Before writing this, I thought I’d check the definition of gothic literature of which, naturally, the internet being what it is, there are many to pick from. There seems to be general agreement that a gothic novel includes terror, the macabre or the bizarre which fits the five novels below, all written in recent years, all with links to reviews on this blog.
Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth includes at least two of those elements, telling the stories of the inhabitants of a many-floored Edinburgh tenement over nine decades, beginning with the arrival of the devil’s daughter in 1910, fresh from murdering her father. No brief synopsis will do justice to this richly imaginative slice of feminist fiction which spins stories within stories, many laced with a dark dry humour. Fagan divides her novel into three parts, each telling the tale of three tenants over three decades, ranging from the flamboyantly gothic to gangland crime to William Burroughs’ visit to his lover who lives in Luckenbooth Close. All this played out against the backdrop of an Edinburgh so vividly evoked it’s almost a character in itself.
No hint of the supernatural in Virginia Feito’s witty, gripping Mrs March but it had a distinctly gothic feel for me. The eponymous wife is beginning to worry that her novelist husband’s latest book is an unflattering portrayal of her. Despite her fury, she arranges the celebration party for George’s success, passing almost unnoticed among his friends and colleagues. Snooping in George’s study, she spots a newspaper cutting about a young girl who is missing in the small town he and his editor use as their hunting base and jumps to a horrifying conclusion. Beset at every turn by the judgement and gossip of others, or so she thinks, Mrs March begins to unravel in spectacular fashion. Feito delivers her story with a good deal of sly wit but as her character’s grip on reality slips, the tone becomes more sombre. I loved it.
Can’t get more sombre than a book about death and yet Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death made me laugh out loud several times while bringing me up short at others. It was that clever wordplay that made me read this sharp, funny novel all about the subject we Westerners do our best to sanitise with all sorts of euphemisms. Mrs Death is a tired black cleaner, eager to unburden herself, who follows a young, blocked writer home and finds him only too ready to listen. As he records her many stories, Wolf recalls the loss of his mother in horrific circumstances and his own miraculous escape. Then Mrs Death disappears leaving him with his loneliness. Godden’s novel explores gender, class and race with humour and humanity, all within the context of that which none of us can escape.
Most of the fiction I’ve read by Patrick McGrath has a whiff of the gothic and The Wardrobe Mistress is no exception despite that generically wholesome cover. Set against the background of East End fascism in 1947, still bubbling away despite the suppression of the Blackshirts, McGrath’s novel explores the anguish of grief through Joan, widow of the late lamented Charlie Grice, star of the West End. McGrath is a master storyteller, unfolding his tale of grief and madness against the vividly evoked background of a frozen London struggling with the continuing depredations of post-war austerity.
Daniel Kehlmann’s brief You Should Have Left starts brightly enough with a scene from the new film his unnamed narrator is trying, but failing, to write but before long we’re in gothic territory as the narrator stares at the reflection of his living room in a window but finds himself missing from it. Ideas for the film prove slippery, pressure from the producer increases and our narrator is exhausted. His dreams are troubling, rooms shift and change shape. A taciturn shopkeeper hints at strange happenings on the mountain to which there’s only one vertiginous road. Whether Kehlmann wants us to think of this as a parable – a chilling depiction of a man stalled in his writing, feeling trapped by domesticity, expectation and obligation – or as a straightforward piece of horror in the Shirley Jackson mode, I’m not sure, although I’m persuaded towards the former. Either way, it’s a riveting read.
Any modern gothic novels you’d like to share?
If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.