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Posts Tagged ‘gothic fiction’

Creep me out. Silvia Moreno-Garcia sure does in her new novel Mexican Gothic, (Ballantine, purchased e-book), lacing classic gothic tropes by way of Bronte with a little Lovecraftian horror. In 1950s Mexico City, chic socialite Noemi reluctantly travels to the remote mountain villa of High Place after her newlywed cousin Catalina sends a mysterious missive that her husband Virgil Doyle’s ancestral home “is sick with rot, stinks with decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment.”  Noemi, who hopes to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology, is skeptical, but High Place, built next to an old silver mine by British aristocrats, is decidedly unwelcoming. Steely Aunt Florence and handsome Virgil supervise her limited visits with sickly Catalina; the dead-eyed servants don’t speak; windows won’t open; and the whole moldering mansion is presided over by ancient family patriarch Howard, a corpse-like figure fond of discussing eugenics. Noemi’s one possible ally is Virgil’s wan cousin Francis, who picks mushrooms in the cemetery and makes detailed botanical drawings of the abundant fungi. Then the hallacinatory nightmares begin, and the dread escalates as a woman’s voice whispers, “Open your eyes.” Who or what is terrorizing Noemi? Turn the page…

In Eve Chase’s atmospheric The Daughters of Foxcote Manor (Putnam, review copy), the titular house is tucked away in the Forest of Dene, covered with vines and shadowed by trees. After the Harrington family home in London goes up in flames in 1971, young nanny Rita Murphy nervously drives mom Jeannie Harrington and her two children, 13-year-old Hera and six-year-old Teddy, to Foxcote while dad Walter remains in town. Still recovering from a breakdown after losing a baby in childbirth, Jeannie retreats to bed, leaving “Big Rita” to contend with the kids, Foxcote and local busybody Maggie. Then Walter’s macho best friend Don shows up at Foxcote and Hera discovers a baby in the woods. Gunshots ring out. Forty years later in London, middle-aged Sylvie deals with her soon-to-be ex-husband, her 18-year-old daughter and her beloved mother, comatose after a fall. Then unexpected news from her daughter sends her down the rabbit hole of old family secrets to Foxcote Manor in 1971. Chase shifts between the two time periods as she pieces together an intriguing puzzle. If some pieces click into place a little too neatly, the overall is as complicated as a Kate Morton tale and just as satisfying.

Something weird is going on at Catherine House (HarperCollins/Charter House, digital galley), a literary gothic from Elisabeth Thomas with shades of The Secret History and Never Let Me Go. For starters, Catherine House is not a house but an elite liberal arts and research college in rural Pennsylvania. Graduates go on to positions of power and influence, but students must first agree to three years of seclusion on the campus. Troubled Ines at first revels in hedonistic pleasures and pays little attention to her studies, the opposite of her roommate Baby, who threatens to crack under the academic pressure. An enforced stint at the “Restoration Center” may be the cure for both of them. Or not. Thomas is great with world-building, the strange hothouse atmosphere in which secrets thrive. She could do more with  character development. Teachers and students blur together, with the exception of outsider Ines, who eventually dares to challenge the establishment.

Riley Sager puts his trademark spin on the haunted house tale while paying homage to The Amityville Horror in Home Before Dark (Dutton/Penguin, digital galley). Maggie Holt is surprised when her father dies and leaves her Baneberry Hall, a dilapidated Victorian in small-town Vermont where she briefly lived with her parents when she was a child. Ewan Holt later wrote a best-selling book, House of Horrors, about how the family fled Baneberry in the wake of supernatural events. He always claimed the book was nonfiction, but Maggie thinks it’s a hoax, that her father took advantage of the house’s reputation as the scene of a gruesome crime. Chapters of Ewan’s book are interspersed with Maggie’s suspenseful present-day account of returning to Baneberry to restore the house and lay to rest its ghosts. Best read this one with the lights on.

Past events also play into the present in Megan Miranda’s involving The Girl from Widow Hills (Simon and Schuster, digital galley). When hospital administrator Olivia Meyer moves to North Carolina from Kentucky, she’s hoping no one will recognize her as Arden Maynor, the six-year-old who was swept away in a storm 20 years ago and miraculously rescued from a drainpipe three days later. Liv remembers little of what happened, but she is still haunted by bad dreams and occasionally sleepwalks. That’s what she’s doing when she stumbles across a dead body between her rental house and her reclusive landlord’s home. Soon, police detective Nina Rigby is asking Liv probing questions even as Liv is investigating on her own. Is she really being stalked, or is it her overactive imagination? Miranda offers up a number of suspects in her twisty guessing-game story.

