The Return of the Gothic Novel

I quit reading Stephen King some years ago, because I just don’t like to get that, umm … nervous … over a novel anymore. I was done with the gothic tale, I thought. You know the kind of story I’m talking about. A gothic novel has an atmosphere of gloom or mystery (or outright terror) with elements of the uncanny—things that seem supernatural, even if they’re not (but they might be … bwahaha). Very often there’s a ruined castle or mansion involved, and it’s probably way, way off the beaten path.

We read a lot of this sort of thing in school, you know: Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame … this is classic stuff with a capital C, and we read it whether we wanted to or not. :) Mention the words gothic novel and I tend to think nineteenth-century literature, Stephen King—and Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, and all those twentieth-century masters of the genre—notwithstanding.

Well, step aside, Uncle Stevie, while I introduce these kids to Kate Morton. She’s young (35), Australian, well-educated (English lit, of course), and has had three bang-up gothic-style novels published in the last five years. I’ve just finished her most recent, The Distant Hours, which I bought the week it released because I’d enjoyed her first two so much. I was not disappointed.

I actually read her second book, The Forgotten Garden, first (on my Kindle). Reviews were mixed but I was intrigued by the premise: a small child abandoned on a ship to Australia has memories, growing up, of another life, but they are vague and ultimately set aside for the present life in which she grows up … and then learns that nothing she’s believed about herself and her family is true. On the surface it seems like a simple story of a foundling but the more I read the deeper and more complex the story got until I literally couldn’t put it down. (Booklist calls it a “sprawling, old-fashioned novel,” and at 560 pages, it is.) It was a good story.

So good that the minute I finished, I downloaded Morton’s first novel, The House at Riverton (496 pages). Holy moly. It’s an Upstairs, Downstairs-y story-within-a-story (as was The Forgotten Garden) full of misdirection, history, and tragedy, about a prominent British family as told by one of their servants. Morton is so careful, placing her clues, that it’s only when you reach the devastating end that you realize just how good she is.

In a complicated, layered story, there are many characters. And I’m the sort of reader who, as the larger story begins to reveal itself, likes to go back to the beginning and look at little clues that were dropped; I like to see the structure. The craft. And it’s maddening to try to do this on a Kindle, so I bought The Distant Hours, all 576 pages of it, in print. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says, “A letter posted in 1941 finally reaches its destination in 1992 with powerful repercussions for Edie Burchill, a London book editor …” and I ask you, dear readers, how could that fail to enthrall? A letter lost for fifty years? Oh yeah. I loved this book. Although the mystery of the lost letter—addressed to Edie’s mother, who sobs when she reads it—comes clear about halfway through, the larger questions (and there are many) require every page, every well-placed word. The ending stunned me, as PW promised it would.

So—take your pick. I enjoyed all three. And it’s only a matter of time before one or all of these books are made into movies, so read them while you still get to imagine everything for yourself. :)

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7 Comments

  1. Sarah Thomas says:

    Oh, these sound scrumptious! I can never think of the Gothic novel without imagining Catherine in Northanger Abbey rooting around in that old desk.

  2. Mary Aris says:

    What a great blog! I, too, love a good Gothic. I may well put these three books on my reading list. I have written a gothic novel as well. It is called The Curse of Anna Greene. It is availiable on Amazon and on Lulu.

  3. jenny says:

    I still love that umm..nervousness…from a novel! I will definitely check these out, they sound intriguing. Thanks Jamie!

  4. […] story. Jodi Picoult’s books have strong stories that suck the reader right in. Kate Morton also whips up a pretty good story. Here are three more: Life of Pi by Yann Martel (a shipwreck, a lifeboat, a young boy, a tiger) and […]

  5. Number 18 says:

    […] Be / GF Elizabeth Kostova / The Swan Thieves / LF David Lebovitz / The Sweet Life in Paris / NF Kate Morton / The Forgotten Garden / LF Kate Morton / The House at Riverton / LF David Nicholls / One Day / LF […]

2 Trackbacks

  1. By You Get Three Wishes. Choose Wisely. on 9 August, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    […] story. Jodi Picoult’s books have strong stories that suck the reader right in. Kate Morton also whips up a pretty good story. Here are three more: Life of Pi by Yann Martel (a shipwreck, a lifeboat, a young boy, a tiger) and […]

  2. By Number 18 on 28 December, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    […] Be / GF Elizabeth Kostova / The Swan Thieves / LF David Lebovitz / The Sweet Life in Paris / NF Kate Morton / The Forgotten Garden / LF Kate Morton / The House at Riverton / LF David Nicholls / One Day / LF […]