April 29, 2010
Gothic Romance Paperbacks
When I was a kid, my mom and aunt Phyllis constantly read Gothic Romance novels. They'd buy tons of these books, usually at the Hutchinson, Kansas thrift shops, used bookstores, and yard sales. Gothics were (and still are) a subgenre of romance fiction; they usually feature an equal measure of romance and suspense, sometimes even in a supernatural realm, and they center on a single heroine, alone in a castle or on the moors or some other location that readers consider "enchanting" or "mysterious." Apparently the Gothic Romance subgenre grew from much earlier books like The Castle of Otranto and Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, all of which I read and loved; however, I don't think I ever actually read one of these Gothics that my mom collected. Years later, though, when I worked at an NYC literary agency in the 90s, my boss represented some authors who wrote Gothic Romances; I skimmed a few then to see what they were like, and I also proofread a few of the "updated" versions of Gothics for my freelance proofing job. These books didn't seem as interesting to me as those old ones from Mom's and Phyllis's bookshelves, though, mostly because their cover art just wasn't as good:
I really love all the eerie, iconic jackets from those 1970s Gothic Romances. Almost without fail, the paperbacks showed a single woman, seemingly lost or terrified, wandering or fleeing within the dark wilderness, often with a foreboding castle behind her. And always in that castle, tiny and dreamy and golden: a single, secretive lighted window. As a kid, I remember staring and staring at my mom's Gothic paperbacks, trying, without actually turning the actual pages, to invent the story of the woman, the wilderness, the castle and its single light.
Posted by scottheim at April 29, 2010 03:30 PM
I had no idea Little Britain had sent her up. I also love the announcer saying "Cue the rude topiary."
Posted by: fred at May 1, 2010 08:54 AM
Thanks, Fred, for all the excellent info-- and poor Ms. Cartland. I guess she just wasn't edgy or sexy enough. You have, though, seen the excellent and extremely hilarious Little Britain skits that spoof her? I can't get enough of them. Here's all of them together in one YouTube clip:
A lot of these books take a cue from books by authors such as Anya Seton, who wrote gothic fiction of extreme historical accuracy. She wrote DRAGONWYCK, which was made into a movie in 1950 or so with Vincent Price (while he was still part of studio-system Hollywood) playing a land baron in 1840's upstate New York. Men would have penned more of these in the sixties than they do now, because a bored (or hungry) history professor could reasonably expect to take a crack at women's historical fiction, history being a priority in these novels. With the rise of feminism a paradox has occurred. The reader can tell if the pseudonymous author is male or female and doesn't CARE about history. Phillipa Gregory may be historically accurate, but her books aren't really gothic, just historically accurate. The age of bodice-ripping but informative fiction has passed. I notice that some of these authors are still in print, though: Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt are not forgotten. Who IS forgotten? Strangely enough, the grand lady of the file-cabinet plot-line, Barbara Cartland, is never found on the shelves today.
Posted by: fred at April 30, 2010 12:45 AM
Also note that a few of these seem to have been written by men, which came as a surprise to me.
Posted by: Scott Heim at April 29, 2010 04:05 PM
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