The Mark of the Rope (1972) by Miriam Lynch

MarkoftheRopeTHE MARK OF THE ROPE
Written by Miriam Lynch
Copyright 1972 by Miriam Lynch
Published by Avon Books
First Avon Printing: November, 1972
Paperback
157 pages

COVER ART: ?

POV: Third-person
SETTING: 1970s, New England, USA

THE STORY: Andrea Stanton has taken some much-needed vacation time from her New York job, planning to drive up to Canada for a week and relax. But, as usual, her overbearing, needy friend Charlene imposes on the plans and persuades Andrea to bring her and her five-year-old daughter Catha along, claiming it will be just a quick detour through Massachussetts to drop them off at the ancestral home of Charlene’s ex-husband, where she plans on asking his family for money. Charlene is always having money troubles, relationship troubles, all kinds of trouble. Even her child was born out of rape, which oddly seems to have had no effect on her.

In a small town just outside of Salem called Shadduck, the mansion they visit is called Fauncroft. It causes Andrea to think of the people she’s known who would travel the miles she has just to gaze upon such a beautiful relic, but to her it is like something out of a nightmare. Ugly and horrific. And the two women inside – a mother and twenty-something daughter named Sarah and Laurice Metiver – match it with their hostility and aloofness, behaving as though the family itself has deteriorated with their home.

There is also a strange fear on the Metivers part, beginning with the big dog that appears upon their arrival and befriends Catha before they even get to the door. Just one look at it and Laurice is distressed and calling to her mother that “the dog” is back, like something must be done about it. And then, when they all sit down inside for tea and Andrea loosens the ribbon from around her neck, the two women stare at her in horror, gasp and drop their cups before rushing out of the room.Markoftheropeback

While Andrea was eager to get away fast, she’s having second thoughts about leaving Charlene and Catha alone with people who could be mentally unbalanced. She decides to at least stay for dinner, but then young Catha begins complaining of stomach pains and running a fever. When she sees the child’s face turn a ghastly green, she knows she cannot leave.

Laurice offers to call a Doctor Wendell to the house, who happens to be a young, handsome, unmarried man she’s dying to flirt with, constantly stepping in front of him to obstruct his work with her own selfish priorities. Charlene, already feeling hard up for a man, does exactly the same thing – despite her child’s health concerns – and the two get into pathetic competition while Dr. Wendell does his best to ignore them and speak directly to Andrea, the only person in the house he can see is caring and competent enough to care for the child through the night.

But night at Fauncroft will be far from the vacation Andrea wanted, for this night will bring the awakening of an ancient curse long in waiting. While she may at first find it unsettling to deal with the pacing footsteps of an old woman who is dying in the room above her, unnerving to see the figure of a man repeatedly watching the house from the trees, and quite alarming for the mysterious dog to keep finding its way into Catha’s room no matter how many times they lock it outside, Andrea will be forced to do something once she realizes someone is stalking the secret passages of the house trying to kill her.

There is a horrifying legend at Fauncroft. The legend of the witch who was hanged in Salem centuries ago at the testimony of a Metiver, which spawned a curse that would follow the family down every generation to come, and with its every coming will be a sign – the mark of the rope – which the present Metivers have already known Andrea to carry… but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is the one to fear.Motrinside

REVIEW: This one’s not easy to explain. If you read this and think it’s too slow and needed more to happen, I totally get that, but the atmosphere and feeling are so alive in the undercurrent here, and so perfectly blended into the story that I actually admire its minimal, slower-burn-than-usual approach, and find it very justifiable.

For starters, this is morbid and downbeat like I’ve noticed in the previous Satanic Gothics. Death, decay, disease, and insanity seem to be mainstay themes in this series, and I’m always all for that. This one even accomplishes an unusual trick in making an inhabited house feel long abandoned. There are people in it and they’ve lived there for quite some time, but the level of neglect and stagnation could rival that of Castle Dracula, and the consistent reminders of the dust and grime and haunting emptiness of Fauncroft really hits its mark every time in carrying the atmosphere.

While the story is slow, its progression with the ambiance comes out so natural that the mundane things can still take on meaning and substance with the right awareness and mindset. Mark of the Rope’s goal might not be what you’re used to, and it doesn’t reach levels that would impress the mainstream. Its horror is hidden within seemingly tame things, within the lives of the characters, and the supernatural climax – as ugly as it is – occurs with a strange indifference. You won’t find the value reading this in public or discussing it with anyone. It’s more like an oppressive nightmare you need to have alone in your bedroom.

