Chapter Five Gothic Romance

In my third year as a freelance writer, the science fiction market temporarily dried up, due to editorial overstocking at several of the houses with the largest monthly science fiction lists. Since I was selling far more science fiction than anything else, I was caught in the pinch. I was learning the suspense form, but had not yet had great success with it, and I was several years away from writing the big, serious novels I'm now concentrating on. I needed new markets, fast. The previous year, I'd dabbled in erotic novels, as a sideline, but I did not feel like returning to that category and, besides, it was not flourishing as it once had. What to do?

For a year, an editor friend had been urging me to try a Gothic novel since the form is perennially one of the most popular in the paperback field. I declined, principally because I didn't think I could write believably from a woman's viewpoint, but also because I simply did not like Gothic novels. I felt they were so formulized as to be mirror images of one another, and I didn't see how I could write in a field for which I had no respect. When the science fiction market remained tight, however, I finally tried my hand at a Gothic. I finished the book in two weeks, attached a female by-line (half the Gothics published today are written by men, but the by-line must always be female), and mailed it off. The editor read it, made a few suggestions, and bought it for $1,500. That's $750 a week; not a fortune, but a pleasant enough income to make it worth most any genre writer's time.

Three months later, I wrote my second Gothic, again in two weeks, and received a $1,750 advance. My third Gothic, a few months later, took me one week from first page to last and earned another $1,750 check. Within a single year, taking only five weeks away from my serious work, I made $5,000 from my Gothics, enough to relieve immediate financial problems and let me get on with my more important work.

Herein lies the great advantage of writing category fiction. Financial worries are the most common causes of writers' blocks. If a writer cannot pay his bills, he usually cannot create. He either has to take a second job or a part-time job (if he is already a full-time freelancer) until his bills are paid and the tension relieved—or he must set aside his serious work and write something that will turn a fast dollar. Since he can probably earn more money, more quickly, by writing a Gothic than by working as a clerk, he is foolish not to take advantage of his talents. I know of writers who say they will not "prostitute" their talent by writing anything just for money. When they get desperate to meet the bills, they take a job for five or six months until they're financially solvent again, then launch into full-time freelancing once more. So far as I can see, they are doing worse than prostituting their talent; they are denying it altogether for unnecessarily long periods of time. In four weeks of Gothic writing, they could earn more money than they do in six months of office work, and be back at their serious creation five months sooner.

Lest I give you the impression that anyone can sit down and bat out a marketable Gothic novel in two weeks, let me point out that the Gothic form requires the same five basic elements as any other category novel. If you have already familiarized yourself with the basics of other categories, and if you've written and sold a novel or two in them, you will find Gothics relatively easy fare to create. However, if you're starting your writing career as a Gothic novelist, you will find it as taxing and demanding to achieve sales as if you had started in any other genre. Remember, though, that anyone who can write and sell a Gothic can also write and sell in at least one other category. Because it usually contains a crime committed early in the plot and because the villain is not revealed until the climactic scene towards the end, the Gothic resembles the mystery story and is subject to many of the techniques and rules of that form. Because it usually contains some supernatural events—which may or may not be explained away as natural phenomena or tricks of the villain—the Gothic often resembles fantasy. Because the reader is lured on, not by fights and chases so much as by anticipation of disaster, the Gothic bears many similarities to suspense novels.

Just as you must not underestimate the job of a Gothic novelist, you must not underestimate the Gothic readership. That audience cannot be summed up in a phrase like "dewy-eyed schoolgirls," because it includes women of all ages. Likewise, you cannot think of them as "dull, unimaginative women," because some men and many bright ladies have been bitten by the Gothic bug. I do believe that a large percentage of the Gothic readership is composed of housewives who, growing weary of the sameness of television programming, begin to read. These are people who have never been readers before, and they prefer to start out with books that seem familiar to them. (Gothics resemble television soap operas, though they are considerably less insipid than those daytime serials.) A percentage of this audience will remain content with the Gothics, while others will move on to different kinds of novels. As a result, all writers benefit by the growing audience, and the Gothic author can be certain of a constant flow of new readers.

By far, the majority of Gothic novels are published as paperback originals. Here, the advances range from $1,500 to $2,500 for new Gothic writers and as high as $3,000 and $3,500 for a popular paperback author like Dorothy Daniels. Because the demand for Gothics is so great, the successful Gothic novelist can obtain multiple-book contracts, such as Dorothy Daniels' 12-novels-a-year deals with Paperback Library. Advances, for the most part, are the sum total of the paperback Gothic author's earnings, for subsidiary rights are seldom picked up in this field.

