This is a transcription of ‘What is Gothic? and Two New Books — 27 October 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a gripping police procedural set at a British boarding school.
David: A story about being the heir to a villain’s empire.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: I’m going backlist today! I enjoyed a book I finished last week so much, I want to tell everyone about it. It’s ‘The Murders at Fleat House’ by Lucinda Riley. The book opens with a Foreword. It’s a letter written by the author’s son that explains his mom died in 2021 — this book came out the following year. Lucinda Riley is best known and beloved for her books in the Seven Sisters Series. This is the only crime novel she ever wrote, and I’m sad we won’t be getting more from her, because it’s a corker.
Melissa: The action takes place in Norfolk, that’s a county in the southeast of England, about a 3-hour drive from London. It’s got picturesque seaside towns, windswept beaches, chocolate box villages, and, if this book is to be believed, lots of buried secrets.
Melissa: The story kicks off when a student at a private boarding school dies. His name is Charlie, and he lived his short life as a cocky, pompous, unlikable bully. The school hopes desperately that his death was an accident, but after the autopsy, it’s clear he was MURDERED — and in a very clever way.
Melissa: The detective on the case is Detective Inspector Jazmine Hunter — people call her Jazz. She’s lured out of a self-induced retirement-slash-exile to investigate. She’s very capable and intuitive. I liked her right away. As she questions the school’s staff and students, she’s met with stonewalling, the revelation of some secrets, and a few people who are suspiciously cooperative.
Melissa: Then another student goes missing and there’s another death, and while Jazz is dealing with all of that, there’s a blizzard and another disappearance. Plus a family crisis.
Melissa: It’s a compelling police procedural that absolutely skewers the elitist school administration and the privilege of its wealthy parents. The only likable characters are Jazz and her sidekick, and that’s just as it should be. I want my British boarding school murder mysteries populated with posh, entitled suspects and spoiled teenagers. This book delivered.
Melissa: It’s ‘The Murders at Fleat House’ by Lucinda Riley. If you want to pair it up with another boarding school crime, I also love ‘Well-Schooled in Murder’ by Elizabeth George, set at an equally stuffy school in Sussex.
David: John Scalzi is a science fiction author. I’ve read a few of his books. The thing I like about his work is that it tends to be character first. He writes about regular people getting into the extraordinary circumstances that science fiction allows.
David: So, for instance, in his first book, he took a 75-year-old retired advertising copywriter, put him into a scientifically modified body – the body of his youth and then some – and threw him into a far-distant galactic conflict. And you discover, along with the old man, how that experience would be extraordinary, bizarre, and sometimes funny.
David: That book is called ‘Old Man’s War.’ It was nominated for a Hugo and became the first in a six-book series. John Scalzi’s latest is just out. It’s called ‘Starter Villain.’ Again, we start with a guy you might know. His name is Charlie. Charlie is a down-on-his-luck reporter who’s now working as a substitute teacher in the Midwest. He wants to get a loan to buy a local bar. That seems unlikely. And then he finds out that his uncle has died. His uncle has left him some money — a lot of money, really — along with some problems.
David: Because his uncle was a villain. A James Bond-level villain. He had a lair in a volcano and talking dolphins, satellite lasers, and many enemies. And now those — that whole world — is now Charlie’s. Charlie finds himself in the middle of evil incorporated.
David: The book could be called a romp. It’s light-hearted and has some great dialogue, action bits, and a few things to say about the hyper-wealthy. If you’re looking for a fun, over-the-top read, you should take a look. This is ‘Starter Villain’ by John Scalzi. There’s an audiobook too. It’s narrated by professional geek Wil Wheaton.
David: And now our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
Melissa: I toss around the term Gothic a lot on our show, and books with Gothic elements are among my favorite things to read. But what is Gothic exactly? Today, in honor of Halloween being just a few days away, I thought we could delve into the shadowy corners of Gothic literature.
Melissa: The first thing to know is that Gothic isn’t a genre. It’s an aesthetic that can be applied to just about any story in any genre.
David: So there’s Gothic romance, Gothic horror, Gothic sci-fi, and Gothic literature. Gothic is icing on the genre cake.