One criticism I could have with the story is the relationship between Andrea and Charlene and how it’s never resolved. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to smack the shit out of Charlene, who basically bosses Andrea around and guilts her into doing huge favors for her, and will also sell her out in a heartbeat for the most petty things. At the same time, it sort of makes me want to smack Andrea too. She’s smart, observant, brave, good at decisions, and can even spell out what Charlene’s always up to in detail, but still chooses to put up with it. And this is somewhat justified by her love and concern for young Catha, so I kind of get it when you consider the trauma and abandonment issues the poor girl would one day have to deal with if she had to count on her real mother, who seriously will not do a goddamn thing for her daughter.

MarkoftheRopecWhich brings me to the rape that brought Catha into the world. I know you might theorize she psychologically rejects her daughter because of the way she was conceived, but this could just not apply to the shallow, self-serving narcissism of Charlene. It was actually a little shocking for them to include a rape victim as one of the main characters – especially one who’s so unlikable and who victimizes her friend and daughter so blatantly – but the revelation of how the supernatural ties in with the rape and the birth of Catha made this eccentric detail a real winner for me.

And when I consider it all, I really have no criticism over the character relationships, because they reflect real life in a way that no fiction ever does without having to make a statement about it. In a way I can respect that Andrea and Charlene have an abusive friendship and nothing gets resolved about it. All the characters here really have twisted relationships, but it’s just part of who they are and they don’t have to transition to the ideal ways we like to imagine people. There are so many in this world with more personal issues and twisted relationships than we like to think about, and always have been. There’s no reason some genre fiction characters can’t be a little fucked up without resolution too.

While the previous Satanic Gothics I’ve read don’t deal directly with Satan much, this one concerns him a little more as the supernatural powers in action do come from the evil of Hell, but much more focus is put on the witch and family curse aspect. For its premise, however, there’s not as much New England or historical witch trial details as you’d expect, which is always the big draw for me in this type of story, but the madness of Fauncroft and its inhabitants was an unexpected treat I welcome just the same. It was also pretty original and had an impressive edge for a vintage Gothic romance, which has me looking forward to trying more books by Miriam Lynch.

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Ravensridge (1971) by Jennifer Hale

RavensridgeRAVENSRIDGE
Written by Jennifer Hale
Copyright 1971 by Jennifer Hale
Published by Prestige Books Inc.
Paperback
189 pages

COVER ART: ?

SETTING: 1970s, USA
POV: First-person

THE STORY: Photographer Melissa Manion has been invited by her friend Charles Courtney to shoot photos for a magazine piece on his ancestral home, Ravensridge. Having just starting out in the business, this is a perfect opportunity to establish herself. She arrives late one night in a heavy rainstorm, surprised she survived the mountain roads in such conditions, and even more surprised to learn Charles has left home unexpectedly.

After dealing with an extremely rude housekeeper who seems to think she’s the mistress of Ravensridge, Melissa finally meets the master, Charles’ brother Philip Courtney – a tall, intimidating man with a patch over one eye, under from which a deep scar protrudes. Much like her response to the house, Melissa feels uneasy toward Philip, regarding his moody kindness and tendency to snap with a mix of fear and intrigue.

Her discomfort grows, however, when a couple of the servants spill some details on a local girl murdered by being bashed repeatedly into a mausoleum wall and the recent disappearance of Philip’s wife, both cases in which many are sure Philip is the perpetrator. Coupling this with his already peculiar display of behavior, it does make Melissa wonder about him, especially when she begins to hear his sorrowful harpsichord notes at all hours of the night.

RavensridgebackUnfortunately, with Charles gone and the only other relatives in the house proving vulgar and unsafe to be alone with, Melissa has only Philip to show her the house and grounds and educate her thoroughly enough to help plan out her work. This begins with the horrible history of Judge Courtney, a madman of power who cruelly sent enough to the gallows to earn the house its other name – Hangman’s Hill. Then there is Lost Souls Cave in which a cold, deep stream runs populated by mysterious albino fish without eyes, rumored by legend to be the souls of those who hanged. This and much of the other disturbing details of Ravensridge all bleed into the more recent occurrences of death and mystery.

By the time Charles returns, dreadfully haggard with dark eyes but refusing to talk about his troubles, Melissa has already met a good number of quirky, half-mad locals with enough puzzle pieces to nearly put it all together. This and her growing feelings of wanting to be close to Philip have kept her so far, but she soon starts to reconsider when she becomes the target of murder, beginning with a giant stone gargoyle being pushed from the rotted wood of the house to crush her.

