The gothic novel first appeared in Britain in the eighteenth century, and was quickly adapted into an American literary genre. The earliest American gothic novels were set in New England (because pretty much all American literature was at this point), and the wilds of the preindustrial northeast still offered the menace and darkness to form the backdrop to such tales. The suggestions of wildness, and madness, also implied a critique of the colonial project, a challenge to “manifest destiny” with the lingering question of “should we be here at all?”. The characters of Charles Brocken Brown’s Wieland (1798) deal with murder and insanity and religious fanaticism (as well as spotaneous combustion). Going back to Europe is seen as a way to escape the madness, and honestly if that were my family, I would too.
As the nineteenth century wore on, the gothic could move (as it did in Britain) to sometimes having more urban settings—the darker backdrop of industrial towns forming its own threat. In America, a unique version appeared of the Southern Gothic, after the Civil War. This became a genre both of literary greats but also tropes ripe for parody. Every family has a dark secret (often incest), they hold onto generational grudges, houses are possibly haunted, plus there’s the bonus potential threat coming to the (white) protagonists from the black community (voodoo curses, or the angry ghosts of formerly enslaved people). Everyone is haunted by either their visions of antebellum grandeur (portraints of great-uncles in Confederate uniforms abound), or knowledge of their ancestors’ slave-owning brutality. They are poor (or at least a lot poorer) than their ancestors. Southern Gothic gave us generations of women sitting in crumbling mansions like Miss Havisham, clinging onto their cotillion gowns. (William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” hits most of these notes, if you wanted a brief intro to the genre).
The cheap paperbacks of the 60s and 70s offered plenty of trashy gothic books (as well as reprints of older classics), all seeming to feature a Herbal Essence model in a diaphanous nightgown running away from a mansion.
In books and films of more recent decades, I’ve noticed the location shifting again—to the Pacific Northwest. The rolling fogs and rain, and the dark forests of Washington and Oregon forming a backdrop to a newer gothic vein: from Twin Peaks to Twilight. The threats aren’t generational, but imposed on newer arrivals, sometimes from supernatural sources. It suggests that even if you head as far West as possible, to get away from whatever “back East”, you’ll find a newer danger.
In her new novel You Must Remember This, (out this week) Kat Rosenfield brings the gothic back to New England, and the setting an old mansion in Bar Harbor. The house has secret passages and hidden doors: perfect for a murder plot. She taps into some of the tropes of the classic Christie-esque murder mystery: an extended family gather for Christmas at the house, and suspects abound when a death occurs.
They have gathered to celebrate one last holiday with the elderly matriarch, Miriam, who is rapidly sinking into dementia. The house is where she spent her childhood, and mirroring the old lady's slide back and forth in her own memories, the narrative jumps back and forth between her childhood in the 1930s and 40s and the present day.
The plucky heroine (as gothic fiction must have), is Delphine, Miriam’s granddaughter—who finds herself asking questions about her family’s past, and present. Rosenfield is at her best when creating a vivid portrait of the society with summer homes in midcentury. The world of Miriam’s childhood and adolescence, as she bristled against social expectations, but reveled in her privilege and freedom. (In fact, I got so involved in those sections, I’d like her next book to be a straight historical novel). But Rosenfield also knows how to build up to a cracking pace, like all good whodunnits, and I was through the final chapters at a sprint. Recommended.
This answered a few questions I'd ambiently had about this very obvious tradition - thanks!