October is upon us, which can mean only one thing – time to celebrate romances that involve ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties and things that fall in love in the night. This month, we are all about the tricks and treats of romance novels with a touch of something extra. Where to begin? At the beginning, of course, with gothic romance. Enter if you dare.
For readers of newer vintage, the term “gothic romance” may conjure images of graveyard picnics, where lovers clad in black wax rhapsodic about Edgar Allan Poe, Tim Burton, and all things dark and spooky, while drinking from skull-shaped Mason jars. While there may well be a market for that (if you know of any, please leave recommendations in the comments) what we’re talking about here is a wee bit different. Readers of a grander vintage know what we mean. Before there was a paranormal romance genre, readers who wanted a few chills with their kissing books found exactly the right combination in the gothic romance.
Usually the size of a category romance, these books knew how to reel in their target audience, and the covers certainly showed it. One crumbling old castle, mansion, or derelict house, often with a light in only a single window, one heroine fleeing in terror, possibly clad in a filmy nightgown (or regular clothes, whichever) and the snare is set. There may or may not have been a shillouette in that window, and the back cover copy often hinted at the heroine’s dilemma over whether the man (usually dark, usually brooding) who has caught her interest is truly the hero or something far more sinister.
Lest the real terror be that there was an entire genre devoted to women who couldn’t tell good from evil, and thought nothing of running about the wilds in naught but a nightie, allay all fears. The heroines of gothic romances had to have their wits about them, and that was part of the fun. Whether historical or contemporary (to the 1970s) gothic heroines were smart, and they were brave. They often traveled long distances to take on positions nobody else would take, as governesses, cooks, housekeepers, tutors, nurses, historians, administrative assistants and more. These gals had skills, and they knew how to use them, especially when things didn’t quite add up, and the explanations the locals gave ranged from fishy to preposterous.
These mysterious doings usually involved the man of the house, or one of his close friends or relatives. Stick our heroine in a remote locale, give her a puzzle to solve, and a man who could either help solve said puzzle, or be the brains behind it all, and we have one heck of a story to tell. Sometimes, two potential heroes/villains were presented, and it took everything our heroine had, to tell who was who.
Not always the easiest of tasks, as gothic heroes come complete with their own bags of tricks…and treats. Usually handsome, sometimes scarred, sometimes both, these men have attitude issues. Sometimes they want to keep the world at bay, including our heroine (yeah, good luck with that) and sometimes, all they want is for someone to ensure their beloved children don’t meet the same fate as their dear departed mother, especially if the locals think the man of the house had something to do with their mother’s departure. Throw in some ghostly apparitions, a legend or two, some sinister household staff, and the tension mounts.
While the term “gothic” today often conjures images of vampires, werewolves, and other creatures, in these books, the threat was usually all too human, and the supernatural not even a player in this game. It might be supposed, and talked about, but, in the end, the real threat was man’s inhumanity to man (Edgar Allan Poe would have approved) and it will take our hero and heroine both to set aside their preconceived notions, get down to the heart of the matter, and allow love to save the day.
Many readers have fond memories of curling up with these tightly-written stories, the excitement as much from the atmosphere as the romance, and, for some of those readers, it was a seed planted in the fertile soil of their story brain. Add a few twists, and who knows what could happen? What if the monster was real? What if the spooky old house was a spooky old skyscraper? What if the derelict mansion wasn’t on the rocky coast of England, but on the other side of the ocean, in New York or Florida?
If these books were the grandmothers of spooky romance, oh my, how their children, grandchildren, and great-grands have grown. Romantic suspense, a host of paranormals, and a sprinkle of gothic elements throughout nearly every other subgenre mean that the legacy of gothic romances is not relegated to the dusty shelves of used bookstores and that secret shelf in a great-aunt’s attic. For those willing to make the trek, however, like the gothic heroines of old, untold adventures await.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Have you read any of the classic gothic romances? What did or did not work about them for you? What gothic mainstays have made a seamless transition to other sorts of romance, and which are best left in those dark turret rooms? What location or character type do you think would be perfect for a gothic twist? Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. If gothic romance isn’t your thing, we want to know about that, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.