Thursday, July 3, 2008

American Gothic (Sort of)

Before there was “romantic suspense” fiction, there was “gothic fiction” or “gothic romance.” The American Heritage Dictionary offers this definition: “Of or relating to a style of fiction that emphasizes the grotesque, mysterious, and desolate.” Think remote estates with resident ghosts, recalcitrant caretakers, and mysterious deaths or disappearances –usually involving the former lady of the manor. And of course a handsome, brooding man with secrets. Hero? Or Villain? Some of the most well known examples of this subgenre are Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. This category has been so popular for so long that even Jane Austen spoofed it in her classic Northanger Abbey. However, not all gothic romances were written in previous centuries, nor are they all set in England. American literature has its own gothic romance tradition spanning several centuries. The library’s summer paperback collection has a few good examples.

Historical literature fans will enjoy Dragonwyck by Anya Seton, set here in the Hudson Valley in the mid-nineteenth century. Dragonwyck is the home of Nicholas Van Ryn, who invites his distant cousin Miranda Wells to join his household. Miranda discovers that the magnificent gothic towers and beautiful gardens of Dragonwyck hold some terrible secrets as she gets drawn further into life at the estate.

More contemporary versions of the gothic can be found in the work of Barbara Michaels. Though she is better known for her mysteries written under her other pen name, Elizabeth Peters, the books she published in the 1960’s and 1970’s follow the gothic tradition, but contain the kind of subversive humor and strong-willed heroine that has become the norm in current romantic suspense. Witch, House of Many Shadows, and Prince of Darkness contain all the lurking menace of tales set earlier times while updating the heroines and capitalizing on the burgeoning interest in the occult that occurred in a time when peace, love, and macrame were all the rage. Though these books are clearly rooted in a particular time and place, the stories and settings are still enjoyable and are an excellent diversion on a summer weekend – or a dark and stormy night....

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