Blackwater makes you utterly desperate to find out what happens next, as if your life depends upon it. When I was almost done, I considered calling in sick because I was afraid I might die in a car crash before finding out how the story ends. It’s that good.
Though categorized as a southern gothic and shelved in the horror section (when it’s not out-of-print) it often feels closer to Harper Lee or John Steinbeck than Stephen King. But other times, always when you least expect it, it is very much a horror novel. Not King, though, nor Lovecraft. This is a quiet, creeping horror that doesn’t exactly feel supernatural. After grounding the story so firmly in realistic, earthy characters, how can anything—even water monsters and vengeful apparitions—be unreal?
A woman preps in a kitchen. Like a robot, her movements are both jittery and fluid from repetition. She reaches into cabinets with urgency, gathering oils, jars, utensils and cookware. Ladles and tongs rattle in her grasp. A package of flour slips, bursts and clouds the air. The refrigerator is emptied onto the counter, one item at a time, all in a row. She plucks a few spices from the rack, reconsiders, and brings down the complete set. Her eyes dart toward the huge grandfather clock in the living room. It is five minutes before five.
She surveys the ingredients scattered about the counter. There is no logic to the array, it is simply all that she can find. Tonight she is preparing a new recipe from an old book. Anything can happen.
Today we might laugh at Dark Shadows, a Gothic soap opera which ran for 1,225 episodes from 1966 to 1971. We might cry because the Tim Burton-directed film was so horrendous. But whatever we do, we can’t deny how influential Dark Shadows was in re-popularizing Gothic fiction. It’s true the show was largely cashing in on an already-developing craze during the 1960s, but it also gave the movement enough staying power for publishers to churn out thousands upon thousands of Gothic paperbacks over two decades.
Of course, Dark Shadows had its own tie-in paperback series. These books were authored by genre heavyweight Marilyn Ross, AKA William Ross (1912-1995). Sometimes they follow the corresponding TV plots, but mostly they do their own thing. Always they are campy, over-the-top, self-aware, and a jolly good time—even at their worst. We’re slowly reading through all thirty-two books and providing unfiltered reactions. This review focuses on the first ten.
Remember 1996? Let me help. “Macarena” is Billboard’s #1 song the past fourteen weeks, Space Jam is box office gold and Nanook, the Siberian husky Beanie Baby, is born. Meanwhile, Goosebumps is everywhere. The TV series is in its second season and the books are only halfway through an eventual 62-title run. If you’re reading each book as it comes out, you just finished The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and are eagerly awaiting How I Got My Shrunken Head. You are unaware, of course, that future classics like Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns and Calling All Creeps are already in the pipeline.
One day your mom buys a specially marked bag of Doritos. You find inside a teeny tiny Goosebumps book, individually wrapped so it doesn’t get covered in orange dust. You read the short story, love it, and discover that TWO more teeny stories can be obtained if you submit enough UPC codes. To sweeten the deal, the promotion includes a cardboard “library” for “shelving” your books.
Victoria Holt is a polarizing figure. Her Mistress of Mellyn (1960) created such a buzz that it was largely responsible for inspiring thousands of Gothic paperbacks during the 1960s and ’70s. Some (including me) consider this era a renaissance for the genre. Others, however, feel Holt and those like her cheapened Gothic literature by replacing the bombastic ingenuity of classics like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights with plots that are, more or less, trifling romance.
I happen to believe Holt’s critics tend to be those who’ve never read her, but I also see their point. It would be disappointing if The Devil on Horseback was the first Gothic novel to appear in someone’s head over, say, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Just as it would be disappointing if Alex Cross was the first literary detective that came to mind over Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin. Even still, for pushers of Gothic like me, I’m okay with any gateway drug. Especially if it inspires someone to try the “hard” stuff, like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is among the most scrutinized works in Edgar Allan Poe’s bibliography. Ripe with metaphorical descriptions and intentionally mysterious language, the story is an open invitation to varied interpretations. At the high school level, most students are taught that it is a tale about extreme isolation. In academia, scholars tend to be more interested in the bizarre brother-sister relationship and its incestuous possibilities.
Until recently, the idea that Poe could be in conversation with queer anxieties might sound absurd. Increasingly, however, critics have identified queer themes throughout his stories and poetry. In some cases, such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it is nearly impossible to deny that Dupin and his male companion are in a romantic relationship (Novosat). So too does “The Fall of the House of Usher” benefit from a queer reading. Suddenly the curious language and enigmatic events make sense. Not vaguely or subconsciously, but in its entirety. It is my argument that “Usher” is, from beginning to end, about queer anxieties. Notably, the angst of sexual repression and an inability to reproduce.
A dramatic title and foreboding cover set the tone for this multi-faceted, multi-regional Gothic romance. Set in the early 1800s, it begins as a coming-of-age story with Kynthia, our heroine, reaching womanhood in romantic Greece, land of gods and scholars. Her upbringing consists of sailing and sunshine, exquisite food and perhaps “too much” freedom for a young girl. All is pleasant until her mother grows ill and Kynthia discovers she can foresee the future. Her dreams—and nightmares—consistently come true.
Her most fearsome recurring nightmare involves being thrown off Mount Parnassus as an assailant utters the cruel words “Send her bounding down the cliff ledges, let the crags comb out her dainty hair!” These may or may not be the manic words of a villain, however, since they are also passages from the ancient Greek play Ion by Euripides. What does it all mean? Is her murder imminent?
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial” was adapted for film in 1962. Usually this would result in a reprint of the original book with new cover art to promote the movie. In this case, however, another writer—the mysterious “Max Hallan Danne”—was hired to pen a novelization of the screenplay, written by Twilight Zone alumni, Charles Berumont. So this book is actually an adaptation of an adaptation. And it’s way better than it should be. Dare I say, it may be even superior to the original source material.
Poe is known for short stories and poetry, but fans who haven’t read his only novel are missing out. These two-hundred pages encapsulate all there is to love about Poe. That includes chapters with alive burials, unforgettable gore, relentless anxiety and all manner of physical torture. The body count is high and the deaths are brutal. Yes, please!
The premise is that Arthur Pym and his companion are young daydreamers with fantasies of going on adventures in the open ocean. Unfortunately, Pym’s family forbids such folly. So the friend helps him stow away on a voyage. Once sufficiently out at sea, and thus too far to turn back, Pym expects to reveal his presence and enjoy the ride. This plan soon goes awry, however, with one ghastly event leading to the next until it seems unimaginable anything worse can happen. That’s exactly when things get doubly and triply worse.
From an historical perspective, Quatrefoil is immensely significant. It is known for being the first American novel to depict gay relationships in a positive way. In the 1950s, Quatrefoil (pronounced cat-er-foil) became the bible for battling suicidal thoughts and embracing monogamous love, while simultaneously masquerading as straight to avoid blackmail and social ruin. Often the plot functions more as self-help than fiction. Tim and Phillip, one more experienced with his identity as a homosexual, the other still coming to grips, serve as stand-ins for readers going through their own journey.
Given this historical context, it’s no wonder the book became such a classic—and deemed so “obscene” that Greenberg, its publisher, was indicted on a federal charge of “sending obscene material through the mail.” After five years of legal woes, they eventually settled on a $3,500 fine and promised to keep the novel out of print. All this hullabaloo, mind you, for a book with absolutely zero sex scenes—not even a kiss! The only “problem” was its depiction of gay love in a positive light.