At one time, only the best Gothic writers were published between hardcovers, those whose talent for characterization runs deep and who manage to stretch the formulized plot into moderately unique arrangements that give the genre more life and excitement than it usually has: Elizabeth Goudge, Victoria Holt, Daphne Du Maurier. Recently, however, the hardcover market has opened up to a whole range of Gothic talents, and the new writer has a better chance of being published there. Periodically, hardback Gothic novels achieve long runs on the bestseller lists, with all the subsidiary money that means, including huge paperback advances, book club sales, and foreign editions. The new Gothic novelist, however, should understand that these are dishes he will not taste for some time, if at all.

The first thing a potential Gothic novelist must learn is the plot formula which is peculiar to the Gothic, which does not supersede the traditional plot formula discussed in Chapter One, but which severely refines it. With few exceptions, the Gothic-romance plot follows this skeleton: A young heroine, alone in the world and often an orphan, goes to an old and isolated house to take a new job as a secretary, governess, nurse, or traveling companion to a motherless child or older woman in a family of some financial means. Everyone in the house is a stranger to her. At the house, the heroine meets a cast of suspicious characters (servants, the master or lady of the house, usually one or two sons of the lady, neighbors) and soon finds herself plunged into some mystery—either of supernatural or more mundane origins, most often concerning the death of someone in the house. Inexplicably, she becomes the target of the supernatural or mundane killer's attacks—or else, because she begins to snoop around in hopes of discovering what's happening, she becomes fair game for the murderer. Concurrent with the development of this mystery plot is the growth of a romance between the heroine and one of the young men in the household or in the household of a neighbor; or between her and the master, if he is unmarried or a widower. Either this man is her only safe haven in the dark events of the story—or he is as much a suspect as any of the other characters. If he is the only character with whom she can have a romantic relationship, he should always turn out to be the good guy she wants to think he is, for the conclusion of a Gothic must always promise marriage or the development of genuine love between heroine and hero. If the story has two handsome men, you can let her fall in love with one and fear the other—but plot the story so that her favorite turns out to be the killer, while the man she fears becomes the one who really cares for her. This is a popular Gothic gimmick that never seems to lose its appeal, no matter how often it is used. The only variant on this plot that is commonly used is to have the orphaned heroine go to live in a house with her last living relatives. If you take this tack, remember that the relatives must be distant and all but strangers to the heroine.

The pace of the average Gothic novel is considerably different from that of any other genre fiction, and the new Gothic writer should read at least half a dozen titles in the field to get the feel of this special rhythm. Gothic events develop slowly, against a moody background which must be fully and leisurely explored. Gothic novels are full of rainstorms, snow, thunder, lightning, leaden skies, cold draughts, and other gloomy omens which set the mood and act as generators of suspense as much as do the few violent incidents in the course of the story. Nowhere is the Gothic's subdued pace more evident than in the opening of the book. The reader's attention must be caught, but not by an intriguing plot problem that sparks a "need to know." Instead, the Gothic opens by establishing the mood of impending disaster, lurking evil. It makes the reader want to say: "Get away from this place. Leave. Get out. Run." Traditionally it will begin either with a description of the house which is to be the center of all the action, or with a scene that shows how alone and helpless the heroine is. Here's an example of the first type of Gothic opening, from Deanna Dwyer's Legacy of Terror:

Elaine Sherred was ill-at-ease from the first moment she caught sight of the Matherly house, and she would later remember this doubt, and wonder if it had been a premonition of disaster.

The house stood on the brow of the hill, partially shielded from her by several huge Dutch elm trees, and it was sprawling, immense. That in itself was not what bothered Elaine, however; all of the houses in this exclusive suburb of Pittsburgh were extraordinarily large, and all of them stood on four and five acre estates which were carefully tended by the most professional of gardeners. What made the Matherly house different, and therefore disconcerting, was its rococo stonework. Beneath the deep eaves, under the thrusting, flat black slate roof, a band of hand-carved story-stone ran across the entire facade and continued down the west wall as well. Indeed, those stone angels and stone satyrs, frozen nymphs and bas-relief urns, trees and flowers and planets and stars probably encircled the entire house, like a ribbon. The windows were set deep in thick stone walls and flanked by fretted black and silver shutters which contrasted starkly with the light stone of the walls. The main entrance was a door twice as large as any man could require, like the entrance to a cathedral, at least twelve feet high and five wide. Heavy brass handles adorned it, gleaming against the oak as did the brass hinges. The windows on either side of the door, unlike the other windows that she could see, were stained glass, in no particular pattern, the individual fragments worked together with lead. In the circle of the driveway, directly before the entrance, a white stone fountain, complete with three winsome cherubs whose wings were gloriously spread, sizzled and hissed like a griddle with oil spilled on it. The pavement immediately adjacent the fountain had been torn up and rich earth placed in its stead, banked by a second marble curb as white as the fountain itself. In this dark earth, a dozen varieties of flowers sprouted, blossoming in purples, reds, yellows and oranges. This dazzling splash was vaguely reflected in the white base of the fountain, giving the illusion that the marble itself shimmered and was somehow transparent so that you were looking through it to the flowers which bloomed on the other side.

