The first Gothic romance I encountered was by Mary Stewart, and what an introduction! I was a suburban high-schooler, and had never even come close to a dark, broody man, let alone one with an exotic name like Raoul. How could I resist?
In Nine Coaches Waiting, the heroine, Linda, an English governess, put up even less resistance than I did. Her first encounter with Raoul was when he nearly ran her over with his car while she strolled near her employer's chateau. Raoul atones for his carelessness by taking Linda out the next night for dinner and dancing, drinks and gambling. Several hours later, she's a total goner:
It wasn't the brandy; the coffee had drowned that effectively enough. It was a much more deadly draught. There was one thing that stood like stone among the music and moonfroth of the evening's gaieties. It was stupid, it was terrifying, it was wonderful, but it had happened and I could do nothing about it.
For better or worse, I was head over ears in love with Raoul de Valmy.
One date! They hadn't even kissed yet! Still, her instantaneous crush did not seem out of place to an impressionable teenage reader (ahem!). The heroine makes this immediate freefall seem plausible when she adds:
It was to have been expected. It would be a very odd Cinderella indeed who could be thrown out of such dreary seclusion as the orphanage had offered me, into contact with Raoul de Valmy, without something of the sort happening. A man whose looks and charm were practically guaranteed to get him home without his even trying, had exerted himself to give a very lonely young woman a pleasant evening. An evening to remember.
Gothic romances are the grown-up version of Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Often the heroine is an orphan, uprooted from her home to live in a dark, forbidding place, an existence filled with melancholy.
A delicious sense of menace pervades the story, because every character has a secret, casting each action in a sinister light. The heroine's life is constantly in danger, yet she's a plucky one, doggedly trying to determine who caused a stone balustrade to crumble at the wrong time, or who shot a gun that narrowly missed her young charge.
The more she attempts to solve the deadly mystery, the more we fret. We live in dread fear that the dangerous man the heroine is falling in love with will turn out to be the one chopping up bodies and burying them in the arbor behind the Gothic castle. Yet he remains utterly irresistible.
As Catherine, the heroine in Victoria Holt's Kirkland Revels, explains:
There was a lot I could not understand about him, but that air of mystery about him enthralled me. There were times when he talked freely about himself, but even at such times I had the impression he was holding back something, some dark secret perhaps, or something he did not entirely understand himself.
So, to recap, we've got dangerous, enigmatic heroes. Lonely, melancholy heroines. Menacing atmosphere and exotic locales. It's a perfect storm for burgeoning teenage angst. No wonder I devoured every single gothic romance I could get my hands on.
But on reread, the things I used to adore no longer have the same appeal.
The description in gothic romances is lengthy, extensive, and—okay, I'll admit it—burdensome. As a teen, I loved being immersed in the details of places like Greece or Cornwall, since I wasn't likely to visit anytime soon. But now my eyes get blurry wading through yet another page detailing every flower the heroine sees on her way to lunch.
All the wordiness makes me want to skip ahead (even at the risk of missing important clues), because I'm in a hurry to get to the good parts. Which brings me to my next complaint: there isn't enough “development time” between the hero and heroine. For the bulk of the story he's scary and menacing and the heroine doesn't know if she can trust him. . .and then with three pages left they're in love. The bad guy is vanquished. The End.
It leaves me feeling shortchanged, as though I'm reading a synopsis of a romantic relationship. I need to experience the romance as it develops over the course of the spine-tingling events. I want to feel how their love is growing while they're in the midst of these beautifully-described locations.
Otherwise, the happily-ever-after is just a reward for the heroine correctly discovering the hero was not the villain after all.
Still, I do hold a fond place in my heart for Gothic romances, since they were a stepping stone to a lifetime of romance reading adventures. I just can't help imagining the scrumptious results if somebody did a reboot of these classics, updating them for modern readers' needs.
Let's hope they start with a dark, broody hero named Raoul.