Welcome! Kick off your shoes, get comfy and join in as we chat about books, romance and the ups and downs of everyday life.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Gaga about Gothics

by Anna Campbell

Ah, the joys of a gothic romance! I don't think I'm telling anyone who's read my stories anything new when I say that all these books with creepy castles and sinister heroes and innocent governesses have exerted a huge influence on my writing.

In the Australian market, the biggest name in gothic romance was Victoria Holt. Victoria Holt was the pen name of an extremely prolific English writer Eleanor Hibbert (1906-1993) who also wrote historical fiction as Jean Plaidy. In fact, she had eight pseudonyms and clearly a cellar full of elves who wrote for her while she sipped margaritas by the pool - check out the huge list of her published works in the Wikipedia article about her.

I discovered Victoria Holt when I was about 11. We used to do a yearly trip to the book exchange about 20 miles away to get reading for my mother and me and we'd come home with boxes of secondhand books, mostly Mills and Boons (Harlequins). But other things would usually squeeze in - this is how I discovered Mary Stewart, for example.

This particular year, for some reason BRIDE OF PENDORRIC (published in 1963) came home with us. Wow, I was hooked. From memory, BOP owed a lot to REBECCA. You know, handsome and mysterious aristocrat marries an innocent girl and carries her back to his brooding Cornish castle where evil deeds have taken place. I was hooked on the setting and the sexual tension and the  dark and dangerous hero, who just might have been the bad guy (until you got to the end and discovered that the kindest character in the book was actually the villain - a pattern I remember from other VH books).

After that, it was on for young and old. I read Victoria Holt like she was going out of style - actually in the 1970s, she wasn't, but come the 1980s and readers wanting a bit more explicit sex in their books, sadly she WAS out of style.

By that stage, I'd moved past my Victoria Holt obsession so it was interesting going back to read her again when I hadn't picked her up since my early teens.There's clearly still an audience for her, she's remained in print - perhaps for people re-reading their youthful faves like me! To my current regret, I'd cleared out all her books on one of my house moves years ago so I needed to buy the two featured in today's review.

So recently I settled down to read MISTRESS OF MELLYN and a book that was one of my favorites, ON THE NIGHT OF THE SEVENTH MOON.

MISTRESS OF MELLYN was her first Victoria Holt book. It owes a powerful debt to JANE EYRE.
Innocent but feisty Martha Leigh arrives at mysterious Mount Mellyn on the wild Cornish coast to take up a post as governess to difficult Alvean. But she soon loses her heart to mysterious Connan TreMellyn, the lord of the manor and Alvean's father. Connan has recently lost his wife in unexplained circumstances and an air of tragedy and danger hangs over this ancient house. Even as she falls more deeply in love with Connan and he appears to reciprocate her feelings, Martha wonders if she can trust him. And then of course, things start going bump in the night and nasty accidents become daily occurrences. Eeek! Is the man she loves out to kill her? Is someone else out to kill her? Will someone ever clean out the cobwebs from the sinister cellar?

This is still a good read although it didn't cast quite the spell over my more mature (at least in years!) self that it did when I was 12. The brooding atmosphere is really well done and the setting is vivid and memorable. Martha felt like a bit of a cypher - she's there to solve the mystery and marry Connan, but she never really develops much beyond central casting impoverished yet spirited governess mode. Connan is more interesting - Victoria Holt definitely had a way with a tortured hero.

One of the surprises for me returning to this book after so long is how little time the hero and heroine spend together on the page. There's a large cast of supporting characters (necessary for the red herrings) so Martha and Connan seem to be in love after only a couple of meetings.

So on to ON THE NIGHT OF THE SEVENTH MOON (1972).

Wow, this one still packs a punch and rather knocked MISTRESS OF MELLYN out of the (turbulent) water. Influences on SEVENTH MOON include Grimm's fairytales and GASLIGHT. Innocent English schoolgirl Helena Trant becomes lost in the mist one evening when she's a boarder at a convent in the Black Forest. Her rescuer is mysterious, sexy bad boy Maximilian who takes her back to his isolated hunting lodge. So begins a relationship that will bring danger, passion and intrigue into Helena's life for the next ten years.

