Absolute perfection. Though it’s now out-of-print and difficult to find, Shadow Play by Marvin Werlin is exemplary of the finest gothic romance has to offer. It interacts with a long history of classical and contemporary gothic plots, playfully poking fun at overdone tropes and—as a premise—showcasing full-on gothic obsession.
Here’s the setup: a damsel is assigned to help Max Deveraux, a famous movie producer, pen his memoirs. When she arrives, she discovers the producer’s mansion is a glorious ode to old movies, with a façade carefully crafted to look identical to Manderley. Inside is no different, with every room arranged in the likeness of iconic film set design.
The plot thickens as our heroine encounters an array of beautiful, mysterious characters who also populate the house. There’s the producer’s enigmatic niece, an art model who walks around nude, a boyish vagabond, and a muscular giant who sweeps her off her feet. Max himself is a bizarre, bisexual figure, matched in intrigue only by his equally theatrical wife.
Once death hangs in the air, the reader begs to ask: why was she really invited to this mansion?
First published in 1976, near the end of the gothic romance fad, Shadow Play makes itself fresh by pushing the boundaries established from earlier works. Sex gets an extra sentence or two, for example, and the overall lusty atmosphere pulsating throughout the mansion is slightly more explicit than similar paperbacks. The gothic-within-a-gothic structure seems to assume that most readers have read dozens, if not hundreds, of these paperbacks and masterfully exploits expectations. The entire book is like a love letter to genre enthusiasts. It’s also the only mystery that managed to keep me guessing until the very last word.
Fans of the site know that most pulp/gothic novels from this era are out-of-print, and many deservingly so, but this one should not be forgotten. It should be shelved proudly next to Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, and the smattering of similar grocery store fare which happen to be exceptional—whether by accident or design. I’d love to see a film version someday, but let’s get it back in print first.
Unfortunately Marvin Werlin (1929-2016) is no longer with us, but his legacy includes five other novels: The Savior (1978), The St. Clair Summer (1981), The Face (1985), The Price (1987) and The Lie (1990). He was also a celebrated artist who specialized in the male nude form. You can still buy his prints and original paintings from an Etsy Store operated by his family.