Escape the Night

With the success of a New York job behind her and a gay lift in her heart, Serena March returned to Monterey to visit her sister. It was to be a short visit, and one full of fun; but, as things turned out, the bottom fell out of her world. The gay and carefree California group of friends she remembered so well, the sharp, dramatic countryside, even her own lovely sister were not and could not be as she remembered them. Something horrible had touched each one; something unclean was suddenly smeared across her brilliant happiness… something as evil as suspicion and as terrible as murder.

Written by Mignon G Eberhart. Bantam Edition Published August 1946. Second printing December 1946. Third printing.

Mignon Good Eberhart (1899-1996) has over sixty novels to her credit; she was awarded the Mystery Writers of America Award in 1971 and at least six of her books have been made into movies. Escape the Night was first published in hardback in 1944 and I started reading it today. It is more of a crime novel than a supernatural thriller but I think this could easily have passed as a gothic in the 60’s – particularly with the original Random House artwork, which features a rather spooky-looking bat on its cover. (And who knows, perhaps there is a Queen Size Gothic or Lancer Easy-Eye version of Escape the Night out there somewhere…)

Drawing from inside the front cover.

Drawing from inside the front cover.

I’ve been meaning to read this book the moment I was given it as a present a few weeks back, having instantly fallen in love with its creepy surrealist cover. Thankfully, a long train journey today has given me the perfect excuse to start.

Here is how it opens:

She knew that something was happening in the house.

The knowledge of it obtruded itself steadily between her and the book in her hands so she read the same lines over and over, not taking in their sense. She was listening so hard that it was as if her eyes and hands and every pore in her body had suddenly developed audient power; but there was nothing to hear. The house was quiet.

Hmmm, I love this beginning and, though I’m not generally into crime as a genre, I’m liking what I’ve read of Escape the Night so far. Mignon Eberhart’s writing is stripped down and punchy, but poetic too, with just enough descriptive prose to keep me happy. Interestingly she has been credited with contributing to the development of the Romantic Suspense genre and more about this, along with some extracts of her writing, can be enjoyed over at The Girl Detective HERE.

… Oooh, I’ve just been informed this is My Love Haunted Heart’s 100th post! Hooray! Now, where’s my prize? 😉

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The Bridge of Strange Music

Three

Women

Loved

John Hardacre….

Prudence – Who felt the evil of Pen Farm embrace her – yet remained bound to a man who could never return her love…

Laura – Beautiful and wilful – whose desire for John Hardacre made her leave the glitter of London for the isolation and lonely terror of Pen Farm…

Violet – Sensuous and provocative who offered first her body and then her soul to possess the master of Pen Farm…

In the ominous silence of the house lay a hidden horror that would soon erupt – which one of the three women would survive the emotional holocaust?

Prudence? Laura? Violet?

An Ace Star Book. Written by Jane Blackmore. Copyright  1952.

Three women. One man. Sowing the seeds of sexual frustration on an isolated farmhouse where there is not much else to do but count chickens and watch the corn grow.

Welcome to Pen Farm,  a hormonal hot-bed of lust and jealousy, home to a pregnant wife who hates her life, a governess desperate to get pregnant and a slatternly milkmaid who is just, well, desperate.  Poor John Hardacre. I was feeling genuinely sorry for the bloke by page 15. Of course,  I soon figured he would end up happy ever after with the goody two-shoes governess, but it was enjoyable reading how he got there.

This book’s blend of witchy mysticism and earthy, farmyard fecundity reminded me a bit of the Nick Roeg film Puffball (based on the book by Fay Wheldon).  I wouldn’t describe the setting nor the story as a gothic romance but I did like the otherworldy, trippy quality threaded throughout Jane Blackmore’s prose – Pen Farm is a place where even something as mundane as frying an egg becomes an exercise in mind-altering metaphysicality:

“The egg fell sizzling, into the fat. She watched the transparency coagulate and tried to think what she should say to him but there seemed to be a heaviness inside her head. She could neither think nor feel. It was as if she were halfway under anaesthetic in that twilight stage where objects take an unexpected vividness, where the whole of existence focuses into a single point.

