crime fiction home

The Gothic Mystery

Buy Crime and Mystery Books

OSCAR WILDE remarked of Mrs Radcliffe that she "introduced the romantic novel, and consequently has much to answer for". Fashions change, but heroines go on, and Mrs Radcliffe's Emily St Aubert, whom we first see in The Mysteries of Udolpbo rambling "among the scenes of nature" is not that removed from Anne who, 200 years later, in the latest novel of romantic suspense by Barbara Michaels, Someone in the House (1981), stands at her kitchen sink "mincing and chopping and braising and doing a lot of other things". Anne may be a modern woman - a self-confessed feminist, in fact - but it doesn't stop her from going off to spend her summer holiday at a menacing manor house complete with "strange subterranean chambers", "dank, stone-floored passageways", a disused chapel, and the mysterious portrait "of a medieval lady in long trailing robes".

The gothic romance a phenomenon of popular culture for the last couple of centuries - is like a cake recipe that's been passed around a large circle of acquaintance. Some people add nuts, some raisins, others put in a few dates or take out a bit of sugar; no matter how you make it, to cognoscenti it's recognizably that same cake.
In the beginning there was Horace Walpole. He cooked up The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story (although the word "Gothic" does not appear on the title-page of the first edition), which he published in 1764 as by "William Marshall, Gent, from the original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St Nicholas at Otranto". A second printing brought the original 500 to a thousand copies, and Walpole by then was claiming such a popular book as his own.

The son of a prime minister, Walpole wasn't very amused by the politics of his day, preferring to dwell in his imagination in bygone halls. Eventually, he went to great efforts to turn his fantasies into reality and spent much of his life making his residence at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, Surrey, into an elaborate but altogether sham Gothic castle. He soaked up the atmosphere there for almost fifteen years before delivering himself of The Castle of Otranto which had its origins, Xanadu-like, in a dream.
Why Gothic? One might as well try to give an exact answer to why Art Nouveau resurfaced in the late sixties to give aesthetic shape to the counterculture. Someone is always reviving something in reaction to prevailing modes, from spare to ornate and back again. However, as E. F. Bleiler, editor of a 1966 collection of gothic novels, puts it, "Before Walpolc (apart from Bishop Hurd's less important Letters on Chivalry] the word 'gothick' was almost always a synonym for rudeness, barbarousness, crudity, coarseness and lack of taste. After Walpole the word assumed two new major meanings: first, vigorous, bold, heroic and ancient, and second, quaint, charming, romantic but perhaps a little decadent in its association with Romanticism, but sentimental and interesting."

The plot of The Castle of Otranto is, despite scholars' claims for its continued readability, massively siily. The Haunted Hat might be a better name for it, since the action revolves around a gigantic helmet that falls plunk out of the sky, crushing beneath its weight a young prince. Then the homicidal helmet commences to wave its black plumes to indicate that it's still unappeased, while on the human front folks run back and forth, weeping, gnashing, brandishing, fleeing, hiding, denouncing, fainting, etc.
Now this may not sound exactly like what you expect to find between paperback covers, underneath illustrations of nubile females in filmy gowns running below battlements set against a clouded moon, but it was a start. Think of Walpole as the eccentric great-great-great uncle of the gothic novel of romantic suspense. And think of his Theodore and Isabella as the uppermost branches on a family tree which along the way includes Jane and Mr Rochester, Heathchff and Catherine, the nameless narrator and Max de Winter of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, and today has its offshoots catalogued in a newsletter published from Fairway, Kansas, entitled Boy Meets Girl: A weekly review of romance authors, agents, publishers and fiction.

Coincidentally, 1764, the year of Otranto.,was the same as the birth of Ann Ward, later Mrs Ann Radcliffe, in London. She was to take what Walpole had started, in his desire "to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern" (as he stated in his preface to the second edition) and give it what they call in the movie business "legs", or staying power. Though Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron (first called The Champion of Virtue) appeared in 1778 and was overtly modelled on Otranto, it was Mrs Radcliffe who, with Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), claimed the gothic for her sex and thus for all time.
There, I've gone and said it: the gothic is women's fiction. Women read it, write it and, most importantly, identify with it. This, despite the hard evidence of Matthew Gregory Lewis' The Monk (1796), still thrillingly readable today; Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), an important development in the gothic progression; and all the other gentlemen -William Beckford, Charles Brockden Brown, William Godwin, Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Poe, Hawthorne, Victor Hugo, George Du Mauner, Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to name a few - who fertilized gothicism with their work. The exquisite horror tale, the more clanking ghost story, the early Victorian "bloods", the later swashbucklers: all of these can be considered fascinating gothic manifestations (romantic, exotic, thrilling in the most literal sense) but they will lead us along too circuitous a route to any discussion of what is currently designated "gothic fiction" in the modern market.

