A couple of weeks ago my wife closed the last page of a book and made that contented sigh that is the mark of a much-enjoyed book. She turned to me and said "Agatho [well, she doesn't really call me that, except in moments of passion], you really have to start publishing books like this again."
The book was Mary Stewart's Touch Not the Cat, copyright 1976.
I remember when books like Stewart's were all the rage. Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and their brethren/sistren sold zillions of copies and had fans all over the world. And then something happened. Readers got older and younger readers weren't able to cotton on to these tales of niave damsels in distress, looking over their shoulders in alarm as something pursued them through that oversized, slightly creepy castle.
And yet in conversations over the last couple of weeks with readers of all ages (many of whom picked up the Holts, Whitneys, and Stewarts on their mothers' bookshelves), I heard a lot of contented sighing and nostalgia for such books. This made me read Touch Not the Cat myself, and I must say I was impressed. As in so many of these Gothics, the narrator is a 22-year-old woman who finds herself dealing with the mysterious death of her father and unpleasant family matters regarding his estate. She finds herself in the usual dire straits of the Gothic heroine, but this book has an unexpected twist: Our heroine, Bryony Ashley, comes from a line of people who have the "gift" of telepathic communication. For her whole life she has been communicating telepathically with the man she knows will someday be her lover, and she assumes this is one of the three cousins she's grown up with. But which one?
I know - it sounds like a bit much in our jaded era of laughing at Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends network. But Stewart made it work by not overdoing it and by setting up the "gift" as the result of a Scottish woman who'd married into the family and brought the gift with her, thus passing it on through the generations. There's a marvelous sense of family history here, as well as the lovely descriptions of castles, gardens, and mazes that are a staple of the Gothic. There's no ghost in this one (bummer!), but there is a moat (what's more Gothic than that?) and a really sweet romance. All of that's expected in a Gothic; but what I didn't expect was the rather frank talk about sex and lovemaking (this was 1976, after all). Bryony's family estate is being rented by an American family, and this was another pleasant surprise - I was quite impressed by Stewart's ability to get the American idiom down perfectly, and to expose the differences in American and English communication styles, eating patterns, and living arrangements so succinctly and observantly. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I have to say - I now agree my wife. I think the time has come for a Gothic revival, so if I can find a few good manuscripts in the next couple of years, I'm going to buy them.
This isn't quite as crazy or reactionary as it sounds, if you consider the paranormal craze. The whole vampire thing has gone from sexy to schlocky to a downright joke, but the books are still selling, and certainly Charlaine Harris has carved herself a nice little niche. I think there's ample opportunity out there for the type of romantic suspense I'm talking about (we don't hear that phrase much these days). And the heroines need not be naive, sheltered gals whose men have to save them from villains: In Touch Not the Cat, Bryony is quite capable of taking care of herself, until she is overpowered. Then, in a Steed-and-Mrs.-Peel Avengers-type style, she and her lover help save each other. In Stewart's world, the men and women both have agency; the woman is the foil to the men, and she holds her own. It is a winning formula that I think today's readers would really enjoy. I should mention, too, another Gothic I read recently, Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, which I enjoyed just as much, though I'd consider that more of a "haunted house" novel a la Shirley Jackson than a Gothic.
And a lot of those Gothic elements are just downright irresistible. The hidden diary. The turret. The closed-off room. The long-lost relative or poor relation. The priceless artifact. The possibility of a ghost. Family secrets and betrayals. Big old houses with hidden rooms or mysterious markings. The imprint of the past on the present. The sense of menace that stalks the protagonist. And so on. All of these, I would argue, are likely to appeal just as much to men as to women, because they're the makings of good fiction, good adventure. So, let's see if we can get a Gothic revival going - I'm willing to play my part.