Melissa: There’s a fair amount of debate in the literary world — and on YouTube and bookstagram – about the definitive elements that make something Gothic. I’m sharing what I think. A work doesn’t need to have all of these to be Gothic, but to me, the first three are very important.
Melissa: The most obvious and my favorite is the Castle. There must be a strong sense of place, preferably in some kind of building that’s so vividly described and central to the plot, it becomes a character in its own right. I’m using the term castle very loosely here. It’s can be an English manor house, a big apartment building, a theater, even a ship at sea. All of these can stand in for a castle in defining the Gothic. In classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, you’ve got manor houses that hold dreadful secrets. But Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth is set in a creaky old boarding school on a sea cliff, and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is set in dusty archives and mountaintop abbeys across Europe.
David: So, the movie Alien — where Sigourney Weaver fights the xenomorph. The space ship is the castle.
David: Related in my mind to the foreboding castle is a sense of isolation or confinement. A house party in the country is only fun until everyone realizes they can’t leave — then it’s terrifying. Maybe a villain is holding people captive, maybe there’s a murder and the investigating detective requires everyone to stay put — or maybe there’s an end-of-the-world natural event like a hurricane or a snowstorm. Perhaps the action takes place on an island. Whatever the reason, the characters are cut off from the rest of the world. A great example of a modern Gothic thriller is The Guest List by Lucy Foley, set at a wedding on an Irish island. Or Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia. That’s set in a hotel isolated by a blizzard and may or may not be haunted by a ghost bride.
David: Or trapped in a spaceship with the alien, far from the nearest station.
Melissa: You are really distracted by that alien! Gothic stories are not, by definition, horror stories, but there should be an element of the mysterious or supernatural. Omens, curses, prescient dreams, hauntings should be part of the plot, whether the haunting is caused by actual supernatural ghosts or by things from the past. Unexplained goings-on can eventually be revealed to have completely mundane causes, but the bumps in the night need to be mysterious and unsettling at the start.
Melissa: OK! Those are my big three.
David: So, using those markers, Scooby-Doo is frequently Gothic. The team is in a big, empty setting, there’s a limited cast, and something they don’t understand is happening. It’s… lowest common denominator gothic.
Melissa: By that definition, Hamlet and Macbeth are also gothic. Which brings me to the next point… Another element that colors the proceedings is the sense of the sublime. The sublime is beauty and emotions that are so intense they cross over into the realm of the terrible. I think of that as melodrama, which has a slightly different connotation. Whichever way you go with it, what’s important is that the feelings are BIG and make the characters do things that range from ‘not in their best interest’ to completely irrational. That’s Cathy’s declarations about Healthcliff in Wuthering Heights that ‘whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same’ and ‘I am Heathcliff.’ Or Dorian Gray doing EVERYTHING he does in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Melissa: Finally, there’s the role of nature. The original Gothic novels of the 1800s grew out of the Romantic movement. Romanticism was a celebration of nature and the common man with a predilection for isolation and melancholy. A Gothic atmosphere can quickly be established with dense fog, driving rain, howling wind, and gray skies. Those natural elements can drive the action while symbolizing the internal storminess of the characters. In Jane Eyre, lightning splits an old tree to represent Jane’s impending separation from her beloved Rochester. But the weather doesn’t have to be gloomy to be intimidating. I’ve read a few books that I think of as sunny Gothic like Black Amber by Phyllis A Whitney set in Istanbul and This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart set in Greece. Both of those are drenched with sunshine and super Gothic.
Melissa: I was inspired to talk about this today by a YouTube channel I just discovered. It’s called Tristan and the Classics. It’s hosted by a British gentleman who LOVES the classics and wants you to love them, too. He’s made dozens of videos, including How to be Well Read, a list of the best Regency period books that are not Jane Austen, and how to build your own classics library. He also has what he calls a ‘teach yourself course’ where he recommends 7 classic Gothic novels that are a romp through the best of Gothic literature from the 1700s to the 20th century.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for the show notes because I’m including the link to Tristan and the Classics and an epic list of all the Gothic novels I’ve recommended on Strong Sense of Place. Plus there will be more info about the other books Dave and I recommended today.
David: Thanks for joining us on the library of last time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent bookstore to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious. We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Tony Findeisen/Unsplash.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is ©2023 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.