Jane Austen knew that gothics belonged to her sex and had great fun fleshing out this notion in Nortbanger Abbey, a sly, affectionate parody of the "horrid" novels of that era, in which Mrs Radcliffe's Udolpho is so
omnipresent as to be practically a character. The word "romance", as we know, has many meanings - among them, having to do with love, heightened imagination, and outright fabrication. And I'd like here to apply, with your indulgence, one of my favourite quotations - it's from Saki - for it is resonant in this context: "Romance at short notice was her speciality." Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, is longing to give up her heart .without too much reflection and, primed by the excesses of Mrs Radcliffe and others, she has the cliches of the genre at her fingertips.

Better still, to illustrate what Saki's daughter of the house in "The Open Window" later did as well, Austen's Eleanor Tilney, the hero's sister, reveals herself to be latently bloodthirsty, conjuring up real-life visions to match Catherine's fictive descriptions. But then, Austen has already told us that Miss Tilney likes the "little embellishments" of history and is "very well contented to take the false with the true". This is the lure of the safe frisson.
From Mrs Radcliffe to the Brontes is not a particularly complicated manoeuvre. The former eliminated the gross supernatural appurtenances that made Walpole's Otranto so grotesque (but which, in truth, give power to The Monk and Melmoth), but nonetheless felt compelled to set her books in the past. Emily St Aubert lives in the sixteenth century yet she has an eighteenth-century sensibility. Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw are true gothic heroines but now the medieval trappings are gone, too. Withering Heights is probably best categorized as a "psychological gothic" but Emily Bronte knew what Ann Radcliffe had known before her: that wild scenery and wilder weather are a staple of the recipe. As for Charlotte Bronte, she made the "Reader, I married him" motif a standard ingredient as well.

In the space between The Mysteries ofUdolpbo and 1847, when the Bronte sisters took the English literary world by storm, Italianate romances enjoyed at least a couple of decades of vogue. Books with titles like Rosaura dl Virafoa; or, The Homicide, The Italian Banditti, Italian Vengeance and English Forbearance, Sicilian Mysteries; Or, The Fortress Del Vechii, The Maid of Padua, and The Sicilian Boy rolled off the presses. Others conveyed their message to the public with exclamation points, such as Joan .'!!, Astonishment ///, The Three Monks III and The Reformist !/!, while novels with names like The Vampyre Bride, The Earl and the Maiden, Who Is The Bridegroom? or, Nuptial Discoveries, and The Nun's Picture also signalled that gothic delights lurked inside.
Just past the middle of the nineteenth century, the "sensational novel", a close sister of the gothic, reached its apotheosis with M. E. Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862), while at the same time Mrs Henry Wood issued her

spectacularly successful sentimental melodrama, East Lynne (1861). These two divergent fictions of erring wives further fuelled the female appetite for reading matter that was more titillating than uplifting. They were like life in that they were set in a recognizably acceptable milieu but they were definitely fantasy - and thus like gothics - in that extreme events were allowed to occur and women could be active, even aggressive.
The rise of novels of mystery and detection is the next significant taste to be charted: more nuts and raisins. In the United States, in 1878, a lawyer's daughter, Anna Katharine Green, with The Leaveniyortk Case, added a substantial woman's touch to this budding genre, followed by such genteel plotters as Mary Roberts Rinehart and Carolyn Wells. The "Had-I-But Known" theme, to borrow an expression coined by Ogden Nash, though it had always been incipient, was the last to be informally added to the gothic concoction.

As I have implied, over the period of time in which the gothic romance became popular, women were rarely if ever in the same kind of danger outside of fiction as they were inside. Excessive childbearing, disease, and boredom were the greatest threats faced by women, and novels portraying women in danger, not surprisingly, became an antidote to the last-named. Brutish husbands and relations were not uncommon, but poisonous snakes in air-shafts stalking helpless heiresses were rare indeed (for what is "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" if not Sherlock Holmes investigating a gothic situation?). Just as the female sex could be more active in fiction, so could they be more menaced.
By the twentieth century, even as the formula was solidifying, women were moving out into the world, no longer just as governesses but in practically every profession. Oddly, however, the relatively passive Cinderella-type heroine, as in Rebecca, perhaps the premier gothic romance of our era, kept her hold on her audience. The Bluebeardish and Pandora's box aspects of the gothic romance have become increasingly pronounced while a great many best-selling romances (in paperback) are no longer "gothic" at all, slighting mysterious elements almost entirely in favour of the heroine's entanglements with seemingly unsuitable, initially indifferent men.

