Tuesday, December 16, 2003

In Praise of Lesser Books

I was ambling through the stacks at the new Canton Library (it's so beautiful, I can't help stopping by whenever I drive downtown) and somehow or other was momentarily rivetted by two shelves of Victoria Holt's gothic fiction. Just reading the titles--Mistress of Mellyn, Legend of the Seventh Virgin, Bride of Pendorric--stirred, for a few seconds only, the deeply buried passion I felt for these titles and other gothics written in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. Perhaps Daphne Du Maurier resurrected the gothic from its nineteenth-century crypt, writing in the 1940s, methinks.

I was sixteen and in the tenth grade when I discovered them, via the recommendation of an astoundingly beautiful and popular girl in my class. Once I started devouring them, I wished I could have had a conversation with her about them, because none of my friends were interested, but, since I was a geek (not the lingo then, of course), dialogue on this or any other topic was out of the question.

Why did I read gothics, and why did I pursue them with the same zeal that I had once devoted to Nancy Drew mysteries?

I believe I was oddly comforted by the mid-twentieth-century gothics' rigid formula. The setting and atmosphere dominated the plotline: English country settings (preferably in Cornwall); enormous, brooding, dark mansions posed on cliffs overlooking the sea, in a dark wood, or better yet, on the Yorkshire or Devon moors. The heroines were usually young, white, single, women of some intelligence but whose naivete rendered them deliciously vulnerable. Two male characters predominated, one of whom was chivalric and gentlemanly, the other brash, unpolished, brusque, and sexy. By the end of the book, one is the villain (usually the kind and caring gent) and one the hero. A host of sinister, spine-tingling, bizarre events lead to a crisis that tosses the heroine into a scene of deathly peril. The resolutions are too predictable to describe! I loved them because no matter how desperate the young innocent's plight, she always was snatched from the clutches of doom by the right man. Okay, I was a glutton for rescue fantasies back then.

Gothics of this type, which were so prevalent for a time, vanished in the early seventies. What ever happened to this genre? Did it stop selling well? Did the women's movement of the early 1970s cause young women to reject the helpless, gullible heroines? I wonder. A Google search "gothic novels" reveals sites that are solely focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts. The twentieth-century trashy gothics languish in oblivion.


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