Victorian Ghost Stories From the End of 2017

For some reason, when the year closes out and I am done with Christmas reads and reading challenges I like to read about ghosts and spiritual matters. Maybe I belong in a Dickens novel and I use the time to consider the larger picture as I get a new chance at a new year. I don’t know.  But at the end of 2017 it was Victorian ghost stories and this is the first of two posts discussing Victorian and Regency times, supernatural or not.

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Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology

I snagged this beauty right at the end of 2016 secondhand because I want to write more ghost stories and horror, etc.  It definitely did not disappoint.

I don’t know why I had to read so many stories to realize that I probably love ghost stories not just because I find the other side of the veil fascinating but also because they are ultimately about passion. Like, you really gotta care about something to bother coming back from the dead for it.  This could be patently obvious to everyone else.  Because of this, many of the stories are love stories, but there is a decent showing of revenge or guilt stories as well.  The scariest story in here is the last story, one of the first I read of the collection, because it was by Algernon Blackwood.  Blackwood is adept at creating something scary with subtlety.   I don’t know if I ever posted on The Willows, but I found it disturbing without there being a single ghost.  Similarly, his story in this collection, The Kit Bag,  was creepy and left a significant impression on me.  It creeped me out just by suggestion.

The rest of the collection was good too, not just the showing from Blackwood.  It has Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and JS Le Fanu.  So many hidden passions in proper Victorian times make for much fodder for passionate stories.  Never makes me want to live in that era, as I would never have fit in unless I was rich enough to get away with eccentricity and clandestine scrawling inside a closet.

I picked this up sometimes when I wanted  something short, but as the year was closing out and I was trying to be better about consuming shorts this definitely came off the nightstand for longer periods of time.

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Nocturne for a Widow, Amanda DeWees

This is ultimately a Gothic romance and exactly what I wanted in my post holiday changeup of routine week.

The heroine, Sybil, spends most the book in the precarious circumstances common to women in the Victorian era.  She tries her best for independence, but at the cost of her family and security.  Any good Gothic heroine needs to have some modicum of independence to be interesting enough as a protagonist, as well behaved Victorian women have a hard time being interesting until they break or bend the rules.  Often they have to be star crossed to do this, but Sybil does not need to be blinded by love to bend the rules, and I like that about her.

I also thought the hero was pretty well done, being a passionate bad boy who is difficult to read.  Bad boys are not my favorite usually but I found myself trying to read his emotions as he made the heroine in the book crazy throughout most of it.  I also liked that their ending up together (I don’t think this is a spoiler because the book is marketed as a romance and he is clearly the love interest the minute he rolls onto the scene) actually resulted in her being able to return to her creative life and living some of her dreams, rather than giving them up, like she thought she had to to survive in the beginning. I have read other historical books where a couple get together but then she is clearly headed toward children and domesticity after a life of being on the road, performing, or independence, and I don’t like that.  When I was pregnant my clients told me I might not want to come back to work and I knew before that baby came I would want to come back to work…I did after 11 weeks and I never looked back.  I love the boy who is jumping in front of the TV right now but I am not a stay at home parent.

This story is ultimately a mystery, with a big old house, a ghost with a story to tell, dramatic revenge, and a wicked female villain under the guise of utmost propriety and decorum. The story ties up neatly and sets the nice stable stage for a new round of mystery.  This has a sequel mystery to it, and it looks like Ms. DeWees is looking to make it into a series, as she has other Victorian romances published on Amazon as well.  I would pick up another Sybil Ingram mystery if it suited my ever changing reading mood.

Next week I am posting on another pair of historical fiction books (I have not finished the second one and that is looking like there is paranormal involved, although the first one does not have any) in the Victorian/Regency era.  Just seems to be my reading mood lately, before the first snow read hits.  January is a long long freakin month.

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Halloween Reads: Mashup

October is closing up in that annual flurry of candy that launches us into the holiday season.

My son is a skeleton T Rex this year, with a soft T Rex skull he pulls over his head.  He has been a lion, a viking, a bat, SpiderMan and now a T-Rex.  The first Halloween of his life he was a raisin strapped into a car seat and taken home by his already exhausted and certainly not out of maternity clothes mother.  I am resisting eating chocolate birthday cake while I am writing this.