RavensridgeinsideREVIEW: This is one hell of a Gothic! For starters, the writing is simple and perfect without a bit of detail overdone or just for inflation, and the right keywords are hit throughout to create an incredibly Gothic atmosphere and sense of fear in being surrounded by hostile maniacs. You cannot fake the vision this author was having.

While the Gothic aspects stray a bit from the traditional, with a more modern mentality and setting in the southern United States, we get a more understanding indulgence in it than even some of the more traditional attempts. Without turning it into a parody, there seems to be a horrid history or ominous mystery lurking in every inch of the setting just the way a true Gothic lover should want it – my favorite touch being the room where Philip plays his harpsichord at night, which is built like a narrow shaft where only the instrument itself and a gigantic grandfather clock stand, while the ceiling high above is an eerie stained-glass skylight. No significant purpose to the room being like this is ever explained, and I’m glad.

What the author really succeeds in doing here, seemingly without trying (which is the best way), is creating surrealism for a Gothic. Not that everything in it fits the definition of surreal, but it manages to hit this tone of weirdness and uncertainty that feels very far from reality as we know it. The setting itself is truly menacing, and the fact that nearly every character Melissa encounters seems right out of a hicksploitation or backwoods horror, there’s just not a page of this that isn’t saturated in so much of everything you want it’s almost unreal.

GargoyleThere’s nothing supernatural here, but you can probably already tell that doesn’t bother me in the least. Even so, the white fish that have only small bumps where their eyes should be are quite an eye-catching abnormality, based on a real thing but seem to take on an almost supernatural meaning here, especially with their ability to strike disgust and fear in those who gaze upon them.

As for the plot, it’s a solid mystery where many complex pieces come together in the end and make sense enough you don’t have to question it.

As for romance, oddly enough, this is one case where more would have been welcome. I had a lot of respect for Melissa as a professional woman who’s not into sleuthing or sticking her nose into trouble – she really just wants to do her damn job and get the hell out of there. Likewise, I really admired Philip with his tragic past and Byronic state of internal torment, and showing more of the connection that grows between such believable characters would have only added.

Another character I really enjoyed was Lennie the handyman, whose actions and dialogue were such a match for Ben Stokes from Dark Shadows it was almost like having him as a guest character.

Overall, what’s great about this book is every development keeps it feeling fresh and interesting, so it never feels like it’s reached its peak and might flat-line for the remainder. This surprises and entertains from start to finish.

Unfortunately I wasn’t unable to find much about Jennifer Hale, except that she did write some other Gothics during the 1970s, a few of them being The Secret of Devil’s Cave, The House on Key Diablo, Portrait of Evil, and Stormhaven.

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The Sorcerers (1973) by Dorian Winslow

TheSorcerersfrontTHE SORCERERS
Written by Dorian Winslow (Daoma Winston)
Copyright 1973 by Daoma Winston
Published by Avon Books
First Avon Printing: June, 1973
Paperback
160 pages

COVER ART: Walter Popp (?)

SETTING: 1970s, USA
POV: First-person

THE STORY: Gilly was orphaned young and had a tough life growing up in foster homes. Now at twenty-three and two years into marriage, she enjoys a more pleasant, domestic life with the man of her dreams, but has no idea he’s about to shatter it all by revealing his secret love affair with her own best friend and announcing he wants a divorce.

As Gilly explains, “Foster children learn early to control anger, learn to live with disappointment,” and so rather than fight him with the power of rage boiling up inside her, she decides to quickly pack a suitcase and flee “into the sheltering dark of the autumn night.”

After a few lonesome days in a motel room, she manages to gather her strength and begins job hunting. Her first (and only) interview is with Mason Walker, a man of imposing good looks, whom she guesses to be just over thirty and a success in whatever business he’s in.

TheSorcerersbackWhat Mason seeks is a female companion for his lonely wife, an invalid unable to leave their mansion called Walker Hill, which lies about eighty miles from the city. He warns Gilly of the isolation, how it can get to people, and that they’ve had trouble keeping help in the past. But with her current situation, which she keeps secret from him, she’s eager to get away from her own past and frightened of what may happen if she doesn’t take this job.