It was like that now with the egg. The golden globule was huge and magnetic. She knew that the room was around her. That ahead of her waited – decision. But no, in this fateful moment, everything was drawing together, rushing in headlong suction down into the heart of an egg. Perhaps this was how the unborn infant felt in the moment of birth. This aching plunging into space – this unbearable feeling of change.”

Three stars out of five stars with bonus points for use of the word empurpled.

Wuthering Heights

The ominous and brooding shadows of the Yorkshire moors set a dramatic background for the tragedy of WUTHERING HEIGHTS. It tells of the frustrated love of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. When Catherine marries another man, Heathcliff’s passion turns to revenge – an urge to destroy the people and the raw beauty of the places the two of them had enjoyed as children.

Emily Bronte’s only novel , a masterpiece, lays bare the full misery of a man and woman who can never be free to love one another and the ultimate destruction this brings.

Written by Emily Bronte. First published 1847. This edition published 1967 by Pan Books Ltd, second printing 1968. With an introduction by Elizabeth Jennings and notes by Phyllis Bentley. Also includes  a selection of Emily Bronte’s poems. Cover art John Raynes (Thanks Tim!).

Of course this book needs no introduction. I thought I would share this lovely edition I picked up last week at the Worthing Car Boot Fair for a £1.

I love this cover – those dark, brooding purples and turbulent brushstrokes really capture the spirit of the story. Check out more of artist John Raynes’ work over at the amazing Pan Paperback Books website. Just follow the artists link at the top of the page.

I’m reading this again for what must be the hundredth time and still loving it – the poems are an extra treat too. Five out of five stars.


White Violets

 

THE SCENT OF DEATH WAS IN THE AIR AT GLOOMY, MENACING NORTHCOURT – THE FRAGRANCE WAS WHITE VIOLETS!

When young Helen Stone became secretary to the mistress of Northcourt, she quickly learned that her predecessor had died under the most mysterious of circumstances.

The inhabitants of the huge, forbidding mansion were a strange, hostile lot, desperately trying to keep under cover a dread secret about Northcourt’s shadowy past. The only one she was drawn to was Bob Coles a handsome though bitter man.

One day Helen found herself high above the sea, in a tunnel filled with fog and the haunting scent of white violets. She stumbled against Bob Coles and her own nightmare at Northcourt began….

Written by Edward Crandall. Originally published 1953. Fourth paperback printing May 1969.

The blurb on the cover tells it all really – the young Ms Stone is employed as a secretary for Mrs Porter and finds herself trapped in a huge gloomy mansion, peopled by a variety of odd characters who are all bitter and twisted and after their share of the Old Dear’s inheritance.

Piece by piece Helen learns the story behind the death of her unfortunate predecessor and tensions build to bursting as our hapless heroine stumbles upon mutilated photographs, mysterious hats and strangers lurking in her bedroom.

I was attracted to this book by the underground tunnels, as I live in a seaside town rumoured to be riddled with the same  such smuggler’s hidey holes. I also thought the writing was very good, with some great descriptions of windswept cliffs and doom ridden rooms.

My only criticism would be I thought the action was a little too slow, nothing much seemed to be happening for the first part of the book apart from detailed conversations involving the history of the characters and their relationships to each other and I would have preferred a little more spooky and a little less background.

Nevertheless, once things get going,  the writing is very effective with some genuinely scary scenes. There is plenty to please in the romance department too – with a more than eligible love interest provided by the sexy but grouchy gardener Bob. Four out of five stars.

I also like the distinctive cover; there is a signature along the right side of the dress but I can’t quite make out the name. The closest I can guess it to be is Jerome Podwil but I can’t be sure.

On the Night of the Seventh Moon

Forest of Doubt….

Helena Trant has always felt a special fascination for the myths and legends of Southern Germany, where she is living. So, lost in the forest one day, she feels little surprise when a handsome stranger appears and leads her to safety – there is a Prince Charming in all good fairy stories.

But this idyll suddenly becomes a nightmare. The passionate love that grows between Helena and her rescuer seems destined to inspire hatred, treachery, even murder in others. And as Helena draws near to the source of the evil that nurses them, she begins to feel that there will be no happy ending to her story.

Written by Victoria Holt. First published in the UK by Wm. Collins 1973. This edition Fontana Books 1974.

