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Common elements in Gothic/Romantic Suspense novels
#1
Since activity on this forum tends to slow down during summertime, I'll take advantage of the lull to post the following modest disquisition . . . which, if generally useless, might come in handy to any aspiring Gothic writers out there, who knows.

I've been taking stock of certain themes or elements that I've found crop up frequently in Gothics, particularly during the modern period (1950s–'70s), and I thought it would be fun to make a list of them. Many will be familiar to Gothic readers. Strangely, I never weary of them, and welcome them as familiar, comfortable furniture; the more found in one book, the better. ("One man's cliché is another man's archetype." -- I forget who said that.)

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to add to it. Some of the items are so obvious as to be hardly worth mention, but one has to start somewhere.

I. Settings (Locales)
1. Cornwall coast/moors
2. Devon moors
3. Yorkshire "
4. Normandy/Brittany
5. Maine/New England
6. The southern USA
7. Any foggy coast or desolate upland
8. An island, often small and privately owned

II. Settings (Domains)
1. Manor house
2. Castle
3. Country inn
4. French château
5. Old monastery
6. Decadent plantation
7. Any sufficiently old, isolated dwelling

III. Grounds/Special Features
1. Grotto
2. Folly/mock ruins
3. Hidden/underground passage
4. Locked/turret room
5. Entire locked/closed wing
6. Swamp/moat
7. Peep (usually overlooking ballroom)
8. Widow's walk
9. Sideboard
10. "Green baize door"

IV. Curious Customs/Localisms/Victoriana
1. Legend of a ghost/curse
2. Spiking tea with brandy (at least 3–4 books I've read!)
3. Cure for any shock/faint = mandatory brandy/whisky + 3 days in bed
4. Mourning garb is always "black bombazine"
5. Huge breakfasts, often including kidneys
6. Coffee served late at night
7. "Brown merino" = heroine's dowdy dress before makeover
8. Lavatories are never mentioned, but "toilet" means a lady's dressing area

V. Narrative Devices
1. Book opens with heroine on train, carriage or car, en route to story setting
2. She has a "rug" over her knees to keep warm, but it doesn't help much
3. Household staff/servants are usually suspicious, taciturn and territorial
4. Any unexplained noises during the night come from above heroine's room
5. Gothic heroines have a penchant for wandering out into thick fog
6. Heroine is invariably attacked in the fog; she can't see but attacker apparently can

It should also be noted that physiognomy was a valid science in the 19th Century: chins are "arrogant", noses are "noble", brows are "philosophical", etc. Character traits are assigned to immobile features according to their shape. An untrustworthy character will have small, beady eyes. I'm not sure if "generous mouth" indicates a character's generosity or the size of the orifice itself. Whenever I see this description I think of Julia Roberts.

Another curious thing: the ubiquitous lone lighted window in the tower on the cover of almost every modern Gothic, with the heroine pictured foreground in an attitude of flight or desperation, is a scene that almost never actually occurs in the story. If anyone can contradict me on this I'd be delighted; it ought to be the subject of a contest to find a book that really contains this scene. I've ready plenty in which the heroine flees outside, running barefoot across the moors or through a swamp, but never come across the single lighted window except in cover art.

I'll add more to this list as I think of things, and again, I encourage any others out there to suggest additions, if only for the fun of it.


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#2
Very entertaining post, Penfeather. I love that bit about the brown merino dress. How true! Under narrative devices how about "Broad or veiled hints of unrest and possible danger communicated to the heroine in various ways, including verbally from the inhabitants of the dwelling".
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#3
A great list!

You could perhaps add:
First person perspective
Lots of overhearing/eavesdropping
Hero is also a suspect
Long narrative re heroine's childhood
A serious tale, no wisecracking
Finding a diary of the mysteriously deceased
Last minute rescue by hero
Heroine is fond of taking long walks
A minstrels' gallery
No hot explicit sex scenes

I'll try to think of more as well. Smile
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#4
in Victorian era Gothics, laudanum (extract of opium) was used for just about any ailment, primarily as a sleep aid. My understanding is that anyone, rich or poor, could easily get their hands on it and that it was the equivalent of taking two aspirin.
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#5
(07-15-2010, 10:54 PM)Penfeather Wrote: Another curious thing: the ubiquitous lone lighted window in the tower on the cover of almost every modern Gothic, with the heroine pictured foreground in an attitude of flight or desperation, is a scene that almost never actually occurs in the story. If anyone can contradict me on this I'd be delighted; it ought to be the subject of a contest to find a book that really contains this scene. I've ready plenty in which the heroine flees outside, running barefoot across the moors or through a swamp, but never come across the single lighted window except in cover art.

Mary Stewart's NINE COACHES WAITING (1958) actually has a scene exactly like that:

Quote:Clutching at my hand, and panting, Philippe climbed gamely beside me. We turned once to look at Valmy. On the far side of the valley the château, catching the moon, swam pale above its own woods, its side stabbed with a single light. Léon de Valmy still waited. [p 234 of the Chicago Review Press edition]

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#6
(06-25-2011, 12:50 PM)Jojo Lapin X Wrote: Mary Stewart's NINE COACHES WAITING (1958) actually has a scene exactly like that:

Quote:Clutching at my hand, and panting, Philippe climbed gamely beside me. We turned once to look at Valmy. On the far side of the valley the château, catching the moon, swam pale above its own woods, its side stabbed with a single light. Léon de Valmy still waited. [p 234 of the Chicago Review Press edition]

Ha! I wonder if that's where the trend started! (One reader's cliché is another's tradition.)

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#7
Did you mention a "riding outfit"? Or, that sometimes the heroine goes out horseback riding with the hero (with a borrowed horse from his stable) and sometimes suffers a riding "accident"?
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#8
Funnily enough, film bloggers call gothic romantic movies the "Old Dark House genre":

From Self-Styled Siren:
1. An old dark house. (Acceptable substitutes include old dark hotels, as in So Long at the Fair).
2. Sinister retainers. (Mrs. Danvers remains the gold standard although in Gaslight, Angela Lansbury did a magnificent job proving you could be young and sexy and still retain in a sinister manner.)
3. A heroine whom someone tries to kill at least once before the credits roll.
4. Mysterious doings by either a ghost or a malevolent human. A truly great example might even have both (e.g. The Uninvited).
5. At least one storm during the course of the narrative. There must be howling wind, sheets of rain or snow and either the power must go out or the gaslight or candles must flicker like crazy. (The Spiral Staircase is perfect in this regard.)

http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2009...-1948.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/mystery/essays/darkhouses.html
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