In 1791, while George Washington served his second year as president and politicians were preoccupied with drafting something called the Bill of Rights, readers across the pond devoured Ann Radcliffe’s hotly anticipated new novel The Romance of the Forest. If foreign affairs consumed their mind, these thoughts were easily vanquished to a fictional world of chilling melodrama and gothic romance.
Radcliffe wasn’t yet a household name—she would become one with her next novel, however—but the majority of literate society was familiar with A Sicilian Romance (1790) which was published only months earlier. This new novel, printed over three volumes, was longer, spookier, more atmospheric and more heart-pounding than her last. No surprise that it became an instant bestseller.
I suspect my reaction, 200+ years later, is similar to Radcliffe’s original audience: YES!!!! This story has everything I want and more. Can’t wait to read her next book!
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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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Gothic romances can be as addictive as crack. Artisans of the genre know what elements appeal to their audience and they deliver them in abundance. You like beautiful people conspiring in spooky mansions? We’ll publish that—times a thousand!!! Some snobs call this selling out, but I think it’s smart business to give fans what they want. A shame that this drug seems to have worn off, but there’s evidence, I hope, of a resurgence. Or, as this book concludes, maybe gothic romances never left. Not really.
While “Gothic Literature” remains well-studied in academia, it’s still Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights that anybody seems to care about. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, maybe. Few are interested in Dark Shadows or the multitudes of mass-market gothic novels published during the Nixon era—but we do exist! And Lori A. Paige leads the charge.
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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.
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Movie novelizations rarely possess literary merit, and yet it’s common to see them sell at high prices on eBay. The Clue novelization by Michael McDowell (1950-1999) is particularly pricy, with bidding wars often exceeding $150. The high demand is likely a combination of the film’s enduring legacy and curiosity to see what a horror master like McDowell would do with a novelization. Add in the scarcity of supply and I understand why fans are constantly seeking it out. I certainly was.
When I at last got my hands on a copy, I decided to not just read it but literally transcribe every word. The archivist in me felt it was important to save a digital copy should the book ever disappear completely to the dusty shelves of rare book collectors. This transcription process was one of my most cherished reading experiences. There are few ways to be more intimate with a book than to retype every word. It requires slower reading and allows for discovery of technique you would not normally notice, such as stylized word repetition, clever usage of punctuation, and white space.
Read more “Michael McDowell – Clue (1985)”