Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why Gothic? Conversations With Lisa Greer Part 1

I met Lisa Greer in the early fall of 2010 when I was surfing the internet and landed on her Gothicked blogspot. One of the first things I liked about Lisa’s reviews was that, while she clearly had a love for the vintage Gothic Romance novels that were all the rage in the 1960s and 70s, she didn’t take them or her reviews too seriously. I’ve read numerous blogs and message board posts where readers of these books raved without restraint. Not so with Lisa. When a book disappointed, she wasn’t afraid to say so. She also wasn’t afraid to venture into other forms of Gothic fiction, namely Southern Gothic and Gothic Horror. When we realized that we were both writers finishing the first drafts of our first novels, and that we were working on opposite ends of the Gothic spectrum, the friendship was sealed.

I have a clear recollection of seeing my first Gothic Romance paperback novel. I was eight or nine years old which would be about 1968, and a guest in a large, classic Victorian house. On the book shelf in my room I found a paperback with a picture of a dark mansion with an orange light in a solitary window like some ogre’s watching eye, with a frightened woman fleeing from the house, most likely peering back over her shoulder in fear. I just knew the house harbored terrible secrets and something bad would happen to this poor young woman if she could not escape. Lisa, how did you first discover Gothic Romance and was it in a way that you knew you had stumbled on something truly special in your life?

Barrymore, this is really great. We've talked so much about Gothic Romance and the Gothic genre over the last year. It's a pleasure to do it now. I feel a special kinship with you because of our love of the genre, one that is overlooked in my opinion.

I guess my first inklings of gothic romance happened with Nancy Drew books. Many of them have Gothic overtones, for sure, and the covers qualify as gothic romance in some cases. 

I remember reading my first Barbara Michaels gothic romance in early adolescence. I loved how smart these novels were. Around that time, I also came across Wuthering Heights for the first time. That novel still fascinates me with its mixture of the macabre, desire, and obsession. I'll never forget learning the word solipsism with regard to the novel as well. I was hooked on the Gothic genre from then on, and my love expanded beyond Gothic Romance as I got older. Gothic romance, though, is my first love.

In 1970 I saw a made for TV movie starring Barbara Stanwyck called The House That Would Not Die, probably my first exposure to a ghost story for grownups. I caught the "based on the novel, Ammie, Come Home by Barbara Michaels" line and the next day made a beeline for the library down the street.  I agree that it's not a large leap from Nancy Drew mysteries to the types of mysteries that we discovered between the covers of these thin paperbacks with their deliciously spooky covers. Ammie, Come Home is now considered a classic ghost story, and no small wonder that it has never gone out of print since first published in 1968. Do you remember which Barbara Michaels title was the first that you read? What elements of her writing kept you coming back for more, and more importantly, have stayed with you over the years and ultimately influenced your own writing?

I think Wait for What Will Come was one of the first that I read, and I loved the merman legend and the hero/dancer in it, as well as the spooky ending. The elements of her writing that kept me coming back for more were and still are her sharp wit and willingness to take on religious and social. To me, she does so much more than write a great ghost story. She writes about the real world and how the injustices that are perpetuated lead to disturbances we don't always understand. In my own writing, I try to do something similar. I want to write about things that matter, at least to some extent, even as my books work as entertainment. I tend toward controversial themes, at least for some subsets of my readership. Just like Michaels tackled racism in Patriot's Dream, I tried to do that in an open way in Magnolian. I guess it worked. I've had folks tell me they wanted so and so to read it but were worried about her reaction to the mixed race relationship. I think that by making my characters sympathetic, it opens minds. I've had people who I thought would really dislike the novel say they enjoyed it, so I hope it does, anyway.

How about you, Barrymore? Which authors in the Gothic genre most influence your work, and why? How does that influence manifest in your novels?

I’d have to say the early novels of Victoria Holt, especially in my second book, The Haunting at Blackwood Hall, although reading them as an adult I’ve come to think that they are more romantic mysteries than Gothic Romances. Holt doesn’t seem too concerned with creating atmosphere in her works, and atmosphere is a huge deal for me. I think the Gothic template in general has stuck with me for the past forty years. My first two novels begin with this template: due to circumstances beyond her control, an innocent woman is forced to enter a sinister house which triggers a descent into her subconscious where she encounters various dark and light aspects of herself in the form of other characters, and no one is ever quite who they seem. The climax is usually some sort of face-off with the Wicked Father (and in the case of your first two books and many other Gothic Romances, the Wicked Mother). It’s not much different than The Hero’s Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell and explored over and over in our more popular hero myths from Arthurian legends to Star Wars. I think a primary difference between Gothic and Fantasy Adventure is that the Gothic mindset is highly introverted. The action is more cerebral than physical.

