The Goth Guys: Birth of the Gothic

OK, as soon as I said goth guys, I know you were immediately thinking about this…

Hey girl, it’s Friday, I’m in love…

But really, the men I’ll be talking about today were more like this…


Yeah, I’m talking about the guys in tights and powdered wigs mostly, because these are the men who first wrote the type of novel we now know as the gothic. The beginning of the 18th Century in England was steeped in the Age of Enlightenment, and so the modern novel was born as a morality tale, or a philosophical type of story meant to (yep) enlighten the reader on the pitfalls of evildoing. As the century closed, though, Romanticism was on the rise, and the gothic fit both of these perfectly.

Horace Walpole published the Castle of Otranto in 1764, and he was “fond of mediaval romance and mystery as a dilettante’s diversion” (HP Lovecraft). That was really how most people thought of novels at that time- as a non-academic pursuit. One that is probably better suited for the weak of mind (re: women). Anyways, Castle of Otranto is considered by most to be the first Gothic Novel. It is the story of Prince Manfred and his family- on his son’s wedding day, part of a giant suit of armor falls from the sky and crushes the groom. The remaining family returns to the dreary castle & then Manfred plots to divorce his wife and marry the girl his son was going to marry. Much intrigue and some death follows. Most importantly, it is spooky and there are some clearly supernatural elements.

A few years later, the most popular author writing in this new genre was Ann Radcliffe, who began publishing in 1789. Radcliffe marks the genesis of what some think is a different subgenre of the gothic altogether- the female gothic. It can be useful to note the differences between the masculine & feminine gothic, and it has helped me understand the genre more completely. Of course, I will be covering the ladies in a different post!

So to really understand the difference, I’ll actually use one of Radcliffe’s own definitions. We have to look at the difference between terror and horror. She says that terror is the feeling of dread at the possibility of something frightening. Horror is the feeling of revulsion & disgust at actually seeing that horrible thing.

These are human emotions, apparently! Horror to the left & terror to the right. Not sure I’ve ever made those faces, but…

Terror is the type of feeling that Radcliffe, and generally the female gothic after her, looked to evoke. Never quite showing what was behind the curtain, but building that tension so that we’re afraid to look behind it.

Now, Radcliffe would say that horror contracts the soul, by absolutely annihilating our ability to respond to the displays of atrocity. That once the curtain is pulled aside, we are essentially frozen, unable to feel. The male gothic doesn’t think that way, and that is how we get to the horror of today! You know how every modern horror movie shows us every damn thing? Usually with overdoses of CGI. That is horror.

One of the things that these “masculine” gothic novels do differently is they are more likely to have unexplained supernatural events. Like a giant suit of armor falling from the sky, or like you’ll see later- bloodsucking vampires and crazed monsters. Those stories came primarily from men(but not always-I would say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is in this category). The ladies tended to explain away the supernatural- like, oh, those noises? That’s just my crazy first wife up in the attic!

So those are the bad boys of the gothic novel! Here is a great list of books to read should you want to sink your teeth into some of these hotties:

Look at those beautiful books!

Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole

Vathek, William Beckford

Vampyre, John Polidori

Caleb Williams, William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s dad)

Carmilla, Sheridan le Fanu (birth of the lesbian vampire?)

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

The Monk, Matthew Lewis (I love this one! It is slow at times, but worth it!)

Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, Marquis de Sade (yes, he had a great deal of influence on the genre)

Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

Turn of the Screw, Henry James

I hope you enjoy these, and keep an eye out for the gothic ladies coming up next.

The Bone Weaver’s Orchard – Sarah Read 3.75 Stars!

Welcome to Old Cross School for Boys!

“. . . It’s like the dust here is made of memory. You could wander in the past for years.”

Sarah Read’s debut novel The Bone Weaver’s Orchard is a fantastically atmospheric horror story. Think gothic with a splash of gore! We meet Charley in 1926 as he travels from his father’s side in Cairo to a new boarding school in England. He knows he is an unusual boy, as he has traveled across continents with jars full of bugs as his only friends. And of course, he finds trouble as soon as he arrives at Old Cross Boarding School. The other boys make fun of his bugs, and he ends up in a fight and getting a caning within the first day.