The group of books I review for the actual Halloween weekend post don’t hang together as well as the books I posted about on the previous five weeks of these posts, because I read a whole lot like usual thinking I will find the threads as I go and then I ended up with one grouping that is threaded together well, which is actually going to be my post honoring the Day of the Dead halfway through this week, and this post of stragglers.  Books I intended to get to for scary reads last year but I did not make it to.  One that kept cropping up on blog posts about quintessential horror reads that were new this scary season.  So, I’ll write, maybe there will be a thread, maybe not.

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The Curse of Crow Hollow, Billy Coffey

This did not get read last year and was one of the first that I plunged into for this year, especially since I already had the audio and a decent length car trip or two in there.

A mysterious illness overtakes some kids in an isolated Southern town following a night partying that inadvertently incurs the wrath of the town “witch” but unravels into additional layers of secrets and intrigues.

I believe this would count as a Southern Gothic novel: ironic events to reflect on the status and values of the American South, Gothic elements to explore and make social commentary.  The reader cannot determine if the town witch is really the villain or the victim until the end, if there is really illness/supernatural elements among some of the kids but the power of suggestion.  There aren’t the crumbling and scary plantations but the creepy small rural communities.  A little madness, a little despair.  Women who peak in their beauty and power in their teenage years only to have a lifetime of weight gain and raising children with distant husbands ahead of them.

The audio performance really adds to this.  The narrator brings to life the narrative style, with the perfect voice for the story, a male voice sounding exactly like I thought it should.  I will probably look into others of Billy Coffey’s dark, more American Gothic and subtle novels.  I don’t think anything could replace my love of Victorian Gothic novels but I can appreciate a writer who can apply the dark, ironic writing to a different context.

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The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike

I was in love with John Updike as a writer when I was in college.  I found him in The New Yorker to start, along with my love of Oliver Sacks, and one time in the middle of a heavy semester I looked up a book of his short stories in my college library and spent a sliver of precious brain space on that.  Part of his magic to me was not only his beautiful writing, and it is beautiful, but I liked reading about privileged white people around my age living in New England with their bored, short lived marriages.

So I always had The Witches of Eastwick on the TBR. Witches?  Updike? Yes please.  A bunch of white, promiscuous self involved women all vying for the attention of a blowhard genteel poor man?  Ugh.

His gorgeous, poignant, and astute writing is still there, but I had a hard time caring about these disillusioned women and this completely unappealing man who pushes them all off center despite their having “powers” and having been able to escape their marriages before they got too old to enjoy freedom. I guess women can have “powers” and still be brought down and against one another by a useless socialite full of half baked ideas that won’t ever pan out to paying the mortgage.

I didn’t have trouble finishing it but I definitely needed the help of audio, which had been on my wish list forever, and I am glad I tackled it off the TBR.  I don’t think I will be reading the sequel though.  And I am less enthusiastic about his complete collection of short stories of his I bought upon his death, but maybe his magic will return to me more in his shorter works, which is where I fell in love with him in the first place.  But we will see.  His wording and phrases still struck me.  He can still bust out a line that is enchanting to me. Like an old boyfriend meeting you out for a drink, there might be a tiny sparkle just for a moment for me and for Updike’s writing.

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The Girl from the Well, Rin Chupeco

Classic Japanese horror thrown onto the end of a post with a Southern Gothic and some New England witches.  Random sauce, but good sauce all the same.

So if you want a classic horror for Halloween, the most Halloween-y book on this books of Halloween on Halloween weekend post, this would be the one. There is a clear ghost story, the haunting is not random, and in true Japanese style, someone becomes overconfident in their abilities and others get screwed over by it.  Because is there ever pride without a fall?  But completely classic, almost formulaic, but that is not a criticism. This tosses back to the other Japanese horror movies I watched into my brief foray into Japanese horror films. I liked it.  It was scary and diverting and fun, the villain was humanized, there was some kind of resolution, which my readers know I care about.  Women like closure.  Whatever.

Halloween reads is going to bleed into one more week because I have some books read up that have to do with coming back to life but with the theme of siblings, which is such a YA thing…but appropriately, since siblings are so important to teens, especially in families who don’t all live under one roof.

