Monday, March 19, 2012

Thoughts On The Gothic Genre

Some people view gothic novels as tacky and without merit because they often include sinister settings, tempestuous romances and supernatural elements. But that’s far from the truth. Gothic novels have their roots firmly planted in the finest of literary fiction.  

I’m not saying that there aren’t novels which fall into the gothic subgenres of romantic suspense and gothic horror which have mediocre writing and are formulaic, but there are also tons of classics and skillfully written stories.

The novel which is often sighted as being the origin of the gothic genre is Horace Walpole’s THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO (1764). Moving into the nineteenth century there’s Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN (1818), John William Polidori’s THE VAMPYRE (1819) and works by Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters and Edgar Allan Poe. In the twenty century gothic novels were written by many well-known authors: H.P. Lovecraft, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Daphne du Maurier, Anne Rice …. and many more, including Southern gothic author William Faulkner.  A more recent gothic, THE THRIRTEENTH TALE (2006) by Diana Setterfield, is one of my all time favorites--and I’m very much looking forward to Sarah Ree Brennan’s UNSPOKEN which is coming out this September.

Gothic novel heroines are sometimes accused of being melodramatic, wilting damsels in distress, often governesses or young brides who fall in love with melancholy and borderline abusive men in positions of power. While on the surface this impression may appear to be correct, the heroines more often aren’t that shallow. They are admirable, moral and intelligent women who find themselves embroiled in dark and mysterious settings—and they take action to overcome their circumstances.

No matter if the story is a romance or about death or madness, it is the setting and tone which are the core characteristics of the gothic genre. Ancient castles with dudgeons and secret passages, sprawling dark manor houses with locked towers and widow walks, ancient ruins, monasteries, alleyways, flickering candles and lamp light, overgrown graveyards, cliff tops, moonlit gardens…I get excited just thinking about all the wonderful and terrifying settings which make gothic novels a favorite of mine.

Another reason I love the gothic genre is that it represents a montage of subgenres limited only by the author’s imagination—which is the reason the genre includes writers like Mary Shelley and William Faulkner.

Now, it’s your turn.  What gothic novels have you read? Which ones stick in your mind—the classics, pulp fiction, romantic suspense…?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Subgenres: Historical Fiction

In 2005, I attended the first North American conference of the Historical Novel Society, which included the chance to pitch agents and editors. I sent in my query and first five pages and got the following reply back from a well-known agent: she declined to meet with me at the conference because my alternate-history manuscript was "not historical fiction. Historical fiction is what might have happened."

(Rant ahead: that's what my story was! What might have happened if Anne Boleyn had not miscarried her son in January 1536. What might have happened if she'd never had her head cut off and her son became king in 1547. What might have happened if Anne and Henry's son repeated his parents' dangerous forays into love and choice. And now we'll see what will happen when that same story is published as a trilogy by Random House beginning in summer 2013!)

Still, despite my disagreement with that agent's interpretation, I like her actual definition. Historical fiction is what might have happened.

Sometimes it's about the well-known dead; sometimes it's fictional ghosts; often it's a mix. But always it tells a story set in the past, in which the time itself is a critical character. The author recreates buildings, clothing, smells and tastes and sounds that are wildly different from any that can be found today. The story lines reflect religious beliefs and social pressures and power structures that seem nearly as alien as any created in science fiction.

And yet, miraculously, the people are just people. Human beings are fundamentally the same, if not on the outside then always on the inside. Love, hate, fear, hope, anger, desire . . . the best historical fiction does what all best fiction does: shows us ourselves.

This is why I read and write historical fiction: to travel to a time and place I can never get to in real life, and to find myself when I get there.

Recommended reading (those titles that made me say "If this isn't how it happened, it's definitely how it should have"):

HERE BE DRAGONS/Sharon Kay Penman/medieval Wales and England and the royal marriage of Llewellyn the Great and the illegitimate daughter of King John

THE BROTHERS OF GWYNEDD QUARTET/Ellis Peters/also medieval Wales and England, two generations later when England sets its sights on destroying Welsh autonomy

THE LYMOND CHRONICLES/Dorothy Dunnet/six book series about a Scottish soldier-statesman in the Tudor era

THE KING'S GENERAL/Daphne du Maurier/one of my adolescent favorites, set during the English civil war

CLOCKWORK PRINCE & CLOCKWORK ANGEL/Cassandra Clare/a prequel series to Clare's well-known Mortal Instruments books, set in Victorian London

WOLF HALL/Hilary Mantel/last year's Man Booker prize-winner about Thomas Cromwell in the time of Henry VIII, the sequel will be out this year

And for those interested in more titles and/or learning more about historical fiction, check out the Historical Novel Society website. Which, by the way, specifically includes alternate history in its definition of historical fiction. So there.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Closer Look at Subgenres: Steampunk

I was recently reading the Steampunk Bible, by Jeff VanderMeer, and my teen son came in. After looking over my shoulder for a minute, he asked if he could borrow it when I was done. Later I caught him reading it. "Why haven't I heard of Steampunk before?" he asked. His tone was aggrieved. Of course, what's funniest about that is I'm sure there's a great deal that my fifteen-year old hasn't heard of yet, or had the chance to enjoy. All the same, that was my feeling, too, when I first discovered that there was a name for this weird obsession I've had, and a whole genre, too!

A few notes on Steampunk, in case you, too, are wondering what this new beast is and why you haven't heard of it.

  • You get to dress up, and your costume can be as historically inspired and wildly creative as you like. Many times they include funky gadgets, goggles, and glorious gizmos. Plus a corset, if you like. Not that I would know anything about that ;)

  • There's lots of opportunity for hands on--in fact, do it yourself is kind of at the core of steampunk. If you're like me and you love to see your own contraption take shape and work, this is for you. If you love an independent and self-sustainable lifestyle, this is for you.

  • It has its own music, and its own art. Above and beyond the literary genre lives an entire culture that is vibrant and always pushing the creative envelope.

  • The underlying philosophy is one that embraces alternatives. That history didn't have to run the way it did, that you don't have to buy everything from a store, that the possibilities for self expression run deeper than whatever clothing ad is currently running.

Stories started the whole thing, and stories (imho) keep it going. Classics include H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. My personal favorites are Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan books, and Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series. Which kind of shows you the scope of what steampunk is capable of. When the future has been reinvented through a lens that recreates the past, anything is possible.