The Girl, the House and the Secrets: Five Gothic Novels and A Movie
So, what is with the girl and the old house?
During the 19th Century, Romanticism saw the past as a source of inspiration. Gazing upon ruins was itself an edifying act that raised up the soul to the Sublime. The Gothic is fundamentally a reply to that sentiment. It retorts that only decay can come from decay and that those who dwelt among ruins were themselves part of that rotten inside.
Thus central to the Gothic is the ruin itself, the architectural edifice the genre itself is named for. They are physically remote, removing its inhabitants from the everyday. They are also inevitably haunted or cursed in some way, with forbidden wings and secret passages. Within the walls of this ancestral home, the Gothic plays up cycles of familial abuse and dark secrets. The past is a source of horror that ensnares one. But even as it protests of such evil, the Gothic cannot help but pick up a shovel and help in the unearthing of that darkness.
Though I have displaced it all to an even more distant and strange location than my predecessors (Europe was quite far enough for them), Under the Pendulum Sun is very much a Gothic novel centered around a Girl and a House. Catherine Helstone, like many other heroines before her, is trapped in a castle full of secrets.
The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Radcliffe wrote a great many gothic novels, but Mysteries of Udolpho is the most famous. Emily St. Aubert and her father journey across Europe, only to be repeatedly waylaid by tragedy. After the death of her father, Emily finds herself at the titular castle where dwells the villainous Montoni.
One of the famous and memorable set pieces of the Mysteries of Udolpho is the Black Veil. Behind the veil is a secret so horrifying that Emily faints when she sees it and proceeds to refuses the reader any further knowledge of it for the rest of the book. It is a moment that perhaps epitomises the early fascination with darkness in the early gothic: there is a desire still to pull back, to return and be civilized again.
Notably, Emily escapes from the castle of Udolpho never to return. Many subsequent heroines go back to conquering and capitulating to their inner demons. Radcliffe ends the novel telling the reader that “Though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain.”
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey opens with a glorious description of its heroine, Catherine Morland, whose father has misfortune of being called Richard and was not the least bit addicted to locking up his daughters.
After going to the exciting city of Bath, Catherine is given a great many “horrid” novels by her friend including The Mysteries of Udolpho and these quickly take root in her vivid imagination. She begins to see echoes of all those dark secrets around her. Austen draws most of her comedy from the juxtaposition of the gothic expectations of Catherine and mundane reality of England. As Henry Tilney, hero of the novel, puts it, they are English and Christian, immune to such fits of sordid melodrama.
The Abbey is not the ruin that Catherine had read about in her novels but is instead brightly lit, well furnished and bustling with servants. The ancients no longer seem to have the time to write long, rambling memoirs for Catherine to find. General Tilney is no great villain, merely a cantankerous old man.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre is often called the quintessential gothic romance. Titular orphan Jane Eyre finds herself friendless and after a childhood full of tribulations, she becomes a governess at Thornfield, a mansion with battlements and an attic full of secrets.
Jane Eyre is a turning point for the gothic novel, as in it Bronte remade the dark villain into the brooding, byronic hero. Many readers have remarked that the villain of the gothic is by far the most complex and interesting character, that they are more compelling than the honorable heroes. Others have speculated on the possibility of sexual tension between the heroine and the villain, that for all her protestations, there is a fundamental desire to capitulate.
And from that is born Rochester. He is that magnetic villain of the gothic, physically ugly and dragging a dark past of misdeeds. He is master of that ancient mansion and much like Radcliffe’s villains; his current schemes culminate in a dubious marriage. But he is also rehabilitated, redeemed as much by his own disfigurement as by Jane’s love. Whatever subtextual sexuality has finally become text.
My Sweet Audrina by V C Andrews
Flowers in the Attic may be the most famous and iconic of Andrews’ work, given that it has multiple film adaptions, but My Sweet Audrina stands out in my mind as the most hauntingly gothic. Not only does it have the claustraphobia and isolation of Flowers in the Attic, it is also brimming with sinister secrets and flirtations with the occult.
Audrina lives in the Victorian mansion of Whitefern, surrounded by antiques and her past-obsessed family. Daily she sits in the rocking chair of her dead sister, also named Audrina, and she is tasked by her father to empty herself and become a vessel for the “first and best” Audrina.
