Tag Archives: books

Geeked on Gothic

It’s mid-September and each day we draw closer to the season of ghosts, ghouls, and witches (not to mention sugar hangovers). I must confess, however, that I wrote this post not just to celebrate the season. I’m also hoping for a particular sort of redemption.

Over the years, I’ve talked at great length about Gothic with students, teachers, and librarians. For some reason, however, when I recently was asked by a very nice person — in a non-classroom/conference setting — why I liked Gothic, I FROZE.

My mind emptied of all words.

Today’s post is my way of correcting that particular brain lapse. It also strikes me as an appropriate way to kick off my 2018 Spooky Film Recs blog series. (If you’re new to this blog, click the “spooky film recs” tag at the bottom of this post to scroll through past recommendations.)


As you probably already know, the genre’s name comes from Gothic architecture–castles, cathedrals, abbeys, towers, and crypts–designed to inspire awe and fear. (Cologne Cathedral is a great example.) For the most part, Gothic literature concerns itself with these structures when in partial or total ruin, long after the Medieval period. The literary label of “Gothic” came into being with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, which was subtitled “A Gothic Story.”

In early Gothic novels the setting was a fortress, secular or religious, located in a foreign land long ago. The villain was an evil and murderous man, the heroine was pious and prone to fainting, and more often that not, a ghost or monster made an appearance. At times, early Gothic was so over-the-top that it strikes us now as rather ridiculous. (And thus it was very easy to parody, as Jane Austen did with Northanger Abbey.) However, these stories paved the way for more subtle offerings in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What really fascinates me about early Gothic literature is how it bridges the gap between the Medieval and the Modern. I see it as a reaction both to the Enlightenment, which lauded Reason and Logic, and Romanticism, which exalted Emotion and Imagination. Gothic celebrates emotional excess while also showing its dark consequences. It offers commentary on rapid social change, the possibilities and dangers inherent in scientific experimentation, as well as the oppressive nature of institutions and mores. Gothic conveys nostalgia for the past and its traditions while also celebrating characters who break the rules and cross boundaries.


What are you hiding in the attic, Mr. Rochester?

Why are Gothic stories still so popular and accessible today? I think Sigmund Freud had something to do with that, as Gothic gave him a visual vocabulary for talking about the human mind. He coined the term unheimlich (“the uncanny,” or literally “unhomely”) to describe something that is mysterious in an unsettling way–familiar yet horrifying at the same time. The attics, labyrinths, and underground vaults of Gothic fiction provided metaphors for repression as heroes and villains struggled between their compulsions and better natures (id and superego). From Gothic literature and Freud we learned that the dark secret, terrible sin, or dead body you’re trying to hide will always return to haunt you, no matter how deeply you bury it.

For me, the best Gothic stories rely on atmosphere, mystery, tension, and dread rather than sudden shocks or explicit violence. My favorite thing about modern Gothic is that the “evil” rarely has a specific external source, and in many cases the hero/heroine may have brought into being, consciously or unconsciously, the very problem that haunts them.

***For a humorous overview of classic Gothic literature, read How to Tell You’re Reading a Gothic Novel

***Also check out this very informative blog post on Gothic Horror and Children’s Books.

My top five Gothic novels:


(Click images for more details from Goodreads)

My top five Gothic films:


(Click images for more details from imdb.com)

***Are you a fan of Gothic? If so, what are your favorite stories, novels, or films?

September Tea and a Book: Dear Mrs. Bird

Quick take: I was in the mood for something light and quirky, and Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce fit the bill perfectly.

Goodreads synopsis: London, 1940. Emmeline Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent suddenly seem achievable. But the job turns out to be working as a typist for the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs. Bird is very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant notes from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

My thoughts: I love stories about English women “doing their bit” on the home front during World War II, so this premise was particularly appealing. Emmy is plucky and sympathetic, and her narrative moves along at a good clip. Though I call it “light and quirky,” you will encounter some peril and heartache due to the wartime setting. I found one of the conflicts a bit clunky, but overall it was a very absorbing read.

If you liked Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or just enjoy “WWII home front” stories, you’ll probably enjoy this. I’d also recommend Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half, the latter of which was adapted into a very good film starring Gemma Arterton and Sam Clafin. And don’t forget the Middle Grade novels by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, The War that Saved My Life and The War I finally Won. (I discussed the first book here.) Also, several of Angela Thirkell’s novels are set during the war. What am I missing? I’d love to know your recommendations for “WWII home front” stories.

Now for tea: Bread and Butter Pudding seemed the perfect choice for a book set during the war because the ingredient list is short and simple (with the bonus of recycling your stale bread), and the result is wonderfully comforting.

I followed this easy recipe from The Splendid Table. I used a rather ordinary loaf of grocery store French bread, but you could use any bread you like. A friend suggested using leftover Christmas pannetone–doesn’t that sound delicious!? I must remember that during the holidays.