Megan Goldin uses the popularity of true-crime podcasts to good effect in The Night Swim (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Rachel Krall is known for her podcast Guilty or Not Guilty, but she maintains a low personal profile. So she’s surprised to keep finding anonymous letters left for her in Neapolis, N.C., where she’s covering the controversial trial of champion swimmer Ryan Blair, accused of raping teen Kelly Moore. Excerpts of Rachel’s authentic-sounding podcast about the trial alternate with the revealing letters, in which a girl who calls herself Hannah begs Rachel to investigate the long-ago murder of her older sister. Rachel’s intrigued enough to look into the alleged crime but soon discovers that it was closed as an accidental drowning. Hannah herself proves maddeningly elusive, and the trial heats up as the town takes sides. Rachel claims her podcast puts listeners “in the jury box,” and readers will feel they are there, too, even as they wonder about possible connections with the cold case. Tense and timely.

 

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Sarah Perry follows up her fabulous 2016 novel The Essex Serpent with a lush literary Gothic, Melmoth (Custom House/HarperCollins, digital galley), which thrills in a more haunting and somber manner. In 2016, middle-aged British translator Helen Franklin leads an austere life in Prague, apparently to atone for an undisclosed incident in her past. But then her friend Karel disappears after having given her a strange, confessional manuscript whose stories are tied together by the spectral figure of Melmoth. The latter is a creature out of folklore and myth, doomed to wander the world in solitude as she witnesses acts of betrayal throughout history. She appears to those lonely souls consumed by guilt and complicity who have given into despair, and then bids them follow her. She is so lonely. Why, then, is she watching Helen? Or is it just Helen’s fevered imagination, inspired by the manuscripts’s chilling stories, perhaps her own suppressed guilt? Helen’s tale is full of portents like chattering jackdaws, but it’s what she — and the reader — witness in the manuscript that imprints on the memory: crimes of war, suffering and exile. “Look!” is Perry’s imperative throughout. Witness the heartache but also the hope of forgiveness. Given Perry’s way with words, it’s hard to look away.

 

Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) is a clever and chilling novel of marriage, grief, obsession and Something Mysterious. American college professor Charles Hayden and his wife Erin take up residence at the secluded English estate that was once home of the Victorian writer Caedmon Hollow, author of a strange, fanciful book, “In the Night Wood.” The recent death of their young daughter Lissa haunts both Charles and Erin. She has given up her law career and numbs her grief with pills and drink, while Charles tries to escape his by researching Hollow’s tragic life. At different times, both glimpse a sinister horned man in the encroaching woods who figured in Hollow’s book. Further research and a series of coincidences has Charles believing that there is fact in the fiction of the pagan god Herne the Hunter. A little girl from the village has disappeared in the wood; her body has not been found. Bailey is adept at building a menacing atmosphere, although numerous literary allusions tend to overload his prose and sap the magic.

Witches, vampires and demons intermingle with mere mortals in Deborah Harkness’ popular All Souls Trilogy, which began with A Discovery of Witches (now a British TV series). With Time’s Convert (Viking Penguin, digital galley), Harkness returns to that world, bringing back many familiar characters, including witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew de Clermont, now married and parents of young twins. But the main characters are Matthew’s son Marcus Whitmore, who became a vampire while a field doctor in the American Revolution, and 23-year-old human Phoebe Taylor, who is about to become a vampire in Paris and marry Marcus. Harkness moves back and forth between centuries and exotic locales to chronicle the mental and physical struggles the pair undergo separately to satisfy the demands of tradition. Readers familiar with Harkness’s previous works will appreciate the further adventures of her characters and the elaboration on customs. The twins Becca and Philip are already showing signs of having inherited their parents’ magical talents. Philip, in fact, has a new play pal — a griffin called Apollo.

With Dracul (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley), Dacre Stoker, a descendant of Dracula creator Bram Stoker, teams with writer J.D. Barker to come up with a prequel to the classic vampire novel, and Bram himself is a main character. Readers are introduced to him as a terrified 21-year-old in 1868, waiting alone in a tower at night. As Something lurks outside the locked door, Bram writes of his family’s history in Ireland, primarily his own sickly childhood. He was miraculously saved from death by his nursemaid Ellen Crone, who then disappeared. Some years later, Bram’s sister Matilda reports from Paris that she has seen Ellen, and so begins a quest leading to the revelation that Ellen is a Dearg-Due, a bloodsucking creature of Irish folklore but subject to a more powerful master. (I’m not giving the story away — readers will be aware that Ellen is some sort of vampire from the get-go). Dracul is too over-the-top to provide the genuine chills of the original Dracula, but it’s an entertaining tale nonetheless.

