Monday, October 1, 2012

Vicki Delany: The Modern Gothic Novel

Today I welcome back Vicki Delany,, one of Canada's most varied and prolific crime writers.

Vicki Delany's 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 standalone 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, “a splendid Gothic thriller.” Visit Vicki at,, and twitter: @vickidelany. She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave (


Mention Gothic novels to ten people, and you’ll get eleven different interpretations of what that means.

About all we seem to agree on is that it doesn’t mean a cozy or a comedy.

In the mid-to-late Twentieth Century the Gothic novel was the sort written by the likes of Victoria Holt or Mary Stewart that I grew up loving. Think of penniless governesses, crumbling Scottish castles, brooding, handsome aristocrats. A dark secret in the family’s past. Always a dark secret.

Today the Gothic has been updated and the novels I love are sometimes called Modern Gothic, or British Gothic.

First, what they are NOT: No vampires. No ghost hunters. Not horror. And probably not anyone you might call ‘goth’.

I go with Kate Morton’s definition. In the afterword to her hugely successful novel 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.

The Modern Gothic can be a ‘dark mystery’ but usually only in the psychological sense. Michael Koryta calls his brilliant novel So Cold The River a Gothic and it is because it involves many of Morton’s definitions, but in it the paranormal presence is malevolent. That is defiantly not always, in fact not usually, the case.

“Haunting of a metaphorical nature.” The modern Gothic may not even have a ghost story or paranormal aspect. If there is a supernatural element it serves as a device to reveal the secrets of the past to the characters and the reader, rarely is it intended to frighten the reader, as in a horror novel.

Kate Morton’s books for example, have no paranormal elements. In many books the suspected paranormal turns out to have a rational explanation after all, as in Carol Goodman’s Arcadia Falls. In Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison the protagonist is ‘haunted’ not by a ghost but by the story of a woman who lived in his new house sixty years earlier and was accused of a dreadful crime, a crime that had to do with ‘the entrapment of women’. If there is a paranormal element it is more likely to be benign or even helpful as in, for example, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, rather than dripping evil.

Sometimes, it’s the question. In my new novel 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?

Contrary to popular opinion, Gothic doesn’t automatically 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.) (Whereas in a Gothic romantic suspense novel, such as written by Susanna Kearsley, the romance is up front and prominent.)

The modern Gothic mystery novel can also be called a ‘psychological suspense’. What defines it as ‘gothic’ I think is the centrality of setting. There is a house, a hotel, some old building with a long past, and most of the plot centres around and takes place in this building or property, e.g. Michael Kortya again in The Cypress House. Tana French’s The Likeness is set almost exclusively in a crumbling Irish manor house and has very much to do with the “unreliability of memory” yet there is not the slightest hint of a paranormal element or romance. In More than Sorrow, the book takes place mostly in a 200 year old farmhouse in Canada.

Not a crumbling castle in sight! But secrets, lots of secrets.

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


Donis Casey said...

I guess I've written gothic novels myself and didn't even know it!

Priscilla said...

Thank you for this informative blog on gothics. Find the definition interesting. And your book is now first up on my TBR stack. Was it there before or did something move it in the night...?

Vicki Delany said...

Thanks, Priscilla. My agents are everywhere.

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Hi Vicki---I'm definitely adding your books to my Must Read List, too. Thanks for this--it was very helpful. Happy trails! bobbi c.