Victoria Holt – The Devil on Horseback (1977)

Review by Justin Tate

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.

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Jacqueline Marten – Let the Crags Comb Out Her Dainty Hair (1975)

Review by Justin Tate

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?

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Jean-Anne de Pré – Die, Jessica, Die (1972)

Review by Justin Tate

Die, Jessica, Die is a 1972 novel from the “Queen-Size Gothic” series. The series promotes itself as “greater in length and drama, richer in reading pleasure.” Presumably this appeals to readers who found mass-market gothic novellas of the 1960s and ‘70s too short and simplistic. In reality, the most “queen-size” thing about the series is thicker pulp paper (which makes 285 pages look more like 400) and a large font. Sometimes the plots are juicier than typical, but often they are as basic as any gothic romance paperback.

No exceptions here. Despite its alluring title and a narrator who promises much diabolical intrigue, there are no unconventional surprises.

As Jessica returns home after four long years at college, she finds her father’s mansion much-changed. There’s a new housekeeper she’s never met before, an attractive handyman roaming about, a strange doctor who administers tranquilizers at the first sign of distress, and a “burly” lawyer who may or may not be seducing Jessica for his own gain.

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Anonymous – Barnabas Collins in a Funny Vein (1969)

Review by Justin Tate

Ever aware of the show’s campy tone, this novelty joke book first appeared in February 1969. Apparently it exceeded expectations, as there there at least five additional printings in only ten months. This impressive accomplishment is more indicative of the national frenzy for Dark Shadows anything, I believe, than the book’s content.

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Edwina Noone – The Craghold Legacy (Complete Series) (1972-73)

Review by Justin Tate

The Craghold quartet is highlighted primarily by its first volume, The Craghold Legacy, which delivers an unwavering deluge of bizarre. Undeterred by the novella format, Edwina Noone (aka Michael Avallone) manages to incorporate every Gothic item imaginable in a single narrative. Somehow, miraculously, he succeeds. The follow-up entries are less mesmerizing because the world is already so richly established. Lacking initiative to expand its potential is disappointing, and yet there is also a familiar pleasure with having the same events reoccur over changed seasons, and with fresh victims at the mercy of the same haunted hotel.

Connections between the four books are minimal at best. They can be read in any order without missing critical information. The series should begin with the first, however, only to best lose one’s virginity to all the uncanny characters and otherworldly happenings. Here are my reviews of each individual novel:

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Ann Radcliffe – The Italian (1797)

Review by Justin Tate

The Italian appeared in 1797 during peak Ann Radcliffe pandemonium. Fueled by the success of her uber bestsellers The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), this new release was destined to be popular, no matter what. Fans were anxious for another Gothic thriller by their favorite author, particularly since the genre had become so fashionable. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), for example, had recently scandalized readers in all the right ways. When rumor got out that The Italian was Radcliffe’s literary response to Lewis, anticipation whirred like a steam engine.

Certainly the publisher had big expectations. Radcliffe was already the highest paid author in the world after receiving a record-breaking £500 for Udolpho. For the The Italian she was paid £800, or about three times the annual salary of her successful, journalist husband.

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Edwina Noone (ed.) – Edwina Noone’s Gothic Sampler (1966)

Review by Justin Tate

A collection of gothic short stories “from the world’s leading ladies of terror.” The editor, Edwina Noone, goes on for some time celebrating the triumphant female takeover from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Hugh Walpole, Henry James and other male gothic icons. “Who is better equipped to write of a female in trouble than a talented lady author?” muses Noone in the introduction, declaring the included “authoresses” are among “the most gifted in the genre.”

This is all a bit cheeky, since Edwina Noone is actually the femnine pseudonym of writer Michael Avallone. Avallone self-satisfyingly includes two of his own stories in this anthology, one under the moniker “Edwina Noone” and another under his other pseudonym “Priscilla Dalton.”

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Ann Radcliffe – A Sicilian Romance (1790)

Review by Justin Tate

Ann Radcliffe was the J.K. Rowling of the late 1700s. She churned out bestsellers so popular they made her the world’s highest paid author for an entire decade. Her atmospheric gothic romances entranced the reading public similar to how Rowling made us obsessed with wizardry and magic.

Critics and fans alike could not get enough of Radcliffe. Once they finished her novels they fantasized about her personal life, imagining it as dramatic as her stories. Wild rumors were spread, including that she wrote while confined to a madhouse. The boring truth is that she was merely a private person who likely never traveled to any of the picturesque settings featured in her novels.

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Dorothy Daniels – The House on Circus Hill (1972)

Review by Justin Tate

Coach rides through thunderstorms, falling chandeliers, inexplicable music in a spooky mansion, multiple love interests—one of whom may be a murderer—what’s not to love? Daniels cooks up a classic mystery recipe and adds carnival atmosphere for extra spice. Exotic animals, attractive acrobats, romantic little people, and other Cirque du Gothic elements are present in nearly every scene. Oh, and clowns. Lots of clowns! Consider, for example, this gem:

My pale pink tights were easy to see in the gloom. There’d be some time before the forest would be jet black and I realized I didn’t have that much time to get away from this clown with a knife.

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Mildred Nelson – The Island (1973)

Review by Justin Tate

A bizarre, 1970’s marriage melodrama set on a tropical island off the coast of Florida. Delivers a kaleidoscope of emotions, from funny to WTF to sexy to super-serious. In the end I’m left reeling, completely unsure how to react.

The set-up is fairly ordinary. After a brief romance, Isabel finds herself married to a hunky botanist who promptly ships them off to an island where he’s employed to conduct plant experiments. The botanist is a typical man, however, who thinks his wife should tend to the kitchen and not pester him unless it’s time for sex. Naturally she’s not happy with this arrangement. “You’ve never shown that you care for me with anything like the devotion you show your plants!” Isabel finally snaps.

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