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
Goodreads
four-stars

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.

 

four-stars

Snowfire by Phyllis Whitney

Snowfire by Phyllis WhitneySnowfire by Phyllis Whitney
Published by Fawcett on 1972
Genres: Gothic romance
Pages: 288
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads

In this gripping new novel of love and danger, Phyllis A. Whitney spins into magnificent focus the icy weather and fiery passions of a chic eastern ski resort. The slopes are fine but for Linda Earle, who hasn't come to Graystones for winter sports, the atmosphere is terrifying. Seeking to clear her brother of a murder charge, Linda finds her search for the truth hampered by her attraction to the mysterious Julian McCabe. It was Julian's wife who had been murdered and now Linda's presence has aroused new terrors. Is Linda going to be the next victim?

In a lot of ways, I am the perfect audience for this book.

Phyllis Whitney is one of the big gothic romance authors from the 1970’s. This is the second Whitney I’ve read – the first being Window on the Square. Whitney writes in both a contemporary and a historical time period. Window on the Square is historical. This one is contemporary.

To understand why I am the perfect audience for this book, you must understand something of my childhood. I was born in the midwest, and my parents fell in love with skiing when I was very young. I recall chartered bus trips from Omaha, the place of my birth, to Breckenridge and Aspen, Colorado, with the kids bedded down in the front of the bus, while our parents – the adults – played cards, smoked cigarettes, flirted and drank cocktails in the back. It was a raucous good time.

We moved to Idaho specifically for the skiing when I was in the fifth grade, and I spent every weekend on the slopes. I joined junior racers and my high school ski team. I threw myself down the mountain as recklessly as possible, and warmed up in the lodge and made fun of the ski bunnies who got all gussied up for the purpose, apparently, of sitting in the lodge and being hit on by the ski bums.

I don’t know if Phyllis Whitney was a skier, but she nailed 1970’s ski culture, from the fondue to the snow bunnies to the apres-ski gluhwein.

fondue

Graystones, the house at the center of this book, was perfect – a Norman castle transplanted into the north woods. The mystery was engaging, with Linda, the heroine, going “undercover” as an apres-ski hostess to clear her younger brother, Stuart, who has been accused of murdering Margot, the wife of Stuart’s ski mentor, Julian.

Julian is the owner of Graystones. As in Window on the Square, Linda forges a connection with Adria, the small daughter of Margot, who believes that she has killed her mother – the parallels between this book and Window on the Square are notable. And, while I will admit that I think that WotS is the superior book, this one was quite enjoyable. The story comes to a climax on the mountain at night, with Linda fleeing, on skis, from the pursuing murderer.

Now, about the cover. I really like the cover that shows up on goodreads, but like a lot of these books, it was issued in other covers, and my actual cover is not available to choose! I think that the cover for this edition is a little bit misleading, though – because that dress looks like this would be a piece of historical fiction.

This, however, is my cover:

snowfire

Yes, it is just as crazy in person as it is in a photograph! So, this is a cheesy little book, but it is fun.

The Landower Legacy by Victoria Holt

The Landower Legacy by Victoria HoltThe Landower Legacy by Victoria Holt
on 1984
Genres: Gothic romance
Pages: 373
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads

Green-eyed Caroline Tressidor has the whole world at her feet. But at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, Caroline lets slip a secret. It is nearly fatal.

Caroline's promising future dissolves without her knowing why. Her search for answers violates the iron rules of Victorian society. It takes her to the wild moors of Cornwall and pits her against her shy, pretty sister.

It also brings her the man of her dreams, Paul Landower. . .dark, mysterious, trapped in his own past. . .a past that may include a legacy of murder.

This one is hard for me to review, because it was not a bad read, but it absolutely did not live up to the promise of the genre/cover synopsis. I can’t really characterize this book as gothic, as there was almost no suspense at all. If I were pressed to put a genre on this book, cover and description nothwithstanding, it would probably be historical romance, or maybe family drama. I’m not really sure.