Audrina presents herself as an unreliable narrator because of the gaps in her memory. Days can pass without her noticing. The idea of becoming her dead sister and inheriting her specialness both fills Audrina with fear and desperation. It is something she both desperately desires and loathes. In the two Audrinas are again the idea of the literary doppelganger, the second self. Just as James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner has Robert and Gil-Martin and Jane Eyre has her own Madwoman in the Attic[link: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/149709.The_Madwoman_in_the_Attic]
As Audrina matures, she tries again and again to escape both her father and the decaying influence of the house. It is a compelling read.
Dawn by V C Andrews, ghostwritten by Andrew Neiderman
Dawn was published after the death of VC Andrews and was written her ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman, from her outlines and notes. The change in writer is noticeable as even Neiderman admits that Andrews’ style is difficult to mimic. But Dawn stands a fascinating book for that reason. It possessing all the happenings of a gothic romance but they are strung together differently and with a very different aesthetic.
The titular character, Dawn Longchamp moves from her impoverished, rootless life to first a beautiful private school and later the hotel Cutler’s Cove. She learns that she was, in fact, a long lost scion of the Cutler family, stolen at birth by the Longchamps. She is tormented by her newfound blood siblings: her envious sister and her lustful brother. Her new father and mother are both ineffectual next to her grandmother, a sinister, scheming matriarch.
One can see all the fragments of a gothic novel like Flowers in the Attic or My Sweet Audrina present, and yet they are told very differently. Cutler’s Cove is said to be palatial, but it hasn’t the sheer majesty of Foxworth Hall or Whitefern. There is no lovingly described architectural details nor lingering awe of its history. There is no set piece as vividly described as the swan bed in Flowers in the Attic. But even more than that, Dawn quickly sees through the shallowness of life there. The decaying beauty of the place has little power over her. Evil may still wear a nominally pretty face, but Dawn is not seduced. Unlike Cathy and Audria, Dawn remains clear headed and feels not the pull of hereditary madness.
The themes of gothic incest are also present, with the unwelcome advances of Dawn’s new brother, Phillip, contrasted to the more protective love of her adopted brother, Jimmy. If one squints, one can almost see in them an echo of the byronic villain and the golden boy hero. But Phillip has not the magnetic bastardry and even as the romance with Jimmy flirts with the taboo, they both reassure each other that they are, of course, not blood related and that they would not attempt anything until they have ceased to see each other as siblings. In contrast with Flowers in the Attic and the other books written by Andrews herself, Dawn lacks that fundamental fascination with the darkness.
The Maid (2005) directed by Kelvin Tong
The Maid is fascinating for shifting the setting of those gothic structures and tropes to a different locale, Singapore.
There is again a Girl and a House, but this time the girl is Rosa Dimaano (Alessandra De Rossi) from rural Philippines and the house is a dilapidated abode full of old opera props and masks.
Rosa arrives during the Chinese Ghost Month to work as a live-in maid for a Teochew opera family. She speaks not the language nor does she understand the local customs. Though she can technically leave the house, she is discouraged from doing so by her overprotective employers and so begins her gothic heroine isolation.
The Ghost Month is replete with superstitions that the Catholic Rosa finds uncomfortable. Why must she not turn around if someone calls her name? Why must she not swim during the month of ghosts? Why is the front row of seats at the opera left empty? But even as Rosa tries to not break any of these taboos, she is haunted by a female ghost.
 We deal here with a fairly narrow definition of the “gothic novel”, primarily so we can tease out this thread of similarities across time. There are obviously many other novels sometimes termed “gothic” that deal with things that aren’t about women exploring old houses as a metaphor for uncovering secrets of the past and their own sexuality.
 Arguably referenced by J K Rowling in the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The Department of Mysteries possesses a stone archway covered with a tattered black veil.
 A Dick Joke that might not be a Penis Joke, since “dick” merely meant a rogue at the time Austen was writing. It apparently only came to mean penis in the 1880s, many decades after the writing of Northanger Abbey.
 The supernatural play a huge role in the Gothic, but they are rarely the true villains.
Jeannette Ng is the author of Under the Pendulum Sun, out now from Angry Robot Books.