How to tell you’re reading a gothic novel


This article by The Guardian may have been tongue in cheek, but it did make me think about how far the gothic romance has come with the advent of Harlequin Shivers and the ‘new gothics’.

Crumbling manor houses, gloomy corridors, ghostly apparitions and eerie secrets. Just a few of the reasons why gothic romance has enthralled readers for over two centuries.

Gothic romances are all about setting, uncertainty, and an element of creepiness that makes the romance all the sweeter. The hidden story is as important, perhaps more important, than the explicit. Think ghostly shadows rather than chain-saw wielding serial killers. Fingertips of nervous and sensual excitement are trailed down the spine in equal measure. The dark atmosphere is integral to the suspense, and the most frightening elements are often implied rather than stated outright. Our heroines have a tendency to ignore common sense and explore dark houses or stormy cliff-top castles, but they are also brave, loyal, and determined. The gothic heroine will fight for the man she loves, even if she has a sneaking suspicion he may be trying to kill her. She is more likely to give the villain a kick in the nuts than faint when he tries his wicked wiles on her. Our brooding heroes are misunderstood by everyone, including the heroine at first (see above).

I have always found myself returning to these haunting tales of romantic suspense and supernatural horror. So why do I, and so many other people, love reading and, in my case writing, gothic romance?

The gothic style allows us an outlet for our darkest imaginings. From the safety of our armchair, we can accompany the gothic heroine as, clad in a clinging white nightdress, with only a single candle to light her way, she climbs the creaking stairs to discover just what those strange noises in the attic actually are. We’ve all seen those scenes in horror films. We’ve all shouted at the screen “Don’t go into the attic!” and shivered with a combination of pleasure and terror when our heroine ignores us.

Gothic romances have been crying out for a revival. Our heroine was due an injection of feistiness. The gender tables had to be turned. The sensuality that was hinted at by Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels and their contemporaries needed to be made explicit. In other words, Harlequin Shivers has been waiting to happen.