I’m not sure people really understand what makes a book “gothic” literature any more. Beginning with Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto in 1766, this genre combines horror and romance and is characterized by dark, brooding settings and often a paranormal element. Most romance readers have read works like Charlotte Bronte‘s Jane Eyre, Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, and Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca, enjoying both the books and the many film adaptations. Gothic literature continues into the modern day with some of the novels of Stephen King and Anne Rice easily falling into this literature category.
The way to know if you are reading a gothic romance is the observation of key elements. Strong archetypes are present in these stories: a virginal heroine, a tortured Byronic hero, the often twisted representation of religion and the presence of looming, forbidding gothic architecture, complete with secret passageways. Presence of the supernatural (while also having the real threat come from more corporeal villains) is combined with the frequent threat of rape or incest, as well as a heroine with a sensitivity to what’s going on around her when others do not perceive any danger.
I think that there is a strong percentage of romance readers who loved incredibly scary ghost stories growing up, the kind told with flashlights under your chin and the need to have clumps of your girlfriends go to the bathroom together afterward since God knows what was lurking behind the toilet tank. I think there is more gothic romance in YA literature, but we’ve inherited elements of gothic literature in much of the vampire romance subset (a lot of vampire literature is also gothic literature) and also some romantic suspense. I was still excited to see, when browsing for Christmas themed romance novels, this dual novella anthology from Christine Feehan and Melanie George. Both authors hit the gothic romance nail right on the head, with these stories prepared to send delicious shivers down your spine, both from the standpoint of the looming threat posed and the sexual tension between the hero and heroine.
Jessica was 13 when her mother went to work for rock star sensation Dillon and his troubled wife Vivian. She was happy to help her mother with the housekeeping and nanny chores to the couple’s newborn twins, Tara and Trevor. Vivian was troubled from the start but her latent instability rapidly degenerated into sexual infidelity, Satanic rituals and drug use endangering everyone around her. By age 18, Jessica and Dillon had feelings for each other but never verbalized or acted upon them due to his married status and her age. Nevertheless they were best friends with the common bonds of music and love of his children.
But one cataclysmic night, Vivian’s excess endangered Jessica in a way that sent Dillon over the edge, attacking his wife’s degenerate guests. The night ended with Vivian shot dead and six of her guests (and her) burned in the fire that reduceed Dillon’s home to ashes. Jessica managed to get the five year old children out of the house but Dillon suffered burns to his hands, arms and torso after rushing back in the house to save her and his twins as he didn’t know they’d escaped the inferno. In the subsequent medical treatments and two-year long trial (which absolves him of any guilt of the fire or the deaths), Dillon pushed away Jessica, her mother, and his children, giving them money to live comfortably but clearly wanting nothing to do with them as he became a recluse no longer producing music.
It’s been over a year since her mother died and twenty-six year old Jessica has done a great job raising Dillon’s children and forging a career as a talented sound engineer. Thirteen-year-old Tara and Trevor are fun, intelligent, and devoted to Jessica, but she’s worried for their safety. Her mother’s death was ruled an accident but Jessica has her suspicions, particularly after strange circumstances endanger her and the children. With Christmas a few weeks away, she makes the decision to brave the stormy weather and hire a boat to take the three of them to Dillon’s private island, an island where he has built a masterpiece to Gothic architecture not far from the ruin of his previous home.
The man who greets them is not the sunny, talented star of the past, but a truly tortured man (gothic hero, *check*) whose scars prevent him from playing the guitar and producing the music that was his life’s blood. The members of his former band (including the twins’ Aunt Brenda, Vivian’s sister, married to one of the band) are all in the house working with Dillon to produce a new album. Dillon hears music in his head all the time, but getting other people to realize his visions is an exercise in frustration.
Which is nothing to the frustration of seeing Jessica again. He feels like a monster in front of his children and her, but it’s minor to the longing he feels for all of them. Jessica – now a full-blown, stunning woman – calls to him, her presence always bringing light into his life. The vision of them as a family haunts him, breaking down his walls until he begins to see what his life could be. The fact that she is also able, in a way no one else seems capable, of helping him translate his musical dreams for others to understand and play makes his life worth living. But Jessica insists that there continues to be a real threat from one of the people living in Dillon’s home. Someone wants her and the children gone from his life, even if it means killing them.
I’ve read other Feehan books before and enjoyed them but I still was floored with the masterful writing in his novella. It’s rare for me to read a mystery where I can figure out who is the villain, but Feehan kept me guessing as she ladled suspicion on one character after another. Jessica and Dillon are a hot couple with a strong emotional and physical connection and the scene where they finally give into their passion for one another is both sexy and moving. The secondary characters are excellent, but Feehan nails the gothic setting with her description of the island and the mysterious happenings which continue to occur, endangering the children. Like the traditional gothic heroine, Jessica is virginal (she never wanted anyone but Dillon) and also sensitive to the paranormal and mysterious happenings around her, even as other people scoff at her suspicions.
“Lady of the Locket” by Melanie George
This novella will appeal to to fans of Karen Marie Moning‘s Highlander series as it involves a similar time travel romance resulting in a passionate romance between a highlander from the past and a modern woman.
