Barbara Cartland is impressive because she may be the most prolific writer, ever. I’m not sure how many were published, but a quick search taught me that she had 160 manuscripts unpublished at the time of her death at the ripe age of 99. I may not have been fond of her books, but I aspire to that kind of production level.

I’m straying from my intended topic. I did have one, really. The plots of these books were mostly very similar and easy to predict. A girl, or rarely, a spinster on the shelf at the shocking old age of say, twenty, was thrust by unforeseen circumstances from her home and into the cold cruel world. This didn’t bother the younger-reader-me much, I could see even back then that you had to work for a living, and if your parents both died, you were on your own. It seemed logical that governesses would be in demand. Some of the more modern books left me puzzled, since in them the heroine haring off across Europe thousands of miles from home making her living as an art restorer or some such seemed a lot more improbable.

It was the next part of the plot that always left me internally screaming at the fictional idiots. They never seemed to check up on where they were going. I could be wrong, but a major element in most gothics, almost a character in its own right, was the house/castle. If a house, it had to be huge, mostly empty, with miles of disused corridors. Whichever it was, it had to be falling into ruins. I mean, you would think a kindly villager would take our girl by the elbow and firmly turn her around to put her on the train. “Yer t he fourth one this month. That Baron, he’s not right in the head. C’mon ducks, here you go” and she’d be spared a lot of trauma.

Of course, we the readers know she has nothing to fear. This is where the glittery hoo-ha originates, after all, with the *ahem* notorious totally-not-a-serial-killer man suddenly being put on the paths of angels by one look at our daffy-brained heroine. But it’s not love at first sight, oh no. He will likely growl at her, verbally abuse her, and that’s if he deigns to show up at all when she does. Also, what is with the number of time he’s her employer, or worse, guardian, but romancing her is still on the table as a viable option? Most of these books are set in eras when that was beginning to be frowned on. I have to wonder about some people’s fetishes. Nothing wrong with having kinks, that’s just not mine. Makes me want to hit the girl in the book upside the head with the family Bible.

The remainder of the plot usually involves some sort of madness, because you totes expect to find some crazy relative locked up in an old ruin like that. There may be a ghost, or in the more modern versions, the mad relative dressed up in sheets like one. There’s probably a plot moppet in the form of the adorable and very traumatized child from the Brooding Hero’s first marriage. There is always rain, and none of that gentle spring stuff, either, this is driven and cold and will half drown you and of course our Daffy-brained heroine goes out in it.

Finally, the half-dead heroine, saved by the hero, accepts his offer of marriage, the sun comes out, and she settles down to make a happy home in the ruin. Me, I’m left gaping like a fish thinking “Run, dammit! Run away!” But no…

That’s not precisely what I was dreaming, which was more a muddled dark and rainy night at the edge of the sea, a coffin-like box strapped to rocks there, and a mad doctor torturing a pale faced girl who refused to give up the names of the Resistance even as he was closing the lid on her. You can see why I called it gothic. Horrifying, at the least. I woke up gasping and tangled in blankets, and lay there thinking about the appeal of the gothic novel.

Why do readers like that emotion storm? The emotions invoked by reading, or music, are no less real than ones brought on by actual events, they are just less powerful. Even when I was younger I didn’t care for angst, but I did enjoy other emotions invoked by reading. We all know that book hangover, after finishing a really compelling story that has made you laugh, and cry, and wind up in triumph on a high note. Perhaps this is what the gothic readers were in search of. A heroine worse off than they were, in some exotic setting, who they knew would wind up with a happily ever after. I prefer my characters with more spunk and less wet-noodle aspect, is all. Which is why I gravitated to science fiction, in the end.

 

 

104 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: ART

104 responses to “Gothic Dreams

  1. Draven

    I gaze out the window as lightning crashes, silhouetting me against the sky for a moment, then going back to dark. My shoulders drop and i shake my head slowly.

    “No. No, I wouldn’t know anything about those.”

  2. *snicker* I never cared for gothics, really. Having read Jane Eyre early on, no reason to go for copycats. I did read a Barbara Cartland, once. I was bored, it was the only novel in the breakroom in Basic Training.

    I guess too many of them featured the “Idiot Plot” – a plot that works only if the MC is an idiot.

    • That I can remember, I have read four or five of Cartland’s books. Mom sometimes had them, because Regencies, and when I was all out of reading material… I quickly figured out they were the same book, just different details. But they sold and sold and sold. Boggles the mind, it does.

      • TRX

        > same book, different details

        That pretty well describes “J.D. Robb.” Or Edgar Rice Burroughs, for that matter…

    • Then I highly recommend The Canterville Ghost.