Immediately following the description of the house, we learn that Elaine Sherred is an orphan and that she has managed to face the world, alone, only because she has been especially wary of it, has challenged life as if it were an adversary. She is very practical, dislikes fancy people and fancy places. She knows how to cope with anything, by herself, if she can reduce it to the simplest terms, but she is frightened of colorful places and people. She is somewhat humorless, always expecting the worst, and she distrusts people who do not think the same way. The Matherly house, therefore, in all its ostentation, is the quintessence of what she fears.

The opening of Deanna Dwyer's Demon Child does not dwell on a description of the house, but on a scene which informs the reader of the heroine's isolation in the world:

The sky was low and gray as masses of thick clouds scudded southward, pulling cold air down from the north as they went. Jenny huddled against the chill as she entered the quiet graveyard where it seemed ten degrees colder yet. That was her imagination, of course. Still, she hunched her shoulders and walked faster.

She stopped before three similar tombstones, one of which had only recently been set before an unsodded grave. In the entire cemetery, she was the only mourner. She was thankful for that, for she preferred to be alone. Turning her eyes to the stones, she read the names cut into them: Lee Brighton, Sandra Brighton and Leona Pitt Brighton. Her father, mother and paternal grandmother. As always, reading the names together, she found it difficult to believe they were all gone and that she was alone without even a brother or sister to share the burdens she carried. She wiped at the tears in her eyes.

The tone of most Gothics is melodramatic, but in a feminine, not a masculine sense. That is to say, the melodrama does not grow out of wild fist fights, chases, violent events, and the like, so much as from stereotypically female fears, hopes, and reactions. One taboo of the Gothic novel is the use of a Women's Liberation type for your heroine. First of all, most of the readership would find her unsympathetic; they prefer heroines who are somewhat timid, delicate, emotional, and yet decidedly coltish about their sexuality, heroines who cry and tremble and like to be kissed and cuddled (but no more than cuddled!) by their menfolk. Second, a real Women's Lib heroine would probably not be in the old house, the target of a murderer, consumed by her own terror; instead, she would take matters into her own hands as any man would do, and settle them quickly. She'd end your novel on page thirty! You won't face such problems if you keep that heroine with stereotypical female fears—a fear of the dark, of being alone and ending up an old maid, of rape, of losing the man she loves—and hopes—for a good marriage, love, perhaps children, religious and social contentment.

Though the Gothic heroine is nearly as formulized as the plot, she cannot remain a static personality from the first to the last page: she must change and mature through the course of the story. Ideally, at the outset, she should have one obvious character fault which is the cause of her problems. In Deanna Dwyer's Legacy of Terror, Elaine Sherred is too much of a pessimist, too stone cold serious for her own good. Because she lost her parents and was raised in an orphanage, she developed a hardened outlook on life, but this is not a healthy attitude. Taking up life in the Matherly house, she's attracted to the son who is sober, hard-working, humorless, and always ready to face the worst. At the same time, she distrusts the Matherly son who is carefree, works as a freelance artist and illustrator, dresses flashily and laughs a lot. Blindly, she gives her attention and trust to the sobersides and learns, too late, that he is the psychotic killer. She matures through experience. She learns that the man who appears stable may be living behind a tenuously constructed facade, while the carefree man may actually have an excellent grasp of realities. She learns to balance her worldview with hope and optimism. In the same author's Dance With the Devil, the heroine believes that life should be fun. She has tried to forget her loneliness (she is an orphan too) by surrounding herself with colorful, happy friends. She comes to distrust the story man who is a pessimist and to favor the man who is always laughing and gay. Again, she places her safety in the wrong hands. By the end of the novel, she comes to understand that a friendly, happy man may be desperately trying to cover a personality that is anything but charming. She learns, from the pessimist, to balance her outlook on life and—as a twist—she intends to help him balance his, so that he is less gloomy and more fun to be with.