So, here’s wishing a sweet Halloween weekend to everyone with one more iteration of seasonal reads. Looking for scary reads and all the other blog posts with scary reads has of course lengthened the wish list, filled it out a bit because it’s a never ending process.

Read Down 2017: how does your garden grow?

I think few people can deny that nature is chock full of magic.  The first magic honored the natural world and all the things that it does completely without us, in fact, in spite of us.

This post features two blogs where growing things on purpose is a major component of the book. Books about intentionally  growing things as well as redemption, redemption that is being looked for, and redemption that happens entirely by accident.

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The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin

I picked up The Orchardist a few years ago when it first came out, but it is a part of my Read Down 2017, as I still had not gotten to it.  It’s my kind of historical fiction, the kind that uses a story to steep you into the times, in this case, the American West 1850-1900.  A self elected foster father tries to save two abused pregnant teenage girls escaping a life of sexual slavery because his own beloved sister, the only person he had, disappeared mysteriously decades before.  The kind of vanishing without a trace that you could do in the loose structure of the American West at that time.  But when the girls stumble into his life, he sees a chance to save them, and keeps trying to save them at his own detriment until he dies. Raising the baby that was born and left on his orchard is not enough to assuage his prolonged grief over the loss of his sister.  We don’t even know if she was kidnapped or left of her own accord, but the fact that all that was left of her was a bonnet drives his actions in years to come. The fact that he grows food to sell as a means of sustenance is secondary to the other pieces of the plot.

This is a character driven novel to be read for its beauty and understanding of a different time and place.  I think when it came out, some people commented that it was slow and anti climactic, but I thought it was beautiful and engrossing.

There is also a re read on some of the Reading Challenges that I have been unsuccessfully avoiding.  Yeah, I have been trolling, especially as it relates to my own book collection.  I can’t even hold to my resolution for three months, but whatever, I actually have been drinking more water.  I bought bottled waters that just feel easier at home and reminders when I am out. But, somehow drinking more water has been easier for me to do than not looking at MMD, BookRiot and Popsugar.  But I have not committed myself to a number of books or pages, so that’s a start.  Any. Whoodle.

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The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

I loved The Secret Garden as a kid, and re reading it as an adult, I am realizing that my love of Gothic novels goes back to before I knew what a Gothic novel even was.  A little girl is saved from who she was by coming to the Moors under the care of an absent uncle and getting lots of outdoors and some good old hands off/borderline neglectful British parenting.  She comes from India, where she is yellow skinned, sour faced and completely unappealing and spoiled to regain health and vigor in the finding and cultivating of a forbidden garden in a big old house full of sadness and mystery.

And she is also saved by the poster child for old school British parenting, the ultimate best case example of a child who is allowed to roam free all day every day, Dickon.  If Dickon was brown he would have been Burnett’s version of the magical n-.  He is poor and uneducated and yet he brings life, love and vigor wherever he goes.  He will probably grow up to have the soul dragged out of him by factory work or some other such drudgery that effectively killed the souls of the poor at that time of history, but for now, he is a veritable beacon of heart and goodness.  Also of gender roles, because the girls in poor families with tons of kids are expected to help with the cooking and childcare and household duties, while the boys can be out on the moors talking to birds and raising orphaned animals or doing what they please for 12-16 hours a day.  Dickon’s older sister was a servant and sending her wages back home and coming home on her one day off a month to help her mother with the baking. Can I be any more obvious that I don’t like it when people hold old school hands off parenting as the gold standard to which we should all aspire?  These kids raise themselves back to having the potential of being productive members of society all on their own.  No help from busy adults who don’t set any limits.

These are both good reads, one is better for the atmosphere, the characters and the themes, and the other is a nice feel good story of redemption. Both worth a go.

 

Comments/shares/likes always appreciated!

 

Rooms of Redemption

Sorry that nothing Valentiney came to mind this year for my Valentine’s week blog post. I have been writing, like I have wanted to be, so the blog posts might not be as seasonal this year. Maybe. I could be a refreshing break from all the chocolate, hearts and flowers!

I love Valentine’s Day, though. It’s fun.