    • I have a really hard time with ‘idiot plots.’ Throws me out of the story in a hurry — I’ve tossed some KU books recently because it was obvious within a few pages that the MC was too stupid to live.

      And I do remember reading a few of Barbara Cartland’s books. Probably because lacking internet back then (and KU!), and being a fast reader, although not as fast as Cedar, I had to take what I could get from our small libraries. However, I must say that I never liked them much. I just have a reading addiction, and if there isn’t something good to read, I’ll read whatever is available. Or end up drawing house plans, LOL!

      Cedar, two nights ago, I had what was an almost gothic dream. I can’t remember all of it, but for some reason someone was shaking my bed until I fell out of it. Woke up to discover that high winds were shaking the house, LOL! (And for those who haven’t been to my house, it’s an old mobile home on the side of a hill, very exposed to high winds.) The shaking the bed wasn’t the scary part — the person doing the shaking (in my dream) had evil intentions, although it’s hard to say what they were!

    • Northanger Abbey is a great sendup of the Gothic novel style. The hilarious part is that no matter how many times I read it, I have to double-check that it was *actually* written by Jane Austen and not by, say, Georgette Heyer.

    • Huh. I read Jane Eyre for the first time, oh, maybe 6th grade. I loved that book so much, mainly because of the first half, but even in the second, I could see the appeal of the romance, of finding your best friend in the most unlikely place, and then the weird plot twist of finding out he had a vampire in the attic.

      The happy ending was a bit forced, but it fit the moral structure of the novel, so it’s still satisfying. I haven’t read enough gothics myself to know how typical it is of the genre, but I would guess only marginally.

      Because….
      , if you’re really that allergic to anything remotely Gothic, try Northanger Abbey by Austen and Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. Both are send-ups of the Gothic and the latter is a really good romantic adventure to boot.

  3. I just figure some people, unsatisfied with the petty intrigues and shallow spats of normal life, want *lightning strike*Big Crashing Melodrama*punctuated by thunder* as a catharsis, and an escape.

    How else do you explain telenovelas, soap operas, Twilight, and gothic novels? If they hit the right emotional notes pitch-perfect, then their idiot plot (or lack of plot) doesn’t matter to the intended audience.

    Other people want Big Badda Boom!!!!!! as their catharsis and escape, which explains Michael Bay movies.

  4. Mary

    Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire is just out. You might enjoy it.

    (I reviewed it here: http://marycatelli.livejournal.com/840992.html)

  5. Mary

    “Also, what is with the number of time he’s her employer, or worse, guardian, but romancing her is still on the table as a viable option? Most of these books are set in eras when that was beginning to be frowned on.”

    The lure of the forbidden.

    One theory of why urban fantasy and romance are converging is that you can still argue that a vampire is a bad choice.

    • Taboos often become attractive to those without the wit to realize *why* they need to stay taboo. Like vampires, who classically seduced young women, despoiled them, and then kept them under some sort of mind control.

      • Not to mention sucking all of their blood until they die!

      • Mary

        There’s also the element of drama. Noticing how attractive the Boy Next Door is now, and he’s got a good job and a respectable reputation, and is pleasant to talk with and generous and good to all around him — who can get a STORY out of that?

        • Dorothy Grant

          Well, if he goes off to make his fortune after she notices, and is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, whom we all know never takes prisoners…

          • Mary

            “good job.” You posit that he didn’t have one and had to make his fortune first.

            • Hmm. I am now tempted to do a riff on how The Princess Bride is a book about how much drama flows downhill from Wesley’s decision to leave his steady, stable job on the farm and make a fortune instead of staying and marrying the farmer’s daughter, and inheriting the farm in his turn…

              • Yes, but if Wesley had remained a small farmer and married Buttercup and settled down to live in the village, would he have had the resources to fight when the Count came to take Buttercup to the capital to be the Prince’s wife? Or would the Count passed her by when he saw she was already married? For that matter, would Buttercup become the most beautiful woman in the world if she was a happy farmer’s wife instead of a tragic figure?

                • Still, even before that tragedy hit her, she was in the top twenty. That should have been enough, even if she never hit the coveted top spot.

                • For that matter, would Buttercup become the most beautiful woman in the world if she was a happy farmer’s wife instead of a tragic figure?

                  Why would either Buttercup or Wesley care? And by their third child, she’d not have to worry about Prince Humperdink needing her as virgin bride/sacrifices for his war of conquest, so win/win.

