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Congratulations! It’s a bouncing, baby… gothic?

Horace Walpole's Twickenham house, Strawberry Hill, gleaming white in spring sunshine, soon after restoration. [photo credit: Chiswick Chap via Creative Commons license]

Horace Walpole’s Twickenham house, Strawberry Hill, gleaming white in spring sunshine, soon after restoration. [photo credit: Chiswick Chap via Creative Commons license]

He loved the idea of old castles and gothic cathedrals. He just didn’t happen to have one lying around. So Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, decided if he couldn’t get them the old-fashioned way (by inheriting or marrying them), he’d have to make his own. From a couple of cottages in Twickenham, he built Strawberry Hill, a gothic castle in miniature. Turrets, battlements, cloisters, suits of armor, vaulted ceilings, rose windows—from 1747 until his death in 1797, Walpole kept adding them all. The only thing missing was a ghost.

Then one night in June, 1764, Walpole woke from a strange dream in his bed at Strawberry Hill.

I had thought myself in an ancient castle… and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write.

The resulting book, The Castle of Otranto, was first published as a “discovered” medieval manuscript which Walpole claimed he had translated. But just as Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s built-from-scratch gothic became the model for a wave of Gothic revival architecture, so too did Otranto, his medieval forgery, give birth to the gothic novel as a genre that was to eventually include works from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Bronte sisters Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and on down to modern heirs such as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and untold others.

Front page of The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole (1717-1797)

My review of Raven’s Shade, Shawna Reppert’s latest  volume in her Ravensblood series,  invests her urban fantasy world with classic gothic tropes for a dark, memorable alternate history tale.


A simple favor for a friend becomes a deadly challenge as Raven faces the highest stakes of his life.

A young man stands accused of committing a horrible crime using forbidden dark magic.

When reformed dark mage Corwyn Ravenscroft heads to the small, rural town of Devil’s Crossing to launch an unofficial investigation, he soon discovers the simple case is more complex–and more dangerous–than he expected.

Far from home, Raven is out of his element and out of his area of expertise, but that’s the least of his worries as more deaths pile up and a mysterious ancient force returns to threaten all life on earth.

To stop it, Raven might have to sacrifice more than his life.


My Review: 4  stars out of 5 for Raven’s Shade (Ravensblood Book 5) by Shawna Reppert

In John Bowen’s talk filmed at Horace Walpole’s miniature gothic Strawberry Hill—birthplace of the gothic novel—the Professor of 19th century literature at the University of York lists the essential elements of the gothic genre—a strange place, power, the uncanny vs. the sublime, and terror vs horror.

In Raven’s Shade, author Shawna Reppert’s fifth book in her Ravensblood series set in a magic-driven alternate Pacific Northwestt, these tropes channel the essential darkness of the tale with a gender twist: the gothic heroine role belongs to a man: former dark mage Corwyn Ravenscroft, known as Raven. Professor Bowen’s other standard elements are included, but similarly reimagined.

  • A proper gothic requires its protagonist to be transported to a strange place, such as a wilderness or prison. Former dark mage Raven, trying to atone for his dark past, agrees to help Morgan, a young mage accused of using dark magic to cause the deaths of family and neighbors. Almost immediately he finds himself in a remote wilderness. There he finds a mysterious, dimension-straddling cave threatened by an ancient evil attempting to escape its eons-old, rapidly failing magic barriers.
  • Power is always a theme in gothics, and frequently expressed in their fascination with sexuality. But for Raven, those patriarchal forces are literal, from the implacable father who tortured the child Raven with dark magic to the invincibly powerful, charismatic William who took advantage of a young Raven’s vulnerability and need for a father’s approval. The gothic is all about the ways in which seemingly fragile and vulnerable characters triumph over such supposedly unbeatable forces. To the outside world, Raven seems to be a wealthy, immensely powerful mage. But the man we meet is consumed by guilt, self-doubt, and regret. As revealed in  earlier books in this series,  the real hero is Raven’s former apprentice, Cassandra. She fell in love with him, rejected him when his dark nature was revealed, but eventually redeemed him. They are now married and new parents, and Raven has at last learned the meaning of true terror. “And the last years had taught him the helpless, desperate fear that his wife and his child were in danger and he might not be enough to save them.”
  • The indispensable tools of the Gothic-genre are the uncanny and the sublime. Sigmund Freud said, “…the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” In Raven’s Shade, the uncanny surfaces when a wave of unexplained violence swamps the Portland area and beyond, as familiar human impulses normally held in check suddenly and inexplicably explode in monstrous violence.
  • For eighteenth century readers and still today, terrifying and overwhelming natural events such as storms or fire—things outside of the usual categories of beautiful or harmonious—contained sublime meaning. In Raven’s Shade, this takes the form of a cave that represents the barrier against an ancient and potentially world-killing evil. Raven’s world is divided between the Art (mages who wield pure magic) and the Craft (applied magic practiced by witches). But the nod to the sublime comes from the magic of ancient Native American shamans and their holistic combination of the two—and to Raven’s realization that his power, experience, money and position aren’t enough to defeat the evil spilling from the cave unless he offers all to the ancient shamans.
  • As they describe frightening events, gothics usually fall into either terror or horror categories. Some, such as Frankenstein or Dracula, embrace supernatural phenomena to evoke horror. One of the early masters of the gothic, Ann Radcliffe, believed that terror could be “morally uplifting” by not explicitly showing horrific events, but only warning readers of their possibility. Horror, on the other hand, would describe those events fully, and thus be “morally bad”. In choosing terror over horror, gothic writers often looked for a natural or realistic explanation for perceived supernatural phenomena. For example, the ghostly sounds and events Jane Eyre witnesses prove to be caused by her lover’s very-much-alive hidden wife. As Raven investigates the evil he senses in the cave, we hear about the inexplicable crimes committed by those under its influence, but we don’t witness them firsthand. Guardians and local law enforcement are overwhelmed by the scale  of the violence, but each individual case seems to involve a separate guilty party unconnected to any other instance. It’s only Raven who sees the true terror of the source of the evil, realizes it’s only begun to act, and comprehends the scope and scale of the destruction they face when the crumbling barrier fails.

It is such a pleasure to see an expert at work, and Shawna Reppert is clearly a master of the gothic novel genre. Raven’s Shade is the fifth book in her Ravensblood series, and could be read as a standalone. Don’t do it. Without accompanying Raven on his journey from dark mage willing to sacrifice a cherished apprentice, to a lover willing to risk everything to defeat his former mentor, and finally to a loving husband and father, it would not be possible to understand the internal journey Raven must now make.

At its heart, Raven’s journey is an exploration of the role of the father. His own father was so encased in his position, money, and dark mage power that he thought nothing of torturing his child. After the death of his father, Raven turned to William, a monstrous sociopath who demanded Raven’s soul in exchange for approval. So it’s no surprise that Raven feels like an impostor as he becomes a father to his own infant son, or as he attempts to provide guidance and even a chance at salvation for Morgan, a young mage who has made a terrible mistake.  To triumph over the ancient evil and save both Morgan and his own baby son, Raven faces the ultimate sacrifice: of control, of his life, and most terrifyingly of all, of the magic that defines him.