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Posts Tagged ‘Gothic’

bookoflifeTwo years. That’s how long eager readers like myself have had to wait for Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life (Viking Penguin, digital galley), the third volume in her All Souls trilogy, a heady mix of history, fantasy, science and romance. Happily, the saga of Diana Bishop, an American scholar with witch DNA, and Matthew Clairmont, Oxford geneticist and centuries-old vampire, picks right up where Shadow of Night ended. The star-crossed couple, now married, have returned to the present after action-packed adventures in Elizabethean England, France and Prague. Alas, the ancient alchemical manuscript, Ashmole 782, the so-called Book of Life that may explain the origins of the supernatural world and its witches, vampires and daemons, is still missing. Worse, the present-day Clairmont clan is appalled by Matthew’s marriage to a witch and the even-more astounding news that Diana is expecting twins. Impossible! The ruling Congregation has rules about the cross-mating of species!

The first part of the book is weighted by family dysfunction and the reintroduction of numerous characters from previous books. But then Harkness immerses us once again in her colorfully detailed paranormal world, which is threatened by dark historical forces and present-day politics. Diana must grow into her magical powers as a witch and Matthew must harness his inherited blood rage to make the future safe for all their supernatural kin and kind — vampire, witch, daemon and human.

thequickVampires have been almost done to death in recent paranormal fiction, while zombies, aliens and angels are coming on strong. But Lauren Owen resurrects the shivery terror of Dracula and Victorian vampires in her first novel, The Quick (Random House, digital galley), where revenants are eventually revealed both as members of a mysterious London gentlemen’s club and a shadowy rag-and-bone underclass. But before brother and sister James and Charlotte Norbury are engulfed by this dark Gothic world, Owen describes their solitary upbringing in a country manor house, after which James pursues his literary studies at Oxford before heading for London. He shares lodgings with his aristocratic friend Christopher, tries writing a play and falls in love. The year is 1892, and Oscar Wilde is much admired. But on a late-night walk to Wilde’s house, James vanishes, and Charlotte eventually makes her way to London in search of her brother. What is weird becomes thrillingly weirder.

Owen keeps interest high by discarding the linear in favor of overlapping, shifting narratives. Readers become privy to the grisly goings-on of The Aegolius Club, the valiant efforts of two vampire hunters, the plight of an American businessman, the research of  “Doctor Knife,” and the wily ways of a beggar girl. There will be blood. Oh, yes.

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smallhandSusan Hill, who wrote the contemporary classic The Woman in Black, knows that a good ghost story lives in the shadows. The Small Hand and Dolly (Vintage, digital galley) are two stories that evoke candlelight and dusk even when the sun shines.

In the first tale, the narrator, an antiquarian bookseller, gets lost on a country road and chances on a derelict house. “I should have gone back,” he says several times as he describes the tree-lined lane and empty, overgrown garden, blanketed by ivy and creeping vines. But he has an urge to see more, and then, in hushed twilight, he feels a small hand grasp his fingers, and he returns the clasp as if he were a father holding his child’s small hand. “But I am not a father and the child was invisible.” Shiver. There’s more, of course, as the past impinges on the present, which is also the case with “Dolly,” in which a young girl’s long-ago destruction of a china doll reverberates through the years, tangibly haunting the innocent.

hauntedJohn Boyne is another writer familiar with the eerie eloquence of the 19th-century, and the shades of Bronte, Dickens, M.R. James and Henry James echo in This House is Haunted (Other Press, digital galley).

In 1867 England, 21-year-old narrator Eliza Caine impulsively answers an ad for a governess after her father’s sudden death leaves her alone in the world. She arrives  at spooky Gaudlin Hall in windswept Norfolk to find her new charges, precocious Isabelle and shy Eustace, without any apparent adult supervision since the sudden departure of their last governess. The local solicitor who pays the household expenses provides only vague answers to her questions, and the daily help does a disappearing act whenever Eliza’s around. She does learn, however, that she is one of a series of governesses, most of whom died while at Gaudlin Hall. And someone — or something — seems determined to drive Eliza away: the sensation of being strangled in her bed, the push at her back near an open window, the stone urn falling from the roof.  As Eliza learns more about the children’s absent parents and the family’s secrets, she becomes convinced that the house is haunted by a malignant spirit. Boyne artfully delivers standard gothic chills.

searlesJohn Searles’ Help for the Haunted (HarperCollins, digital galley and review copy) is a contemporary gothic, coming-of-age tale and ghost story told in a teasing non-linear narrative. Sylvie Mason, 14, is left in the distracted care of her older sister Rose after their parents are murdered on a snowy night. But she already knows the life of an outsider because her parents were demonologists who investigated the paranormal and provided “help for the haunted.”