                  Nope. The story would have gone: And then they posted the banns, and a few month’s later got married and lived a happy life together with many children and grandchildren on the family farm. The end.

                  Khreppe story, EXCELLENT life. See also “chinese curse.”

        • Beverly Cleary. Remember? And Phineas and Ferb, but that’s not a romance per se, just unusually good role-modelling for pre-teens. You know the writers have to be parents.

    • *combines this with the (human, insane) Serial Killer protagonist fad*

      Eeeek…..

  6. Modern emulators of the Gothic form fail because they take the surface attributes without the underlying philosophy. The Gothic hero (or more often heroine) does not become imperiled because of stupidity, she or he is motivated by a belief in reason and civilization.

    Unless the metaphysics of the story world confirms that reason and civilization will triumph over superstition and savagery, then it is stupidity. In the original form, though, it was an act of faith, a belief maintained in the face of emotional pressure to abandon it.

    The most purely Gothic stories that most of us are familiar with are those of the Scooby Doo cartoon. The characters hold fast to their conviction that there is a rational explanation for seemingly irrational events, and in the end are proved right.

    Another Gothic author not often acknowledged as such is Raymond Chandler. His hero, Philip Marlowe, believes in the law, and justice. He holds fast to this faith in the face of corruption all about him. Despite the evidence of evil prospering and good people being victimized, he refuses to compromise his principles. That’s what makes him a hero.

    When the Gothic heroine takes her sputtering candle up the stairs to the attic from which the fearsome noises emerge she is not being stupid, she is being true to her conviction that knowledge is greater than fear and that learning the truth is a heroic act.

    The Gothic form is a product of the Enlightenment and without that underlying worldview the actions of Gothic characters become parody.

  7. It was the next part of the plot that always left me internally screaming at the fictional idiots. They never seemed to check up on where they were going. I could be wrong, but a major element in most gothics, almost a character in its own right, was the house/castle. If a house, it had to be huge, mostly empty, with miles of disused corridors. Whichever it was, it had to be falling into ruins. I mean, you would think a kindly villager would take our girl by the elbow and firmly turn her around to put her on the train. “Yer t he fourth one this month. That Baron, he’s not right in the head. C’mon ducks, here you go” and she’d be spared a lot of trauma.

    Oh, so THAT is what they were spinning off of!

    Several of the old authors I’ve read have stories where you can tell they’re reacting to something– in at least one case, it’s horribly written and uncharacteristically has no joy to it at all, like a nasty joke from someone who’s usually very funny– but the layout is ‘girl has to seek her fortune, big house, mysterious set-up, huge flashing ISSUES!!! sign’…..

  8. “dark and rainy night at the edge of the sea, a coffin-like box strapped to rocks there, and a mad doctor torturing a pale faced girl who refused to give up the names of the Resistance even as he was closing the lid on her.”

    That actually sounds interesting. Except reverse the characters. NOW it’s creepy…

  9. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Of course, reading older Gothics you have to remember when they were wrote.

    Read one recently where this young woman got off the bus and her friend (who she was going to visit) wasn’t there to met her.

    My first thought (before kicking my self) was “well use your wireless phone to call her”. [Chuckling At Myself]

    • ‘“well use your wireless phone to call her”. [Chuckling At Myself]’

      Many episodes of “The Highlander” TV series, especially those set in Europe, hold up pretty well. But occasionally time catches up, as in an episode where much of the problem centered around the fact that he had to remain near a certain phone booth.

      • There was an interview with a mystery writer – Sue Grafton, of the Kinsey Milhone mystery series, maybe? Who allowed that having cellphones would have put holes in so many plots. As well as having internet search capabilities.
        Those two elements just destroy so many elements of suspense in the plot. IIRC, that was why she began to lag a bit in the timeline for Kinsey Milhone … to avoid technology.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Some of the comments that Kat Richardson got about her Urban Fantasy novel Greywalker related to her main character’s lack of a wireless phone.

          So in the next book in that series, her main character spent some time getting a wireless phone. 😀

        • But there are still such things as no signal areas and dead batteries. And bad information and toddlers. (I have a flip phone for a reason. Sometimes I forget the reason, then the toddler throws my phone on the floor. Then I remember.)

          • And fumble fingers, hitting the wrong button at the wrong time, swiping it wrong . . . My husband’s phone hates me. I need to get one just like and learn how these new fangled gadgets work.

      • Bob

        The great thing about the Highlander TV series is that the adventures can be firmly set in their own time-periods without ruining the effect of the show, since it’s about immortals progressing through time. They could even start a new series set in the distant future with flashbacks to the present day AND with clips from the earlier show!