So, let’s get to my complaints. When I read a gothic romance, I am expecting that the heroine will be put in significant danger by someone who wants to keep her from succeeding in attracting the hero. There might also be some perceived light supernatural elements, even if it turns out at the end that they were just plain old human avariciousness or jealousy. A bit of haunting perhaps, or some lights appearing and disappearing in the woods. That sort of thing.

There should also be a secret that is coming back to haunt someone – usually the Hero. And then, last but certainly not least, there should be some sort of a large country home or chateau that is the center of all of the action.

So, with this book, all of the elements were here: a haunted mine shaft where black dogs appear when someone is in danger, an impoverished hero who is trying to save the estate that has been in family since the 15th century, and a number of secrets possessed by a number of characters.

The problem with the book is that none of these three things really had anything to do with each other. I am accustomed to seeing them used as plot devices, but their disconnection from one other made them just that much more obviously the gears to keep the plot moving forward, and it felt really unnatural. So, as a gothic, it didn’t work for me. There wasn’t one moment when my pulse quickened and I felt like the heroine was really in danger. The one point of danger ended up being so quickly over and easily resolved that it just fell flat.

Also, maybe it was the fact that I had just read a book using the same plot device that I hate that Holt used in this one, which meant that I figured out the “twist” the first time that an allusion to it was raised.

This sounds like I hated the book, but I didn’t. It was disappointing, but I actually really liked both the heroine, who was pretty tough, and Aunt Mary, who was a hoot – an independent woman who was running an estate (really successfully) at a time when ladies weren’t supposed to do anything more strenuous than fainting. And Catherine’s perfectly planned and brilliantly executed revenge on the man who jilted her (for her wealthy but weak sister) was delightful!

The romance though, was pretty unconvincing for me, and since I can’t abide cheaters, I was less than enamored of the married Paul Landower. I get it that he felt like he’d been trapped into marriage because his wife was a wealthy woman who bought herself a husband by leverage his family’s poverty against him. But, you know what? Them’s the breaks, dude. If you sell your soul for cash, you don’t get to complain when the purchaser decides she wants the benefit of her bargain. Women had been doing just this for generations in the time period in which this book is set. Plus, he was a terrible father to his very young son, which made him all that much more unlikeable.

Crushed Beneath a Giant Helmet: The Castle of Otranto

Crushed Beneath a Giant Helmet: The Castle of OtrantoThe Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
on 1764
Pages: 106
Goodreads

First published pseudonymously in 1764, The Castle of Otranto purported to be a translation of an Italian story of the time of the crusades. In it Walpole attempted, as he declared in the Preface to the Second Edition, "to blend the two kinds of romance: the ancient and the modern." Crammed with invention, entertainment, terror, and pathos, the novel was an immediate success and Walpole's own favorite among his numerous works.

The introduction to my kindle version of The Castle of Otranto contains the following quote:

This novel has been called one of the half-dozen historically most important novels in English. The founder of a school of fiction, the so-called Gothic novel, it served as the direct model for an enormous quantity of novels written up through the first quarter of the nineteenth century; at one or more steps removed, it has inspired imitations and influenced other forms on up to the present.

And this may be true. If it is true, this proves that something may be influential while simultaneously being pretty awful. Because this book was pretty awful.

Last year, for the R.I.P. IX, I read Uncle Silas, which I described as “a heaping platterful of Victorian gothic what-the-fuckery that must be read to be believed.” I think that Uncle Silas would be considered one of those inspired imitations and influenced forms mentioned in the quote. That being the case, this is one of those occasions where what came after far exceeds what came before in quality.