Doubts first creep into her mind once she’s left alone on a railway platform in the foggy October night. Without a sign of the car that’s supposed to meet her, she seeks shelter in a nearby café, where a few concerned locals – once discovering who she is – urge her to take the next train back to the city and forget about Walker Hill. They hint at strange goings-on up there, and claim the last companion didn’t leave but disappeared. It shakes Gilly up good but doesn’t change the tough situation she’s in, nor her determination to make it on her own. So when her driver arrives – the drunken, bloodshot-eyed wildman that he is – she still chooses to go on.

TheSorcerersinsideWalker Hill proves indeed strange. Surrounded by wall and moat with only one gateway in or out, she soon feels the seriousness of being shut in with a group shady inhabitants, many of them living there due to suspicious circumstances and all seeming to harbor deadly intentions in their heads. Even Mason’s behavior changes at Walker Hill, the most unsettling example being when he sees on his wife’s door an inverted cross drawn in some slimy, ashy substance, and rather than explaining it he just curses under his breath and quickly wipes it off with a handkerchief.

When Gilly learns the tragic reason for Mrs. Walker’s condition and begins finding more of these inverted crosses around the house, it slowly becomes apparent there are a lot of questions to be answered about Walker Hill. Like why is Mrs. Walker and her sister so obsessed with reading fortunes, and why is Mason so against it? And, even scarier, why does Mrs. Walker play with dolls that bear wounds so similar to those found on the people who are soon turning up dead at Walker Hill?

REVIEW: This book has a nice Gothic flavor with an imaginative setting and characters, and the tone is pretty depressing and gloomy. Again there is no clear presence of Satan, but the mysterious inverted crosses are part of a mounting revelation that genuine black magic is at work.

1988 hardcover printing with real author name.

Cover of 1988 hardback printing.

However, while it starts out well, things begin to die down quickly. For everything that was here, I should have liked this book a lot but unfortunately there was too much in between that made for a boring story. Too much time passes without enough happening, and the book develops a somewhat annoying habit of repeating all the strange things in it, seemingly adding up clues to solve the mystery, but it really feels more like it knows you’re bored and wants to remind you of the cool, creepy things that happened before but aren’t happening anymore.

This isn’t heavy on romance, but the guilty attraction Gilly begins feeling for Mason is an interesting dilemma for the character; desiring a married man after just losing her marriage over that exact circumstance. This and her past as an orphan are both used well to create a believable psychology for a strong, solid protagonist.

If you really like Gothic romances and are familiar enough with them that you know what you could be getting into, I’d recommend this as one just to check off on the list. It is interesting for the different approach it takes to the standard story, its little offbeat details, and for remaining atmospheric throughout, which is why I’m giving it three Red Moon Women instead of two.

221930ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I found the name Dorian Winslow intriguing, as Dorian is typically a male name and practically all men who wrote Gothics used female psuedonyms. In this case it’s the opposite; Dorian Winslow is actually Daoma Winston, who wrote the two popular Gothics Moorhaven and Emerald Station, among many others. It’s interesting she chose that pseudonym, and a pseudonym at all when it wasn’t really her habit, which makes me wonder if there was a lack of enthusiasm or belief in this particular work, whether for being a Satanic Gothic or some other reason. This could explain the poor quality of the final product coming from an author who readers typically wouldn’t expect that from.

That being said, there is a solid platform and intriguing components that remain consistent in this book, which still gives me faith in Ms. Winston’s imagination. Although I have more of her books, she’s a new author to me, and I still look forward to reading more of her.

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A Presence in an Empty Room (1980) by Velda Johnston

APresenceinanEmptyRoomA PRESENCE IN AN EMPTY ROOM
Written by Velda Johnston
Copyright 1980 by Velda Johnston
Published by Dodd, Mead & Company
Published 1980
Hardcover
265 pages

COVER ART: ?

This one’s a little different. Though that cover doesn’t look like a Gothic romance at all, I knew Velda Johnston was a writer of Gothic romances and thought this would still fit for that extra bit of supernatural for this Halloween season. It turns out this was one of her Gothic romances, only not printed to look like one in hardcover, though it did get a later paperback printing in 1982 with a more familiar Gothic flavor.