Charley tries to fit in, and makes one friend, Bowles, and they go about their days. Charley also befriends the school gardener Sam, who works only at the very edges of the school, never going inside. But then the bullies throw a rock at Bowles, injuring him badly, and Charley meets Matron Grace, the nurse. Grace is so sweet & caring, Charley could almost think of her as motherly.

Then, when he should have been in the infirmary, Bowles disappears. The headmaster says he must have run away, but Charley doesn’t think so. He turns his attention to the locked up East Wing, where many of the boys say there are ghosts. Charley begins a search that leads him into the most creepy of hidden chambers and tunnels, and he must question who his friends really are and who he can trust

The twists and turns of this novel are excellent; I didn’t guess them at all, and had a completely different theory midway. And most of all, the setting is just amazing- everything is covered in choking dust and cobwebs, the secret tunnels are in total darkness, there are chambers that are untouched for a generation. It is an ideal gothic haunted house.

I really want to give this 4 stars, but I just can’t. I am giving it 3.75 stars for the following reasons.

It’s a rule, Charley!

First, I am still pretty unsure of Charley’s motivations. Like I said before, this book has many of the trappings of a gothic novel, and one of those is a search for parentage, or a lost inheritance. But usually, that is the main character. Here, we have Sam the gardener who is looking to find out who exactly his mother was, with Charley’s help. So why does Charley care so much to crawl into those little tunnels & face these truly horrifying places? The book speaks a lot about family: the headmaster says, “we are your family now. This institution prides itself on forming the bonds that unite the future of Britain.” And of course, Charley, as a lonely boy so far from his father, should accept this new family. But he literally just met them. I have trouble believing that a 13 year old boy would risk his ass (he got caned SO many times) and eventually his life for virtual strangers.

I googled Bone Weaver spider, & here’s what I got!

Second, what the heck does the title have to do with the book? If you know, seriously tell me. I thought a bone weaver might be a type of spider, because of Charley’s obsession with bugs and all the comparisons to spider webs throughout the book. It’s not. Now Sam works the apple orchard, but that doesn’t seem to be a primary plot point. Anyways, it really distracted me!

Besides these minor distractions, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard was a well-paced, spooky, and fun read. I enjoyed it, and will certainly look for more books by Read.

Shadow & Bone- Leigh Bardugo

Welcome to the Grishaverse!

Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo was exactly what I hope for in a YA fantasy- it’s got intricate world-building, engaging characters, action, and a splash of romance. I can see why Bardugo & her Grishaverse has such a fervent fandom!

This is a familiar story: a young girl, an orphan even, discovers that she is special, that she is indeed the only person who can save the world. It’s the story in Twilight, in Divergent, in Children of Blood and Bone, and you know the list goes on! So what makes one story stand out from the others? One thing that sets Shadow & Bone apart is the setting; while there are many fantasies set in ye olde England or super future dystopia, this is the only one I know of set in a land modeled after early 19th Century Russia. It has a lovely, cold, foreign feel to it. I listened to the Audible version in my car, so I was also treated to Russian accents.

We meet Alina Starkov and Mal Oretsev as they are marching with the army towards what is known as the Fold, a literal sea of darkness that splits the country of Ravka in two. Alina and Mal are orphans who have been fast friends since childhood. As children, they were both tested for Grisha talents, those magical powers that make you special in this world, and neither of them showed any signs of powers. So instead they become soldiers, heading towards the darkness. The Fold is full of hideous monsters, and very few people survive a crossing. Of course, they are attacked by these monsters, the volcra, and at that moment, Alina bursts forward with an extremely rare Grisha talent. She summons the sun. She is immediately seized by the Grisha and taken to the capitol. There she meets the Darkling for the first time- the dark leader of the Grisha who wants to use her power to save Ravka.

Bardugo takes what is usually a metaphorical battle between dark and light and makes it very literal. The Darkling summons darkness and Alina summons the sun. “Like calls to like.”

Like calls to like

So Alina & the Darkling are drawn to each other and then you have a sweet little triangle when you add Mal. You can’t have a good YA fantasy without some romance, right. And of course, I couldn’t help but fall for the Darkling and his flint, granite, steel, cold eyes (ok, I get it, his eyes are grey!)

