Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Modern Gothic Novel

A founding member of Type M for Murder, Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most varied and prolific crime writers.  Her popular Constable Molly Smith series (including In the Shadow of the Glacier and Among the Departed) have been optioned for TV by Brightlight Pictures. She also writes novels of psychological suspense, as well as a light-hearted historical series, (Gold Digger, Gold Mountain), set in the raucous heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Vicki’s newest book is More than Sorrow, a standalone novel published by Poisoned Pen Press. In a starred review, Library Journal called the book, “a splendid Gothic thriller.”

Having taken early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world, Vicki is settling down to the rural life in bucolic, Prince Edward County, Ontario where she rarely wears a watch.

Visit Vicki at,,and twitter: @vickidelany. She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave (


This year I’m going Gothic (again). I was at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe in 2011 when Barbara Peters, the owner of the Poisoned Pen bookstore, told a panel audience that the traditional British Gothic was back in a modern form.

Who knew?

Not me.

But as it happens, I was in the midst of writing one! 

Growing up, I loved the Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt books.  Traditional Gothic stories of penniless governesses, crumbling castles, brooding, handsome aristocrats.  And a dark secret in the family’s past. 

Always a dark secret.

When I began writing, I decided I wanted to write that sort of book.  As I don’t spend much time in the U.K, I didn’t think I could set a book in a real castle. And I didn’t particularly want to write a historical novel.  Instead I set the book in Northern Ontario in modern day. I gave it a dysfunctional family, a returning prodigal daughter, a mother trapped by social convention, and a huge skeleton in the family closet. I called the book Scare the Light Away and it was published by Poisoned Pen Press.

Next, I went even more Gothic and introduced something moving in the woods (or is there?), a palatial family home (albeit on Ontario’s Lake Muskoka) and a brooding, handsome gardener (This is contemporary remember). That book was titled Burden of Memory, also from Poisoned Pen.

I then switched gears and began writing the modern police procedural series featuring Molly Smith and John Winters, of which there are now five books out. I love writing the Molly Smiths, and the Klondike Gold Rush series I write for Dundurn, but there is something about the Modern Gothic that calls me back. And so next week MORE THAN SORROW will be released by Poisoned Pen Press. I’m delighted to say that the book is getting great reviews, including a starred review from Library Journal which called it a “splendid Gothic thriller”.

This year I’ve read a lot of modern Gothics and I’ve realized that Barbara was right. They are in. And as a reader as well as a writer I can say thank heavens for that.

In the afterword to her hugely successful The House at Riverton, Kate Morton describes the Gothic.  The haunting of the present by the past; the insistence of family secrets; return of the repressed; the centrality of inheritance (material, psychological and physical); haunted houses (particularly haunting of a metaphorical nature); suspicion concerning new technology and changing methods; the entrapment of women (whether physical or social) and associated claustrophobia; character doubling; the unreliability of memory and the partial nature of history; mysteries and the unseen; confessional narrative; and embedded texts. 

I have long maintained that Gothic, whether traditional or contemporary, is a woman’s art form. That all Gothic novels have to be written by women and be about women.

Turns out I was wrong. I’ve read two very excellent Gothic novels in the past couple of months by men. One was So Cold the River by Michael Kortya.  In the afterword, Kortya even calls the book a Gothic. And Peter Robinson’s new standalone (yes, Peter Robinson of Inspector Banks fame) Before the Poison is very much a Gothic. The central character is male, but unlike in Kortya’s book, the secret of the past belongs to a woman who is trapped both physically and socially. 

Now contrary to popular opinion, Gothic doesn’t mean romantic suspense. Romance is often a minor component, if there’s any at all, (e.g. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton or Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton.) It definitely does not mean a vampire protagonist or a ghost hunter.  If there is a supernatural element, it serves as a device to reveal the secrets of the past to the characters and the reader.  But there doesn’t have to be, and very often isn’t, any supernatural component; sometimes the supernatural force turns out to have a rational explanation.

Sometimes, it’s a question.  In More than Sorrow the protagonist, Hannah Manning, believes there’s something moving down in the dark damp root cellar. But Hannah is recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury caused by an IED explosion in Afghanistan.  So, both the reader and Hannah wonder, is there really a woman down there, or is she only the hallucinations of an injured mind?

Which would be worse?

Do you love the modern Gothic, or remember much loved books from the past? Why not share some names with us?


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Welcome back, Vicki. As I told you when I read your post, I'm delighting that Gothics are "back in" again.

I'm still planning to dig my two first manuscripts out of my file cabinet and see what I can do with them.

And looking forward to reading your Gothic.

Vicki Delany said...

I hope you do go ahead with the, Frankie. Because as far as I'm concerned,the world can never have enough true Gothics.

Charlotte Hinger said...

I adore gothics and have always consumed them by the truckload. I hope you will blog for us again soon, Vicki, and tell Type M even more about the basic elements of gothics.