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The End of a Very Gothic Week – What Happened to the Gothic Revival?

Kathleen Woodiwiss’ “The Flame and the Flower” was one of the death knells for the Gothic Revival.

So, what happened to stem the tide of Gothic Romances that flooded the paperback marketplace from the mid-1960s through the 1970s? Why did Gothic Romance disappear from the romance/paperback market? Aren’t you a little bit curious?

We’ve spent this Very Gothic Week tracing the lineage of the Gothic Romance, considering how a 150 year-old vampire contributed to its explosive growth, and raving over a modern example that makes us long for the dark days of finding a great (or not so great) Gothic Romance in every drugstore, bookstore, whiskey store and library paperback shelf in America. As this Very Gothic Week concludes, it’s time to solve the mystery of the disappearance of the Gothic Romance.

By the mid-1970s, Gothics were everywhere. As we discovered in earlier posts, Gothics became so popular that several paperback publishers produced dedicated lines just for Gothics — so popular that one publisher even had a sub-Gothic Gothic line just for Satanic Gothics.

As with anything else, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and that’s part of what brought the big dark house down. Or, as Dean James of Mystery Scene writes:

As with any glut in the marketplace, there were many inferior products. A fair number of these books featured dimwitted heroines who went into that proverbial dark room at the head of the stairs with no thought to the danger within, and if they had been murdered, well, it would have been little more than they deserved. Unfortunately, the really good books in this genre got tarred with the pitch of the bad ones, and eventually the rubric “Gothic” became as much a term of derision as anything.

But ubiquity doesn’t explain the death of Gothics away (or, if it does, perhaps we’re nearing the end of the paranormal romance era, at least I hope we are).  The threats came from the outside, as well, and one of the biggest was the one in the picture above — the bodice-ripper.

To understand the effect that books like Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower and Shanna, and Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love had on audiences of the mid-1970s – early 1980s, one has to understand what romance novels to that point had lacked entirely: sex. Before The Flame and the Flower, Sweet Savage Love and other sexually explicit romance novels of the 1970s, the extent of the “romance” in a romance novel might be a chaste kiss on the lips. Heroes and heroines did not sleep in the same bed, nor did we see their bedrooms.

Compared to the explicit historical romances of the 1970s, Gothic Romances had begun to seem dated, stale. The chasm between bodice-rippers and Gothic Romances was one filled with irony — while historical romance was on the cusp of the sexual revolution, even most contemporary Gothic Romances were still wandering the dusty towers of a much more sexually repressed era. The fact that the quality of Gothic Romances had declined inverse to the quantity only made matters worse, and by the end of the decade, Gothics were disappearing from shelves.

Yet Gothics did not disappear altogether. During the 1980s, they were sublimated into category romances published by Harlequin, Silhouette, Zebra and others, appearing occasionally in the guise of a spooky historical novel or a contemporary marketed as romantic suspense. Anne Stuart and Jenna Ryan are two romance authors who regularly wrote category romances with overt or subtle Gothic influence, while Barbara Michaels, who’d written a number of Gothics just as the genre was fading from popularity, wrote single-title romances labeled romantic suspense that had much in common with her Gothics.

And for a brief period in the 1990s, Gothics made a mainstream reappearance, even if they weren’t marketed as such. Silhouette’s Shadows line, published from 1993 to 1996, was, according to the tagline, dedicated to “the dark side of love.” As such, the line featured books with paranormal and suspense themes that were much darker (and often more violent) than books published under the imprint’s other lines.

A number of the Shadows books were Gothics updated for a modern audience — i.e., they featured sex or sexual situations. Among the Gothics published under the Shadows imprint were Carla Cassidy’s Silent Screams,   Sandra Dark’s Sleeping Tigers, Patricia Simpson’s The Haunting of Briar Rose, and Lori Herter’s The Willow File.  The woman running from a scary house theme was also employed on some occasions, as evidenced by the cover shown above. As though the women-running-from-houses cover art wasn’t throwback enough, the Shadows line published books by two authors who’d published Gothics during the genre’s glory days, Anne Stuart and Jane Toombs.

Like the Gothics published during the 1960s-1970s, the quality of the Shadows books varied wildly. The line published at least one bonafide classic, Anne Stuart’s Break the Night, but few of the Gothics were high quality. At some point in the late 1990s-early 2000s, the line was resurrected as Silhouette Dreamscapes; many of the books that had been published under the Shadows line were republished under the Dreamscapes line, along with new books, most with a paranormal theme.  The quality, alas, had not improved with the imprint re-title.

If history is any indication, we’re due another Gothic revival any day now. As for me, it can’t get here quickly enough!


