Saturday, October 10, 2015

On gothic romances, mortality and reading - with a mini book review

I've been thinking lately – and I swear I'm not being morbid – about how many more books I'll be able to read in my lifetime. It's becoming a real concern, because even the best scenario probably doesn't give me much more than 50 years, if I plan on reading into my 90s. And while I read pretty quickly, I also like long books, and I like to savor things a bit, so I average about 50 books a year most of the time. 

In other words, I can look forward to reading possibly 2,500 more books in my lifetime, if I am blessed with a long and healthy existence (not counting any possible Brain in a Jar time that might come along in the future). 

A few of our books. There are many more.
But you see, we probably have at least 5,000 books between us. So this is becoming something of a concern. There are a lot of things I like to do besides reading, so I'm probably stuck with this 2,500 number, which means I need to start being selective in what I read. That means I'm not going to waste a lot of precious reading time with throwaway "light" reading, "just for fun." Fun? Reading is dead serious around here. At its best, grim and doom-filled, awash in candlelight and stirred by cracks of thunder and lightning. 

I admit, my 18th century gothic novels and penny dreadfuls; the 19th century ghost stories and pulps of the early 20th century, might have been "throwaway" in their time, but there is an atmosphere and craftsmanship about them that still trumps the potboilers of today, in my estimation. 

From the British Library website:
Ela the Outcast; or, The Gipsy of Rosemary Dell. A romance of thrilling interest - See more at:

This is all a longwinded way of explaining why I am reading a few of the 1960s and 1970s gothic romances that I have collected for quite some time, simply for their covers, lurid titles and garish plot descriptions. The writing in these books doesn't typically measure up to what I need from a book – it's a little over-simplistic, and is still too recent to have acquired that sheen of antiquity from obscure language and references.

Click here to see my gallery of gothic romance book covers at Pinterest -- adding to it regularly as I acquire more!
But I'm giving it a try, so I will chronicle a few of these adventures. These books are from the era which happens to also be my favorite time period in cinema and they deal with the same subject matter: inherited castles, or mansions and manors with family curses and decadence; heroines in peril; witches and vampires, ghosts and satanic cults; and in general, the kind of gothic soap opera material you might find in Dark Shadows, a show that I grew up watching and deeply love, wobbly scenery and all. These kind of book covers have also inspired countless paintings that I've done, and plan to do, all with gowns and candelabras. I wrote about this several years ago in greater depth. Needless to say I am delighted that the forthcoming film "Crimson Peak" prominently features these items, and incidentally I plan to spend Halloween in a white old-fashioned looking nightgown that I made, with a candelabra.
"Terror in the Crimson Castle," a 7 x 9 original painting in my Etsy shop

These are also the subjects beloved by the original gothic authors of the 18th and early 19th century – the imperiled heroines of Ann Radcliffe's sumptuous novels and her many imitators, exploring every permutation of book title including the words "abbey," "castle" and forest." Everything that I love about the old novels, with the addition of go-go boots – what's not to love?
Please explore the Valancourt Books site for reprints of these wonderful original 18th and 19th century gothics

The first book I tackled from my personal stash was "Secret of the Pale Lover," by Clarissa Ross, AKA Marilyn Ross, the author of the Dark Shadows novels. Ross was actually William Edward Daniel Ross, and he wrote over 300 novels – mostly romances and gothics. 

The first page drew me in and I have to say, it was a pretty enjoyable read, particularly when imagined as a novelization of the kind of movie I would watch -- a wild student party in Paris dungeon in 1969 sounds like just the place I want to be, in my head.

I can't quite remember if the actual skeletal hands ever showed up.

I imagine the main character played by an actress like the beautiful Rosalba Neri, and the "hawk-faced" Count Henri Langlais who entices her to his castle, is clearly meant to be played by Peter Cushing. She attracts his attention when she gets up on a table at the party and jokingly invokes Satan. As you do.

Rosalba Neri
You already know this is Peter Cushing, but it's always nice to have a photo of him around.

On the gothic cliché checklist, we have quite an admirable assortment of devices to admire here as the plot develops. Eve Lewis is as good as imprisoned at the chateau after accepting Count Henri's invitation to further her occult researches at his library, only to learn that he wishes to have her as the bride for his pale, sickly nephew Leonard. She is administered medication by a doctor who appears to have a double at the seaside resort where she first became acquainted with the count and a young man who appeared to be his nephew.

While I was never completely convinced that there were actual supernatural forces at work, the novel builds a pretty strong case that vampirism is afoot in the chateau, and then we have fantastic lines like this, which occur once or twice without any seeming purpose except to excite us for a moment. 

Throughout the book she is subject to various minor frights and spooky scenarios, such as becoming lost in the crypt beneath the castle, and terrified by strange happenings at night. Ultimately, she finds that the sickly nephew has a double as well -- a hired actor portrayed the young man at first when she met him and the count on her seaside vacation. The actor's job was to get her to fall in love with the pale boy, and then step aside as nature took its course. A heroic plot is launched to free her from the castle's grip and bring an end to the youth who is revealed as a vampire.

The ending was actually a bit of a surprise, as we see the heroine seemingly happily brainwashed, overmedicated or hypnotized to her fate, with Rosemary's Baby-ish implications.

One of the weaknesses of this style of book, from the perspective of a reader, is the way in which the authors constantly remind us of the questions being turned over in the main character's head, with narration along the lines of: "But what was the meaning of the mysterious symbol on the old book? Why did she seem to recognize the strange man in the cloak? What did the housekeeper mean when she told her to keep away from the basement?" Not actual quotes, but you get the idea. The reader is handed everything in very obvious, distinct terms, rather than given information and details from which to draw their own questions and conclusions. I also find it intrusive in writing when character's inner dialogue and motivation are spelled out in every line of dialogue.

This particular volume I would rate as pretty enjoyable, and while not terribly well-written, the plot advances in an entertaining way, with changes of scene and moments of dramatic impact. There were a couple of genuine surprises, as well, with the actor showing up on the scene to save the day, and then an unexpected twist in which the happy ending is actually a fairly diabolical one.

I've read a couple of more of these recently and will attempt to write up a little about them as well in forthcoming weeks. The good ones are definitely worthy of a day or two of my reading time, to feed the monster in my brain that constantly craves this kind of imagery and scenario. 

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