The Shadowing by Joan Overfield is a very gothic experience. While I found the book engrossing and the heroine interesting, the book’s over-the-top melodrama was a little difficult to take.
In the fifteenth century, an evil sorcerer cursed the McCairn lairds with the Shadowing. At some point in their lives, every male member of the family is doomed to encroaching, irrevocable madness. In the 1850s, Ruairdh McCairn is determined that he will be the last – he will die childless, and upon his death his ancient castle and all its contents will be sold. In preparation for this, he hires an Englishman named Garthwicke to authenticate the weapons and other ancient furnishings of the castle. But Ruairdh is displeased to discover that Garthwicke’s assistant is his lovely daughter, Anne, who embodies everything that Ruairdh cannot have.
Ruairdh tries to send Anne packing. When he learns that the almost-blind Garthwicke cannot do his job without Anne’s assistance, he is as openly and obnoxiously rude to her as possible, in order to keep her away from him. But at night, he has vivid erotic dreams of her – and she is having exactly the same dreams as he. Soon the dream lovers will come together – but can they defeat the Shadowing? At the beginning of the book, Ruairdh is already beginning to feel the Shadowing – which means that he is going mad. There are several passages describing his state of mind:
Every day, every hour, was a battle against the shadows that drew ever nearer. He could feel the demons in him straining at their leashes to be free, and he knew the day was coming when they would slip their bonds and devour him. With a terrible sense of the inevitable he knew that he had precious little time left.
Down, boy! The fact is, Ruairdh is so beleaguered by his inner demons that he’s inadvertently funny. He spends a lot of time pacing and brooding and agonizing over his fate, while lightning flashes outside and howling winds rattle the windowpanes. He also has fits of madness, during which he says things like “You were warned. Now you will die!” Amusing as all this is, I could never feel for him – he remained unreal to me, an entertaining caricature of a tortured hero. I kept picturing Ruairdh as Vincent Price circa 1960, when he was making movies like The Fall of the House of Usher.
If Ruairdh’s character is a bit overdone, he’s not alone. In the prologue, the villainous sorcerer actually bursts into insane, malicious laughter while he is being consumed by the flames of the stake. Mysterious townspeople tend to pop up and utter dire warnings in a most improbable fashion, and Anne’s father, too, in his own way, seems as crazy as Ruairdh at his worst. If Anne had been equally overwrought this book would have sunk in a churning sea of emotion.
Fortunately for us all, Anne is an intelligent, scholarly, and sensible woman who provides a welcome relief from all the drama. It is a little jarring how quickly she gives herself physically to Ruairdh – erotic dreams or no erotic dreams, the guy is rude and more than a little strange – but she quickly understands that something mysterious is happening, and soon she is determined to break the curse. Instead of joining in the anguish at Ruairdh’s fate, she hits the books, searching for a solution. The second half of the book, in which Anne struggles to save her beloved from his cruel destiny, is suspenseful and enjoyable.
I realize that part of what makes a gothic novel a gothic novel is the use of a heightened, creepy atmosphere. At its worst, The Shadowing is so deliberately melodramatic it made my eyes roll. However, at its best it is good (if silly) entertainment, with a likeable heroine and a plot that is different and memorable to say the least. Devotees of Gothic Romance will probably enjoy it. As for me, The Shadowing has given me a taste for Vincent Price. I’m going to look and see if any of his old movies are on cable tonight.