Sweet Rocket

Romance Reviews, Author Profiles and More…


Leave a comment

Get Ready — Nocturne For a Widow Is On the Way!

Nocturne-for-a-Widow-Ebook

Here’s a first ever for Sweet Rocket — a cover reveal!

Ramping up the excitement for Nocturne for a Widow, the new historical romantic suspense novel from Amanda DeWees, here’s a teaser in the form of the cover for Nocturne, which will appear in ebook and paperback soon.

The heroine of Nocturne is none other than our favorite fictional Victorian-era actress, Sybil Ingram, who made a memorable appearance in DeWees’ recent With This Curse.  Sybil leaves the theater world (Under A Cloud, of course) to marry, but when she’s widowed and left nearly penniless, she latches on to an ill-starred inheritance from her late husband — a mysterious mansion in the wilds of the Hudson River Valley.

In short order, Sybil finds that life in her mansion is far from palatial. Strange doings in the house, a local society queen who is perhaps as dangerous as disapproving, and to cap it all, a challenge to her inheritance in the form of handsome, hot-tempered Roderick Brooke, whose own career as a violin maestro has ended in dark scandal.

Romantic comedy bred with gothic romance, Nocturne For a Widow will charm readers who loved With This Curse. “Sybil is one of the least gothic characters in With This Curse,” author DeWees says, “so I couldn’t resist plunking her down in gothic surroundings to see how she coped. Partly because of her personality, there’s a lot more comedy in Nocturne than in my previous gothics. I think of this story as Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick in a haunted house.”

Look for my review of Nocturne For a Widow here on Sweet Rocket soon, and for release news, follow Amanda on Facebook at facebook.com/AuthorAmandaDeWees, or keep an eye on her website, amandadewees.com.

Until then, enjoy this gorgeous cover, designed by James T. Egan of Bookfly Design!


2 Comments

The Saga of Sara Seale and Maggy

houseofglass

The 1944 hardcover edition of House of Glass with its beautiful artwork.

There’s a very good reason that so many romance novels are retellings of classic fairy tales. Both fairy tales and romance novels exist in a realm of pure magical thinking where suspension of disbelief is the norm, fantastic characters can seem if not ordinary then sympathetic, and situations we’d never accept as possible or even attractive in real life are not only acceptable but somehow believable.

You need that kind of fairy tale mindset if you’re going to enjoy vintage Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances. If the author is Sara Seale, magical thinking is required.

Though she’s all but forgotten now, Seale was one of Mills & Boon’s earliest superstar authors. Most of her books were written and first published in the 1930s-1940s, when the worlds she creates were slightly more possible, and the characters who populate those worlds a bit less disturbing. Of the ten or so Seale books I’ve read, in all but one, the hero is much older than the heroine, and is usually in some position of authority over the heroine. Hers are the predecessors to all those boss-secretary and nurse-doctor romances that accounted for 90% of the Mills & Boon output from the 1950s through the late 1980s.

But Seale takes this tried and true romance formula to places I would never have imagined. Almost all her heroines are teenagers or just barely over 18, poor and very innocent. A good half of Seale’s books are 20th century updates of that Regency staple, the guardian/ward romance, and she seems to have been heavily influenced by the work of Jean Webster, famous for Daddy Long-Legs, that immortal story of the orphan who falls in love with her anonymous — and much older — benefactor. In one of Seale’s books, the aptly titled Orphan Bride, the hero, bitter and disappointed in love, actually picks the heroine out from an orphanage and places her with his aunt and uncle so that he might oversee the raising of his future wife.  

It’s a testament to Seale’s talent that she can make these cringe-inducing plots work almost as often as not. The best of her books — and there are several that are undeservedly forgotten gems — are coming-of-age stories, where we see the heroine through a year or more, growing from an adolescent into a woman, with the hero coming to love her as the woman she becomes.

But in all of Seale’s oeurve, House of Glass/Maggy stands as one of her more bizarre waif/older man stories. On the surface, it’s nothing readers of historical and Gothic romance haven’t seen a million times; that Seale wrote it as a contemporary in 1944, and Mills & Boon/Harlequin kept reissuing it as a contemporary as late as the 1970s is what makes the book such a curio.