Beyond that, my stories are chock full of any number of paranormal shenanigans from séances and ghosts to Ouija boards and Tarot cards. Again, going back to my childhood in the late 1960s, Astrology and the Occult were all the rage. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius after all. I grew up in a Christian household where these types of things were highly taboo, so of course that made them all the more appealing. As I grew into my teen years I moved from reading Gothic Romance to Gothic Horror, Rosemary’s Baby, The Mephisto Waltz, Burnt Offerings, The Other, all of which heavily influenced my first book, Night of the Pentagram.

In future installments, Lisa and I will continue our exploration of why we are entrenched in this business of writing Gothic fiction. We will continue to examine the archetypes as they appear in Gothic tales, with a juicy discussion on the use of taboo, along with plenty of shameless self-promotion and, you guessed it, more adoration of Barbara Michaels.

Lisa Greer is almost single-handedly reviving the Gothic Romance one book at a time. February saw the release of her third full length novel, She Walks the Shore, as well as the first chapter in a new Gothic Romance serial entitled Menace atMistwood (with an awesome cover by the multi-talented Barrymore Tebbs.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

An Appreciation of Barbara Michaels Part III of III - The Dark on the Other Side

”Well, Babs,” Barbara Michaels’ agent said one stormy afternoon in New York City, “Quentin Collins is the hottest thing on television; how about writing something with werewolves, only make it more Gothic this time. Throw in a good thunderstorm and a big old house.”

Barbara went away, and after a shot of vodka or two, sat down and wrote The Dark on the Other Side, her third and final foray into the occult themes so popular in the late 1960s.
2006 Berkley Reprint

This is Barbara Michaels subverting the Gothic Romance as far as she can, with once again predictably mixed results. Again the role of the Innocent thrust into situations beyond his control is played by a male, this time Michael Collins, a writer who becomes involved in the lives of Gordon and Linda Randolph when he visits the estate to interview Gordon for a forthcoming biography. And what an estate it is, a lavish house modeled on a British country estate complete with towers and gardens, servants and a particularly unctuous personal secretary.
Charles Geer jacket painting for the original 1970 hardback edition.

Gordon's wife, Linda, assumes the role of Byronic hero, a brooding, dark haired beauty ravaged by alcoholism and a tendency toward paranoid schizophrenia. In the first chapter alone, the house and its furnishings speak to Linda, commanding her to kill Gordon, and at my count she consumes at least six cocktails before dinner, numerous glasses of wine during dinner, and finally collapses in a drunken stupor and has to be carried to her room, all within the first twenty pages.

But Linda may not be as crazy as she seems. Michael's investigation into the life and career of Gordon Randolph begins to uncover a number of former students and other acolytes whose lives have been shattered by psychosis, drug abuse, and suicide. Remember we're in Barbara Michaels' country and it's not long before Collins begins to suspect that Randolph is flirting with something dark and dangerous, namely getting in touch with his inner beast, or in Michaels' own words, the dark on the other side, a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Fire.

The Dark on the Other Side is one of Michaels' most interesting works, and also one of her most frustrating. Her attempt at constructing a psychological thriller is weakened by undeveloped characters. Randolph is not nearly interesting enough to merit someone writing a full length biography, or nearly as sinister in his role of Gothic villain as he should be. Like Prince of Darkness' quasi-satanic hooey, it's pretty tame stuff. But how often in the late 60s Gothic Romances did the novelists flirt with not only adultery, overt or implied, female alcoholism, or bondage scenes? Yes, there is a startling moment late in the book when our hero keeps our heroine gagged and tied to a bed allegedly to keep her from doing harm to herself or others.

Harry Bennett's illustration for the 1971 paperback reprint gives away the ending, much like the beginning of this blog post.

Following Michael’s late 60s occult trilogy she returned to less experimental forms of Gothic writing, the ghost stories for which she is most remembered (The Crying Child, The Walker in Shadows) and the historical Gothic Romance (Greygallows, Black Rainbow) before abandoning the pseudonym altogether as her Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody mysteries soared to the top of international best seller lists.

