Tag: gothic

The Birds or Why I Now Side Eye Pigeons

The Birds or Why I Now Side Eye PigeonsThe Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier
Published by Brown and Company on January 1, 1952
Genres: Classics - by women, Gothic, Mystery
Pages: 256
Source: Borrowed: ebook

A classic of alienation and horror, The Birds was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man's dominance over the natural world. The mountain paradise of 'Monte Verità' promises immortality, but at a terrible price; a neglected wife haunts her husband in the form of an apple tree; a professional photographer steps out from behind the camera and into his subject's life; a date with a cinema usherette leads to a walk in the cemetery; and a jealous father finds a remedy when three's a crowd . . .

Image result for the birds gif


Nope, nope, nope. Nope. How many nopes is that? Anyway, nope. Seriously though, you have to hand to Daphne du Maurier, she definitely knows how to tell a story. And in this case, several stories. I read another one of her anthologies this year and thought what a great weaver of tales she was.

There are six stories in this collection and they pack a punch, but my favorites hands down were “The Birds”, “The Apple Tree”, and “The Old Man.”

The Birds (5 stars)-Unlike the Alfred Hitchcock movie that many are familiar with. This story is actually a lot more dark (yeah who knew that you could go darker?) than the movie I think. The story revolves around a family living on their farm where the father realizes that something odd is going on with the birds. And once it becomes apparent that people may be under attack, he does what he can to keep them safe.

Monte Verita (3.5 stars)-Oh boy. This was endless. And not in a good way. It started off oddly and then it smoothed out, and then I was bored and wanting the book to end as fast as possible.  A narrator describes a place called Monte Verita and wondering if it still exists. We realize he is in his dotage and then the story reverses itself to talk about how the narrator and one of his best friends loved to climb mountains. I really thought what he was describing in this story was hiking, but what do I know. The most camping I do these days is sitting outside on my patio drinking wine.

Image result for drinking wine gif

Then the story changes again to how his best friend meets a gorgeous mysterious woman who he marries (are they always not gorgeous and mysterious?) As I said the story was endless and for me I did not really get much about this supposed calling. The ending to this story made me just roll my eyes. I think I was supposed to be taking away something bigger than what I got here, but I just don’t know what it was.

The Apple Tree (5 stars)-What a sad story from beginning to end. You honestly think the story is going one way, but then it twists and re-twists itself.  We find a widowed man who is now pretty content since he is retired and his wife is now dead. Don’t worry readers, he didn’t kill her physically. But you start to read more and more of the story and you realize there are other ways in which you can kill the spirit of someone you claim to love. I do not want to give too much away except to say I chuckled at the ending. Which probably means I am a dark person, but I am okay with that.

Image result for a dying apple tree gif

The Little Photographer (4 stars)-At first I was a bit bored by this story. And then it starts picking up steam. A woman away on vacation with her two small children and her nanny starts to think that even though she may have everything that she could want wealth wise, it still may be a chance to see what else is out there for her when she realizes she is not as fulfilled as she could be. Thinking that a quick affair can cure what ails her leads her down a dark path.

Kiss Me Again, Stranger (3 stars)-A young man who finds himself in love at first sight though I would say he may need to have his eyes checked based on all of the red flags I was seeing. This one ended a bit too abruptly for me. And honestly I was still confused about the whole thing. I guess this was more of a cautionary tale about falling in love with people without knowing a thing about them.

The Old Man (5 stars)-I maybe sort of screamed at the ending and said what a few times and went back and re-read it with the ending in mind. I refuse to give anymore details on this one except I was totally floored.

An overall review of 4 stars since I really only loved three of the stories.



Uncle Silas by Sheridan LeFanu

Uncle Silas by Sheridan LeFanuUncle Silas by Sheridan LeFanu
Published by Penguin Classics on 1854
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 528
Source: Purchased: ebook

In Uncle Silas, Sheridan Le Fanu's most celebrated novel, Maud Ruthyn, the young, naïve heroine, is plagued by Madame de la Rougierre from the moment the enigmatic older woman is hired as her governess. A liar, bully, and spy, when Madame leaves the house, she takes her dark secret with her. But when Maud is orphaned, she is sent to live with her Uncle Silas, her father's mysterious brother and a man with a scandalous-even murderous-past. And, once again, she encounters Madame, whose sinister role in Maud's destiny becomes all too clear.

With its subversion of reality and illusion, and its exploration of fear through the use of mystery and the supernatural, Uncle Silas shuns the conventions of traditional horror and delivers a chilling psychological thriller.

I have no idea who is supposed to be depicted in that cover image, but jesus h. christ on a popsicle stick is he (she?) ever frightening.

Uncle Silas was a group read on my goodreads group, and qualifies as early gothic horror for purposes of R.I.P. It is an early example of a locked room mystery. It reminded me a lot of one Wilkie Collin’s sensation novels, and shared many of the same tropes. There were so many things going on this book that I could write pages and pages and still not cover it all, so I’m just going to blather on for about another few paragraphs, and then wrap it up.