Here is the synopsis for the book as it was issued in 1944, under the title House of Glass:

Maggy was young, alone in the world after her father’s death, untrained and too inexperienced to make much of a way in life; although she had a job of sorts, as companion/dogsbody to a tyrannical old lady, life did not seem to be holding out much of a future for her. Garth Shelton, years older than Maggy, crippled and embittered, was indifferent to anything that life might have in store for him. All the same he was touched by young Maggy’s plight – and in a quixotic fit he proposed marriage to her as the one way in which she could escape. And so began their strange life together – a marriage that was no marriage, between two people who might yet come to realise their growing feelings for each other, if only Maggy could forget the one barrier to Garth’s loving her – his former love, the elusive and lovely Sabrina.

“Don’t shut me out” she begged. “Please!” Maggy knew her words violated the terms of their relationship. But she was no longer the immature girl who had married Garth with no thought to the future. Even Garth had changed. He had thought nothing mattered, saw no reason to live. But the strange months of their marriage had revealed startling chinks in his armor of detachment. Could she now persuade him to grasp the one chance that might give them a full life together?

If it tells you anything about what’s in store for you when reading House of Glass, I was under the impression I was reading an historical Gothic romance (my mistake; it was a strange library edition of the late 70s Mills & Boon release that I picked this with a bunch of Gothic paperbacks at a library book sale).

Everything about the book screamed Gothic. The book’s early 20th century setting is so vague that, until cars are mentioned, it may have taken place at any time between 1820-1950. Maggy and Garth meet at an invalid spa in what might have been Harrogate or Bath in a Regency (all we lacked was a mention of taking the waters). I don’t remember Maggy’s age, rightly, but she’s definitely less than twenty, whereas Garth is maybe thirty-five.

At this point, the book becomes a cross between Rebecca and a guardian/ward romance; Garth whisks Maggy off to a draughty, isolated castle in Ireland, populated by maids who tell tales of banshees and a housekeeper who is devoted to the Sheltons — or the Shelton women, at least, of which Maggy will never be, so far as the housekeeper is concerned. On her way to her happily ever after, Maggy is disdained by most of the servants and Garth’s chilly relations, teased with hints and clues about the elusive Sabrina, led to a near-fatal drowning in a bog (yes, a bog) by the awful housekeeper, and almost led astray by a local boy who gives her the attention Garth will not (this, by the way, is another familiar device in Seale’s books — the near-seduction of the innocent by a fellow adolescent).

In the best of Seale’s books, the interactions between the hero and heroine build slowly but surely toward the HEA, and House of Glass is no different. The book lags in the middle, with Garth and Maggy not spending enough quality time together, but almost all the interactions between Garth and Maggy are memorable and poignant. If Maggy is irritatingly naive at times, and Garth snappish, they are most times so kind to each other.  Throughout the story, they’re always giving each other thoughtful little gifts, each symbolic of the way their relationship grows.

House of Glass definitely hits its stride toward the end, and if it never reaches anything nearing passion, it is precious. The book has one of the most unusual endings I’ve ever read in a romance novel, one that was not out of keeping for mainstream novels of the 1940s, but so unlike the usual M&B ending that it’s a wonder it was not revised.

Speaking of the period… As a contemporary, even for the 1940s, this book utterly fails. The clearly mid-century references — cars, telephones, Maggy’s lack of training for a job — are jarring and seem added after the fact. The medical diagnoses/treatments seem Draconian for even the first half of the 20th century. There are also a few strange ethnic references (something you unfortunately encounter often when reading vintage Mills & Boon books).

Which begs the question that is the next point of this rambling — and far too long — post: what on earth possessed Mills & Boon, to say nothing of Harlequin, to keep reprinting this book as late as the 1970s, and as a contemporary?

And Mills & Boon was indeed hellbent on marketing the book as a contemporary, going so far as to retitle it as the jaunty Maggy at least twice, with covers that placed the story squarely in the 1960s and 1970s.  The time travel was strange enough — the covers themselves were baffling.

maggyhouseofglass2 maggy2

For one Maggy cover, we have a mid-1960s collage that jumps on the nurse romance bandwagon, and has absolutely nothing to do with the story. For the early-1970s Maggy cover, our heroine has become a thirteen year-old hippie.