The character faults that can be used are limitless. The writer need only remember that the Gothic novel should have a happy ending, one that implies a bright future for the heroine or bluntly assures it. That implication is here in the last few paragraphs of Legacy of Terror:

As they drew near the house, she saw the windows were open, airing out the odor of paint—and of misery.

"Don't worry about tomorrow," Denny said. "Enjoy today, Elaine. That is a big achievement in itself."

"Oh," she said, "I'm not worried about tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it!"

And the blunt assurance of future happiness is here in the last few paragraphs of Demon Child:

"Now," he said, "we've got to get to the house and wrap up this awful business. Dr. Malmont will be there, and we've got a surprise for him. As nice as it might be, we can't remain here all night, kissing in the rain."

She giggled and felt younger than she had felt since she was fourteen. There might yet be problems in life. Everything wouldn't go smoothly all the time. But she felt that she was ready to face the rough spots. It was time that she collected the happiness in life that God set aside for everyone.

By the time they reached the great house, the rain had stopped completely. The clouds were scattered thinly across the night sky, and the moon shone through, brilliant and huge. If she still believed in omens, in forewarnings of good and bad luck, she would have known that this sudden clearing of the sky meant that the future could only be a happy one.

The taboos in the Gothic novel are few but inflexible. The sooner you understand the limits you must work within, the sooner you will be producing marketable material. Following are seven Gothic taboos in easy-to-refer-to form:

Stories that do not employ the Gothic plot formula are taboo. You must have a heroine who is alone in the world, and she must suffer through some nightmarish ordeal in a strange place, finding terror and romance along the way, triumphing in the end. Though creativity is more difficult within this genre than within any other, you can write fresh stories within the plot formula if your heroine is strongly characterized and your background exotic.

Stones that do not center on an old, gloomy house—or some variation ofthe same—are taboo. The ancient mansion, permeated with evil, should be as much a character in your story as any of the people who live in it. Variations on the house might be: a steamboat used as a dwelling, archaeological diggings in a strange country, or a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th Century. Anything used in place of the old house should have all the same qualities of it: isolation, gloominess, an air of mystery, lots of dark places, eerie corridors, and musty rooms.

Stories that do not feature the traditional Gothic heroine are taboo. Gothic readers most easily identify with the type of girl we have already discussed, and they will rarely support the writer who gives them other kinds of heroines. Never, of course, employ a man as a Gothic hero, in the place of a young woman.

A heroine who does not mature through the course of the novel is taboo. Give her a single major character flaw and then help her to change as the story progresses, until, at the climax when the real villain is unmasked, she fully understands where and why she has gone wrong.

Stories that lack happy endings are taboo. Throughout the novel, the heroine's condition has been filled with danger. Her past is bleak—though it may have had moments of happiness in it—because she was orphaned or witnessed some traumatic disaster, and her future has seemed even worse from the moment she entered the old house around which the plot revolves. The Gothic reader, after going through so many scenes of impending doom, demands some glow of hope at the conclusion, to relieve what would otherwise be a depressing story. Not every Gothic novel must have a Pollyanna ending in which every problem is solved and all the characters are set for brighter futures, but it ought to contain at least the intimation of good things to come.

Stories not written in the moderate Gothic pace are taboo. The murders should, if possible, be limited to one; you cannot pile the bodies atop one another like lengths of cord-wood, as you might in a suspense or mystery novel. Once the reader has been shown that the villain will go to any lengths to obtain what he wants, as is witnessed by the first murder, there is no need to kill off anyone else. There will seldom be a direct chase scene of any great length in the Gothic novel, though the heroine will feel pursued through out the book. Rarely will a Gothic contain a race against time. Instead, the narrative tension will be generated by the anticipation of a violent event: for example, the death of the heroine, which never comes to pass.

Stories containing explicit or even implied sexual contact are especially taboo. A Gothic must contain no bedroom scenes, no petting, and not even any necking. When you describe your heroine, you will always indicate that she is pretty, but you must never discuss her figure or her sexuality. When she meets a man in the course of the story, she may evaluate him in the way any normal woman would evaluate a brother or a father figure, and she may even wonder what kind of husband he would make, though in a romantic and not a sexual sense. When she and her potential mate exchange gestures of affection during the story, these will be limited to gentle embraces, chaste kisses, and delicate words of endearment. Rare are the soul kisses and rarer still the fierce clinches. Not even the villain can have lustful thoughts. As one Gothic editor once told me, "The villain can want to beat her, torture her, and even kill her. But he mustn't contemplate rape!"

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