At the start of the 1980s, literary mitosis has created the "contemporary romance", which is now propagating itself at a rate far greater than the cell -the romantic/historical gothic-suspense novel - it originally split off from. Although the major modern writers of gothics, such as Daphne Du Maurier, Anya Seton, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Susan Howatch, Barbara Michaels and Mary Stewart, still have devoted fans, other, lesser authors have been forced, like their heroines, to go underground..
To be fair, two of the most interesting gothics of the last ten years have been written by men. Although Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey protests that "nearly as many" men as women read gothic romances (he himself claims to have finished "hundreds and hundreds"), the number of young males, or middle-aged or elderly ones, reading this genre has never really been a factor. After all, since I feel identification with the artificially endangered heroine to be crucial, who is there for them? In general, heroes like Mr Rochester and Heathcliff - the two basic models - are constructed to appeal to women, although there are, of course, men partial to Byronicism still. But whether they read gothics is another matter; it's enough for most to know the stereotype.
Thomas M. Disch's Clara Reeve (written under the nom de plume Leonie Hargrave) and Vincent Virga's Gaywyck are both tours de force; each is a meticulously recreated, affectionate homage to the eighteenth-century
original. In Clara Reeve (1975), Disch, a poet and much acclaimed writer of speculative fiction under his own name, romps through the conventions while maintaining a scholar's eye on his detail. Every bit as much a lush production as Clara Reeve is Gaywyck (1980) which, with its mischievous titular allusion to Seton's Dragonwyck, lays claim to being the first homosexual gothic. That is to say, Virga has made the Cinderella/Pandora heroine a young man whose love affair with the lord-of-the-manor-who-has-a-secret-in-his-past is eventually consummated.

There have now also been gothic-type novels with disfigured and handicapped heroines, straight male "heroines" (with brooding lady love-objects withholding their favours for mysterious reasons), middle-aged heroines, and other well-intentioned efforts at pluralism. Like mystery and detective fiction, the gothic has become an equal-opportunity employer, but a recent American manifestation, a "No-Frills Book", guarantees for its Romance ("complete with everything") only that it has a "man, woman, large house, one walk, a kiss and an event near the sea".
That's a far cry from the nineteenth-century assessment by the literary historian Henry A. Beers of The Monk (1795) which he said
used and abused the now familiar apparatus of Gothic romance. It had Spanish grandees, heroines of dazzling beauty, bravoes and forest banditti, foolish duennas and gabbling domestics, monks, nuns, inquisitors, magic mirrors, enchanted wands, midnight incantations, sorcerers, ghosts, demons; haunted chambers, wainscoted in dark oak; moonlit castles with mined towers and ivied battlements, whose galleries rang with the shrieks and blasphemies of guilty spirits and from whose portals issued, when the castle clock tolled one, the spectre of a bleeding nun, with dagger and lamp in hand. There were poisonings, stabbings, and ministrations of sleeping potions; beauties who masqueraded as pages, and pages who masqueraded as wandering harpers; secret springs that gave admittance to winding stairs leading down into the charnel vaults of convents, where erring sisters were immured by cruel prioresses and fed on bread and water among the loathsome relics of the dead.
Other variables would, of course, include heirs, orphans, hermits, brides, beggars, outcasts, exiles, copses, corpses and curses, all ventilated by groaning winds.

Eventually, one's brain begins to clang shut like a drawbridge, refusing to admit any more caskets, portraits, mistaken identities, flickering candles, false closets, bloodstained documents, forged wills, mad first wives, and dour housekeepers who wear large bunches of keys at their waist. But it's been fun, hasn't it?
As I have been pointing out, the tradition is being carried on, whether in mainstream gothics (now called romantic suspense) or other sorts of mystery, romance and adventure tales. They all borrow bits from one another and adapt somewhat to current trends. It is impossible that Horace Walpole or Mrs Radchffe, or even Oscar Wilde, could have foreseen a publishing climate in which coupons for free Harlequin romances would be given away in boxes of tampons in order to gain readership for pre-tested, interchangeable titles. But I think, despite this peculiar ploy, it's safe to assert that the gothic novel has not, after all, suffered a gothic fate.

Layout © R.D. Collins
Detective Fiction History - Articles

Buy Gothic Crime and Mystery Books


Books Wanted     Bibliography     Dust Jacket Artists     Home Page