But the strangest cover by far is for a later 1970s edition of House of Glass. This was likely the cover that should have accompanied the library edition, and it’s interesting that even without it, I still took the book for a Gothic — it the classic hero-menacing-the-terrified-heroine Gothic cover. It also makes little more sense than the other post-1950s House of Glass covers. As Garth is wheelchair bound, it seems more than a little impossible that he’d be looming over Maggy; since the scene never happens in the book, it’s disingenuously random.

So there you have the strange saga of Sara Seale’s Maggy. As a final aside, this story was evidently dear to Seale’s heart — she repurposed the majority of the book’s content for one of her later novels, The Gentle Prisoner, which was also reprinted numerous times from the late 1940s through the 1970s.

To bring this train wreck to a smoking conclusion, I give Maggy/House of Glass four pieces of imitation Waterford crystal. If you are a fan of vintage Mills & Boon or Gothic romances, it’s worth hunting down.


2 Comments

Six Styles of Love, Romance Novel Style

Gratuitous illustration from N.C. Wyeth's "The Legends of Charlemagne."

Gratuitous illustration from N.C. Wyeth’s “The Legends of Charlemagne.”

Recently on Tumblr, I ran across a list of the six styles of love as defined by John Lee, and naturally my mind strayed to romance novels.

As I read through the list, I began to identify each stage with a romance novel, to wit:

Eros

a passionate physical and emotional love based on aesthetic enjoyment; stereotype of romantic love

Almost all of Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels historicals fit here; Shattered Rainbows comes to mind for the very passionate, emotional attachment between Lord Michael Kenyon and Catherine Melbourne. 

Ludus 

a love that is played as a game or sport; conquest; may have multiple partners at once

The classic example is Edith Layton’s Traditional Regency The Duke’s WagerRegina becomes the prize in a wager between the Marquis of Bessacarr and the legendary roue the Duke of Torquay. Ludus was alive and well in the Regency period, evidently — the trope of a female as prize in a wager is common in the Traditional Regency, though few have done it so well as Edith Layton.

Storge

an affectionate love that slowly develops from friendship, based on similarity

Like Mary Jo Putney and Eros, Carla Kelly writes almost exclusively to the Storge style of love, allowing her heroes and heroines to grow to love one another from a seed of friendship and mutual understanding. One of her finest examples of Storge is her Traditional Regency With This RingLydia and Sam meet when she volunteers at a makeshift military hospital, and develop a close friendship that deepens to love.

Pragma 

love that is driven by the head, not the heart

Pragma should have been easiest for me to identify; after all, romance is a genre that abounds with stories of marriages of convenience. But when I see Pragma assigned to a style of love, I think more of love that comes from an intellectual connection rather than an hormonal connection — not business so much as intellectual pleasure.

One of the first romances I thought of as I brainstormed was Laura Kinsale’s historical My Sweet Folly, which begins with correspondence between the two leads, who are separated by continents and years. But the letters between Robert and Folie are too romantic, even at the outset, for this to apply to my somewhat narrow standards.

Two other books, though, did come to mind. The first, My Dearest Enemyan historical by Connie Brockway, also relies heavily on letters between adventurer Avery Thorne and suffragette Lily Bede. Unlike Robert and Folie, who find themselves romantic and kindred spirits from the start, Avery and Lily’s letters begin as intellectual sparring before growing into a deeper affection.

The other book, Heart in Hiding  by Emma Richmond, a Harlequin from 1990 that I recently reviewed, might be more of a Pragma story than even My Dearest Enemy. Corbin and Verity, the hero and heroine, seem barely aware of each other as man and woman at the book’s beginning; only as Verity proves herself resourceful and indispensable, and Corbin reveals himself as more than an irascible destroyer of all things electronic do they begin to develop romantic feelings for each other.

Mania

obsessive love; experience great emotional highs and lows; very possessive and often jealous lovers

Pretty much most Gothics published between 1960-1979, and 95% of the Harlequin/Mills & Boon output from 1970-2000.