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Classic Gothic Romance

In today’s A Very Gothic Week post, we’ll revisit some Gothic authors who are considered the forefathers — er, mothers — of the genre. From Charlotte Bronte to Mary Stewart to Barbara Michaels, here’s a sample of a few of the Gothic Romance genre’s best-known names, so wrap yourself in a fringe-y shawl and prepare to run screaming from a big dark house!

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was hardly the first Gothic romance, but it’s the first modern classic of the genre. Employing nearly every convention that has come to be associated with the genre — the first person narrator, broodingly attractive hero, big scary house, terror and fright — Jane Eyre is the direct antecedent of nearly every Gothic romance that came afterward. While much of the Gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries has lost favor with modern audiences who find the dense, often stilted language hard to parse, the timeless beauty of Bronte’s prose and a plot that’s still fascinating has assured Jane Eyre enduring popularity.

Gothic romance didn’t disappear in the century after Jane Eyre, but it went underground, emerging with a dark and stormy vengeance with the novels of Daphne Du Maurier, whose mid-20th Century classics Rebecca and Jamaica Inn introduced a whole new generation of readers to Gothic drama. Du Maurier’s books found wide audiences both in print and on screen; Rebecca and Jamaica Inn were both made into widely successful films during the 1940s.

 

British author Mary Stewart’s contemporary Gothic tales ushered in the era of the modern Gothic romance in the 1950s and 1960s, paving the way for the contemporary Gothics that flooded the market in the 1960s and 1970s. Her best known novels, Nine Coaches Waiting, This Rough Magic, The Moon Spinners and Madam, Will You Talk?, captivated readers with their exotic international settings, plots packed tight with mystery and mayhem, and the spare, elegant prose Stewart perfected.

No list of classic Gothic Romance authors would be complete without the inclusion of Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, the two pen names used by Eleanor Hibbert when writing Gothic Romance. Hibbert, a veritable cottage industry who wrote around 200 historical novels, many under the name Jean Plaidy, sold over 60 million books as Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, a number that leaves no doubt about the ubiquitous nature of the Gothic Romance during the 1960s and 1970s. While the novels wrote under the Carr pen name are largely neglected, several of those Hibbert wrote as Holt have achieved classic status in the Gothic Romance genre, including The Bride of Pendorric, Mistress of Mellyn, and The Shivering Sands.

Dorothy Eden’s books were initially marketed as historical romantic suspense, but as Gothic Romance gained popularity, many were republished as Gothics. In some cases, this was less-than truth in advertising, as a number of Eden’s books actually were true historical fiction. Darkwater, An Afternoon Walk, and Ravenscroft are among her best Gothic romances.

Barbara Michaels’ Gothics gained popularity during the mid-1970s and early 1980s, coinciding with the last gasp of the Gothic Revival. As contemporary and historical Gothics gave way to bodice-rippers and category contemporaries Michaels (the pen name of Elizabeth Peters) tweaked her Gothics to make them fit into an emerging genre, romantic suspense. However, during her heyday as one of the last greats of the Gothic Revival, Michaels produced some classics of the genre, including House of Many Shadows, Witch, and Wings of the Falcon.

A short list, I know — so tell me who I neglected!


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A Very Gothic Week — The Art of the Gothic

It’s difficult to have any real discussion of Gothic genre novels without some mention of the sometimes gorgeous, often lurid, occasionally both at once cover art that was featured on many of these books during the 1960s-1970s Gothic revival. These books and their fantastic cover illustrations are so beloved by paperback collectors that the covers alone have several blogs dedicated to their appreciation (more on that later). Here’s an assortment of classic Gothic romance novel covers, brought to you by the incomparable Book Scans database:

Take care with your cockles, dear readers.

While most of the Dark Shadows’ volumes from Paperback Library featured stills from the TV show, this one has an artistic rendering of Victoria Winters. This could be due to the fact that several actresses played the character of Victoria Winters throughout the show’s original run.

As though the figural skull were not unusual enough, note that this Gothic’s author is proudly male. While many men wrote Gothics during the 1960s-1970s, most did so under female pseudonyms.

At Avon, Satanic Gothics are a subgenre, clearly identified by the satanic skull emblem on the cover. Discuss.

Jane Toombs, who is still writing romance, broke the mold by introducing an African-American heroine to Avon’s Gothic line.

I wish a better image of this beautiful cover were available.

Another gorgeous Avon Gothic.

Not sure if this Georgette Heyer Bantam is a Gothic or no, but it’s being marketed to the Gothic audience.

A Bantam example of that great 1960s-1970s Gothic romance tradition, the woman running from a house. This one is also a good example of a horror/fiction novel being repackaged as a Gothic to take advantage of the Gothic’s huge market share. Wonder how Richard Matheson felt when he saw that his Hell House had suddenly morphed into a Gothic, complete with woman running from Hell House? 