My son’s school told me they are probably doing something Valentine’s Day, but it does not have to be a parent award ceremony for who can make the biggest show of cool Valentines. Ha. I’ll miss those cellophane wrapped frosted heart cookies.

One would think that books called Rooms would have been in the Halloweeny books of October. The first book I read was initially intended for this fate, but it was not a scary book, not in the Halloween-y sense.

But spaces are not just for capturing your soul for all time. In an interesting synchronicity, both of these books are about actually about saving the soul. Yes, these rooms are about redemption.

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Rooms, James Rubart

So I unintentionally stumbled across Christian fiction, but even though I don’t typically read Christian fiction, this one held me past the time I realized what it was. I also very much enjoyed The Shack, but I have not read it recently enough to include it here.  It was mysterious, it was riveting, a man unmoored and spiritually floundering goes back and forth between being saved and being true to himself and being rich and powerful, all the external trappings of success. It considers what success and happiness are made of, according to some ways of thinking.  My only issue with it was that sometimes the dialogue was a little stilted, but as I am putting myself out there writing my own stuff, I can’t fault someone for that too much. It’s difficult to write compelling and real sounding dialogue. It did not turn me off enough to taint my entire review, like stilted dialogue has done with a few other traditionally published things that I have read.

But something a little more Gothic that I just started reading when I couldn’t read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (because it is not Whispersync-ed, believe it or not. There is an audio, and there is an ebook, but going between them routinely was not a happy experience. The book is over 700 pages):

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Rooms, Lauren Oliver

I bought this on sale after never having heard of it because it had my favorite word! This is Gothic in a sense that secrets unfold all along the way. Vices, ghosts, and half truths until the end. An ex wife and two children come back to manage a haunted house after the death of the man who lived in it, a man whose choices left devastation in his wake. The ex wife is in the throes of drinking, the adult daughter is addicted to meaningless sex, and the teenaged boy wants to die.  Moreover, there are two ghosts in the walls whose stories also unfolds interwoven with the living. It’s a beautiful read if you can get past thinking how sick the alcoholic must feel all the time, but that’s just me. Everyone finds their way closer to being healed in this book. The ghosts are probably the only ones that really get to be whole, but the living progress toward their own wholeness. I like that the movement is toward healing, but everyone does not come out fixed in the end, because that is unrealistic.  People do get fixed, they really do, don’t think this psychologist is chilling out on the internet saying that they do not. But these characters’ pain is so entrenched it will take more than a few days to pry loose and make sense of and move on. There is significant prying loose, but not so much progress as to be unrealistic.

February marches on.

Comments/likes/shares are a great way to show the love.

A Good Place for a Questionable Death

The coldest month of the year is coming to a close and I am enjoying modern day coziness.

I feel more hopeful in February.  Every minute of daylight that we have been gaining since the longest day of the year on December 21 starts to make an appreciable difference in February…so I am actually excited for it.

At the end of December, following reading Ghostland, I became entranced by two more Gothic ghost stories that share a poignant setting:

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The Haunted Hotel, Wilkie Collins

I anticipate that I will eventually read most, if not all, Collins works. He is a sensationalist, wrote one of the first modern detective novels, and he loves twists and turns.  This may seem a lofty goal because he was prolific but I anticipate a long life and lots of public domain audiobooks.  Sidebar:  Librivox has upped their game.  Love the app.

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The Visitant, Megan Chance

This is my second book of Chance’s.  I read Bone River and loved the twist at the end so I bought this and another book of hers, Inamorata.  Like Collins, she is prolific. Historical mysteries featuring female protagonists who aren’t afraid to buck the establishment: yes please.

Both of these Gothic novels involve impoverished noble families falling into ruin along with their once fancy, crumbling Venice palazzos (rented or owned). Venice is cold and wet, a city of contradictions: Catholic but no stranger to a good bacchanal. I was so intrigued even looked up the why and how of a city emerging from water. Currently threatened by global warming, at risk of being swallowed by the rising sea levels to become a lost city.  It is a setting with enough intrigue to be a character in its own right.  Chance draws upon the details of the beautiful yet cold snow, a local dye factory polluting the water a different color on a daily basis, a combination of beauty with sadness and cold. An ideal atmosphere for a ghost story.