The relationship between the hero and heroine in this one is tempestuous and dramatic and fraught with tragedy and peril. Again, Maximilian disappears off the page for large slabs of the book but the set-up of this one is so compelling, you almost don't mind. Again, there's a huge cast of people who might or might not be baddies. A sinister air doesn't necessarily a villain make in a Victoria Holt! Helena is considerably more strongly developed than Martha Leigh. She grows beautifully from mouthy but naive schoolgirl to a woman who's ready to fight for her destiny. Maximilian is a seriously attractive hero although as usual, for much of the story, you're not quite sure whether his intentions are benign.

ON THE NIGHT OF THE SEVENTH MOON scores across a whole range of areas. Exotic, fairytale setting; rip-roaring romance; labyrinthine plot; breathtaking mystery; great characters; brooding gothic atmosphere. If you're new to Victoria Holt or if you've been away from her for a while and want to test the waters again, I'd highly recommend ON THE NIGHT OF THE SEVENTH MOON as the book to get you back into the shadowy swing!

So are you a Victoria Holt fan? Any favorites? Why do you think the gothic romance went out of fashion? Any other gothic writers you like? Let's creak open that heavy oak door with the lion-head knocker today and visit the bats in our belfries.

43 comments:

  1. On the Night of the Seventh Moon is my all time favorite Victoria Holt book. I remember as an impressionable pre-teen or young teen (not sure how old I was when I first read it), that book struck me as so romantic. I even remember that I had been given an amethyst ring (my birthstone) from my parents and lost it, and in my mind that made me and Helena "sisters." She'd "lost" her ring too. See how that works? Anyway, I devoured Victoria for years, and now, after I've cleaned out my book shelves, I have about 8 or 12 VH books I'm keeping and will read again. I would love to have all of her books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nancy, I'm SOOOOO sad I threw away all my Victoria Holts. Especially as a lot of them are still out of print. I actually wanted to do THE SHIVERING SANDS in my review instead of MISTRESS OF MELLYN. I remembered that one really fondly - lots of really brooding atmosphere. It's currently unavailable as a new book although obviously you can get it secondhand. I remember curling up on a family holiday and reading Seventh Moon and being in big trouble because I was utterly uncommunicative for the whole time I read it! Love your amethyst story!

      Delete
  2. Anna - these are two of my faves. Mistress of M was my first VH book and so I've got a soft spot for it. The fairytale element in On the Night of the Seventh Moon is one that appealed so much I found myself drawing on some of it for one of my own royal romances! King of the Castle is another good one. Set in France with a mysteriously dead wife, an appealing aristocrat and a heroine who restores paintings (loved that twist). It had dungeons and danger and strong, strong emotion. What fun!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Annie, I'm not sure if I read King of the Castle. There were a couple I missed out on. Must check it out. It was really interesting going back to these after so long.

      Delete
  3. I was and am a big Victoria Holt fan. I began reading them in the 1960s when an adolescent. My work-in-progress is a governess novel and I credit Victoria Holt with that. I read again both Bride of Pendorric and Mistress of Mellyn a couple of years ago and was struck that the female protagonists did not have particularly well-developed characters. Also, in one of the books, probably Mellyn, the protagonist gives up her inheritance money so that she doesn't outshine her husband. Cringe. We write stronger characters these days, but I simply adored Holt books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Peggy, interesting about the female protagonists. I thought Helena was considerably gutsier than Martha and she was much better developed. Martha was the sort of girl things happened to rather than who set things in motion. I think she did great heroes!

      Delete
  4. Oh, gosh, Anna. I was a Victoria Holt devotee as well! I remember all of them. And I adored Phyllis Whitney as well. And Mary Stewart. I recently re-read Nine Coaches Waiting (intrigued to see it was published the year of my birth). I think the writing is terrific, characterisations excellent, very gripping plot but as you point out above, quite a lot of time spent apart and a very sudden falling in love, esp on the part of the innocent young heroine. Lovely to revisit all these books again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Louise, wasn't Nine Coaches Waiting fun? Loved it so much. Sigh. I'm thinking if I can get my pages done today I might treat myself to rereading it or dipping into a V Holt!

      Delete
    2. Louise, I'm having a revisiting old faves year. I did a review of the Scarlet Pimpernel a while ago and one about the Mary Stewarts. Actually I think the MSs held up better for me than the VHs. I can't remember reading Phyllis Whitney - maybe I should check her out. I think both VH and MS were fabulous at settings!

      Delete
    3. Annie, I can't remember Nine Coaches Waiting. Re-reading MY BROTHER MICHAEL and WILDFIRE AT MIDNIGHT made me keen to revisit the Mary Stewarts. The writing is exquisite.