Some books were simply repackaged as Gothics when the genre became hip.  Theresa Charles’ “Happy Now I Go” got a whole new title, the much more Gothic-sounding “Dark Legacy.”

Shew – thank heavens this Dell woman running from a house has a key to the forbidding gate…

Freer’s Cove is so engrossing, in fact, that the woman in this Dell is unable to run from the house and instead becomes part of the landscape.

If all these women running from houses, renamed happy books and brave Gothic-writing men have whetted your appetite for more information about vintage Gothic paperbacks and the people who love them, you’re in for a treat. There are two absolutely wonderful blogs, Women Running From Houses and My Love Haunted Heart,  dedicated to vintage Gothic paperbacks and the artists who drew the bizarre and compelling art for these books. Check them out – you’ll never look at a big, creepy house without wanting to run from it again.


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A Very Gothic Week: Dark Shadows and the Gothic Novel Genre

Not by design, but just in time, anyway, this has become A Very Gothic Week here at Sweet Rocket. Yesterday was a review of the fabulous new gothic novel Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees. Today is Dark Shadows day.

Unfortunately, today’s post is inspired by the passing of Dark Shadows legend Jonathan Frid, who portrayed Barnabas Collins, arguably the most revolutionary vampire of the 20th century, on the gothic soap during  Dark Shadows’ original late 1960s-early 1970s run. Dark Shadows, and Frid’s characterization of Barnabas Collins in particular, transformed the popular notion of the vampire, turning vampires into romantic, heroic characters rather than horror movie monsters along the lines of Frankenstein and Mr. Hyde.

Dark Shadows did more than just turn Frid’s vampire and co-star David Selby’s werewolf Quentin Collins into sexy romantic leads. Despite its inauspicious beginnings as a half-hour afternoon soap, Dark Shadows became a cultural force, inspiring movies, comic books, records, and an entire genre of books, the Gothic novel.

One of the most popular and enduring of the cottage industries that sprung up around Dark Shadows’ characters was a series of Gothic paperback novels. According to Paperback Library, 33 Dark Shadows books were published between 1966 and 1973. All were authored by Canadian Dan Ross, but published under the pen name Marilyn Ross. Aside from House of Dark Shadows, which was a novelization of the movie of the same name, the Dark Shadows books were a series which featured an alternate storyline/history to that portrayed on the television show.

Like the show, the Dark Shadows books were written in the Gothic vein, although they did not always hew to the conventions of the Gothic-style first person narration and tight focus on the main character/narrator. More Gothic mystery than Gothic romance, the books fell into two categories: the early books featuring a mystery centered on a different Dark Shadows character with each volume, and the later books, which focused on Barnabas Collins and Quentin Collins as a sort-of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, solving paranormal and/or evil villian mysteries.

It’s not pure conjecture to state that Dark Shadows helped fuel the Gothic novel vogue of the 1960s and 1970s. The Gothic genre, which had fallen in and out of fashion like hemlines since the late 1700s, became a big deal in the wake of Dark Shadows’ success. While authors such as Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart had found success with their Gothic romances, publishers began to buy up Gothic stories in droves during the height of Dark Shadows’ popularity.  Many paperback publishers created lines especially for Gothics (including Paperback Library, which published the Dark Shadows novels), and Gothics became so popular during this period that the genre actually featured sub-genres, including historical Gothics, contemporary Gothics, paranormal Gothics, romantic Gothics and Gothic mysteries.

Meanwhile, Dark Shadows covered much of the same territory as the Gothic books published during (and after) its run, featuring mystery storylines, historical storylines set in the Victorian and Colonial periods and romantic storylines in addition to the show’s contemporary paranormal storyline. How influenced authors of Gothics were by Dark Shadows’ storylines and vice-versa is anyone’s guess, but it’s interesting to note that  Dan Ross – writing as Marilyn Ross, Clarissa Ross and Ann Gilmer, amongst other pseudonyms – published over 300 books (including the Dark Shadows books), many of them Gothics, during the 1960s and 1970s.

But as Dark Shadows’ fortunes went, so did the popularity of Gothic romances. After the cancellation of Dark Shadows in 1971, Gothics managed to hang on to their foothold in the paperback market for several years, but by the end of the 1970s, publication of Gothics had dwindled dramatically, supplanted by the surge in popularity of historical romance, especially that unique 1970s-1980s sub-genre of historical romance, the bodice-ripper. Many authors who’d first found success writing Gothic novels, including Barbara Michaels and Anne Stuart, moved on to subvert Gothic themes into romantic suspense or standard mysteries, while others, such as Mary Kay Simmons, moved on to bodice-rippers or other romance genres. Others simply drifted away.