        THEY MUST MAKE THAT! NOW!!!!

    • Mary

      Not for the first time. I was thinking at one point of a steampunk riff on Odysseus — and the first issue was, What about the telegraph?

      Amazing the changes it wrought for real life and literature.

      • snelson134

        What about it?

        One of the things we overlook is that technology may exist, but the level of reliability we take for granted is an even more recent phenomenon. The telegraph was very much subject to interruption, unavailability in a given area (especially in a war zone such as Odysseus was coming from), etc.

  10. TRX

    > climb out the window to get away from.

    Back when Firefly was running, there were hordes of nerd fanboys for the River Tam character. I never could figure out what the attraction was.

    River was the ultimate Bad Girlfriend. She was certifiably insane, prone to sudden psychotic rages, and had super-ninja-killer mojo.The kind of passenger a sane captain send out for a cup of sugar, then take off without her. And change the ship’s name and registry so she couldn’t find you again…

    I dunno. Maybe it’s more of an “I told you the dog would bite” attraction than a romantic attraction.

  11. Bob

    I like Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn for an example of the gothic atmosphere that avoids the worst of the clichés. I understand he adapted it from a book and I haven’t read it yet, but the black and white movie was good.

    The heroine had good reason for being in her position and had guts and brains, there’s the suspense of figuring out the mystery of the criminal conspiracy of ship-wreckers her evil uncle’s involved with, and the nasty, brooding hero whose life she saves turns out to be an undercover cop investigating the bandits.

  12. Arwen

    I remember when my mom read Two Years Before the Mast and the author reads Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford* and thinks it’s the best book ever. Mom and I just laughed and said it was like finding out an astronaut really liked Twilight.
    *”It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents”–famous first line

    • But was it so over the top then? Or is it just our perception now?

      • Arwen

        It’s probably just our perception now and a matter of changing writing styles as well.

        • Oh, certainly the styles. If I go back and do any nineteenth century reading, I have to be in the mood or work hard at it. It’s very different in style, pacing, and word usage from ‘modern’ literature.

      • Mary

        “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps the struggled against the darkness.”

  13. Help! Help! I’m having flash backs to every Gothic I’ve ever read .

    • I’m sorry (not sorry *evil laugh*)

    • (Wishing we could do voices here, but…) And this is why it’s important to be very, very careful about what you read! The bad stuff will be back to haunt you someday! (This is why I don’t read horror or suspense.)

      • I really ought to read half a dozen, then write one in space. I’ve been meaning to reread Jack London’s Sea Wolf and see if it was as fantastic as I thought it was as a teenager. That could be an interesting springboard for a Space Opera.

        • I tried one Gothic, once. The protagonist turned it into a mild parody of a Gothic, and told Mr. Tall, Dark, and Brooding to quit whining and sniveling or she’d put him over her knee and swat him.

        • Mary

          I was reading Dread Companion and noting the Gothic elements of the opening. Of course, being SF and fantasy (full bore both) it then proceeded down considerably different lines.

  14. You want Gothic? I got yer Gothic right here.

  15. Ben Yalow

    One of the marketing attempts for Fritz Leiber’s _Conjure Wife_ was as a gothic. The book is brilliant, but defies category — so, periodically, some editor decides to try a different type of marketing to see if *this time* they’ve found the magic treatment that will make the book get sampled enough so that the readers will see how brilliant is really is.

    It’s also been made into a movie a few times, of which “Burn, Witch, Burn” was the best known treatment.

    Which it is — wonderfully written, plot with real horror that does not depend on a stupid character, etc, But nobody can figure out what category to try to market it in, since people are often wedded to reading in a specific category. It’s probably closest to supernatural horror, but maybe urban fantasy, or maybe …. It’s real category is simply, “read this book”.

  16. The Victorians recognized Bulwer-Lytton as the greatest living English-language author. As is sometimes forgotten, he wrote a science fiction novel. The matrix is somewhat like Burrough’s Pellucidar, the land in the center of the world, but it is very definitely science fiction.

  17. Bob

    I remember watching the Flowers in the Attic movie from 1987, and I’m thinking: is this supposed to be a comedy? I felt the same way the first time I watched the movie. The acting and the situation is so ridiculously overdramatic I’d thought it was a parody. It was like like sitting through a joke waiting for the big punchline, and it never comes, and you’re thinking: wait, is this supposed to be serious?

    I mean this whole scene is so…off. When she’s picking the kid of by the ears and getting her ankle bit I’m all like: I’m laughing, but am I supposed to laugh? Is this supposed to be funny?

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