As we hit the winter solstice I feel there are two possible reading responses. You can try escapism, reading about hot weather and endless summer days, or you can embrace the bleakness and go Gothic. For me, it’s never really a choice.
‘The Loney’, with its very title suggesting isolation and madness, has make its way onto lots of ‘best of’ lists for 2015. It’s currently on the shortlist for the Costa First Novel award and was one of the last novels I was determined to squeeze into this year’s reading.
The book begins ambitiously, with quotations from Matthew (about the ‘prince of demons’), and Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’. I’m not sure if it’s fair to point out that the other 2015 debut to heavily reference Yeats’ wonderful poem was Obioma’s fantastic debut, ‘The Fishermen’. My expectations were well and truly set.
The beginning of the novel does not disappoint. So many favourite tropes of the genre are present that the joy of spotting them increases in pace with the mounting terror and dread. The premise is simple. ‘The Loney’ is an isolated and unattractive area which contains, in addition to surly locals, a shrine with potentially healing powers. The narrator is dragged there annually by his mother who, as a driving force in their fiercely Catholic community, is convinced that the pilgrimage will ‘cure’ younger brother of his learning difficulties. In terms of family dynamics, it’s terrifying already.
Most of the novel is concerned with a delayed Easter pilgrimage (delayed because the priest, after a significant event, refused to lead the group there anymore and they postponed the idea of an Easter retreat until his mysterious death). In many ways, The Loney has remained the same, but the locals have become even more weirdly insular and the traditions even more insidiously creepy. Everything is slightly off kilter, from the room containing an incomplete set of ‘nativity dolls’, to the ambiguous strangers who appear out of nowhere.
I’m not sure the final denouement is as satisfying as the build-up, but that could be because the build-up itself is so superb. This is a slow-burn, psychological and atmospheric gothic. If, on the other hand, you like your horror with a bit more blood and guts then I recommend…
‘The Quick’ has been billed as a good old Victorian horror story, but you should know that its command of the traditional genre tropes goes far beyond the usual nostalgic steam-punk fare. Lauren Owen is currently completing a PhD in Gothic writing (and holds an MA in Victorian Literature) and her knowledge of the genre is as evident as her skill at story telling. While I wouldn’t usually give an author’s resume as part of a review, I do think it’s significant here. Owen is able to not only evoke Poe, Stoker and Stevenson with ease and precision, she is also confident at updating their concerns, without patronising modern readers. I nearly applauded at the references to manure and filth; in Owen’s Victorian London, you are very aware that horse drawn carriages leave their residue behind them and the only reason for someone to have white teeth is if said teeth were drawn from corpses. These are side issues, but they are the tell-tale signs of genuinely accomplished historical fiction.
As for the story, it starts off without any supernatural elements, though with enough references to premature burial and isolated, ruined mansions to set the tone. The supernatural horror doesn’t take hold for about a hundred pages and the power of the characterisation is such that I can’t see many horror fans having any problem with this. In any case, there are so many things to be frightened of in Victorian London that monsters will never be able to fully upstage the historical and human reality. We all know that the undead can heal themselves, but what about a woman whose face has been half rotted by phosphorus (a common hazard for those in the match trade)? Class war is shown to be as pernicious as any fight between the forces of good and evil; no female, however powerful, is allowed to fully escape from the acknowledged confines of her prescribed gender role.
This is less about creeping horror than ‘The Loney’, but it is just as chilling (just wait for the medical experiments sections and the wonderful moment in the underground station). Frankly, whatever your preferences, if you like Gothic literature there is no reason to be bored during these long winter nights.