“For Love of Gothic: When Home is the Most Mysterious Place of All” (by Laura Benedict)

Laura Benedict’s first fiction publication was in EQMM in May of 2001. Since then, she has become a successful novelist with two dark suspense novels (Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts) to her credit, and, most recently, a modern Frankenstein novel, Devil’s Oven. Her favorite area of the genre is one we haven’t covered much before on this blog—the Gothic. The truth, however, is that this author is a creative and knowledgeable contributor to many areas of fiction. She originated and edited the Surreal South Anthology of Short Fiction series with her husband, author Pinckney Benedict, and together they have started their own publishing company, Gallowstree Press.  Some of Laura’s choices for the best in Gothic fiction coincide with my own. We hope others will jump into the conversation with their favorites.—Janet Hutchings

I’m a homebody. What a lovely, old-fashioned word that is for someone who has little ambition for leaving her own doorstep. In astrological terms, I’m a Cancer. We’re known for being moody and in need of constant reassurance and intimacy. We’re suckers for security, which can make our worlds sometimes very small.

My favorite kind of fiction is dark and intimate. But I’m old enough that I had early twentieth century adventure stories pressed on me in the form of big anthologies and gift sets. From them I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers, et al. (Sometimes I think my relatives were disappointed that I wasn’t a boy. No one ever gave me Anne of Green Gables.) They were stories of wanderlust, honor, and testosterone. Finally, a very clever person gave me a set of Edgar Allan Poe, a huge anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories, and a pile of Nancy Drew books. It felt like such a relief after all that tromping about the world looking for treasure.

Classic mysteries operated on a scale I could appreciate. They were stories that always felt within an arm’s reach, and required of me more thoughtfulness than dangerous action. It makes sense that I should prefer them, given my personality. Stevenson’s Treasure Island was fine, but I much preferred his The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and stories like The Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts, which takes place primarily inside a gentlemen’s club.

Then I discovered Gothic novels and I knew I was where I belonged. I confess that—unlike many girls—I wasn’t primarily drawn to novels like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Du Maurier’s Rebeccca for the romance. Sure their bold heroes were attractive to a preteen girl, but it was the architecture that seduced me. For the most part, they took place in elaborate, soaring houses that had stood as unchanging witnesses to centuries of human (and sometimes superhuman) drama. They were full of hidden rooms and passages and secrets to be discovered. I chased through them with the often-timid heroines, wondering at strange lights in distant windows and the sounds from ostensibly abandoned rooms. I saw ghostly faces in mirrors, and listened to the threatening sea crash against the rocks, as faithful servants told me of dreadful shipwrecks. (Okay, Wuthering Heights was nowhere near the sea, but you get the idea.) Every Gothic house had at least one deep, mysterious secret, and it was my sworn job to help the hero or heroine find out what it was.

Rebecca is a twentieth-century novel, but I’d almost put it in a class with earlier Victorian and pre-Victorian Gothics. The naïveté of the narrator gives it a rather antique feel, despite the lurid nature of some of the discoveries she makes. For me, it serves as a kind of bridge to more modern Gothic novels.

Enter Freud.

I once described a dream in which my house was on fire to a friend who has an interest in dream analysis. “Oh, that’s easy,” she said. “You’re the house, and the fire is your sexuality.” Reader, I was mortified! While that was the last time I volunteered any of my dreams for analysis, I found Freud’s image of the house as one’s inner psyche compelling. And it works as a very powerful symbol for the human in fiction.

It’s easy to imagine a house (or even a very tiny community) as a conduit for human desires. There’s a theory of literary criticism that describes something called Female Gothic, which gets very deep (and messily) into the way nineteenth-century Gothic novels helped express the common fears, frustrations, and awakening sensuality of women through architectural symbolism. I get it. But I’m just a writer who approaches her work as a craft, as well as a reader, and not a grad student in English Lit, so I’m not going to belabor the symbolism stuff because I’ll just get myself into trouble.

Shirley Jackson is a favorite of the symbolism crowd. Coincidentally, she is a favorite of mine. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a chilling narration by a selfish young madwoman who essentially imprisons the few remaining members of her family in their ancestral home. “Merricat” Blackwood (whose family name could be homage to the fantasy/horror writer Algernon Blackwood) brings ruin on everyone around her, and the house itself is burned so that the remains of it resemble a castle. The Haunting of Hill House appears to be a straightforward ghost story, until one looks closely at the character of Eleanor Vance. She not only falls in love with the house, but she actually wants to become a living—well, dead actually—part of it.

(Now, this may sound a little strange, but I can imagine becoming part of a house. One night, as I lay trying to sleep in my house all alone, I had a kind of out-of-body experience in which I could see every room of the house at once, could see outside from any window, and could hear the tiniest movements of the creatures living in the walls. I felt such an amazing sense of control. Of power.)