Agape

selfless altruistic love; spiritual

When linking Agape and romance, my mind went straight to another Laura Kinsale, the much-loved Flowers From the Stormwhich is the story of Quaker Maddy Timms and Christian Langland, Duke of Jerveaux. Maddy helps to rehabilitate Christian after a devastating stroke leaves him confined to an asylum, in a seemingly textbook case of Agape.

Instead, yet another Laura Kinsale book came immediately to mind, For My Lady’s HeartA medieval historical, For My Lady’s Heart has as much in common with Chaucer and Arthurian legend as historical romance — Ruck, the hero, is on what can only be described as a spiritual quest to repay what he sees as a debt of the soul to heroine Melanthe that begins with a would-be saint’s pilgrimage.

While selflessness, altruism and even spirituality are not necessarily the sole property of religion, few blatantly “inspirational” romances are as steeped in spirituality as For My Lady’s Heart. The influence of the church in the late Middle Ages is almost impossible for us as modern readers to comprehend, but Kinsale is one of few medieval romance writers who places the church in its rightful place in this period — it is the framework for the entire book. The church is what brings Ruck to Melanthe, and its teachings and commandments — commandments that carried the weight of law during the Middle Ages — drive much of the book’s plot and almost all of Ruck and Melanthe’s actions.

**WARNING — SPOILERS AHEAD**

The book’s sequel, Shadowheart is also the rare example of true Agape in romance, albeit to less effect than the epic For My Lady’s Heart, which is so steeped in the period that it uses Middle English for all dialogue. Shadowheart does, however, have one of the most affecting climaxes I have ever read in any book — one that hinges on Allegretto’s spiritual salvation.

John Lee’s styles of love were conceived as a “psychology of love,” a way to identify the difference between the ways humans express love and explain why there is, sometimes, a very basic breakdown in relationships resulting from conflicting ways of expressing and feeling love. Using them as a basis for literary criticism may be disingenuous, but it’s a case of the shoe fitting, especially in the case of romance.

Any well-written romance will show the hero and heroine cycling through several of the styles of love as their relationships progress, but most all romance novels seem to rely heavily on one style of love to define the relationship between the two leads. This defining style of love is synonymous with theme — i.e., bodice rippers falling squarely into the Eros style, inspirationals with a Storge theme, or those patently Pragma old-school Harlequins, full of boss/secretary and marriage-of-convenience romances.

Using Lee’s styles of love as a classification system that transcends subgenre just calls to the librarian in me. The styles lend themselves so easily to this use, allowing for description of a book’s tone or theme.  We all know, for instance, what the term “Gothic Romance” means, but further classification in terms of the love styles could help the picky reader to weed out the “Mania Gothic Romances.” It’s an imperfect classification system, yes, but an intriguing place to start.


Leave a comment

Book Review: With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

There’s a curse at work here, all right. The kind that makes a book impossible to put down.

It’s no secret that I love a true Gothic romance better than almost any other romance genre, but the problem is finding new ones to read — discovering a well-written Gothic published since Gerald Ford was in office is almost impossible.

And then there was Amanda DeWees, who has, in the course of just two years, managed to publish not one but two wonderful Gothics. I considered the first, Sea of Secretsa revelation. Her latest, With This Curse, is even better.

Without further ado, here’s the synopsis, courtesy of DeWees’ website:

In 1854, seventeen-year-old chambermaid Clara Crofton was dismissed from Gravesend Hall for having fallen in love with Richard Blackwood, the younger son of the house. Alone in the world, Clara found a tenuous position as a seamstress, but she always blamed the Gravesend curse for the disaster that had befallen her—and for Richard’s death soon after in the Crimean War.

A proposal…

Now, more than eighteen years later, Richard’s twin, Atticus, seeks out Clara with a strange proposal: if she will marry him and live with him as his wife in name only to ease the mind of his dying father, Atticus will then endow her with a comfortable income for the rest of her life. Clara knows that he is not disclosing his true motives, but when she runs out of options for an independent life, she has no choice but to become Atticus’s wife.