My mum was a big fan of Historical Romances by writers like Anna Seyton and Victoria Holt so even today I get a ‘grown up’ feeling reading these books. I saw this in our local secondhand book store and couldn’t resist the cover so thought I’d give it a go.

The scene is set when our teenage heroine wanders off from her convent school picnic and finds herself lost in the  deep dark woods of Southern Germany. From out of nowhere a tall, handsome stranger appears to carry her away into the ‘safety’ of his hunting lodge. What follows is a night of romance and intrigue where our innocent Helena very nearly loses more than her heart. But, thanks to the quick thinking and eagle eye of the trusty old servant  Hildegarde, her honour is kept intact and the very next day she is delivered safe and sound back into the arms of the worried nuns entrusted to look after her.

Of course she cannot get her handsome stranger, who calls himself Siegfried,  out of her mind, so imagine her delight when once again they meet up during a mid-summer festival of madness known locally as the Night of the Seventh Moon. This time our couple  are determined to consummate their love, so, within just a couple of days, they are married; ready, willing and able to embark on a honeymoon blissfully ensconced in the very same lodge they spent that fateful first night together.

And then, just a few days later, Helena wakes up. In her cousins house. To be told she has been delirious since returning from the woods on the night of the festival, a ravaged wreck, driven half insane by the terrible crimes inflicted on her. No one will listen to her fantastic story of  marriage to the love of her life and their fateful few days together. Plied with drugs and surrounded by disbelieving well-wishers, soon even Helena begins to doubt her own sanity. She returns to her home town of Oxford to recuperate, a shadow of her former self.

Some years later she returns to Germany, hired as a governess teaching English to the children of Count Ludwig of Lokenburg. Back in the land of haunted forests and midsummer madness, the castle’s household start preparations for the return of their Prince and when Helena finally meets him, she can’t believe her eyes or her luck. But little does she realise, her problems are only just beginning.

Seventh Moon started off great – I loved the atmosphere created by the tension in the relationship between the central characters – Helena’s almost obsessive love for this shadowy figure, to whom she is irrestitibly drawn but who you just don’t know whether to trust or not. Ultimately the  book was let down by the too pat, too happy ending- though overall the writing was very good and the story wonderfully twisted. A dark, brooding tale of longing and passion –  peppered with dark forests, haunted castles and Germanic folklore. Four out of five stars.


Jamaica Inn

The cold walls of Jamaica Inn smelt of guilt and deceit. Its dark secrets made the very name a byword for terror among honest Cornish folk. Young Mary Yellan found her uncle the apparent leader of strange men who plied a strange trade. But was there more to learn? She remembered the fear in her aunt’s eyes…..

Out on wild, rough moors there were only two people to befriend her – a mysterious parson and an insolent, likeable rogue who broke the law every day of his life.

Written by Daphne du Maurier. First published in 1936 by Victor Gollancz ltd. This edition published by Pan Books 1976.

Set on the wild, windswept moors of Cornwall in the  early 1800’s, Jamaica Inn is a beautifully written gothic romance cast amidst the murderous backdrop of the nineteenth century criminal underworld.

Following the death of her mother and the gradual ruin of their family farm, our heroine, 23 year old Mary Yellan, decides to sell up and leave town to go live with her mother’s sister Aunt Patience. Mary has had little contact with her Aunt over the years, only remembering her as a pretty, smiling woman who had lost contact with the family when she married ten years ago. Now Patience lives with her husband,  Joss Merlyn, the landlord of  Jamaica Inn on Bodmin moor.

Suspense and foreboding literally drip from the pages as we accompany Mary on her rain lashed journey through a desolate November night to  get to the inn.  Right from the start the omens aren’t good and they certainly do not get better.  Once she arrives  Mary is greeted by a barren, unlit husk of a building out of which looms the powerful and  frightening figure of her uncle, Joss Merlyn.  The inn is as bleak inside as out and Mary is dismayed when she finally meets her Aunt – an unrecognisable shadow of her former self, reduced to a nervous, tattered wreck by her vicious, drunken husband.