Here’s how mine looked just out of the oven. The next day I spooned some warm milk over it (for lack of cream) and garnished with a few berries, as you can see at the top of this of this post. Other options: add a dollop of your favorite jam or drizzle with heavy cream or custard. Vanilla ice cream would work, too!

Adagio’s Irish Breakfast, with its bold blend of Ceylon and Assam, paired well with the pudding.

October will be all about SPOOKY FILMS, so “Tea and a Book” will return in November!

August Tea and a Book: Manderley Forever

I recently finished Tatiana de Rosnay’s Manderley Forever, a carefully researched and annotated biography of Daphne du Maurier that reads like a novel. Some of you might remember my scathing reaction to Rebecca back in 2012. In short, I despised the unnamed heroine of the novel for being a “spineless cipher” and couldn’t understand why people found this story romantic. Turns out, Daphne du Maurier couldn’t understand it, either:

Even while the sales figures mount, [Daphne] feels that her book is being misunderstood. No, it is not a Gothic romance; no, it is not a corny little love story; it is the tale of an all-consuming jealousy and its murderous consequences. Is it her publisher’s fault? Victor [Gollancz] has hyped the novel up as something very romantic and commercial. Behind the story of a house, a man, and two women lurks a much darker and more disturbing truth, that of a psychological war disguised by muted violence and suppressed sexuality.(146-47)

So the story is really about Maxim and his obsession with Rebecca (mirrored by Mrs. Danvers’ own obsession), told by a young, unsophisticated ninny woman who is rather obsessive herself? I can live with that.

While reading this biography, I found myself enjoying Daphne’s own history much more than her fiction. For instance, did you know that her father Gerald du Maurier was a highly successful stage actor, and her paternal grandfather George “Kicky” du Maurier was the novelist who created the character Svengali? Perhaps you had no idea that her sister Angela also published fiction (though not so successfully) or that Daphne’s husband Tommy Browning was the man who travelled all the way to Africa to tell the future Queen Elizabeth II that her father, George VI, had died.

All that is mere trivia, however. What really kept me glued to the page was the way de Rosnay portrayed Daphne’s passion for history, her obsession with place (something with which I identify quite profoundly), and her fascination with dark secrets and twisted psychology. According to de Rosnay, Daphne du Maurier lived life like a Romantic Hero, prioritizing her creativity over family and pursuing passionate relationships with both men and women. Every experience became fodder for her stories.

The narrative style of Manderley Forever might take some getting used to — at first it seems quite presumptuous for de Rosnay to place herself in Daphne’s perspective, but one grows accustomed fairly quickly. In Part V, in which Daphne leaves Menabilly for Kilmarth and subsequently goes into decline, de Rosnay’s narrative picks up pace, sometimes glossing over months or even years. Overall, however, I found this biography compulsively readable, and I particularly delighted in passages like this:

Daphne is one of those writers who prefer looking back to looking forward, who is capable of filling entire pages with what was, a place, a trace, putting words to a fleeting moment, the fragile memory that must be bottled like perfume. (176)

Now for tea:

I kept it simple because Daphne didn’t seem very fussy on the domestic front. (In fact, I don’t think she ever cooked at all.) For tea I chose something to honor her ancestry and abiding love for France: Mariage des Frères’ Vanille des Îles, a rich black tea flavored with Bourbon vanilla. To pair with the tea I baked Cornish Fairings, in honor of Daphne’s lifelong obsession with Cornwall. These ginger biscuits make for a simple but delicious tea snack, and the spiciness is more pronounced a few hours after they’ve cooled. (To me they tasted much better the second day.) You’ll find an English recipe with “American translation” at this lovely blog post:

Cornish Fairings – An English Biscuit


I’ll conclude with a couple of viewing recommendations:

Let’s Pretend: The Make-believe World of Daphne du Maurier, a 16-minute interview/documentary filmed in 1977 at Kilmarth in Cornwall which, among other things, features footage of Daphne and her children at Menabilly, the Cornish estate she leased for 25 years and that inspired Manderley, the setting for Rebecca.

The ITV adaptation of du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (see trailer below), starring the always brilliant Matthew Rhys (whom you may know from The Americans and Death Comes to Pemberley). Daphne hated the original 1959 adapatation starring Alec Guinness, but I think she might have appreciated this one. If you’re in the US you can watch it on AcornTV. A UK dvd (PAL format) is available to purchase at Amazon.com & Amazon.co.uk.

Celebrating new web design with a GIVEAWAY

This past fall I decided to update the look of my website. As always I wanted something Gothic and a bit creepy, but I also yearned for warmth and color. Again and again I came back to this image:


It struck me as both bleak and beautiful. Moreover it reminded me of the Yorkshire moors (like you see here) and thereby brought to mind all the Gothic tales of the Brontës. My genius web designer Maddee at xuni.com boosted the color and added my name. I love the final result, which you can see simply by scrolling to the top of this page.