POV: First-person
SETTING:
1970s/80s, East Coast USA

THE STORY: Susan Hapgood tells us her story specifically from a point in time after she experienced what she calls an “invading evil”. It begins when she is twenty-two and has just lost her father to an illness after caring for him since her mother’s death when she was just a teen. To help cover expenses she tries to sell volumes that belonged to her father in a secondhand bookshop in Manhattan, and this is where she meets Martin Summerslee, an attractive man in his early thirties and working class clothes, offers to buy the lot the proprietor turns down. Though she is ever doubtful of her own attractiveness, she suspects Martin is interested in more than books when he keeps going out of his way to make conversation with her, and, sure enough, before they part he invites her to lunch.APresenceinsideflap1

Over a few Bloody Marys and then subsequent dinner dates thereafter, she learns Martin is a scholar in the controversial subject of Pre-Columbian explorations of the Americas, and, despite his appearance, is quite well off on “old money” he inherited. She also learns he had a wife, Irene, who died in a plane crash and whom he loved very dearly, but increasingly wants Susan to know he’s fallen in love with her.

Martin eventually proposes in a small coffee shop and they marry just days later, heading off to honeymoon on his own private island before returning to the mainland to settle at his old family mansion in Conobscot, Maine, a prestigious yet curious place with an ominous undercurrent.

While the house is beautiful, filled with luxury and beautiful antique décor, it is permeated with the presence of Irene, as is the entire community. There seems no end to the praise and admiration for the dead woman, whom Susan finds herself forced to compete with in order to prove her worth. She even becomes envious of Irene’s long list of community service and accomplishments, one being the cooking lessons to the young women of Jenkins Hollow – a nearby backwoods area of hideous inbred inhabitants – which Susan is now expected to take up as well.

While trying to balance these more normal problems, Susan starts becoming frightened by repeated extreme headaches she can’t explain, as well as mean-spirited thoughts toward others, especially her husband. Then when Martin flies to Europe for a historians meeting, she goes for a ride with his friend, David Carstairs, to visit an abandoned church in the Hollow, and begins to understand what is happening.

Through a memory that is not her own, she experiences a Black Mass that took place in the church on Halloween. Something David himself took part in, along with the beautiful Irene. And as the spirit of Irene continues to take over Susan’s body, Susan will know the full extent of what lurked beneath her wholesome persona – that the woman everyone loved was an adulteress and a would-be murderess who consorted with Satanists! – and now she wants to use Susan’s body to continue her unfinished work.

A more Gothic romantic cover from 1982, printed by Bantam.

A more Gothic romantic cover from 1982, printed by Bantam. Art by Steve Assel.

REVIEW: Right away I could tell this was high quality writing. I don’t just mean it’s well written but more that it has class. This is classy writing. The kind that explains every detail from a perspective you know has tasted the world of wealth and knows its essence inside and out, and even what would typically be the more boring parts still had my eyes glued because the insight hit its marks so beautifully.

That said, this turned out very different than a title like A Presence in an Empty Room communicates to my imagination. I was expecting more of a subtle haunting with a lot of unexplainable feeling, but this is quite direct and to the point. Irene was a vicious, wicked woman, and when she takes over Susan, there is nothing subtle about it. It’s more like A Presence Inside Me, but it still handles the subject well in a standout way, most notably because Susan remains conscious and remembers everything Irene makes her do, and the narrator switches to Irene every time she takes over, speaking as if she were Susan and making almost a game of figuring out who you’re listening to before the intentions tell you.

Susan gets pretty traumatized by a lot of it, which brings me to probably the most interesting aspect in this that I practically never see in any early Gothic: the sexuality. Not that it was explicitly detailed, but I did note that on the honeymoon Susan addressed the sex with an easy frankness, even though it was her first time. This could be because the ‘80s were moving in by now and romances were on the road to getting more hardcore, but there’s an even bolder move here that I rarely see in any book or movie at all: In the first possession, Irene’s spirit forces Susan to have sex with David Carstairs for several hours in a motel room. Things like this are usually avoided like the plague, the idea being that sexual invasion of any kind to the protagonist somehow taints them, causing the audience to withdraw in discomfort or disgust. Well, Velda Johnston wasn’t concerned about that at all, and I must say I admire her for taking that brave route, especially in a genre that is generally of cozier content.

My biggest problem here, however, is that this story has everything it needs but doesn’t take it as far as it needs to go. The writing is A+, the setting is a moody New England with summer heading into fall, there’s a backwoods with creepy inbred hillbillies, a desecrated abandoned church, and even an evil spirit, but all of them sort of take the backseat and let mystery-solving and mere discussions about these things do the driving. VeldaJohnstonThere’s just much more of Susan visiting priests and doctors for help or investigating the secret life of Irene Summerslee, which is all still good and interesting, but I think ultimately keeps it on the level of a more common mystery when it could have been something that would stick out in a reader’s mind for years to come.

