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)