To summarize, The Castle of Otranto is a short book in which the evil Manfred, a cartoon villain and evil usurper:

dastardly villain

Tries to rape-marry a fainting damsel in distress who previously happened to be engaged to his son, who died when a giant helmet somehow fell on top of him, crushing him on his wedding day. No, I am not making this up.

swooning damsel

The writing is crazy bad:

“I desired you once before,” said Manfred, angrily, “not to name that woman: from this hour she must be a stranger to you, as she must be to me; in short, Isabella, since I cannot give you my son, I offer you myself.” “Heavens!” cried Isabella, waking from her delusion, “what do I hear! you, my lord! you! my father-in-law! the father of Conrad! the husband of the virtuous and tender Hippolita!”—“I tell you,” said Manfred, imperiously, “Hippolita is no longer my wife; I divorce her from this hour. Too long has she cursed me by her unfruitfulness. My fate depends on having sons; and this night, I trust, will give a new date to my hopes.” At these words he seized the cold hand of Isabella, who was half dead with fright and horror. She shrieked, and started from him.”

It’s like a parody, but I think it is meant to be taken sort of seriously. Or maybe not, who can tell? If it is intended to be funny, it succeeded, because there were several moments which I think were supposed to be tension filled and dramatic at which I giggled. I’m not sure that is the reaction Walpole was looking for, but this book is simply ridiculous.

If you are interested in the earliest beginnings of the Gothic novel, by all means, give this one a whirl. If not, I’d skip it and go straight to Uncle Silas, by Sheridan LeFanu or Dracula by Bram Stoker, both of which are far superior in terms of genuine tension and Gothic atmosphere.

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
Goodreads
four-stars

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.

four-stars

1938: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

1938: Rebecca by Daphne Du MaurierRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
on 1938
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century, Historical, Thriller
Pages: 448
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady's maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives--presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave

Rebecca has one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Where to begin with my discussion of Rebecca. Let me begin by acknowledging that du Maurier tells a ripping good story. The book, written from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, tells the tale of her whirlwind courtship and marriage to bereaved widower Max de Winter. The second Mrs. de Winter returns to Manderley, where she is ill-equipped by birth, education or confidence to take over the running of the great home. Du Maurier builds suspense as the second Mrs. de Winter clashes with Rebecca’s former housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who makes her feel inferior and generally lurks about in a way that is extremely creepy. This part of the book was excellent, and Mrs. Danver’s obsession with the beautiful Rebecca and her contempt for Rebecca’s replacement is well-drawn and successful.

Unfortunately, I had really high expectations of this book. And, also unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Let me warn now – this post is likely to get very spoilery in a paragraph or two. So, if you’ve never read Rebecca, if you don’t know what the big reveal is, and if you want to experience the suspense as du Maurier created it, then stop reading now.

I mean it. Stop reading. Now.

Okay, so I am now assuming that everyone left reading this post has already read the book, and knows about the big reveal: Max murdered Rebecca as she taunted him with her infidelity, and then he disposed of her body by scuttling her boat so that it will appear that she was lost at sea. Our narrator, a singularly weak and annoying character, learns this when she weepingly acknowledges that, in spite of her love for him, she recognizes that she can never measure up to Rebecca, and that he will never love her.

Astounded by this great confession, Max disabuses the narrator of her illusions. He hated Rebecca. Rebecca was an evil, two-timing monster.

But how can we present a murderer as a great romantic hero? The narrator, far from being repelled by the confession that her husband MURDERED HIS FIRST WIFE in a hail of bullets and blood, is overjoyed. Her only thought is: he never loved Rebecca. And this brings her great comfort.

In part, I think that Rebecca demonstrates how far we have come as a culture. Because I hope that it is fair to say that it would be unlikely for a writer to write a wife-murderer as a romantic hero in quite the same way that du Maurier did. What, precisely, was the great crime that was committed by Rebecca that rendered her worthy of slaughter in the boathouse? It appears to me that her great crime was that she acted just like a man of that time period. Rebecca is set well before the days of no fault divorce. During that era men of property often maintained mistresses and engaged in other extra-marital sexual liasons without repercussions, and which were accepted by society.

