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The Modern Gothic

There’s a used bookstore near me that is, well, not unique, I suspect, but certainly unusual. You know those penny books on Amazon? Or rather, there used to be such. I see them less and less these days. Have you ever wondered where they came from? I could take you to a place. There’s an industrial area in the north end of Dayton, OH, bleak and rusted with the moth-eaten hopes of commerce passed by long ago. Nestled into that is the Dollar Book Swap, where you walk into the back door of a warehouse, past rickety palisades of wooden pallets set up as a fence to guide the consumer toward their goal, passing through an old commercial refrigerator’s curtain of plastic panels into the unexpected warmth. Shelves and shelves, vast lengths of them, creaking with books. Every one of them, a dollar. Treasure unspeakable, to me in another time and persona. Now, I go there rarely, although the temptation to seek out the pages of old friends comes as I commute past it daily. Really, though, I read more ebook than paper, and despite the recent acquisition of yet another bookshelf, to my First Reader’s dismay, I don’t need more books. But as a treat, I go.

I had something I was looking for. Two, actually, and since both were so muchly published I could be certain of finding one, if not the other, I gave in to the lure of the bookstore, and stopped on my way home from work. I found the certain thing, but not the other. Ah, well, for this there is Amazon. What I got, well, I got several books. You can’t get just one, not when you can walk out with an armload without having to so much as part with Alexander Hamilton’s pensive visage. I went the rest of the way home, and relaxed into a warm bath with the books piled next to me. I’ve gotten in the habit of reading paper while in the tub soothing aching feet and retreating from the world. I know, I could put the phone/tablet into a dry bag and read safely, but this way I have an excuse to read my paper books. And it seemed fitting to pay tribute to Mary Higgins Clark with this oh-so-female stereotype.

I have not, to the best of my recollection, read anything of hers before. But she passed away as a grand old lady of 92, and she left a legacy of titles in her wake. I was curious, and I wanted to see what I could learn from a master of selling. Her books may not have been literary – certainly not! – but they sold, that is the key. They struck a chord in perhaps millions of readers, and that was worth checking it out to see what I could see.

It was very quickly into A Cry in the Night that I realized I was reading a familiar genre, re-imagined into modern, or at least partially modern even by 1982 standards. This is a book that was published when I was 6 years old, roughly the age of one of the children in it, and it is… dated. It is also set in a rural farmhouse stuck in an even earlier time. The whole thing was straight out of classic Gothic. Shades of Barbara Cartland rose up in my mind, and I had to wonder if it was a deliberate model. The emotional abuse, the psychological manipulation, those weren’t necessarily so overtly self-aware in the likes of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre (hold onto that novel, I’ll come back to it) but the shrinking, timid heroine is certainly familiar to anyone who has read a Gothic romance.

It’s not a sophisticated plot, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. I knew very quickly much of what was coming, not only from the prologue that sets up the shivery macabre tension of the story as we flash back to the beginning of the troubles. It’s an age-old tale of love at first sight turning to terror and despair when a bride is trapped by not only the machinations of her new husband but her own reluctance to trust herself and run far away. The twists unraveled, but at the end Clark took me by surprise with two things, which I shouldn’t reveal, I suppose, only I’m sure you aren’t going to read it? Or perhaps you already have? It’s nearly four decades in print, spoiler alerts seem stale.

I had expected mad Mrs. Rochester. What I got was even more sick and twisted than that (well, not in terms of the modern thriller/horror novels, no, but certainly compared to Cartland’s potboilers). The hook the villain used to keep his bride twisting in the wind was also something I hadn’t anticipated, although I should have, since Clark set it up deliberately and clearly from the very beginning of the book. In short, I learned that this was an old, old story in a new, nicely fitted coat. Not my cuppa tea, because it resonated with me in ways that, well, felt like a theremin being played. But I can certainly see why a warm contented woman lying in her bath sipping wine, with never any thought of real danger in her life beyond breaking a nail, could enjoy the frisson of fear safely and gobble these books up like bon-bons.

Mary Higgins Clark wrote something like 38 novels, and sold over 100 million copies according to Wikipedia. The number of her books I saw on the shelves at the dollar book certainly put her in with the likes of other crowd favorites like James Patterson and John Grisham. There are entire sections devoted to them and others like them. I’ve no desire to write like them. I’ve read the two named, but don’t find them to my taste, but in a pinch you’ll read anything. Even Barbara Cartland. Although she also had some of that success Clark had – and there’s nothing wrong with that.   I’d certainly like to capture a little of that lightning in a bottle and apply it to my own work as I write. Appeal is appeal. And I am a mercenary wench.

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(header image: Middle Earth by Cedar Sanderson) 

21 Comments
  1. My “Evile P!easure” is Alistair Maclean. I read all that he had written at one point in the 80’s, but he may have a few in his later years I’ve missed.

    February 8, 2020
    • I read all of his I could lay my little hands on. Partisans was my favorite, if I recall correctly. I should pick one of his up and see if it aged well. Not sure I’d term them Gothic, though.

      February 8, 2020
      • If I hadda pick a favorite, I’d say HMS Ulysses.

        February 8, 2020
        • That is the coldest book (in terms of room temperature after reading) that I’ve ever read. Although Forester’s “The Good Shepherd” (convoy duty in the North Atlantic) comes close.

          February 8, 2020
          • TheOtherSean #

            I haven’t read HMS Ulysses since I was a teen and I can still remember it so well. Maclean painted a grim picture of Arctic convoy duty and the physical and mental toll it took on the crews of the escorts. And how despite that, they kept at it, doing their duties – mutinies aside.