Fans of the genre seem to either love or hate Michaels' works with passion either way. For me the experimentalism, edginess, and deliberate subversion of the genre in these early gems make them enjoyable to return to every few years.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Too Much Horror Fiction: Blackwater III: The House by Michael McDowell (198...

Will Errikson at Too Much Horror Fiction has been reviewing one of my favorite Southern Gothic novels, the six volume Blackwater Saga. Highly recommend both the series by Michael McDowell and several hours worth of perusing Will's awesome blog! Review reposted:
Too Much Horror Fiction: Blackwater III: The House by Michael McDowell (198...: The story of the Caskeys, a grand and wealthy yet conflicted Southern family, is far from over: In The House , the third book (of six) in th...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Vertigo - Hitchcock's Gothic Valentine

“Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?” Gavin Elster asks retired detective Scottie Ferguson at the beginning of the 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo, Hitchcock’s strange tale of obsessive love.

But is it Gothic? Of course it is, as much as that other classic of obsessive love, Wuthering Heights. Gothic doesn’t always require the histrionics of thunderstorms and old dark houses, though the Gothic eye candy is always appreciated. 
Vertigo has its fair share of Gothic tropes: the woman apparently possessed by an ancestor who committed suicide after a long battle with mental illness; the old dark house, the McKittrick Hotel, once home to the mad Carlotta Valdes; the mysterious portrait (Carlotta again), and a nifty bit of repressed Freudian symbolism with the metaphorically mpotent Scottie unable to save the beguiling Madelyn Elster when she makes her ascent into that juicy phallic symbol, the bell tower at San Juan Bautista.
Besides, Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of his best. I can’t imagine the film without it, and find myself listening to it repeatedly during writing sessions for my own Gothic fiction. It’s lushly romantic and appropriately punctuated by moments of mystery and sheer suspense.
It’s no wonder that Hammer Studios, inspired by the third act plot gymnastics of Vertigo and Hitch’s other masterpiece, Psycho, tried their hand at Gothic tinged psychological thrillers such as Scream of Fear, Paranoiac, and Nightmare with varying degrees of success.

If you’ve never seen Vertigo, or haven’t watched it lately, February 14th is a great day to revisit this mesmerizing ode to obsessive love. Is there any other kind?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Harry Potter and the Deathly Slow Gothic Thriller - The Woman in Black (2012)

Having just read Susan Hill's outstanding ghost story a few months ago, I may be unnaturally biased in favor of the novel. While the screenplay adaptation of The Woman In Black fleshes out the story with more detail and a "bit" of action, this is still a classic example of "the book was better."

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe in his much publicized first film role since completing the Harry Potter films), a young solicitor, travels to Eel Marsh House in a desolate, unnamed corner of Northern England on official business, leaving his four year old son in the care of a nanny during his three day journey. We are in Gothic country from minute one. Villagers warn Kipps away from dreaded Eel Marsh House, children stand around giving him vacant, creepy kid stares before parents usher them inside, and ultimately, when death begins to strike, the outsider is the first to be blamed.

The Woman in Black reveals its secrets slowly, perhaps a bit too slow. Subtlety goes a long way in this type of thriller, but the first half of the film is a major butt tester. Even when things do pick up, the film feels lop-sided, with most of the "action" coming in the third act. The matinee I attended was filled to the brim with teen-aged Harry Potter fans, but their hero Radcliffe has little to do beyond react in an appropriately moody manner to the strange quirks of the villagers and the things he discovers at Eel Marsh House.

The real star of the show is Eel Marsh House itself which moves straight to the head of the class to stand alongside of such classic haunted houses as Hill House and The Overlook Hotel. There are several extended sequences involving the house's nursery and a number of strange apparitions and bizarre children's toys. In fact, the production design is savory Gothic eye candy, with a few stunning touches - the tide which cuts off the house from the mainland, a raven that flies out of a chimney, and a scene created for the film where Radcliffe goes diving into the black tarn of Eel Marsh.

I might have kinder things to say about the movie but for the one thing which is usually a deal breaker for any film based on a well loved piece of fiction: they changed the ending.

That aside, as I left the cinema listening to the pint size crew debating whether it was scary or not, I found myself wondering what Team Harry Potter thought of a story about a vengeful spirit who relentlessly murders children? The film may have been rated PG-13, but most of the disturbing stuff involved children dying in particularly gruesome ways.