Uh, what color are the Darkling’s eyes again?

Anyways, this was a really fun read, and I’ve already started the second one!

I’m giving this 4 stars (minus the one for repetitive language that pulled me out of the story sometimes)

All the Birds in the Sky- Charlie Jane Anders- 5 Star Review!

Trust hipsters to make even the collapse of civilization unbearably twee.

Charlie Jane Anders has done something truly magical with her debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky.  It’s part magic, part science fiction, and all absolutely gorgeous. It was a super-fun read; I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that so successfully blended sci-fi and fantasy.  Here’s the summary:

“An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological start-up are going to war as the world tears itself apart. To further complicate things, each group’s most promising follower (Patricia, a brilliant witch, and Laurence, an engineering wunderkind) may just be in love with each other.

As the battle between magic and science rages in San Francisco against the backdrop of international chaos. Laurence and Patricia are forced to choose sides. But their choices will determine the fate of the planet and all mankind.”

The story opens when Patricia and Laurence are just children, both outcasts who feel alone in the world. Patricia was only six when she got lost in the woods and spoke to birds for the first time and they told her she was a witch. Laurence was perhaps a bit older when he built his first time machine (it only went forward 2 seconds). They become friends in school, each being the only person who would hang out with the other. They tell each other their deepest secrets, and make  promises. At one point, a tree tells Patricia, “your friend would control nature…A witch must serve nature.” And there is the very heart of this story.

And then, they are separated. Patricia gets to go to a school for witches and Laurence goes to a science school. They are connected, though, and they orbit around each other throughout their lives, sometimes converging, sometimes flying apart, but always tethered. Anders writes these characters with such depth that I felt myself cheering for Patricia and Laurence- like actually out loud at one point saying “come on, come on!”

But will their crazy orbit tear the entire world apart? Anders skillfully warps all the standard concepts of science-fiction by integrating it easily with the world of fantasy and magic. Can magic save the world that technology is tearing apart? Or is it some act of magic that has destroyed the world, and only the brightest scientists can save it?

Are the birds the only ones who know the answer?

Is a tree red?

Review- Once Upon a River- Diane Setterfield

“Something is about to happen”

At its heart, Once Upon a River is a story about stories. How they begin, how they are told, and how they evolve in the telling. This story begins at an ancient inn in France, right along the Thames, in about 1887. The Swan at Radcot has a history of storytelling; it is a place where people gather to get drunk and hear and tell stories as they travel along the river.

On the longest day of the year, the Swan is packed with drinkers and stories, when the door bursts open and a man comes in carrying a young girl who is declared dead by the local nurse/doctor, Rita. But before the night is out, that girl draws breath again, as if by magic. Rita, though, is a woman of science, and she will out the truth.

By the next morning, the story of the girl who died and came back had spread across the land, and there were at least two families with lost daughters who came to see if she was their own. Strangely enough, almost everyone who encountered the girl, who did not speak, had a strong desire to take care of her, to take her as their own. Is she Amelia, daughter of the Vaughns, kidnapped 2 years ago? Is she Alice, granddaughter of Armstrong, assumed drowned by her suicidal mother? Is she Ann, the sister of Lily, who would have died more than 30 years ago?

This story, like the Thames itself, winds and twists; we meet a large cast of characters all connected by their association with the girl found at the Swan. Setterfield has written a masterful story with elements of both historical fiction and magical realism. This period of time is rife with superstition and fortune-telling as well as great advances in science and medicine. All of these elements are used together to weave a story that dances on the very edge of fantasy.

“Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.”

For instance, Vaughn goes to a “fortune-teller,” but as it turns out, she is really more of a practicer of early psychotherapy. And Armstrong’s wife, Bess, believes she has an eye that can “see” the truth of a person, so she keeps it covered most of the time. But is it really that she is just an empathetic person?

This story is definitely a “slow-burn,” and it took me quite a while to get through it. I even put it down briefly to read something else and returned to it. However, once I got about halfway through, it really picked up. There was even a really fun play- like in Hamlet- to try and out the kidnapper at one point. And I won’t give any spoilers, but the end had me gasping in surprise! It was really fantastic & twisty. I always love it when I don’t guess the ending. I give it 4.5 stars!