Rebecca, by Max’s account (and let’s leave aside the unreliability of his version given that he is, of course, a murderer) had affairs. She was promiscuous, slutty. She tramped around, and lived life on her own terms. She was a bloody rotten wife, and it would have been totally reasonable for him to have tossed her out on her ear, cut off without a shilling, for him to have moved to America with all of his money, divorced her and dragged her name through the mud. But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he murdered her. And then his second wife reacts to the fact that she has married a murderer by rejoicing in the fact that he didn’t love his first wife after all.

Are you kidding me?

What makes the second Mrs. de Winter think that she won’t end up just like Rebecca if she displeases Max? After all, he’s already gotten away with murder.

Let me finish this post by saying that I didn’t hate Rebecca. It is well-written, and interesting, and a lot of fun to read. But I just can’t get behind a murderer as a romantic hero. Because, actually, Max de Winter belongs in prison for what he did. What really distinguishes Max de Winter from someone serving a sentence of 25 to life for murdering his wife? Nothing, in my mind.

So, Rebecca, you didn’t work for me. I’m just not up for a book that uses female infidelity as a justification for a domestic violence homicide. As a reason for divorce, sure. But being a woman and having an affair (or three or ten) shouldn’t be a capital crime. Not even in 1938. And certainly not in 2013.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah WatersThe Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
on 2009
Genres: Horror, Literary Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 466
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

The Little Stranger follows the strange adventures of Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. One dusty postwar summer in his home of rural Warwickshire, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline-its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life? Little does Dr. Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.

This was my first RIP VII read, and I loved it! Sarah Waters is an amazing author – I am so excited to have found someone with a fairly significant backlist to explore (especially because she is firmly amongst the living, so I can anticipate new books being released by her as well).

I love the cover of this book. I think it does a great job of hinting at the story contained within the covers, and as embarassing as it is to admit, I am attracted to a pretty covers. It is sometimes unfair, judging a book by it’s cover, but in this case, I definitely got what I expected. The image of the crumbling mansion, with the gloomy backdrop definitely provides a sense of atmosphere and foreboding.

Rather than providing a traditional review, I just want to talk a bit about the book, and what I liked about it. I’m not a big horror reader, but I do love a story with gothic attributes, which this one had in spades. I also love the time period of this book, which is set in postwar England during a period of intense social change, where the traditional divisions in English society are rapidly collapsing.

To start, Sarah Waters can write. Her sentences are often a thing of beauty, and her descriptive passages can be simply wonderful. She has an unerring sense of how to build suspense in the book as a whole, but also in smaller increments, in scenes within the book. There was a scene where we, the readers, are aware that something terrible is going to happen at a dinner party because the narrator had told us so in the chapter before the dinner party actually began. Ms. Waters expertly described the dinner party in all of it’s mundanity, while still managing to leave me on the edge of my seat as she built almost unbearable suspense as to when the terrible event would actually occur.

There is also the aspect of the unreliable narrator, Dr. Faraday. I often have very mixed emotions about the use of unreliable narrator, and sometimes feel that it didn’t really work for the story. In this book, though, the unreliable narrator works perfectly. Dr. Faraday is definitely not what he seems, and he is definitely not telling us the unvarnished and objective truth about the events at Hundreds Hall. And because she weaves him so convincingly, even at the end of the book, the reader is left a bit confounded. Rarely am I required to go back through, and think about a book, looking for the trail of breadcrumbs that was dropped by the author. With this book, I feel that I must put some distance between myself and the book, and then I am going to reread it and look, again, for all of those hints that I know Sarah Waters left me – some of which I caught, and some of which, I am certain I missed.

So, The Little Stranger is a simple ghost story. Or it isn’t. The Little Stranger is a psychologically compelling study of a madman. Or it isn’t. The Little Stranger is a description of a series of brilliantly executed murders. Or it isn’t. And that is what makes this book so amazing – any of these possibilities is left open (although I, of course, have my own opinion as to who, or what, The Little Stranger actually was) for the reader to think through at the end and come to his or her own conclusions.

A worthy read for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, indeed.

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