A deception…

For Clara, returning to Gravesend as a bride brings some triumph… but also great unease. Not only must she pretend to be a wellborn lady and devoted wife to a man whose face is a constant reminder of the love she lost, but ominous portents whisper that her masquerade brings grave danger. “This house will take from you what you most treasure,” her mother once warned her. But the curse has already taken the man Clara loved. Will it now demand her life?

As I was reading With This Curse, I thought over and over of how Dean James of Mystery Scene summed up the death of the 1970s Gothic Revival:

A fair number of [1970s-era Gothics] 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.

I thought of that observation not because Clara is dimwitted, but because it crystallized the secret to With This Curse’s success — making the danger Clara faces real.

Just as I raved of Oriel from Sea of Secrets, Clara is a rare worthy successor to that grandmother of all Gothic heroines, Jane Eyre. We still talk about and read Jane Eyre today because Charlotte Bronte created a heroine that didn’t blunder into the proverbial dark room with no thought to danger, but because she was pushed into it.  Every time she steps into the dark room — becoming a governess at a house with a bad reputation, marrying Rochester, running away from Rochester — it’s because of the limited choices available to her as an impoverished, unmarried woman. That’s the horror of Jane Eyre. 

That’s also why With This Curse works so well. The book is so well-grounded in the setting — mid-Victorian England — that it’s easy to understand why Clara, too, goes to the dark room by agreeing to marry Atticus and return to a house where she has known little but unhappiness. So few so-called historical romances truly make the reader understand the limitations women faced in less enlightened eras — probably because we wouldn’t read them if they did — that when these limitations are used to create real drama in the plot, it’s surprising and refreshing.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

It’s not just Clara’s plight that DeWees employs to create the almost stifling sense of doom that pervades the book. DeWees ratchets up the mystery in the book by imbuing the commonplace with portent. DeWees proves that you don’t need mummies rattling chains to make a horror story — Victorian England is scary enough.

Women who stray from the straight and narrow come to terrible ends. Children are mistreated as a matter of course. The hero’s congenital physical imperfection is seen as a mark of a curse, as is an ancestor’s madness. Atticus’ cretin of a father, in keeping with the ghoulish-to-us Victorian obsession with mourning, collects death masks. Neither the mystery that’s at the heart of the story or the other weird happenings that create a spooky atmosphere are supernatural; rather, they are horrible for how natural they are, how easily they could happen during the Victorian era.   

Which is not to say that With This Curse is a joyless slog. As with any DeWees book, you are treated to beautifully written prose, excellent plotting and great characterization.

Clara is prickly, but in the best way possible, and like Jane Eyre, is witty and perfect in her imperfections. She’s a little older and wiser than most Gothic heroines, which makes her even more fun to read. Atticus quickly became one of my favorite Gothic heroes. He’s one of few heroes in the genre who is genuinely funny, kind and delightful, even as he struggles with the ghosts that haunt Gravesend Hall. Not Scooby Doo ghosts, mind you, but the real ghosts that haunt any home — memories and long-standing family dynamics that can stir up more trouble than a whole passel of the bedsheet variety of ghosts.

The romance that develops between Atticus and Clara is believable and touching; they complement each other so well, with Clara’s dryness the perfect foil to Atticus’ sweet vulnerability. They are both misfits, in their own ways, and it’s easy to see how these two are drawn together, and you are really rooting for their HEA.

I should end this review right here, but I can’t without mentioning Clara’s career as a seamstress for a famous stage actress. The brief foray we’re given into the Victorian theater world is fascinating, and for someone who could usually care less about suchlike stuff, the descriptions of the dresses are so engrossing — you owe it to yourself to visit DeWees’ Pinterest page to get an idea of Clara’s work.

I give With This Curse 5 out of 5 creepy death masks. Atticus gets 5 jaunty walking sticks, while Clara gets 5 dresses of her own design, sewn by someone else!

Enough of my yammering. Just read With This Curse already. But make sure you have several hours to kill, or don’t have anything to do tomorrow, because you won’t be able to put it down.

With This Curse

Amanda DeWees

Published 2014

Available at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And when you’re done, read Sea of Secrets if you haven’t already!


