I loved visiting my Aunt Rita when I was a kid. Her little brick house in Doylestown, PA was not only warm and cozy, it was also a few blocks away from a castle. Seriously, it’s called Font Hill, and here is a photo of it.
Widowed at a very young age, my Aunt Rita was a single mother who developed her talent for art, music, gardening, and pop psychology. She was also an avid reader. Every visit to her house was an exercise in art emersion and mind expansion. It was also the place where my much older teenage cousin kept a store of great rock albums, Mad Magazines, and underground comics, but that’s for a different blog topic.
One thing I loved to do whenever I visited her house was read from her seemingly never-ending stack of Gothic romance books. As a collector and reader of this brand of pulp fiction, I often wonder why the genre fell out of favor with readers. Or did it just evolve into Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer? I enjoy Twilight, but somehow, the Cullen’s high-tech Washington home does not manifest the same chills as Wuthering Heights or Manderley. Nor can their mountain-top vampy ball games compete with bareback rides through the moors. I still long for the girl running away from the castle.
It is generally agreed that the Gothic literature genre began with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto. From there, the blackened vine wove its way through Ann Radcliffe and the Brontes. But what we know as modern Gothic romance probably began with Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.
The distressed heroine is so meek she isn’t even named in the novel, and yet her goodness wins out against the “ghost” of wealthy Maxim DeWinter’s beautiful and accomplished former wife. The sweeping English estate, Manderly, is as much of a character as any other.
Recently, while preparing to write in the classic Gothic romance genre, I consulted a book written by Dean Koontz about the craft of genre writing. The book came out in the mid-70s, so much of it was outdated, like what is the ideal typing paper to purchase. But I took to heart his advice about not veering too far from the expected tropes. These include the virginal young governess type who arrives at the estate to fulfill some job. She is often an ophan, impoverished, but dignified and smart. Her status at the estate is far below the owner, but one step or more above the domestic staff which usually includes a hostile housekeeper. Mrs. Danvers exemplifies the trope perfectly. The lord of the manor is the Byronic hero personified. He is remote but charming. His reputation is stained from some past indiscretion. He is the subject of local gossip. The nearby village of “common folk” is often featured as a homey contrast to the corrupting influence of the grand estate. As our heroine attempts to perform her job, creepy supernatural events cause her to question her dashing but dangerous employer and inadvertently lead her into his arms.
In his chapter on Gothic romance, Koontz stressed that the “love scenes” should never go past gentle kisses and brief caresses and that the heroine should not be the “women’s lib type” because she will turn off readers. Interesting.
Perhaps the best primer in Gothic romance comes from the TV sensation Dark Shadows. Even before Barnabas Collins makes an appearance, young governess Victoria Winters grapples with the strange events at Collinwood, and soaks up some local color at the Blue Whale. I collect and read the accompanying books written by Marilyn Ross (W.E.D. Ross, the prolific genre writer) and they follow Koontz’s checklist to a T.
Did the Gothic romance genre evolve into domestic noir such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train as the article listed below suggests? Possibly.
The 2020 release of Mexican Gothic by Silvia Morena-Garcia offered high hopes for a return of the genre. Although the book was well-received, I found it lackluster. By making the heroine a “strong female character ” who pushes back against the patriarchy instead of focusing on her vulnerability and inner strength to overcome the doom-filled environment, the author missed the mark. In that respect, I think Koontz was right.
I attempted in my own way, to meet the criteria of the genre in my recently completed Gothic romance novella, Ravenscroft Hall. Read if for free on Wattpad.
I made this video a while ago. My obsession continues. If you’re a fan of Gothic Romance, please comment below with any of your favorites.
A Glimpse of Genre: The Gothic Romance
The Girl in the Mansion: How Gothic Romances Became Domestic Noirs