      Delete
  5. Oh, Anna, I am and always will be a fan of the gothics. So much so that I still write them just for my own reading pleasure. Holt has always been a favorire, although the one that kicked it off me me was Master of Black Tower by Barbara Michaels. And of course there are the wonderful early ones by Mary Stewart. And Jane Aiken Hodge with Watch the Wall My Darling. I especially loved what I call the "lady running" books from the 90s, mostly from Zebra, with covers that had pictures of women running, and a castle on the hill with a single light burning. The title was always in the format of The [adjective] [noun] of [place name], such as The Lost Duchess of Greyden Castle or The Shrieking Shadows of Penporth Island. I collected them like crazy and still have every one of them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, Kat, love the sound of the Lost Saucepan of Karmarthen Kitchen! ;-) I think pretty much my gothic reading was restricted to VH - should have explored further. Of course there are gothic touches in a lot of the Georgette Heyers. And I STILL think I write gothics (nice to meet another person doing the same!). I fondly remember Dragonwyck by Anya Seton too which is SOOOO gothic that Vincent Price is in the movie!

      Delete
  6. I still remember raiding my mother's bookcase to read her Victoria Holt books. Mistress of Mellyn was my first VH and I adored Bride of Pendorric and The Shivering Sands. My favourite was Menfreya - the Ugly Duckling becoming the swan.
    I did search through second hand book shops to buy my own copies to re-read them as my mother wouldn't give me her copies!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Lucy, I'd forgotten Menfreya! That one was great. As was Kirkland Revels. I really must re-read all of them - they're only very misty in my recollection. Hey, wouldn't it be fun if in your secondhand hunting you ended up with a couple that were originally mine? LOL!

    ReplyDelete
  8. You never know as we both live in the Land Down Under!
    I forgot to mention that I love the suspense in her books. I think I was 12 when I first started reading her books and the amount of time I spent reading on my bed trying to work out "the baddie" was phenomenal as well as a great memory!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lucy, I remember reading Seventh Moon on the balcony at Panorama Towers at Surfers Paradise on our annual family holiday. Just picking up the book took me right back there. Think I must have been about 12 too.

      Delete
  9. Anna, you've flooded me with so many wonderful memories! Victoria Holt was my introduction to romance (I was 12 or 13) and it only took one book to have me hooked. I vividly remember a flashlight, a VH book and reading beneath the sheets far past my bedtime. ;-) On the Night of the Seventh Moon was one of my favorites. I also read Mary Stewart and Phyllis Whitney like they were going out of style. I just couldn't get enough of those brooding heroes and the taut suspense. I always have loved a good mystery!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PJ, I hadn't thought of her in the same way (I guess because she was contemporary rather than historical!) but you're so right about Mary Stewart. They ARE gothics! Innocent girl. Tick. Brooding hero. Tick. Danger (perhaps from the hero). Tick. Brooding, exotic setting. Tick. I really must check out Phyllis Whitney. Glad I brought back memories. They did for me too!

      Delete
  10. Loved Victoria Holt, Anna, along with Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney and Georgette Heyer! I have them all in my library and still enjoy them!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maggi, I'd forgotten Daphne Du Maurier. She definitely wrote a couple of gothics. Jamaica Inn counts, as does Rebecca. I had a wonderful time writing my tribute Manderley in Captive of Sin - it's such fun giving our characters the houses we'd love to live in, isn't it?

      Delete
  11. It has been years since I read a Victoria Holt, I think the last one I read was The Time of the Hunter's Moon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dianna, I don't think I read that one. I think I must have been about 14 when I stopped reading her. Not sure why. Maybe I'd moved on to sexier stuff - that was definitely about the stage I discovered Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers. I can remember being absolutely hooked on these books in late primary school, maybe 11, 12, 13.

      Delete
  12. Hi, Anna! Yes! I literally "cut my teeth" on gothic novels and Victoria Holt was my favorite. I could not read her novels fast enough. I have said it before and will say it again, PLEASE, I wish more authors would write novels like that again. I love the thought of finding a novel like that where I can curl up and read about the governess who has come to a huge mansion surrounded by dark moors to teach the child of a widowed Lord. Of course, there is also a wonderful mystery involved as well. The descriptions of the mansion and the grounds are just fantastic. Sigh...I'm getting excited at the thought of reading a good gothic again. I love them!!