Once Upon a River is a beautiful story that flows like the river it is set on; slow at points, madly rushing at others, but steady and constant always.

Welcome to the Reading Den!

Goth Everything!

Welcome everyone! I’m Jen, and I’m hoping to share with you all some of my love of literature. I have a couple of English degrees & one in Library Science, but I work currently as an Admin. Assistant- yay me! Actually, I love my job, and I have even built a small library for the people we serve at my organization (I work with people with intellectual/developmental disabilities). So it’s not so bad! I try to read at least 50 books a year; I do still have a life & a teenage stepdaughter, so I feel pretty proud of that. I intend to review my reading here, and also to share some of my literary ramblings. I haven’t written in a while, and I suck at fiction, so here you go! I hope you enjoy, and please feel free to contact me if you wanna chat. I’m most active on Instagram, just bc I love how non-political it is.

I thought my first post should be about my deepest love- and that is the GOTHIC. So put on something black, turn on the Cure, smoke a clove, and enjoy!

The gothic is a difficult thing to define. It exists in literature, architecture, music, and even fashion. And I love them all! Give me some Siouxie & the Banshees and a closet of the blackest night and I am a happy girl! When it comes to the gothic novel, however, most people just go with the laundry list approach to define it. Most gothic novels contain a number of the same trappings. Here’s a partial list:

  • A spooky, gloomy setting. Sometimes, but not always, a creepy house or mansion/castle. These places usually have secret passages or panels, tunnels. Somewhere for your poor heroine to get lost!
  • A main character on a quest if it is a male. If female, generally the “quest” is for a lost inheritance or a good husband!
  • The main character is often an orphan, particularly in the female gothic.
  • Nature as the sublime. Often long & detailed descriptions of extreme nature. Craggy rocks, sheer cliffs, gloomy moors.
  • Themes of: decay, doubles, madness (women especially), secrets, & persecuted women. If you’ve not noticed this- women are getting the shaft here (and not in a good way!).
  • There are often elements of the supernatural, but they are usually explained away in the end. Like in Jane Eyre when we find that there was a crazy woman in the attic, not a ghost!
  • A villain! There’s gotta be a bad guy. Sometimes he’s pretty hot.
  • The action tends towards the dramatic-mystery, suspense, passion- and even working in the weird stuff like demons, incest, secret wives, and murder! Such drama!
  • The ending usually involves the protagonist discovering a true identity (like the orphan who discovers she’s a freaking princess).
  • These stories serve as cautionary tales- warnings for readers to realize that they should not fall victim to their baser instincts. For the ladies, this usually meant, “don’t have SEX!”

Throughout the years, the gothic novel evolved in many ways, and served as the inspiration for several different genres of fiction today. When the gothic originated in the late 1700s, “novels” were not considered a valid or intellectual type of reading. By the time the gothic was really in swing, novels were really considered “women’s reading.” And, they were also being written BY women, which is a huge thing. Many modern feminists see the works of the Bronte’s, Radcliffe, etc. as a type of manual for how to work the patriarchal system! You know, how to have sex with the hot guy, get a roof over your head, and not get beat too much?!)

Anyways, I believe that the gothic broke into two different branches, and gave us what we now know as horror (like Stephen King) and romance (like the classic bodice-rippers!). Of course we do still have some novels that actually fit in the gothic genre- for instance, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood has all the trappings. And there is definitely a great tradition of modern gothic I will write more about. But most of the horror genre has slipped a little to one way, and the romance genre the other way.

In order to understand where horror is today, it’s a good idea to see where it came from. Here is a list of what I believe to be the most important gothic novels to give you a good base to start from. If you think I missed something, please let me know!

  • Castle of Otranto- Horace Walpole (considered the 1st)
  • Vathek- William Thomas Beckford
  • The Monk- Matthew Lewis
  • Caleb Williams- William Godwin
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho- Ann Radcliffe
  • Wieland – Charles Brockden Brown
  • Northanger Abbey -Jane Austen (amazing parody!)
  • The Vampyre- John Polidori
  • Frankenstein- Mary Shelley
  • Dracula- Bram Stoker
  • Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte
  • Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte
  • Carmilla- J. Sheridan le Fanu
  • Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to paint my nails black….