Well, as a bleak November night unfurls into a bleak and dreary mid-winter, things get stranger and scarier for Mary. Jamaica Inn never seems to be open to the public and only caters to a select band of vagabonds befriended by the bullying  landlord.  Strange noises and furtive comings and goings in the dead of night hint at a darker purpose to this inn and all is soon revealed to Mary by landlord Joss himself when he slips into a drunken stupor, revealing the shocking truth behind his business.

From the moment she set foot in the inn her heart has been telling her to  flee but, determined to do right by her Aunt, Mary decides to stay, perhaps even to bring justice and an end to the practices of her murderous Uncle. But she has to tread carefully as her own life is in peril and early on our canny heroine knows she should trust no-one – not even her Uncle’s brother Jem, a horse thief who steals her heart and swears he has nothing to do with his brother’s dastardly deeds.  And what about Francis Davey, the soft spoken, albino Vicar of Altarnun, who comes to her rescue more than once when she finds herself stranded on the moors. Perhaps Mary has found an ally in him – or has she?

Like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History,  Jamaica Inn is one of my favourite winter reads. This is a tale steeped in mystery and suspense which grips the reader right up to the end. And this book is dark – really if you thought your Christmas was looking grim have pity on poor Mary Yellan. The prose is beautiful,  full of atmosphere and brimming with all things gloriously gothic. We have murder, madness, passion and mayhem;  stark landscapes, stormy seas and blood curdlingly horrifying crimes. It’s no surprise that Daphne du Maurier’s works are still in print to this day (though I think I prefer the cover art on my edition!). This is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark winter’s evening. Five out of five stars.

The Golden Fig

thegoldenfigWhen Paul Stembridge came looking for his missing brother Geoffrey, Susan Lord could not know he had brought a family curse with him. Susan fell in love with Paul, married him, and in her happiness, all thoughts of Geoffrey were forgotten.

But soon a subtle change came over Paul. gradually Susan realised that he wanted her for one purpose only – to help him break the curse.

What had become of the missing Geoffrey? If the curse had taken him, then Susan, too, was in danger. Captive of a family plagued by violence, Susan faced a legacy of evil that spanned more than a century.

She had to learn the secret of the Stembridge curse – or die a victim of it.

Written by Nancy Taylor Smith. First Ace printing August 1974.

Set in the early 1900’s, this is an exotic excursion into the world of old-time tropical plantations and dark family secrets, with a smattering of voodoo adding intrigue to the mix.

Susan Lord works in the Ossadaga Public Library, lives in the local boarding house and feels life is passing her by. A self proclaimed old maid at 25 (weren’t those the days!) you can imagine her excitement when the mysterious, tall, dark and handsome Paul Stembridge comes into town. A whirlwind romance follows and soon enough Susan is  married and whisked off to Stembridge’s grand West Indian stately mansion.

Well, marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be for Susan, with Mr Right very quickly turning into Mr Completely Appalling as he becomes increasingly moody, abusive and controlling toward his figarunspouse. Then there’s the hostile family and the West Indian ghost’s or duppies to put up with, as well as the resident family witch leaving voodoo dolls in her underwear drawer.

Like all great gothic heroines, Susan takes whatever’s thrown at her, even her husband’s punches, and carries on trying to maintain some semblance of normality, while all is heaving and seething around her.

Gradually more and more clues lead her to the truth behind her brother in law’s  disappearance and,  as befitting such a glamorous location, things come to a stormy, windswept climax during a thundery hurricane – when Susan finds true love in the arms of her rescuer and the mystery behind the Stembridge family curse is finally revealed.

 For connoisseurs of the creepy, this book has a little something for everyone. There’s black magic, white magic, haunted houses, madness and hidden treasure. There’s even the grisly remains of a body hidden right under everyone’s noses – I won’t say where but the clue is in the title. Three out of five stars.

Knight’s Keep

knightskeepOrphaned Janet Bewleigh had become an heiress overnight – the unexpected reward for an act of kindness – and now the once locked doors of her beloved Knight’s Keep were open to her.

But there was an aura of evil at the stately manor house which weighed on her like an invisible shroud. She wondered about Lord Ashford, her enigmatic, strangely attractive host, and about the sad, dead girl whose ghost still hovered over the Keep.

And then Janet read the ancient family motto, and knew that the final act was yet to be played…….

Written by Rona Randall and first published in Great Britain 1967. Published by Sphere Books 1973.