    OK. Must go grab a Victoria Holt. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Connie, have fun with your re-reading. It's funny how abruptly they went out of style, isn't it? At one stage, they were the bee's knees, the next moment, they were the forgotten books. Hmm, maybe I should write a governess book. It's certainly a theme I like when I read! I mean, come on, Jane Eyre!

      Delete
    2. Yes, Anna! Please do write a governess novel like that! I would love it. Thank you. :-)

      Delete
  13. I think I read all of Holt's gothics. No one has mentioned The Time of the Hunter's Moon. I loved that one. One of my aunts was a big fan of gothic romance, and she gave me big, brown grocery bags of books by Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt,Phyllis Whitney, and Dorothy Eden and by dozens of others including Madeleine Brent, Barbara Michaels, Dorothy Daniels, Anne Marbury, and many whose names I've forgotten. I can remember summer afternoons shading into evenings when I read six or so in rapid sequence.

    I think the gothic is still flourishing, although often blended with other elements as in your books. For example, Jennifer St. Giles, Eve Silver, Colleen Gleason, and Karen White, all very different authors, at times have skillfully woven gothic elements into the fabric of their fiction.

    BTW, Sourcebooks is reissuing some of Holt's titles in new editions, beginning in March with The India Fan. I discovered this fact when I did a Holt retrospective that will appear at Heroes and Heartbreakers soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Janga, I should have known you'd be another fan. I can't remember The Time of the Hunter's Moon. I just looked it up on Amazon and it didn't ring a bell although it sounds like it's a cousin to Seventh Moon. Mysterious continental setting included. Must check it out. Out of the ones you mention, I remember loving Madeleine Brent. Do you know that was a pseudonym for the guy who wrote the Modesty Blaise books? Someone bet him he couldn't write a romantic novel and he did and he got a bestseller out of it. A writer who I'd forgotten but who your post prompted me to follow up was Laura Black who wrote gothics set in Scotland. So we got some nice brogue with our brooding hero. One I remember well is Glendraco. Look forward to your retrospective. Fab to hear about the reissues. The books I bought were part of a partial reissue by St Martin's from a couple of years ago. Hope Source Books bring out The Shivering Sands - really want to revisit that one.

      Delete
  14. I think I discovered gothics in my later teens and I loved them. Victoria Holt, Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Dorothy Eden and Phyllis Whitney were all favorites. I am a total pack rat so I do have my original books (finding them is another matter lol). I remember Shivering Sands, The Legend of the 7th Virgin and The Shadow of the Lynx but I know I read at least another half a dozen of hers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Catslady, I know I read most of them but a lot of them have become titles to me - I can't remember the stories although I'm sure I'd remember when I picked up the books. Didn't she have great titles, though? The Legend of the Seventh Virgin? Woweee! I'd pick that one up from a bookshop! I don't remember reading Dorothy Eden. I'm getting some great gothic recommendations today. Thanks, guys!

      Delete
  15. I've read many Holt books, too, because my mom had them on the bookshelf in our rec room. I did read Bride of Pendorric and some others, but I guess I'm odd man out because I wouldn't say she is a fave author and I am not usually a fan of gothic stories. I did enjoy Mary Stewart, however.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Deb, interesting about your mum being a fan. As I said, I think for re-reading I'm drawn to Stewart over Holt after revisiting both of them this year. But I'm definitely going to pick up another few Holts before I'm done.

      Delete
  16. Actually another gothic author I really liked although I'm not sure she was available in America was Constance Heaven. Do any of you remember her books? There was the House of Kuragin and the Time of the Wolf and a few others. They had a gothic Russian setting and the heroes were kind of like War and Peace on steroids. Lots of governesses going over to St. Petersburg and finding danger and love in those. Great stories!