Moving back and forth in time, Searles gradually reveals that Sylvie knows more about the circumstances of the murder and Rose’s whereabouts that night than she has let on to the police. Also, that the house’s basement is one scary place, that there’s a doll that’s possibly possessed, and that this is a family with more than one dark secret. The suspense mounts as  Searles deftly pieces together his psychological puzzle.

bellmanHere’s what I learned from Diane Setterfield’s rather puzzling Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story (Atria, paperback ARC; Nov. 5): Don’t mess with slingshots; rooks have long memories and are harbingers of doom; working at a mid-19th century English textile mill is tedious and poorly paid, unless you are the owner or his heir; and death is always in fashion because people need mourning clothes. I expected more mysterious magic from the author of The Thirteenth Tale.

Setterfield still writes beautifully, but I was never that interested in the story of William Bellman, who kills a rook with his slingshot when’s a boy and obliviously lives to regret it. Boy, does it take a procession of sudden deaths and subsequent funerals for William to figure out that the same black-garbed stranger keeps appearing at the cemetery and acting so familiar. Even as William works his way to the top of the mill’s management, he keeps losing those close to him. Finally, despairing that his beloved daughter Dora is dying from the fever, he shakes hands with the stranger. Soon after, he goes about setting up a new business — Bellman & Black — the London big-box store of mourning clothes and accessories. It flourishes under William’s obsessive care. Then the rooks come home to roost, so to speak, and the stranger returns a la Marley’s ghost. But by far the most haunting scene is still to come — Dora awestruck by a field of thousands of rooks taking flight. “She…forgets everything but the bliss of the shapes that paint themselves on the sky.. . To see it once is never to be without the feeling for the rest of your life.”

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The three Bronte sisters wrote only a handful of books between them, but their influence is legion. Add in their peculiar lives in a Yorkshire parsonage, and you have the stuff of novels. Imagine moldering mansions, lonely children, crazy kin, starcrossed lovers, brooding heroes, poverty-stricken heroines, family secrets, a legacy of lies. The Brontes have been there, done that. There even are T-shirts.

But a good Gothic is hard to resist, especially if you first read Jane Eyre as an impressionable teenage girl. Reader, what a a story!

College professor and writer April Lindner is still enthralled. She makes her YA debut, Jane,  with a fond contemporary update of Jane Eyre.

Jane Moore, low on self-esteem and funds, has to drop out of Sarah Lawrence when her parents are killed in a traffic accident, and her selfish older siblings inherit the stuff that’s worth anything. Jane’s smarts, determination and lack of celebrity-awareness get her a job as nanny to brooding bad-boy rock star Nico Rathborn’s 5-year-old daughter. At Thornfield Hall, no less. Want to guess who lives in the attic?

Lindner faithfully follows the original story for the most part. It’s fun to see what details she changes to suit the times — after the wedding-day shocker, for example, Jane runs away and works in a soup kitchen with a handsome seminary student planning a mission to Haiti. That world-weary Mr. Rathborn (“call me Nico”) falls for pragmatic, good-hearted Jane isn’t all that incredible; her prissy moralizing after she’s already slept with him is more so.  Still, most jarring of all, is that well-read Jane Moore has apparently never heard of Jane Eyre, the book or many movie adaptation. Clueless.

Jane Eyre is referenced several times in the historical mystery The Distant Hours, by Australian Kate Morton. Following the successful formula of her previous novels — The House at Riverton, The Forgotten Garden — Morton leisurely layers Gothic details with classic romantic suspense, jumping back and forth among several time periods. The Distant Hours is a rich confection with lots of frosting.

“It started with a letter.” A letter, it turns out, that was lost for 50 years, and whose sudden arrival in the early 1990s stuns Edie Burchill’s mother, Meredith, who doesn’t want to talk about it. But the letter sets Edie on the trail of her mum’s history as a 13-year-old wartime evacuee at Milderhurst Castle, home of Raymond Blythe, author of a popular horror book, The True Tale of The Mud Man, and his three daughters. The elder sisters are twins, Percy and Saffy, and they have spent their youth looking after their increasingly demented father and their younger sister Juniper, who is subject to emotional spells and lapses of memory.

If all this sounds complicated, it is, because everyone, including all of the above, plus a handsome soldier and a former housekeeper, have secrets to spare. As kindly Mrs. Bird, manager of the B&B, says to Edie, ” ‘They can surprise us, can’t they, our parents? The things they got up to before we were born.’ ”  Edies agrees: ‘Almost like they were real people once.’ ”

Open Book: I purchased the e-book version of April Lindner’s Jane (Little, Brown), and received an advance copy of Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours (Atria) as part of a web promotion. While reading them, and rereading Jane Eyre, I consumed vast quantities of tea and quite enjoyed myself.

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