Apparently, if you’re a noble with a death in Venice that looks legit at first glance but really isn’t, you should consider coming back as a ghost to show the living what really happened. Avenge your death in the cold and wet ruins.  Even after they remake the palazzo into a hotel years after, like in Collins’ Haunted Hotel (which incidentally is only haunted to the people who are sympathetic to the dead noble) you need to be sure that anyone who cares about you, or may have led to your untimely demise, is made aware of this fact.

Of course, the authors extend the exposition by exploring the tangled web of relationships involved.  Collins’ Haunted Hotel is a more traditional Gothic novel in that there is a virtuous woman at the helm of the story, leading the story as a paragon of virtue, and of course, she ends up happy and rewarded.  She pines after being dumped and only after the man dies and his death is solved does she move forward to realize her happiness.  Despite my love of gothic novels, I struggle with women only being as good as their virginity in them. Women who are more cunning only win in the short term because virtue is the only great reward in the long run. Chance writes for a more modern audience, and I absolutely appreciate that.  It would be incongruous for her heroines to follow their passions in other realms but be completely indifferent to/appalled by sex. And she is realistic about the fact that throughout time passion has existed independently of marriage and long term promises.  The fact I constantly sweat the fact there was no reliable birth control back then is more my problem than hers.

I can see where this is not one of Collins’ more famous works, as it can be slow in places, and much of the conflict in the beginning happens with a serving woman whose husband mysteriously disappears. The more interesting characters’ actions and the hotel do not feature strongly until the second half of the novel, even though the novels begins with the sinister Countess coming to a doctor to discuss her engagement under questionable circumstances.  The juicy takes some work to get there, but you get to it.  And the opening makes a promise that there will be more juice later on.

Chance has a piece independently of Collins’in that her protagonist has had a career in caring for the mentally ill.  Although she comes to Venice to care for a patient for redemption from a mistake, she is competent and smart and has her own mind. Caring for the mentally ill has its own sordid past and Chance adds to the darkness by talking about how her protagonist had wanted to heal these people and had her own conflicts about its efficacy.  It was a nice way to give the protagonist an identity separately from a breakup/love gone awry, whereas Collins’ protagonist did have a job as a nanny that she loved, but her main torch was maintaining her virtue for a man who never deserved it.

Other Venice stories?  They have to be out there. I wish I could visit before it sinks into the sea. I love old school NYC as a setting too, which this year’s read down will make obvious.

Comments/likes/shares please!!

Halloween Reads: Ghosts

This could almost have counted under houses, but the houses post a few weeks ago were houses that wanted to own the residents inside.  These are houses that have ghosts but do not want the characters to join their ranks.

I feel like the leaves have been changing more slowly this year. I feel like usually they have peaked by the time I am writing this post (Oct 8 if I must be honest) and this year it seems that they are still working up to full glory.

Okay.  Ghosts today.  One book I am talking about today is decidedly Gothic while the other is closer to horror and being scary.

The Gothic read:

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Miramont’s Ghost, Elizabeth Hall

This story focuses on how Miramont got a ghost in the first place, and not really what she does when she becomes a ghost.  It is based on an unsolved historical mystery, which I think is really cool when someone takes a story and fills in the blanks.  Much like my love Phillippa Gregory.   I guess if someone has become a ghost then she has lost her battle somehow, but she does not go down fighting and I wish she did.  A young beautiful woman who has secluded herself from the world is ensnared by the evil machinations of an older relative, an aunt this time, to protect some family secrets.  I still was not clear really how the protagonist needed to be involved in the secrets the aunt and cousin were guarding.  it was Goth entertaining, and I thought it would be a bit more ghosty but there were some other supernatural elements at play.  It was like something Ann Radcliffe would have cooked up, but her endings are happier. Bonus:  It came with 1.99 audio. Perfect accompaniment to charity knitting.