2 Comments

Review: A Bed of Thorns and Roses by Sondra Allen Carr

One of the aspects of the e-book experience that I enjoy most is the ability to sample a book before you buy it. Sampling serves two very valuable purposes for me as a reader — first, it prevents buyer’s remorse, and second, it gives me something to do while I wait.

So there I am, sitting at the gas station waiting in line to pump gas, and I go to the Kindle app on my phone to find a sample to read. Unfortunately, the one I chose this particular time was A Bed of Thorns and Roses by Sondra Allan Carr.

I say “unfortunately” because I somehow ended up sitting parked at a Speedway for an hour before I could tear myself away long enough to drive the hour or so home. And then I was tempted at least twice to pull over on the side of the road just to read.  Needless to say, it’s a good thing I didn’t have to work the next day, because I was up all night reading.

Now that you’re hooked, here’s the book’s synopsis, courtesy of Amazon:

Heir to a wealthy robber baron, Jonathan Nashe had every advantage money could buy until a tragic fire left him horribly disfigured. Now he lives secluded in his isolated country mansion, his scientific research his only solace. When declining health threatens to rob him of even this small comfort, Jonathan is forced to choose between his work and his privacy. Reluctantly, he hires a secretary. Though distasteful, sacrificing his privacy soon proves the least of his concerns; he never expected to sacrifice his heart as well.

But Isabelle Tate guards the secrets of her past as vigilantly as Jonathan hides the scars beneath his mask. Can they confess their growing love for one another knowing that to bare their deepest feelings, they must also bare their deepest shame?

There was no way I wasn’t going to be intrigued at the very least by this book. Although it’s not marketed as such, it’s clearly got that Gothic vibe I love so much. And blame it on a children’s book version I had as a girl, but I’ve always been a sucker for a Beauty and the Beast story. A Bed of Thorns and Roses delivers on that score. And as one Amazon reviewer points out, this isn’t a one-single-rakish-scar-on-the-hero’s-otherwise-gorgeous-face kind of story, either.  In this respect, the book almost hews more closely to Phantom of the Opera territory, mask included. But A Bed of Thorns and Roses is much more than a fairy-tale rehash. It’s an excellently written, intelligent and emotional.

Happily-ever-after doesn’t come easily for Jonathan and Isabelle. These two don’t spend the first half of the book veering between bickering and mental lusting, nor is there a lot of created drama. Their interactions move believably from painfully uncomfortable to guardedly pleasant to frank enjoyment, and their reasons for being suspicious of each other and of doubting that they can have a future together are both reasonable and believable.

I keep repeating the word “believable” for a reason. Despite the book’s fairy tale origins, both characters are so believable, Isabelle especially. Unlike many historical (or contemporary) heroines who, despite their ever-so-humble upbringings, are always well-educated and know just what to do in any situation, Isabelle’s ignorance is both refreshing and incorporated into the plot. And for once, we have a “beast” who is not also a worldly, experienced rake. Jonathan is educated, but socially and emotionally inexperienced. The best scenes in the book are when the two are learning together, such as my favorite scene, a picnic that I refuse to say anything more about for fear of spoiling it.

My quibbles with A Bed of Thorns and Roses are small but pronounced. The first, one mentioned in several Amazon reviews, is a secondary relationship between Jonathan’s doctor/friend/mentor Richard and Isabelle’s sister which just seems extraneous. Another is that we only get bits and pieces of these experiments that are so important to Jonathan — I really expected that to be an integral part of his and Isabelle’s development. The third, which I can’t get into without revealing too much, concerns Isabelle’s secret. Suffice to say there is the Big Secret, and a smaller secret that goes along with it. For me, the Big Secret was enough; the smaller secret just seemed to gild the lily. But again, these are quibbles.

I give A Bed of Thorns and Roses 3 out of 5 clever disguises. Go ahead — download the sample and try to resist A Bed of Thorns and Roses. If you find yourself sitting at the gas station for hours, I’ll take the blame.

Buy the book:
A Bed of Thorns and Roses: A Gilded Age Beauty and the Beast Romance

Is a great big Gothic-y romance right up your alley? Try these:

Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees

Classic Gothic Romance


Leave a comment

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!


4 Comments

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!