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Check It Out

Courier Article by Andrea Wannemuehler
Sunday, October 2, 2011

Gothic Fiction Right for a Chilly Fall Night

As the nights get longer and the heat from summer tapers into an autumn chill, my favorite genre to hearken the new season is gothic fiction.

So named because the novels are typically set within a decrepit dwelling designed with Gothic architectural style - imagine heavy stone buildings, stained glass windows, slender towers, flying buttresses and gargoyles, built somewhere between 1200 and 1500. The combination of these elements aligned with the literary hallmarks of decay, mystery, the supernatural and hereditary curses, culminates to an irresistible novel.

Those who enjoyed the gray and mysterious atmosphere of Jane Eyre and "Wuthering Heights," might enjoy "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield. Though this is Setterfield's only novel to date, her former academic career in literature is evident in her storytelling, and as a wordsmith she creates a world that is both rich and spellbinding in the details.

Plain and quiet Margaret Lea, a young English woman who works in her father's rare book store, is summoned by the mysterious Vida Winters to write her biography. Winters is a prolific writer who is known for evading the truth about her past, fabricating elaborate answers to any personal inquiry.

But faced with illness, she finds she must document her story and quiet the haunting voices of her past. Margaret travels to the English countryside to a decrepit castle at Angelfield Estate to conduct her interviews, spellbound by Vida's tales of her childhood some fifty years earlier. Vida's past is replete with murders, madness, lost twins, and a devastating fire. Setterfield keeps the reader engaged by unfurling clues to unravel Vida's sordid family history in every chapter, leaving breadcrumbs here and there to keep you captivated to (the satisfying) end.

Gloomy English countrysides and long-held family secrets herald Kate Morton's sepulchral and mysterious novel, "The Distant Hours." One ordinary morning, Meredith Burchill receives a letter postmarked some fifty years earlier (it having been forgotten in a postal bag in an unsuspecting attic). She is quite shaken by its arrival, but refuses to discuss it. Though her daughter Edie finds it peculiar, the event is forgotten, until she is on a trip for her book-editing business and stumbles upon Mildhurst Castle. Enter the Blythe family, inhabitants of the Castle for generations, and equally known for both their mysteriousness and literary prowess in England. The last master of the house, Sir Raymond Blythe, wrote the infamous Children's book "The True History of the Mud Man," shortly before his deadly fall from the castle's lookout tower.

At the time Edie discovers the family, Raymond's three daughters - Percy, Saffy, and Juniper - are octogenarians, and the final inheritants of the Castle. In the Castle, Edie discovers the secrets of her mother's hidden past, which are tied to the long-buried secrets of the Blythe family.

"The Distant Hours" is told from the perspectives of Edie and the three Blythe sisters. The chapters from the sisters are especially compelling. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy the passages from 1939 to 1941 that reflect a war-weary England.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde is perhaps the quintessential gothic novel. Though it does not try to dispel a tangle of family secrets or preside in a decaying castle, it does exemplify a man's search for unending youth, and the subsequent demise of his soul. Dorian is a beautiful, charismatic young man who is at the height of his life in 1800s England. He is egotistic but irresistible, especially to the young artist Basil Hallward, who paints Dorian's portrait in an uncanny, albeit flattering likeness.

Dorian, regretting his humanity and fallibility, wishes to stay as eternally youthful as his portrait. As so it is. It is about this time that Henry Wotton enters his life, encouraging Dorian to pursue a life of pleasure. When Dorian meets the young impressionable actress Sybil Vane, he is given one final opportunity to live with a conscience with regard for his actions, but instead he plunges fully into corruption, leading Sybil to her death. It is then Dorian notices a slight change in his portrait - a slight mocking smile - the first sign of wickedness that begins to manifest in his portrait, while Dorian himself remains unchanged. For eighteen years he lives a life of unbridled pleasure, until the ghosts of his past begin to haunt him.

Setterfield, Morton, and Wilde create evocate worlds that are not only entertaining, but thought provoking as well. They suggest the question - what if.