Dennis Fowler – The Ladies of Holderness (1976)

Review by Justin Tate

Carol wanted to cry, but couldn’t. She was going to be slaughtered like a helpless animal, butchered and drained for their demonic rites, and then cremated and scattered over the potatoes.

Indeed, Carol gets herself into quite the pickle (or potato) when she takes up a housekeeping job at the mysterious Holderness Farm. Orphaned and penniless after escaping a manipulative relationship, she doesn’t question the peculiarity of being hired by a household of thirteen elderly women. They don’t ask for references or prior experience. It’s as if they’re only interested in her youthful vitality…

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Sarah Nichols – The Very Dead of Winter (1974)

Review by Justin Tate

When an orphaned heiress suffers a difficult breakup with an older man, she checks herself into a remote group therapy lodge near a mountainous ski resort. The lodge is peopled with psychologists and fellow patients. Rather than feel better about her distress, however, Hallie is thrust into a series of fearful encounters.

Nocturnal visitors enter her bedroom unannounced and strange sounds are heard among the wintry wilderness. She feels perpetually drowsy, faint and forgetful. Have drugs been mixed into her wine? Did someone swap her aspirin with hard sedatives? Is she just paranoid, or is everyone out to get her? After several near-death experiences which are far too calculated to be mere accidents, Hallie pieces together the sinister plot unfurling around her. But can she escape before it’s too late?

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Elsa J. Radcliffe – Gothic Novels of the Twentieth Century (1979)

Review by Justin Tate

In the foreword, Radcliffe writes: “This bibliography may be of use some day in the distant future to scholars who, from my observations, appear to be interested in this type of literature only in retrospect, when it achieves the distinction of antiquity, if nothing more.”

These are prophetic words. At long last, we have reached that “distant future” where scholars are intrigued by the literary merit of paperback gothic fiction. Radcliffe’s bibliography catalogs pseudonyms, personal reviews and publishing information for nearly 2,000 gothic titles—a majority printed during the golden revival of the 1960s through mid-1970s. For those obsessed with reading, researching and writing about these novels, it is hard to imagine not having Radcliffe’s book on the shelf.

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Marilyn Ross – Dark Shadows (Books 1-10) (1966-1969)

Review by Justin Tate

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.

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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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