Joyce Carol Oates is a contemporary writer who writes—among myriad other genres—astonishing Gothic stories. Her collection, Mysteries of Winterthurn, is one I turn to again and again, particularly the tale, The Virgin in the Rose Bower. In it, the grand historic house, Glen Mawr—complete with attic, dungeon, and an ironically named Honeymoon Room—abets the brutal acts of murder and deceit perpetrated by its inhabitants. (There is a hint of the supernatural, but a human could easily have committed any of the crimes.) “The Virgin in the Rose Bower” is also the title of the trompe l’oeil mural in The Honeymoon Room. With its devilish putti, strange taloned creatures, and leering androgynous angel, it is quite possibly the most plot-affecting piece of fictional art since the portrait of Dorian Gray.

I love that. It’s a single mural, on a single wall. The house’s inhabitants might see it, touch it every day. It can’t go anywhere. It doesn’t threaten hundreds of thousands of people. No war is ever likely to begin over it. Yet it is absolutely central to the high drama of a few people’s lives. With that painting as a clue, the young detective Xavier Kilgarvan is able to unlock the terrifying, altogether human mystery at the heart of Glen Mawr, and the discovery informs the rest of his life and career.

It’s not surprising that Gothic stories set in great houses seem like an artifact of literary history. Fortunately, they pop up from time to time in both novels and film (I’m thinking of The Others and, more recently, The Woman in Black, from Susan Hill’s novel.) but are often set in the past, for good reason. Our American culture has become much less home-centric over the past half-century. The world stage is constantly on our television and computer monitors. It’s enormous and ever-changing, refocusing. Our attention is always elsewhere. My own son’s life is filled with activities that take him away from home at least five days a week, for most of the hours in a day. My husband spends most of his week on campus, teaching. While I was raised by a mother who didn’t work outside of the home, most of my friends were not, and almost none of the parents of my children’s friends are home during the day. I am an anomaly, doing a job that allows me to be in my house, cognizant of every dog bark, cat sneeze, and attic creak. My life is decidedly undramatic, unromantic, and certainly not mysterious, which is why I spend a lot of time reading and writing about situations that are far more stimulating. But I am deliriously content.

For a homebody like me (no, let’s not even think about the word agoraphobe), my job is perfect. My current project is a big Gothic story about a single historic Virginia house that has seen far more than its share of devastating crime. I’m excited about the prospect of moving back in time with each volume of the story, deepening its intensity and sharpening the drama through new and recurring characters. It’s like being able to explore endless universes from a single, cozy vantage point.

My chair.

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8 Responses to “For Love of Gothic: When Home is the Most Mysterious Place of All” (by Laura Benedict)

  1. David Dean says:

    Loved the house theme, Laura, as well as many of the authors you mention. Coincidently, I just returned from Princeton where I spent half my time looking over my shoulder in hopes of spotting Joyce Carol Oats.

  2. So many of my favourites here 🙂 You have so beautifully described the rich appeal of the Gothic novel. I’m always happy when I’m reading one and its the reason I also gravitated towards writing one. Rebecca and Jane Eyre have always been favourites along with We Have Always Lived In The Castle and are in a small pile of books that I read over and over. Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates was one I discovered a while back and absolutely loved.

  3. Toe Hallock says:

    Ms. Benedict: Ever see the 1944 film “The Uninvited” with Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey? Geez. Talk about creepy. I know it’s based on someone’s novel. Don’t know who. And talk about a house full of mysterious happenings. This is, from my perspective, about as Gothic as you can get. By the way, my wife Brenda grew up in a small, insular town in the Shenandoah Valley, called Salem. Which, of course, is in Virginia. There are plenty of homes there, especially in the hills above Roanoke College that that would fit your bill. Lot of interesting history there. Such as the fire that destroyed the Longwood Mansion. The Carriage House still remains. Yours truly, Toe.

  4. Thank you so much, David. I gather that you can, indeed, see JCO out and about in Princeton. She is (or was, for many years) a frequent bike rider!

  5. Hi, Danielle. I’m so glad you came by. JCO does the Gothic so beautifully–I haven’t read Bellefleur in years and years. But I have it on my shelf. Funny thing about Shirley Jackson. For whatever reason I assumed that she was a Southern writer, but she’s New England, through and through, like most American Gothic novelists. Hope your writing is going well!

  6. Hi, Toe. Yes! I know Salem, Virginia well. We lived just up 1-81, near the Hollins University exit. (My husband, Pinckney, taught there.) Salem has such a rich history. I have a good friend who did some pretty astonishing EVP at the county courthouse–the most convincing that I’ve ever heard.

    The Uninvited is a terrific film, and has all the perfect elements: a dangerous ghost, a crashing sea, a love story. And Ray Milland is always spot on. There’s a pretty terrible American film of the same name released just a few years ago. Totally unrelated. Thanks for the comment and the memories!

  7. Pingback: Two Sentence Tuesday: Gothic Winterthurn and Joyce Carol Oates | Women of Mystery

  8. Wonderful post, Laura! I’m working on a gothic novel right now — but it’s more of an updated classic, set in a castle, etc. I love your thoughts about the meaning of “home” changing as an explanation of the “historic” feeling of the genre.

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