In which I read all the Gothic historical fiction while drinking lapsang souchong with M&S dark chocolate ginger biscuits beside a flickering Fornasetti candle.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower
“Later she will whisper that she will never want any other man again. Such is the drug which, dewed on the eyelids, makes yesterday inconsequential, and tomorrow certain, and today golden”
This 18th century historical fiction isn’t Gothic but it does have a dark, fantastical element. Mr Hancock, a middle aged merchant with a good heart, suddenly becomes the owner of a mermaid. This causes a sensation in London society and sees him come into contact with infamous Madam, Mrs Chappell. One of her ex ‘protégés’, Angelica Neal, makes quite an impression on Hancock and their fates become entwined.
One of the major factors of an engrossing historical novel is the attention to detail and there is so much here it brings the era vividly to life.
The contrast between Hancock’s modest home in Deptford with the debauchery that goes on in Mrs Chappell’s mansion in St. James, is striking.
Angelica Neal is a frivolous and vain young woman who faces penury after recently losing her protector. Half way through the book I feared she’d made the steady Hancock become as foolish as her but the change she undergoes thanks to him is a quite something and I warmed to her immensely. The mermaid of the title is only really featured at the start and the end of the book but I liked the fact it was malevolent rather than romanticised. 4.5/5
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
“A fast didn’t go fast; it was the slowest thing there was. Fast meant a door shut fast, firmly. A fastness, a fortress. To fast was to hold fast to emptiness, to say no and no and no again.”
Emma Donoghue is the author of the bestseller Room which was adapted for the big screen. This is a Gothic story set in rural Ireland in the 1850s. At the beginning it reminded me of the fabulous Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. Both centre on a mystery surrounding young girls who villagers believe to be miraculous in some way. In The Wonder young Anna is said to have not eaten for four months. An English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale is hired to watch over to her to prove the veracity or otherwise of the family’s claim.
For about the first two thirds it’s pretty slow paced with Lib, the Nurse, determined to uncover a fraud and expressing to the reader deep prejudices held against the Irish which were prevalent in England at the time. She’s also appalled at what she sees as the superstitious nature of Catholicism, as it is clear devout Anna’s condition is somehow linked to religion. Lib is severe but we learn more of her backstory as time goes on. I thought it might be a gentle, possibly magical, tale but in the latter section of the book it gets very dark indeed as more and more disturbing revelations are made. The ending had me gripped as I had guessed some of what was going on but had no idea of the final twists and turns. 4/5
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
This is a love letter to storytelling and the solace of books. There are unlikely occurrences/situations throughout but I appreciate this is in keeping with the Gothic classics. Still, it was a tad over the top for me at times. 4.25/5
More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran
And besides, when you lose skin elasticity, you also lose the amount of fucks you give. Perhaps that’s why the skin is so loose now – from all my fucks leaving.
I had a couple of credits to use up on Audible and thought this would give me a break from all the historical drama. I read Moran’s first memoir How To Be A Woman about ten years ago. This follow- up deals with middle-age. The first half made me think it wasn’t for me as it deals with day-to-day family life. Then the second half hits you with her daughter’s eating disorder. My eyes welled up as I heard about how her 13 year-old girl stopped eating and tried to kill herself. The worry and helplessness of it must have been unbearabe. She also talks about how she uses yoga to deal with her anxiety instead of drink, how she now has botox despite decrying it as anti-feminist in the first book and why the ‘hag life’ of the older woman is a joy. 3.5.5
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“The world might indeed be a cursed circle; the snake swallowed its tail and there could be no end, only an eternal ruination and endless devouring.”
I was excited to read a Gothic tale set in the 1950s somewhere other than Europe. Not to mention that cover!
Strong-willed Noemi is sent to rural Mexico to check on her recently married cousin Catalina, after her father receives a worrying letter from her. She arrives to find the Doyles house, High Place, more of a decaying relic than a home and her cousin seems to be losing her mind. Catalina says the family are poisoning her and there are ghosts in the walls.
The house seems to have a life of its own and it’s clear something is behind the strange rules and behaviour of the household. There must be silence at meals, windows are to remain closed and she’s not allowed to leave without a chaperone. Noemi soon starts to have vivid nightmares and begins sleep-walking.
Three quarters of the way in, what’s really happening in the house and family is revealed. At this point it becomes a supernatural horror which really isn’t my thing. The family are all English so I didn’t get the Mexican folklore I was hoping for either. On top of that, the writing is a step down from the other novels. A disappointment overall. (Note: scenes of sexual assault) 2.75/5
The Witch of Willow Hall by Hestor Fox
“Yet at the same time I want to untether my heart, toss it up into the sky and let it take wing. There’s a wildness here that, if nothing else, holds promise, possibility. Who needs society? What has it ever done for us?”
I really wanted a less stressful Gothic read and thought this would be one. Happily it started out like a spooky Sense and Sensibility. A family with three daughters move to the New England countryside leaving behind a scandal in Boston. Here they they called upon by two charming and handsome young men who form attachments with the two older girls. Catherine is beautiful but calculating while Lydia is introverted and possesses a sensitivity shared by the youngest daughter, Emmeline. In their new home, Lydia sees a pale woman gliding across the garden at night and words of warning appear on her fogged up mirror. Then something horrible happens and a sickening secret is revealed. So much for Gothic-lite! However, from there enters Lydia’s cad of an ex-fiance and the tension is ratcheted up. It continues to read like a Gothic novel penned by Jane Austen and I really enjoyed this style. While I didn’t care for the romances in the other books, I did become invested in the one here. 4.25/5
This was an enlightening reading month. I found that I prefer classic-style Gothic fiction – from Jane Eyre to Rebecca – as opposed to the modern versions which seem to lean more towards horror. I want spooky, atmospheric reads rather than incest and ‘body horror’.
What is your taste in creepy fiction?