How can you tell if you are a heroine in a gothic novel?
Easy-peasy! Just look for the following elements:
- You talk funny. (“I have not yet said anything condemnatory of Mr. Rochester’s project of marrying for interest and connexions. […] All their class held these principles: I supposed, then, they had reasons for holding them such as I could not fathom. It seemed to me that, were I a gentleman like him, I would take to my bosom only such a wife as I could love; but the very obviousness of the advantages to the husband’s own happiness, offered by this plan, convinced me that there must be arguments against its general adoption of which I was quite ignorant: otherwise I felt sure all the world would act as I wished to act.“—Jane Eyre [translation: “He should marry (me) for love.”]
- Here there be monsters: the villain, preferably a monster, has scary eyes.
- “It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!” (Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre, who found it easier to compare the multi-racial Bertha to a vampire than to acknowledge her skin color)
- “…for it seemed for an instant as if the stranger had great eyes like burning flames….” (Bram Stoker’s Dracula)
- You swoon. Lots. Like Mina, in Dracula. Jane Eyre is made of tougher stuff, but she still faints when overcome by emotion or fear. Emily, in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolfo, swoons so regularly she’s rarely vertical.
- You hang out in a creepy castle or at least a scary stately home, preferably with a mad not-so-ex wife locked up in the attic. (Jane Eyre at Thornfield, Rebecca at Manderly, etc.)
- The weather sucks. No, seriously. The wind is always blowing, clouds block the sun, and odds are it’s raining. Bonus points for thunder, lightning, and fog.
- The monster is NOT a middle-class WASP. Only really rich, really poor, preferably foreign, need apply.
Still not sure? Check out how this works in my mini-gothic below.
The Damp Moors—A Lost Brontë Novel
Guy Hero is a sympathetic and witty orphan raised by a dastardly mouth-breather stable hand. Eventually he gets a job working as a racehorse trainer for the honorable Lady Marysue of Marysue Manor. The unlikely couple rapidly succumbs to a night of unrestrained lusty passion in which Guy kisses Lady Marysue’s hand. Twice.
On the day of their wedding, an insane fingernail-biting butler escapes from the attic of Marysue Manor and starts a fire. Believing that Lady Marysue is dead, Guy flees from the church and wanders the damp moors in the rain for days, racked with pollen allergies because he forgot to bring his inhaler during his flight, until he is rescued by a modest beach chair stacker, who always has a few spare inhalers when she hits the moors.
However, although Lady Marysue is blinded by the fire, she still breathes. Without Guy she becomes unspeakably cruel and controlling. She turns to alcohol for comfort. The ghost of the butler from the attic haunts her.
Meanwhile, thinking Lady Marysue is dead, Guy accepts a marriage proposal from his savior, the beach chair stacker. However, one night he believes he can hear Lady Marysue calling, “Oh, my erstwhile blessed muse who ever guided the lost ramblings of my spirit and anchored my trembling soul, why can you not sense my tremulous essence and comfort me?” [translation for those who don’t speak fluent gothic: “Guy, haul your kiester back here now!”] and he returns to Marysue Manor.
On Guy’s return, he finds Lady Marysue drunk and sightless. Mistaking him for the ghost of the fingernail-biting butler, she attacks him with the sling-shot that belonged to the insane fingernail-biting (dead) butler, and Guy Hero dies.
As she attends to the body, Lady Marysue realizes what she has done. Driven mad with guilt, she hatches a plan to destroy the next generation by supporting far-right authoritarian political candidates with reactionary social agendas. But then she remembers that she and Guy never got around to reproducing, so she dies of consumption two weeks later.
- if Guy is an orphan and the stablehand is his wicked uncle whose evil plan is to steal Guy’s inheritance (a solid gold bridle which, face it, is pretty useless otherwise because the gold is pretty soft), if Marysue Manor is huge and reasonably spooky, and if the butler is a vampire, it’s a gothic novel.
- If the butler speaks with a southern accent and bites Lady Marysue when she’s dying in order to turn her into his eternal mate, it’s Gothic Paranormal
- If she’s into the biting and it’s consensual, and they live Happily (for)Ever After, it’s Gothic Paranormal Romance.
- If she’s into the biting, but kinda misses Guy too, so she bites him and the three of them live Happily Ever After with lots more biting and maybe some tying-up stuff…it’s Gothic Paranormal Romance Erotica and will probably make more than the rest of the genre writers put together.
Why would I care about this? I just read the latest book in Shawna Reppart’s Ravensblood series. In my review here of Raven’s Wing last year, I said that Books 1-2 represent a letter-perfect modern application of the gothic novel form. So I was curious to see what direction her new release, Raven’s Heart, would take. I was surprised and delighted by the results! (Check out my review here.)