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Wish List Wednesday: The Heir of Starvelings by Evelyn Berckman

I was so inspired by the Teaser Tuesday idea that I decided to do Wish List Wednesdays! Yes, I know, someone is probably doing it, too, but if I stole the idea I repent forthwith.

At any rate, every reader has a mile-long wish list of books she can’t wait to get her grubby little hands on. So, on Wish List Wednesdays, we’ll share the following:

  • The title of a random book from our wish list,
  • How or where we found out about the book,
  • How long the book has been on our wish list,
  • And why we want it so badly!

Post your Wish List Wednesday book to your blog/Twitter feed and link to it in the comments. If you have neither, just share your info in the comments. I can’t wait to see what’s on your wish lists!

Happy Halloween (or Hallowe’en, if you’re particular), precious ones!

In honor of the holiday, today’s Wish List Wednesday title is a creepy Gothic from the way back machine. It’s Evelyn Berckman’s The Heir of Starvelings (isn’t that a deliciously Gothic title?), and here be the book’s synopsis, courtesy of Fiction DB:

Lovely Davina Milne refused to stay away from Starvelings because of its sinister reputation. Village talk about the evil Lord Stanyon and his reclusive wife could not keep her from the youthful heir of the manor who so clearly and painfully needed her. But when the lovely young girl entered the bleak mansion, she found herself moving ever deeper into a labyrinth of fearful secrets. And when suddenly she could no longer ignore the dark chasm opening before her unbelieving eyes, she realized escape had become impossible…

Now doesn’t that just give you the creeps in a very good way?

I can’t remember where I heard of The Heir of Starvelings, but I strongly suspect it was from browsing the huge archives of vintage paperback covers over at Book Scans Database. Please visit Book Scans, by the way — the good people there are not getting nearly enough credit for the wonderful work they do!

I put the book on my Wish List on April 26th of this year.

As to why I haven’t made the purchase yet, I’m embarrassed to say I stuck this on my Wish List and promptly started wishing for 1000000000 other things. For once, the problem is not lack of copies to choose from; unlike most Gothics, there are more than just a few raggedy paperback copies to choose from. The Heir of Starvelings, which was first published in 1967,  has gone through more than one printing, and was even published in hardback. That says more about the author, Evelyn Berckman, than about the Gothic genre, which was, unfortunately, infamous for churning out forgettable books by forgettable authors during the genre’s 1960s-1970s heyday.

In fact, it’s the story of the author as much as this book that intrigues me. While The Heir of Starvelings most certainly hews to almost all Gothic conventions, as do many of Berckman’s books, Berckman is rarely identified as a Gothic author, but instead as a mystery/thriller author. This, however, may be a case of a rose by any other name; according to her Goodreads bio, Berckman wrote “post-war detective fiction, horror and naval history, with a gift for engaging titles, featuring no one detective but a series of independent young women.” Hmm. That sounds strangely like the premise of many a Gothic to me.

The gift for engaging titles was strong with this one; in addition to the delightfully creepy The Heir of Starvelings, Berckman’s Gothic (or not) titles also include A Finger to Her Lips, No Known Grave, Wait, Just You Wait and the evocative The Victorian Album.

At any rate, Kirkus Reviews had no doubt that Berckman was writing Gothics, as summed up by this pithy 1967 review of The Heir of Starvelings:

True Gothicism. Complete with ragged innocent heir, a little boy entombed in the blackness of his home–nicknamed “”Starvelings”” by frightened villagers, a lovely governess who comes to take care of him having lost her true love, and the evil that his father and his father’s manservant represented. Miss Berckman can impart an air of doom to the sound of a broom. She’s almost too clever but it’s for the ladies who will thrill along.

I’ll just bet Ms. Berckman put a hex on that reviewer.


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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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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