To celebrate my new website, I’m giving away the Brontë-related items featured in the photo at the top of this post, each of which I enthusiastically recommend to Brontë fans! Read on to learn more about them:


Praise for Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life:
“I thought that everything had already been said about the Brontës. But Samantha Ellis has looked at the family from a new angle, and in doing so brought Anne out of the shadows and placed her front and centre amongst her splashier siblings. I was wowed and moved” (Tracy Chevalier)
“A fascinating and compelling read… what Ellis does extraordinarily well is to convey the emotion of her own deeply personal voyage of discovery about Anne and herself… [makes] you long to rush off and reread Anne’s novels and poetry: what more could you ask for?” (Juliet Barker)
–my take: This book brought me to tears more than once, and my perception of the youngest Brontë is forever altered by reading it.


Praise for The Glass Town Game:
“A throwback to classic children’s literature: it has the cleverness of The Phantom Tollbooth, the imagination of Alice in Wonderland, the whimsy of Edward Eager…A lovely, fanciful piece of middle-grade fiction about the worlds we make, and the lives they can take on.” (Booklist, starred review)
“The story’s real delights come from the wit and cleverness woven into every description and conversation, as well as the sharp insights Valente brings to the children’s insecurities, longings, and hidden desires, which burst to the surface in this magical and perilous world.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
–my take: A gorgeous tribute to the Brontës and the fictional worlds they created.

Also included:


Just for fun I’ve added a small Paperblanks journal decorated with Charlotte Brontë’s signature and lines from Jane Eyre. (These journals are no longer in production and are therefore pretty hard to find.) You’ll also receive a Brontë mug featuring Branwell’s drawing of the four siblings AND a volume of poems from all four Brontë siblings, along with a timeline and endnotes.

INTERNATIONAL ENTRANTS WELCOME!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

March Tea and a Book: A School for Brides

Patrice Kindl’s A School for Brides: A Story of Maidens, Mystery, and Matrimony is a delightful romp for fans of quirky characters and unusual conflicts, not to mention all things Regency. It’s a companion to an earlier favorite of mine from Kindl, Keeping the Castle, a much lauded novel about a young lady who must marry well in order to support her family. You really should read both, but I don’t think it matters which you choose first.

The official blurb for A School for Brides:

The Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy of Lesser Hoo, Yorkshire, has one goal: to train its students in the feminine arts with an eye toward getting them married off. This year, there are five girls of marriageable age. There’s only one problem: the school is in the middle of nowhere, and there are no men. Set in the same English town as Keeping the Castle, and featuring a few of the same characters, here’s the kind of witty tribute to the classic Regency novel that could only come from the pen of Patrice Kindl!

Kindl is such an entertaining storyteller. I will warn you, however, that there are many characters, some with similar names. A handy character guide is provided at the beginning of the book, but if you tend toward e-readers–as I do with my increasingly wonky vision–it may prove difficult to consult that list. (It’s very likely, however, that you understand better how to navigate back and forth through your e-reader than I do!)

At any rate, I highly recommend both Keeping the Castle and A School for Brides, and I’ve heard there may be a third book set in Lesser Hoo. Oh, let it be true!

Now for a lovely cream tea . . .

Conveniently for this post, I’ve been testing recipes for a small afternoon tea I’m hosting next month. (Me? Organized enough to test the recipes? It’s a miracle!)


I tried a new-to-me scone recipe–this one from Allrecipes–and it was pretty straightforward for making traditional round scones that split easily. I used a cookie cutter from this Williams-Sonoma set, only mine had crinkled edges. Apparently the key is to cut swiftly and forcefully with a straight up-and-down motion. No side-to-side cutting or twisting of the cutter lest the scone droop to one side during baking.


As you can see, my scones rose nicely without too much drooping. And they split easily–no need for a knife! For more tips and tricks you might consult “How to Make the Perfect Scone” from both The Prepared Pantry and The Guardian.


For a proper English tea you need strawberry jam and clotted cream. As you can see, the jam came from Fortnum & Mason, which seems perfectly appropriate for a Regency story since they were established in 1707. (Ooh, look — here’s a blog post that includes details about about F&M in the Regency period!) Those not currently living in England can order online from F&M as long as you’re willing to pay international shipping. Another option for Americans is to peruse their products offered in Williams-Sonoma shops and online. But what about clotted cream? In England you can buy it at any grocery store; in the states, however, it can be tricky to find. I actually ordered mine from Amazon.com but it also can be found at The English Tea Store. Just keep in mind that it needs to stay cool, so mail-ordering in the hottest months might not be the best idea.


And here’s my little tea spread, complete with the Afternoon Blend from Fortnum & Mason (“a blend from the higher and lower regions of Ceylon delivering a light, refreshing flavour with real body”). As I’ve mentioned before, there’s some controversy over whether one should first spread ones scone with cream or jam. (I even blogged about this once.) But really, it’s entirely up to you!

Happy reading and Afternoon Tea-ing!