Rachel Hudson is not exactly in the Christmas spirit. It’s only a few days to the holiday and she’s alone in front of a dark castle not far from the bloody battlefield of Culloden. Her parents met one Christmas at this very castle, falling in love and married here exactly one year later. This Christmas would have been their 30th wedding anniversary and the whole family was going to celebrate it right here, but fate had different plans. Her mother died of cancer and her father followed her about a month ago, dropping dead of a heart attack. She’s here with the permission of the son of the castle owner to spend the holiday and spread their ashes on this place which meant so much to them.
Let in by the offsite caretaker, she’s immediately riveted by the portrait of the castle founder, Duncan MacGregor. It was painted in 1745 not long before his death and she’s left a little breathless at the compelling, handsome man with burning blue eyes. The castle itself is drafty and dark, with spotty electricity and the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in the world. Wanting to know more about Duncan, she cuddles up with a history book she picked up and discovered that his enemy, the head of the Gordon clan, is responsible for burning down the ruined East Wing in an act of revenge after being wounded by MacGregor. People believe he perished in the fire and that his malevolent ghost haunts the castle to this day.
With that thought in her mind as she drifts off to sleep, Rachel is awoken by the thunder of a vicious electrical storm and the sounds of battle. When she hears someone calling out, she worries that there might be a person caught in the storm and runs out in her pajamas to look for them. She ends up by the castle’s ring of stones dating back to the Druid era, the stones where Duncan MacGregor was ultimately killed and buried. Just as a bolt of lightening blasts the stone engraved with his name to pieces, she sees a man on a black horse emerge and run straight for her.
It’s Duncan, of course, come straight from battle and angry that he cannot find his men. His first thought is that the sodden Rachel is a witch sent by Gordon, but as he follows her into his home – annoyed by her testy response to his ordering her about – he quickly realizes that his home is different. Very different. As it sinks in that he is no longer in his own time, her compassion reaches him, enough to unleash the passion he has felt from the first moment he spotted her. But unlike any woman he’s ever come in contact with before, she refuses him, although he can clearly see she wants him.
For Rachel, it’s self-preservation. In all her twenty-seven years, she’s never felt this overwhelming attraction to any man and as she’s begun to accept that this is the Duncan MacGregor from the eighteenth century, she knows he’ll have to leave and return to his own time at some point. Terrifyingly, it becomes quickly apparent that Duncan’s presence has given Gordon’s ghost power as well, and the enemy actually manifests and attacks them both at various points, intent on taking both their souls. For Duncan and Rachel, their coming together is bittersweet as they realize they have each found their soulmate but cannot keep them.
Christmas Eve is especially poignant, with Duncan making her a snowman (she had mentioned her family’s tradition) and she gives him her mother’s locket which has Rachel’s picture in it. As the power of Christmas Day pulls Duncan back to the exact moment Gordon burns down the East Wing of the castle, Rachel is left bereft, although an expected person finds her after she thinks she’s lost everything she ever wanted.
George makes it very clear from the first page that this is a gothic romance, having Rachel look at the forbidding castle and think that it’s a place for Heathcliff and then quote her favorite passage from du Maurier’s Rebecca. While Rachel is not a virgin, she does say that the orgasm Duncan gives her is her first (astonishing at twenty-seven – did she go to a doctor?). With Gordon’s ghost, the paranormal element (to say nothing of the time travel) is well satisfied, and this castle is as dark and forbidding as they come. There were a few points at which I wish Rachel had a little more backbone, but I could easily empathize with her being a buttoned-up person who thought love like her parents possessed would never find her. She’s overwhelmed when that kind of passion turns up in her own life, particularly such a doomed love. I loved the ending and could easily picture Rachel being able to talk about what happened to her and moving on with her own life.
Melanie George is unique among the authors I review in that she appears to have fallen off the face of the earth after her last book was published in 2006. No website or social media presence (and other people have tried to figure out if she even still belongs to the Romance Writers of America) makes it seem like she never existed. This is so sad as her books appear to still be popular and I definitely enjoyed the writing in this story. I would love to see her still have a website with her booklist and some information even if she didn’t plan on writing anymore. I think all readers understand that sometimes life’s circumstances cause people to stop writing, but a little website with key information is still an acknowledgment that you appreciate your readers continuing to buy your books. With the advent of ebook backlists, readers can find you more easily so it’s not like no one knows who you are, even without a new book on the Barnes & Noble shelf twice a year. Christine Feehan fortunately is going strong with her Drake Sisters saga (and other series) and her website is an example to other romance authors. I just wish she was on Twitter!
This taste of gothic romance has given me a desire for more, and prompted me to think about the genre in general. I loved the way the magic of the holiday blended with the love in these two couples and think that this excellent book deserves to be on everyone’s Christmas shelf! Many thanks to Christine Feehan and Melanie George for reminding us why gothic romance can still send shivers down our spines. 🙂
- Gothic Literature – Love And The Supernatural (blogs.abc.net.au)
- The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption (irenewatson.typepad.com)