 

An English country house. A missing diamond. A sepia photograph. A star-crossed romance. A children’s story. A plucky orphan. A disappearance. A drowning. A ghost. . . The ghost plays a major role in Kate Morton’s new saga, The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Atria Books, review copy), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The review hasn’t been published yet, but as soon as it does, I’ll post it on Facebook and Goodreads and provide a link here. Happy Halloween!

 

 

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splitfoot“All stories are ghost stories,” says one of the characters near the beginning of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), a mysterious, and sometimes mystifying, novel of abandoned children, missing mothers, con men, cult members and angel voices. Two parallel narratives twist like the serpent on the cover, echoing the story of upstate New York’s Fox sisters, 19th-century charlatans who pretended to be mediums guided by “Mr. Splitfoot.”

Ruth and Nat, as close as sisters, communicate with the spirit world to the fascination of their motley fellows at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Mission and Farm, presided over by the parsimonious and fanatical “Father.” Think Charles Dickens by way of Flannery O’Connor, except this is rural New York in the late 20th-century. A traveling con man, Mr. Bell, shows scarred Ruth and fragile Nat how to cash in on their spiritualist talents, even as a sinister local tries to buy Ruth to be his bride.

This is rich and strange enough, but Hunt compounds the book’s oddities with the uncoiling story of Ruth’s pregnant niece Cora, who, 14 years later, accompanies the now-mute Ruth on a walking odyssey to the Adirondacks. Why Cora continues on a seeming wild-goose chase is a question even Cora can’t answer satisfactorily, but Hunt teases out the puzzle by shifting back and forth between Ruth/Nat and Ruth/Cora. Contemporary gothic? Picaresque coming-of-age? Haunting hybrid? Best keep in mind: “All stories are ghost stories.”

crookedThe ghost of a young teenager named Esme haunts the memory of a young woman called Alison in Christobel Kent’s atmospheric The Crooked House (FSG, purchased e-book), and no wonder — Alison used to be Esme. That was before her mother and siblings were murdered in their isolated house near the village of Saltleigh, and traumatized Esme was whisked away by an aunt in Cornwall. Now working as an accountant at a London publishing firm, Alison keeps her past private, and her older boyfriend Paul is reserved as well.  But when Paul invites Alison to his former girlfriend’s wedding in Saltleigh, Alison forces herself to return to her hometown, hoping she can piece together the fragmented memories of the night her family died. Surely, no one will recognize her after all these years. Ha! One after another, the close-knit villagers tumble to Alison’s real identity — her former best friend, the old pub mate of her dad, the surfer who once kissed her, her older brother’s pals. Even as Alison seeks out the kind police detective who handled the infamous case, she is determined to keep her secrets from Paul. Then an accidental death turns out to be murder, and again the victim connects to Alison/Esme.

The Crooked House reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with the shades of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie hovering nearby. That’s fine, and The Crooked House is mostly entertaining and suspenseful. Still, Kent heaps on so many coincidences and plot twists as to defy credibility. All fall down.

spiderEmily Arsenault’s The Evening Spider (Morrow, digital galley) is as creepy-crafty as its title. In the present day, history teacher and new mom Abby worries that her old New England house is haunted when she hears a peculiar shushing noise in the nursery and notices a strange bruise on baby Lucy. Researching the house’s history, she obtains an old recipe book and journal circa 1880 belonging to another young mother, Frances, who lived in the house. While Abby, suffering from nightmares and sleeplessness, tries to find out more about Frances, readers are treated to a confessional monologue from Frances in the Northampton lunatic asylum in 1885. Turns out she was fascinated by a sensational murder of the time, which Abby reads about in newspaper accounts and other documents. Abby reaches out to both an elderly archivist and a woman claiming to be a medium as she wonders what “unspeakable crime” preoccupied Frances.

Inspired by a real-life 1879 murder and trial, Arsenault mixes grisly details of autopsies and early forensics with the domestic routines of young mothers living 125 years apart. Frances worries that her attorney husband finds her distracted behavior around baby Martha hysterical, while Abby knows she’s losing it when she unwittingly wears her pajama bottoms to the public library. The late, great Barbara Michaels did this kind of ghost story very well, and so does Arsenault.

 

 

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