When Dabney Grinnan asked me to define a Gothic at RWA in New York, my first reaction was to use Potter Stewart’s infamous “I know it when I see it” line. But of course, that won’t do. So for my overarching statement I will say that in a Gothic, every single aspect of the text—language, plot, setting, characterization—is in service to the mood.
And that mood is creepy.
The reader of a Gothic—whether romance or straight Gothic fiction (which tends to verge on horror)—should experience an unrelenting sense of dread, and that dread should start on the very first page. For example, the beginning of Barbara Michaels’s classic Be Buried in the Rain:
The old pickup hit a pothole with a bump that shook a few more flakes of faded blue paint from the rusted body. Joe Danner swore, but not aloud. He hadn’t used bad language for six years, not since he found his Lord Jesus in the mesmeric eyes of a traveling evangelist. He hadn’t used hard liquor nor tobacco either, nor laid a hand on his wife in anger—only when she talked back or questioned his Scripture-ordained authority as head of the family.
Or the beginning of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca:
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
Yeah, that’s not going anywhere good.
Gothics don’t fit into the normal landscape of romance as we categorize it today for the simple reason that everything in a Gothic is restrained. There is no room for the blatant, whether in the form of lust or violence or comedy or romantic angst. There’s a certain lack of immediacy in a Gothic, despite the fact that all the traditional Gothics were written in the first person from the heroine’s point of view.
Many modern romantic suspense novels read like Michael Bay films, filled with nearly super-human heroic acts, explosions, and a constant need for speed. The heroes are larger than life, if not literally then figuratively (and some are literally larger—the six-foot-seven hero with shoulders out to here and muscles on his muscles is a staple of the genre. The Gothic hero is more subdued. In fact, he’s often not obviously the hero at all. In Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, the heroine knows there is a hero awaiting her—she feels him as a psychic link—but when presented with several possibilities she cannot tell which one is fated to be hers. He’s not the strongest, most masterful, most heroic actor in her play.
The tone of a Gothic is pulled back, almost dreamlike, and anything that detracts from that tone is a strike against a successful interpretation of the form. If I burst into giggles while I’m reading a book, it dissipates the aura of dread. The heroine may be sassy, but she can’t be actively funny, and despite the first person point of view I shouldn’t hear her snarky thoughts unless they’re clearly stress-induced and allow me to feel her fear and uncertainty rather than her disdain.
Which makes for a hard heroine to write. The Gothic heroine is afraid, which is something women in the modern world have been taught to avoid. Especially as women, and especially in the romance genres. Women need to be portrayed as strong, not fearful. But the Gothic heroine is brave in the truest sense of the word. She understands that she is afraid but does not let that fear overwhelm her. Hers is the voice we hear and if she is not afraid, we are not afraid.
This brings up the question of sex that permeates the modern romance genre. Sex is implied in many of the classic Gothics. In Mary Stewart’s fabulous, amazing This Rough Magic, it’s fairly clear that our heroine has been up to fun and games. But we never see more than a kiss, and it’s a quick kiss. Why this avoidance? The reason is simple: sex is a release, and the idea of a Gothic is to keep winding the tension higher. You can jump back into tension when the sex is over, but allowing the readers to watch the moments of peace and relaxation breaks the mood. You can, as a friend of mine pointed out, have creepy sex, but that’s…well…creepy.
At RWA, Dabney asked me how Gothics differed from horror, and I think there’s a fair amount of crossover. There is Gothic horror just as there is Gothic romance. Generally, the same rules apply. The lack of explicit threat, the looming, lingering dread rather than a creature feature, the all-too-human face of the evil that is finally revealed. (Yes, sometimes the evil is supernatural, but usually it’s not. Even when there are paranormal aspects, they are not the focus of the story.)
So if you find yourself staying up late and leaving a light on due a dread you cannot quite put your finger on, chances are you’ve been reading a Gothic.
Laura K. Curtis has always done everything backwards. As a child, she was extremely serious, so now that she’s chronologically an adult, she feels perfectly justified in acting the fool. Published in crime fiction, romantic suspense, and contemporary romance, she lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband and a pack of wild Irish Terriers, which has taught her how easily love can coexist with the desire to kill. She has a short Gothic horror piece in the upcoming anthology: Heroes, stories to benefit PROTECT and is working on a full length Gothic romance. Her most recent book is Gaming the System.