The current popularity of paranormal romance would seem to create the perfect atmosphere for another Gothic revival, but alas. The one publisher that consistently published Gothics through the 1990s-2000s, Dorchester (under the Love Spell and Candleglow imprints), closed its physical doors in March of this year, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive as an electronic publisher.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Amanda DeWees’ wonderful Sea of Secrets has proven. Enduring Gothic classics, such as those by Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt, remain in print. E-books and self-publishing have revived many long-dead genres and writers who’d been unable to find a home with publishers.  There’s also hope that many of the 1960s-1970s Gothics may be republished as e-books; perhaps Gothics will experience the same e-book renaissance as older uber-traditional Regencies, which had slowly been phased out by publishers looking for books with more graphic sexuality and third-person narration, and are now re-emerging in e-book format. Belgrave House, which sprung up just to republish out-of-print books in e-book format, has done a wonderful job of bringing traditional Regencies back, and is beginning to add a few Gothics, as well.

If nothing else, maybe the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Dark Shadows reboot due out later this year will give new life to this sadly neglected genre. Long live Gothics!


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Book Review: Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees

Every one in a great while, you read a book that, in the immortal words of Little Edie Beale, pulverizes you. That book, my friends, is Amanda DeWees’ Sea of Secrets.

I bought Sea of Secrets during one of Smashwords’ sales a few months back, shuttled it off to my Aluratek, and promptly forgot about it. Shame on me, for Sea of Secrets is just what I’ve been wishing for for years now — a return to the true Gothic romances I loved as a teenager.

Gothic romances on the same lines as Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and the Avon and Signets from the 1970s fall in and out of fashion like hemlines. Whereas the Regencies and historicals that I love so well are part of the popular fiction canon, coming out monthly as regular as clockwork, true Gothics  disappear from the landscape for years on end, leaving those of us who love these books scraping the bottom of the used bookstore barrel for a quality vintage Gothic we haven’t already read.

Sea of Secrets is the Gothic I’d been waiting for. Here’s the synopsis, courtesy of Smashwords:

After her brother is killed in the Crimean War, innocent young Oriel Pembroke finds herself alone in the world.

Disowned by the cruel father who has always despised her, she has nowhere to turn until she is taken under the wing of a glamorous relative she never knew: the former Duchess of Ellsworth, who has scandalized society by remarrying soon after her first husband’s death. At the opulent seaside estate of Ellsmere, Oriel thinks she has found a safe haven—but the darkly handsome young duke, Herron, believes otherwise. Haunted by the death of his father, he suspects that Ellsmere is sheltering a murderer.

Even as Oriel falls in love with the duke, she begins to fear that his grief and suspicion are turning to madness. When dangerous accidents start to befall both Herron and Oriel, however, she realizes that someone may be trying to stop them from discovering the truth about the past. And when her father comes back into her life, she learns that he may hold the answer to the most horrifying secret of all…

Now that’s the recipe for a classic Gothic — the only drawback? Sea of Secrets has set such an impossibly high bar, I’m afraid any other new Gothics I find will never be able to meet it!

DeWees employs all the traditional elements of the classic Gothic — first person narration, vast, almost forbidding estate, a dark mystery, a brooding hero, and a heroine in peril — but does so with a literary style that is as accomplished as that of her best-known antecedents: the Brontes and DuMaurier. Anyone who thinks that popular genre fiction (especially romance) is written by talentless hacks need only pick up Sea of Secrets to see how off base that idea is. DeWees has written a book that can proudly sit on a shelf beside the best literary historical fiction of any day.

But DeWees’ highly-literate, historically accurate writing is hardly the only thing to recommend Sea of Secrets. Like any truly successful Gothic, Sea of Secrets is expertly plotted, and DeWees sustains the mystery at the heart of the story throughout most of the book. It’s a testament to DeWees’ talent that she throws out hints to the mystery’s resolution throughout the book, but that most readers will only appreciate them when the mystery is solved.  In most Gothic romances, the romance is less important to the story than the mystery and the sense of danger that permeates the story, and Sea of Secrets acquits itself well in this aspect, too — the love story, such as it is (I don’t want to give too much away!), is incorporated into the book, rather than the focus of the book.

Not to belabor the point, but I cannot recommend Sea of Secrets highly enough. Amanda DeWees’ book has me excited for a genre that I had feared was dead, and I’ll be waiting impatiently for her next book.

Sea of Secrets is available as an e-book at Smashwords (obviously), Barnes and Noble and at Amazon. A print copy is also available at Amazon.

Did you like Sea of Secrets, honeybun? Here are a couple more books like Sea of Secrets:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Shadow of the Lynx by Victoria Holt