The scary read:

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What the Dead Want, Norah Olson

This is a YA scary novel.  A fifteen year old girl, Gretchen, is asked by her eccentric aunt to come down and take possession of the family property she has inherited with little other preamble.  It is the summer and Gretchen’s mother has mysteriously disappeared years before. Gretchen she comes up from the city to help her aunt and maybe solve the mysterious disappearance of her mother. The story starts off as eerie but there is the part where it gets pretty real that is scary. I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that the souls are in torment from the memory of the treatment of black people in the Civil War era.  The story talks about white privilege and the freedoms once denied women.  These pieces can be a little heavy handed, but maybe only to an adult who has had coursework and seminars on this topic and don’t need it spelled out the way a typical teenager might.  My privilege when I was fifteen was not really evident to me, or how much I would really enjoy the modern freedoms allowed women until I was an adult and reveling in them.  What? An influential career and my own money? The ability to leave my husband whenever I please? Not that I want to, but it is a wonderful thing to not be trapped.  This one has ghosts and some demon like creatures, just to add to the freaky. Good YA read. And you do find out what the dead want, by the way.

Keep reading the scary! Halloween is only a week away!

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Halloween Reads: Gothic Romances

I believe I have admitted to my readers that I once loved autumn.  I loved it when the months of snow following did not challenge my ability to see family and friends as much as I wanted to.

But despite my wizened, potential snowbird state, I can enjoy the scary season for all the scary books that it involves and am dedicating these five Sundays in October to scary reads:  Gothic, haunted houses, demons, and the like.

When I did my Basic Gothic Reader post I knew that I would want to follow up with more Goth reading.  Today features two Gothic novels, both mentioning in the subtitles that they are “romances”.  I would agree that one is actually a romantic story while the other is absolutely not.

This is not a romance.  I repeat, this is not a romance:

Product Details

The Monk, Matthew Gregory Lewis

The cover I have here does not have the fateful subtitle of “A Romance” but some editions do. This book is not about love.  It is about lust, rape and meaningless sexual conquest in the main storyline.  The protagonist goes from a pillar of virtue, free even from temptation to vice, into the most base of creatures.  It is a classic Gothic cautionary tale, although the forces of good and evil are usually balanced out just a smidge more than they are in this one, which focuses on evil.  There is another side story that has a little bit more of the good and valiant.  And yes, the good wins in that one.

The Castle of Otranto still predates this 1796 book, and like Castle, The Monk has all the elements of the genre:  the supernatural, prophecies, good and evil, castles, heaps of scandal, wicked actions leading to bad consequences, some demons and the devil, and ghosts.  And, true to the genre, the women in this book have three purposes: to be ornamental, to remain virgins for marriage, and to get bossed around by scheming men.  There is seriously a character in here, who after she is raped, knows that the best way to continue to live her life is hidden away from society so others will not be exposed to her sinful nature.  All marriage prospects are ruined because she was raped.

But maybe in her confining roles a woman can be happy:

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A Sicilian Romance, Ann Ward Radcliffe

I was not going to leap into another Ann Radcliffe right after The Mysteries of Udolpho, which was good, but had copious irrelevant backstory and was so treacherously long.  I don’t mind a hefty tome but sometimes I struggle when I am wondering where the story is in my twenty first century brain. This one was better because it was a lot shorter.  It was published four years before Mysteries so maybe she was just warming up!

This one is a love story because a pair discover that they are in love and have to dodge obstacles to be united forever in love.  Purely Gothic obstacles, of course: Julia’s scheming father, evil stepmother, a big castle that they believe might be haunted in a neglected and crumbling spot, sinister fiance, packs of raiding banditti, convent drama (it does exist). External, high drama obstacles, stakes heightened because Julia is just a pawn of the men around her and she must get to be with the one who cares about her thoughts and feelings.  Not like, Julia gets accepted to Yale Law but Hippolitus is going to be backpacking through Europe and wants her to take a year off with him to find himself and can’t promise fidelity if he is alone overseas. And of course Radcliffe makes an explicit statement at the end to drive it home that virtue is always rewarded. Ms. Radcliffe is a woman after my own heart, being a woman who wrote to entertain herself.

I do want to do The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, which I was going to do first but then read A Sicilian Romance  so I could post two Gothic romances together in my five scary themed blog posts for October. I had already read The Monk for a reading challenge category of a book more than a hundred years older than me, and I wanted to count Don Quixote in the longer category.

Stay tuned for a month more of posts about scary reads for the apple picking, bonfiring, hot drinking, hoodie wearing, corn mazing, costume wearing season.