Maud, the main character, was an archetypal Victorian heroine – innocent, unworldly, trusting, and endangered. There are Bluebeard elements to the plot, along with a smattering of Cinderella. It is frankly atmospheric, and LeFanu attempts to – and succeeds – in invoking a sense of dread and confusion in the reader.

The book begins:

It was winter – that is, about the second week in November – and great gusts were rattling at the windows, and wailing and thundering among our tall trees and ivied chimneys – a very dark night, and a very cheerful fire blazing, a pleasant mixture of good round coal and spluttering dry wood, in a genuine old fireplace, in a sombre old room. Black wainscoting glimmered up to the ceiling, in small ebony panels; a cheerful clump of wax candles on the tea-table; many old portraits, some grim and pale, others pretty, and some very graceful and charming, hanging from the walls. Few pictures, except portraits long and short, were there. On the whole, I think you would have taken the room for our parlour. It was not like our modern notion of a drawing-room. It was a long room too, and every way capacious, but irregularly shaped. A girl, of a little more than seventeen, looking, I believe, younger still; slight and rather tall, with a great deal of golden hair, dark grey-eyed, and with a countenance rather sensitive and melancholy, was sitting at the tea-table, in a reverie. I was that girl.

Divided into three volumes, the plot is generally broken into three sections. The first involves the death of Maud’s father. This is all scene-setting and background for the real action. Maud’s father is a frustrating character, and I remain aghast at his reasoning, which can be summarized as:

1. My brother has been accused of murder for financial gain.
2. I am dying, and I’m going to leave my daughter an enormous fortune.
3. Which will pass to my brother if my daughter dies before he does.
4. Yes, that brother. The one who has been accused of murder for financial gain.
5. Best idea ever: make him the guardian of my daughter!
6. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, stupid man. Everything can go wrong.

Volume Two takes us, with Maud, to Bartram-Haugh, the ancient manor house that is also the residence of Uncle Silas. And this is where things really start to get weird. There is a locked room mystery – the unresolved death of a man to whom Silas owed a lot of money in a locked bedroom at Bartram-Haugh – which is neatly solved at the end of Volume Three. Maud begins with a strong sense of duty, believing that she is going to prove that her uncle is not a murderer, that his expulsion from polite society has been unfair and unwarranted.

The grounds were delightfully wild and neglected. But we had now passed into a vast park beautifully varied with hollows and uplands, and such glorious old timber massed and scattered over its slopes and levels. Among these, we got at last into a picturesque dingle; the grey rocks peeped from among the ferns and wild flowers, and the steps of soft sward along its sides were dark in the shadows of silver-stemmed birch, and russet thorn, and oak, under which, in the vaporous night, the erl-king and his daughter might glide on their aerial horses.

Well, that didn’t go well.

Things get going in Volume Two, and culminate, in Volume Three with a glorious collision of crazy. There are secret marriages, governesses with divided loyalties, laudanum addiction, peg-legged servants, and, ultimately, a bludgeoning with a pointy hammer. All in all, this book is a heaping platterful of Victorian gothic what-the-fuckery that must be read to be believed. Not that you will believe it, because it is all deeply far-fetched, and completely nuts, which, of course, makes it sort of awesome.

This is a minor classic, overall, but is strangely compelling. Like a trainwreck, I could not look away!

The Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

The Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria HoltThe Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on 1960
Pages: 330

Mount Mellyn stood as proud and magnificent as she had envisioned...But what bout its master--Connan TreMellyn? Was Martha Leigh's new employer as romantic as his name sounded? As she approached the sprawling mansion towering above the cliffs of Cornwall, an odd chill of apprehension overcame her.

TreMellyn's young daugher, Alvean, proved as spoiled and difficult as the three governesses before Martha had discovered. But it was the girl's father whose cool, arrogant demeanor unleashed unfimiliar sensations and turmoil--even as whispers of past tragedy and present danger begin to insinuate themselves into Martha's life.

Powerless against her growing desire for the enigmatic Connan, she is drawn deeper into family secrets--as passion overpowers reason, sending her head and heart spinning. But though evil lurks in the shadows, so does love--and the freedom to find a golden promise forever...

There is basically a straight line from Jane Eyre to Rebecca by du Maurier, to Victoria Holt.

When I was just a girl, it was the 1970’s, a time of great change. The first wave of feminism – concerned with legal/structural barriers to inequality like suffrage and property rights – had largely ended, at least in the Western world, and the second-wave had begun. The second wave of feminism broadened the debate to other barriers to gender equality: sexuality, family, reproductive rights, education and the workplace.

I bring this up for a reason. And that reason is that Victoria Holt’s gothic romances were huge in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the tropes which are present in those books are oddly anti-feminist. The Mistress of Mellyn, her first gothic romance, was published in 1960. In addition to the Mistress of Mellyn, I’ve also recently read The Bride of Pendorric (1963), The Shivering Sands (1969), and The Pride of the Peacock (1976). She published a total of 32 of these stand-alone gothics, with 18 of them being published in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Do I think that Eleanor Hibbert, who wrote under the name Victoria Holt, was anti-feminist? No, absolutely not. She was an incredibly prolific writer who wrote under 8 separate pen names, including her most well-known: Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr.