    ReplyDelete
  17. I love love love Victoria Holt books. The Pride of the Peacock and Shadow of the Lynx were two favorites, as well as On the Night of the Seventh Moon. My Enemy, The Queen helped foster an interest in historical fiction, I loved reading about the intrigue surrounding Elizabeth I. I am also a huge fan of her family saga, the Daughters of England series, written under her Philippa Carr pen name. It spans generations with a great historical element, while still maintaining plenty of gothic mystery. I often pick up used copies at old bookstores, always searching for one more that I don't have on my bookshelf. I'll be introducing my daughter to these books now.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Sharon, I remember reading both of those but I don't remember the stories - mind you, it's a long time since I was 12/13! I never read My Enemy, the Queen - should try and find it. So glad you're another fan. I actually think they're great books to give a teenage girl. Hope your daughter likes them!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Shame on me I've never read anything by Victoria Holt, but I love dark and Gothic tones in my romance reads. I've just put my hands on Lair Of The Lion by Christine Feehan and judging from the first chapter all the ingredients for a perfect Gothic atmosphere are there.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Mina, interesting you mention Christine Feehan. It's a few years since I read her but she had a lot of the gothic themes. Maybe that's what happened to gothics - they morphed into paranormals! Give Night of the Seventh Moon a go. I really enjoyed it!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hooray for other Gothic fans coming out of the closet! The Gothic novel gets ridiculed so much but when they're good they're very very good. I loved my Mum's Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt novels. Mary Stewart and Daphne De Maurier are also favourites. I enjoyed the Gothic elements in Claiming the Courtesan Anna, particularly the isolated castle.

    I believe the Gothic novel is due for a resurgence-just as soon as I finish my Gothic mystery with a modern edge ms.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, GS, I just went to your site - looks like we've got LOTS in common! ;-) It seemed natural for me to put a lot of gothic touches into my books. As you say, Courtesan is full of them - there's also the fact that the hero could also be counted as the villain in that particular story (although his mum gives him a run for his money in that race!). Untouched is very gothic too - another isolated castle and a supposedly mad hero. Nice and gothic. Captive of Sin has an isolated Cornish castle. And Seven Nights in a Rogue's Bed is a gothic to its bootstraps (starts with my heroine going to her hellish fate in the middle of a thunderstorm - and her hellish fate takes place in a ruined castle on the Devon cliffs!). Yup, don't have to look far to find gothic touches in my stuff. I just love playing with the themes. They're so versatile and atmospheric.

      Delete
  22. Thanks for a great day of blogging, everyone. I really enjoyed our discussion of classic gothics and all your recommendations. Next month I'm here on Christmas Eve so if you've got a chance, swing by. I'm talking about a new Harlequin Presents author I've discovered!

    ReplyDelete
  23. I can't remember when I first read Victoria Holt, but loved her. I have always liked books with a mysterious and threatening atmosphere. I have a shelf full of her books,many I haven't taken the time to read, but they are there waiting for me. I discovered her after reading REBECCA, similar atmosphere. I also have a shelf of Daphne Du Maurier's books. I didn't realize Gothics were romances. I considered them suspense books. Unlike you, I was well into my 20's before discovering these two authors. Phyllis Whitney is another one I read frequently. I enjoyed them, but they don't have the depth the other authors put into their books.
    I have a shelf of Mary Stewart books waiting for me, too. The MOON SPINNERS movie put out by Disney was a favorite. I realize it was VERY loosely based on Stewart's book, but I loved the atmosphere and suspense. The movie is what got me interested in the gothic style story.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Pat, it's been a really interesting reading year for me. I've revisited books that were bread and butter (and chocolate!) to me when I was a teen. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a couple of the Georgette Heyers, Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart (who I'm definitely going back to explore further - really enjoyed both of hers I read for the review here). Actually I think maybe I should do a Daphne Du Maurier book here - not sure I could bear reading Rebecca again. I had to do it for speech and drama and got rather sick of it although I learned to do a very menacing Mrs. Danvers! ;-) Maybe I should give Jamaica Inn a go - I remember really liking that and that it had a happy (ish?) ending.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Despite being a huge Jean Plaidy fan, I resisted reading one of her Victoria Holt books because I used to hate reading books in the first person - until I was ill with flu one day and a friend of mine came round with a copy of Menfreya. I got to the end of the first page and I was hooked. I've pretty much read all of her books although it's been years since I read her and this post has certainly made me want to revisit her books.

    I adore Mary Stewart's books, but I read The Ivy Tree last year and I was struck by the number of times her character lit a cigarette. I picked up a Phyllis Whitney from the library recently that I enjoyed, but for creepy atmosphere and enigmatic heroes, I think that Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart just can't be beaten.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Julie, I read VH and MS about exactly the same stage in my life - that very early teenage stage. I think they're the perfect books for girls that age. It's been great fun re-reading them. I have to say I prefer she/he books to I books but the benefit for something like VH is that it makes the fantastical events seem real because someone is telling you the story. Aren't cigarettes odd in books now? That struck me when I re-read the Mary Stewarts for the review here. Oh, if you want to see the reviews, here's a link: http://www.theromancedish.com/2012/05/michael-at-midnight.html

    ReplyDelete