Tag Archives: reading

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.

Friday Favorites: Old Friends Revisited

Dear old blog o’ mine, I’ve missed you! I’m back from my travels (see my instagram for recent photos) and am eager to get back into the routine here.

Lately I’ve had cozy mysteries on the brain. To be honest, I’m always in the mood for cozy English mysteries–particularly those set in the 1920s and 30s. Lately, however, I’ve struggled to find anything new, so I turned to a couple of old favorites.


Mrs. Bradley Mysteries
When I saw it featured on BritBox, I was keen to revisit this five-episode series from 1999-2000. (The dvd set also is available for purchase from Amazon.) The episodes are fun and frothy, with a very manageable amount of menace and Gothic spookiness. Diana Rigg is marvelous, of course, and I happen to like when Mrs. Bradley breaks the fourth wall to explain things to viewers. It’s all good fun, though I rather wish I’d skipped “Rising of the Moon,” the traveling circus episode. (Why do traveling circus episodes–no matter the series–so often end up tedious and mildly offensive?)

You might be interested to know that Mrs. Bradley’s creator, Gladys Mitchell, wrote 66 (!!) books featuring this heroine, and was a member of the Detection Club along with many familiar mystery writers of the 1930s (including Dorothy Sayers & Agatha Christie). I’ve just started The Croaking Raven and it’s interesting to find the sleuth, referred to as “Dame Beatrice” rather than Mrs. Bradley, much less glamorous than her TV counterpart. Still a hoot, however!


Brat Farrar
When I was a teen my mom lured me into watching the BBC adaptation of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar on PBS. Though I was skeptical at first, I was quite smitten by the lead actor, Mark Greenstreet, and soon enough was thoroughly drawn into the mystery. This may, in fact, have been my introduction to cozy mysteries, for it wasn’t until the next year that the Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane trilogy aired on PBS. (Note: I can’t find the Brat Farrar series on DVD or streaming, but apparently one can watch it on YouTube!)

Just last week I was facing a long solo drive to TN and was looking for a mystery on audio to help while away the time. You can imagine how pleased I was to find a well-reviewed audio adaptation of Brat Farrar on Audible.com. I was quite impressed by Carole Boyd’s vocal performance, and the mystery was even more compelling to Adult Sonia than it was to the teen. (Horsey people will particularly like this book.) If you’re a fan of audio books and Josephine Tey, you might try it. As for me, I probably need to read all the Inspector Grant novels, yes? (Daughter of Time is a favorite of mine.) I’d also like to find a good biography of Tey, so if you have one to recommend do let me know. I did listen to the first book in Nicola Upson’s series featuring Josephine Tey as a sleuth, but didn’t love it. Perhaps I should try reading rather than listening? This Q&A with Upson intrigues me.

How about you? What lovely books have you been reading lately?

Friday Favorites: a miscellany of female characters and creators

It’s nice to have regular topics on the blog, and with this post I recommit to discussing favorite books, films, TV shows, and whatnot in “Friday Favorites.” If anything on this list strikes a chord, do let me know in the comments. (I’m also very open to your suggestions for possible new favorites!)

On TV:


Alias Grace (2017) — In 19th-century Canada, a psychiatrist weighs whether a murderess should be pardoned due to insanity. (imdb.com)

I’ve never read the book (in fact, I’ve only read one Atwood novel–The Blind Assassin), but my friend Brandi insisted I watch this series. She knows me all too well! It features so many of my favorite things: a Victorian setting, Gothic and possibly paranormal elements, feisty women, unreliable narrators, not to mention oodles of scheming, passion, and obsession on the part of the characters. And it’s all based on a real case. Best of all, this mini-series was directed by a woman, based on a screenplay written by a woman, and adapted from a novel written by a woman. How inspiring!

Alias Grace is available on Netflix.

Books (& TV!):


After watching the 1979 mini-series of Testament of Youth (hard to find, but well worth tracking down), I wanted to read Brittain’s first novel, The Dark Tide, published in 1923. It’s a flawed book and yet still quite readable (particularly the bits set in Oxford). Brittain herself described it as “melodramatic and immature,” but the strangest part for me was that she obviously based the (quite fluffy) protagonist on her friend Winifred Holtby and, although Brittain claims this was unconscious, the (dark and sexy) antagonist is very much like the author herself. I don’t necessarily recommend this novel unless you’re very interested in Brittain. I’m glad I read it, however, not the least because it prompted a read of an early novel by Winifred Holtby for comparison.


The Crowded Street was Holby’s second novel, published in 1924, and I have to say it was much easier to love than The Dark Tide, for it relies more on tension than melodrama. In the midst of the Great War, Muriel Hammond searches for purpose and contentment in a world where the greatest success for a woman is a “good marriage.” The story meanders here and there, and one section could have been the inspiration for the setting of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, but overall I found it a very worthwhile read.


If you read only one book by Winifred Holtby, however, it should be South Riding. Set in Yorkshire in the early 1930s, its political awareness and brilliant character development reminds me very much of Middlemarch by George Eliot. South Riding is a story of local politics, but don’t let that deter you–it’s so beautifully written, very accessible, and you will fall in love with the characters. This novel definitely numbers among my top ten favorite reads.


The mini-series starring Anna Maxwell-Martin–available to stream from Amazon and Vudu–is a much-condensed version of the story, but still worth watching, in my opinion.

And what about you? What have you seen or read lately that you would recommend?