Set in Victorian England and narrated in the first person this is the story of one young lady’s quest to seek sanctuary by returning to the home of her recently deceased parents,  only to find madness and murderous intentions awaiting  her.

Our heroine, Janet Bewleigh, enjoyed a poor but happy childhood, helping out in her parents vicarage in Covent Garden, giving out soup and bread to the poor. Then a sudden skating accident leaves her tragically orphaned and she is left to carry on the work of her parents alone. One of her charges, the down and out Uncle Silas, dies in yet another mysterious accident soon after, and Janet becomes an unexpected heiress to a large fortune. Not only that, but he really was her uncle and she soon finds herself visiting the large Elizabethan mansion where her mother had grown up – Knights Keep.

keepsake

As you’d guess from the cover art things don’t start off so well for our Janet, with sinister ladies in waiting, a marriage to a sex obsessed sadist and a poisoned pet puppy to deal with for starters – but after a few interesting adventures and plot twists it all works out for the best. I really enjoyed this book, it’s full of atmosphere and attention to detail with some genuinely creepy bits –  I particularly liked the relationship between Lord Ashford and his rather enigmatic stepmother, the weird and wonderful femme fatale Miranda.

The blurb on the inside cover informs us Rona Randall is established as one of the best writers of Gothic Romance. Furthermore, Knight’s Keep was nominated for a major award of the Romantic Novelists Association. At the time of print the author was living in Sussex and it’s great to read something so good by a local author – I’ll definitely be looking out for more of her stuff. Four out of five stars.

My Love-Haunted Heart

longlivingshadow

Everyone should have a few guilty pleasures and one of mine is the romantic gothic fiction that was so popular in the 60’s and 70’s. Long out of print, to only be found tucked away in the dark corners of charity shops, ebay and car boot sales, I find their bewitching covers and the terrible deeds hinted at within impossible to resist.

dyingemberscoverSo what is it about these small, usually unappealingly mouldy smelling paperbacks I find so attractive? Maybe it  was too much time spent watching Dark Shadows growing up or a gradual disenchantment with an over hyped, over priced market in modern horror, but time and time again, like the proverbial moth to a flame, I find myself irresistibly drawn to these haunting tales of romantic suspense and supernatural horror.

Of course with all great loves there are a few fatal flaws. The obligatory happy endings for one. One could, and should, argue that love can only truly be called gothic if it is unrequited, doomed, tortured, twisted or taboo – think Poe’s  Madeline and  Roderick or Emily Bronte’s Catherine and Heathcliff.

But I guess  for this particular genre, market forces dictated that the hapless heroine survive long enough to be swept off her feet by a real thecatspreylive hunk of (mostly) human love. To be fair, I’m sure many readers bought these books specifically for the ‘riding off into the sunset’ happy endings, but for those of us who prefer intrigue over romance, there are usually more than enough plot twists, villains, and unhappy skeletons in the closet to keep us coming back for more.

Another criticism levelled at this type of fiction is the overall quality of writing. It is true that in the wrong hands these stories can come out cliched and cheesy, with stereotyped characters, predictable plot twists and those “oh come on! give me a break!” moments that jar the reader out of the story. The subject matter and sheer numbers of these titles that were mass produced no doubt makes gothic romance an easy target.

raxlvoodooBut  I do not think this genre is any more guilty of “hack” writing than any other and in the right hands many of these books contain absorbing, evocative stories, full of the kind over dramatic gothic melodrama that’s so fun to lose yourself in occasionally, and they are a credit to their authors – particularly when you consider the very restrictive guidelines they  must of conformed to just to get published. In any event, literary snobbery aside, any book that gets people reading is a great book and there is no doubt the gothic romance genre has a loyal and avid readership.

So this blog is a collection of excerpts, cover art and reviews on some of my without a gravefavourite reads in vintage romantic gothic ficton. In their hey day during the 60’s and 70’s there must have been thousands of these books published  but these days they are becoming harder to come by and, just like the haunted houses they  depict, many of them are falling into ever increasing states of decrepitude.  I can only live in hope that someone, someday resurrects this forgotten genre and starts reprinting some of these titles, complete with their original gorgeous artwork, soon.

sightunseen