            February 8, 2020
            • He wrote it well because he did it. I may wind up writing about him, and Dick Francis. Francis was another of my teen read faves (I was a teen, not that either man’s books are intended for teens), and I was commenting their heroes have some of the same ‘flavor’ which when I looked up the bios of Francis and Maclean, made perfect sense.

              February 8, 2020
          • Margaret Ball #

            For chilly naval fiction, I’d nominate “The Cruel Sea” by Nicholas Monserrat.

            February 8, 2020
    • TRX #

      Maclean… my problem with most of his books was that so many of them were, if not downers, then nobody succeeded either. Not quite “there’s no meaning and we die anyway”, but enough that I moved on.

      Other than that, he could write a hell of a story, it’s just that most of the ones I read fizzled at the end.

      February 9, 2020
    • I read everything of his I could find in high school–and our high school library had a sizable collection of his work.

      I found a download of all his stuff converted to ebook format some years back. Hmm. Maybe time to see if I like him as much now as I did as a teen! 🙂

      February 10, 2020
  2. I’ve never read her either. She’s on the list of people I should probably read someday, though. I was at a thrift store yesterday looking for books and I didn’t see any of hers, but it was a small store and their selection gets sparse in the winter when the vacation people aren’t here. They’ll probably have something of hers at St. Vinny’s.

    She does seem to be a much-loved author, judging by the number of sad posts on my FB feed, but I have a lot of friends who are romance authors. :shrug:

    February 8, 2020
    • I figured with as popular as her work was, it was worth a read. I wasn’t going to buy an ebook at $8 just for a whim, though. A dollar hardback I’ll turn around and donate, though. Heh. Want a book? I’ll ship! Might be fun to discuss like a twisted kind of book club.

      February 8, 2020
  3. Mary Higgins Clark was one of the great pleasures of my adolescence, one of the first adult writers I read. A Cry in the Night is one of my favorites of hers; you chose well.

    In the later years, her books became pretty formulaic; I could always spot the villain pretty early, sometimes even just by reading the blurb. But she executed the formula extremely well, and I never started one of her books and then felt too disgusted to finish it.

    I wrote up my thoughts about her on my own blog when I first learned of her death. My musings are here:

    https://zmrenick.com/?p=1

    February 8, 2020
    • Yeah. I devoured her stuff in middle school into early high school, but one day I picked up one of her newer books (this would have been around 1995 or so), and within two pages went “Oh, that guy is the villain.” I checked the end of the book, and sure enough I was right. I gave up on MHC after that–though perhaps I’ll grab one of hers for nostalgia’s sake.

      February 10, 2020
  4. I tried to write a Gothic romance once. Once. The heroine refused to cooperate and thumped the bad-guy over the head, told him to quit being Byronic and just deal with things, and stormed off. *shrug* I tried.

    My grandmother loved M. H. Clark, Mary Stewart’s mysteries, and others in that genre. I’ve found them hit or miss. Like Zsuzsa and Cedar, I found Clark to get formulaic, and she’s not really my cup of tea, but she never failed me the way some other writers have.

    February 8, 2020
    • I would read that story. 😀

      February 10, 2020
    • I enjoyed both Barbara Michaels’ “modern” (circa 1970s-1980s, mostly) gothics, and then the send-ups of those self-same gothics she wrote as Elizabeth Peters. (She’s mostly known for the Amelia Peabody series as Peters, but to be honest, I never got into that one past the first book or so. But the OTHER stuff she wrote as Peters–especially the Vicky Bliss/Sir John Smythe ones, except for the last one–were a blast.)

      February 10, 2020
  5. Jamie #

    I’m under the impression the genre “romantic suspense” was coined to describe MHC’s early books. I also discovered her in middle school; she and Sue Grafton and Danielle Steele were the first “adult reads” whose stories were fun, and whose romances weren’t creepy (as opposed to Harlequin books). All of MHC’s early stuff is good, but I drifted away with her 90’s era works starting after “All Around the Town.”

    Because of the “romantic suspense” factor, you could tell who the bad guy was just based on whether the heroine was attracted to him. If she wasn’t, he was the bad guy. There was always a good guy in the book for her to pair up with by the end.

    I shunned the books that have someone named “Alafair Burke” on the byline, but MHC and her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, were fun. Carol’s solo books were funny, too. It tickled me that she starred in the TV movies of her mom’s books. MHC herself would make cameos, though I don’t think she spoke (there’s a Hollywood union rule about that, same as applied to Jordan’s then-Prince Abdullah in Star Trek: TNG). Movies from her books are better than the usual Lifetime TV movie fare, where protagonists are apparently required to carry the idiot ball.

    February 8, 2020
    • Victoria Holt and a bunch of others also did romantic suspense.

      February 11, 2020
      • Phyllis Whitney was another one.

        I have an entire pinterest board dedicated to the delightfully twee gothic book covers from the 1960s/70s. Some of those books I really would like to track down–although, given the fact that Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney both quickly bored me to tears even as an un-picky-about-reading-material teenager, the lesser known ones probably aren’t going to be nearly as fun as the covers imply.

        (Or they’ll be over the top and a hoot, but it’s hard to sort the boring drek from the entertaining drek when it’s all out of print…)

        February 12, 2020
  6. I will have to find it again, since a major browser crash a few months ago ate all my years of bookmarks, but there is website out there with a great many of the “modern” gothics available on it in some form or other.

    February 12, 2020

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