But with her Victoria Holt gothics, she tapped into something. She was not the only writer of gothic romance publishing during this time period. Other well-known writers include Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, Barbara Michaels, and Mary Stewart.

A few observations about gothic romance.

1. The covers were remarkably similar, typically featuring a castle or a manor of some sort, with a young woman running from it. Some examples:

gothic covers

2. The setting is of critical importance: it is typically a place that is both exotic but remains well-trod ground. Cornwall – the Cornwall of du Maurier and Rebecca – is a common setting, as are Yorkshire moors, which is familiar to readers through Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The settings have a darkness to them. The setting is historical, and the story typically conforms to well-established gender norms of the historical time period.

3. The main character is always a young woman of small means and dependence, similar to the unnamed narrator in Rebecca. She is often a governess, or a companion to a much wealthier woman. Typically youthful, her most significant characteristic is her powerlessness. She is generally not particularly beautiful – beauty being a characteristic that affords a woman with power – nor wealthy. She can be a widow or a virgin, but she is never sexually autonomous, and she never has children.

4. The male lead is a man of stature. Sometimes he is a widower, the father of a child that she has been hired to educate. He is always a man of property and is always above her station. He is aspirational, but she does not aspire to him, always acknowledging to herself that, while she has fallen in love with him, she cannot have him.

5. And it is the property that is, generally, the key to the story, as evidenced by the covers and the titles. These books are an offshoot of the literature of the English Country House. As Jane Eyre was focused around Thornfield Hall and Rebecca had Manderley, a great manor house is the foundation upon which these books are built.

6. Finally, these books often have a female villain, which is the entire point of this discussion.

The suspense in these books is built around the young woman coming to the manor house and falling in love with the eligible lord of the manor. Often there is a mystery associated with the man, or the house. A former wife who has disappeared, or a suggestion of murder, that places the heroine in physical danger. We are always meant to believe that it is the man who is the source of the danger.

However, that is typically not the case. There is confusion about the source of the danger, and the reason for that confusion is: the villain is a woman who is committing the villainy because of some ambitions either toward the master, or, more commonly, the house itself.

This is why I titled this post the corrosive effect of female ambition. Because in these books – at least the ones I have read recently – female ambition isn’t merely unwomanly, it is positively corruptive. It causes the woman who experiences it to devolve into a deranged murderess.

The Mistress of Mellyn is a case in point (and here, spoilers will abound). Our heroine is a Martha Leigh, a young woman who comes to Mount Mellyn as governess to Alvean TreMellyn, putative daughter of Connan TreMellyn (although we find out early on in the story that Alvean is actually the daughter of Alice’s lover, the neighbor). Connan himself is a widower, his deceased wife Alice having died in a railroad accident on the very night that she left him for his neighbor, her body so badly burned that it could only be identified by the locket she wore.

Drama ensues, and the reader begins to believe that there is something bizarre going on with the manor house. There are ghostly sightings, and a mute sprite of a child who seems to be terribly frightened for reasons which are unclear. The home itself is full of nooks and crannies and secret chambers, along with peeps that are cleverly hidden in murals so that the individuals in one room won’t know that they are being watched from another room.

As in many of these books, it turns out that the villainess is a woman: the sister of the neighboring man whom Alice was thought to have run away with and who died in the railroad accident. When Martha marries Connan, she becomes the target of the murderer, and is lured into a secret chamber, where she will be left to die, as was Alice so many years prior. The murderess is foiled by the child that Martha has befriended.

But, here is the thing. Celestine Nansellick isn’t actually interested in Connan TreMellyn. This isn’t a story of female rejection which ends with the rejected removing the victorious competition from the picture. This is all about the house – Celestine Nansellick covets Mount Mellyn, not Connan TreMellyn, and Martha gets in the way of those ambitions by marrying Connan and potentially producing legitimate heirs which will disinherit Alvean who is not Connan’s child. She wants the house, not the guy.

This is the same motive behind the murder attempt in Pride of the Peacock (deranged female housekeeper who wanted the aspirational hero to marry her daughter) and The Shivering Sands (deranged daughter of the housekeeper who believed herself to be the illegitimate child of the heir of the estate). In each of these books, the villain is a mirror image of the heroine, with one distortion – unlike the heroine, who is not ambitious and who accepts her place, the villain is prepared to dogfight her way out of subservience. She cannot marry her way out – unlike the heroine – but she can manipulate and maneuver and even murder her way out. And it is her very refusal to accept her place that marks her as unworthy of elevation.

This is completely retrograde, right? This book is published at the exact same time that women are becoming increasingly independent, able to control their own fertility, plan their families, get the same education as men, qualify for the same jobs, and yet we have a wildly popular type of book in which the heroines accept their lack of equality, and the villains reject it. And the women who reject this lack of independence and autonomy become criminals – murderesses.


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