Oh, well. There’s also other little details in this that pleased me, like the settings. You may have noticed I included a few in the summary, as I love little places like secondhand bookstores (which should be obvious) and corner coffee shops. Johnston puts the characters in little places like that a lot, which speaks louder to me than any plot and sort of makes me want to have coffee with her myself. She hits a lot of details I like, also thoroughly addressing a certain truth I’ve noticed but rarely heard discussed, which is that many who have inherited “old money” tend to dress modest, drive cheaper cars, and avoid acknowledging their money any way they can. It sort of fascinates me and I think it did her as well.

This one is difficult to rate. While it is definitely all Gothic romance in plot, the mood and feel is more of an occult thriller or mystery, which I still like and the supernatural presence is partly what makes me want to rate it higher than I normally would. I’ve read so many of these that tease and play around the supernatural that I have a built-in affection for those that fully deliver it, no matter what other aspects of the book fall short. I’m giving it four Red Moon Women. I do know what most people are looking for though, and I only recommend it to the initiated of Gothic romance and occult fiction.

Click here for more about the author.

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Dreamer Beware (1977) by Ruth Wissmann

dreamerbewarecover1DREAMER BEWARE
Written by Ruth Wissmann
Copyright 1977 by Ruth Wissmann
Published by Popular Library
Printing: May, 1978
Paperback
222 pages

COVER ART: ?

POV: Third-person
SETTING: 1970s, California, USA

THE STORY: Evelyn Vail fondly remembers her childhood at the isolated California home called Oak Haven, where she was raised by Melissa, a godmother who became like a real mother, and where she spent fun-filled summers with Melissa’s nephews, Brad and Wayne. Now in her twenties and living on her own in England, Evelyn’s recent divorce has left her lonely and longing more than ever for that sense of security at Oak Haven. She never would have left, in fact, if it weren’t for the feelings she developed for Wayne during their adolescence, her lack of courage to tell him, and her loss of hope when Wayne married the cruel and manipulative Janet.

But things have changed now. Janet is dead, having fallen out of a third story window at Oak Haven about six months before Evelyn receives a letter from Melissa begging her to return home. It’s a puzzling letter, speaking of mysterious things from Evelyn’s childhood, but states very clearly that Melissa is terrified of “a strange force that has been hovering in the hallways and rooms of this house”.dreamerbewarebackcover1

Concerned, Evelyn takes the next flight out to California, where she realizes something is wrong the moment she arrives at Oak Haven. Melissa, Brad, and Wayne try to give her the most normal homecoming at first, but she can feel an extra presence with them, as though someone else is in the house, watching them with unseen eyes. Then night falls and there comes the eerie voices, the harsh knocks on Evelyn’s door, and icy fingers that reach out and grab her in the dark.

All three then explain to her what’s been happening for months. That there are footsteps every night, sounds in the upper rooms, whispers in the air and hysterical laughter. With the help of Wayne’s parapsychologist friend, Dr. Boland, they’ve theorized three spirits haunt the house – the first being Janet; the second George, Melissa’s husband; and the third an unknown spirit they suspect to be a dark entity, possibly influencing Janet and George’s malicious behavior. Whatever it is, they believe Evelyn can help identify the spirit because of a cryptic message she once wrote as a child inside one of Melissa’s book, if only she can unlock the memory from her mind.

But Evelyn is convinced there is more to it. Odd looks from others and the way they relay information keeps indicating that they’re hiding something. She can’t figure out just what it is, but she receives a disturbing hint when Mrs. Thorpe, the long time housekeeper, reminds her of the car accident months prior (which Evelyn never told anyone about) and tells her she never should have returned home… that she should have remained peacefully in her grave.dreamerbewareopen1

Now not only is Evelyn dealing with her old feelings for Wayne, Brad’s new feelings for her, as well as the ghosts of Oak Haven, but also finally noticing the odd changes in her life since that accident, and must face the possibility she could be the third ghost.

REVIEW: This one starts off a little slow and I actually had my doubts about where it was going at first. I wasn’t crazy about the contemporary Southern California setting when this is supposed to be Gothic, and the normalcy of Evelyn’s homecoming was going on a bit too long for my taste, but once the sun went down and the fright took over, it gripped me for the remainder of the book, and this turned out to be one of the most standout ghost stories I’ve read in a long time.

This has all the classic haunted house stuff you could want: whispering voices and evil laughter, sounds of people running through the hallways when no one is there, objects moving, doors opening and slamming, writing on fogged windows by unseen fingers, and even a bedroom attack from a green orb. To go with that, you also get a mentally unstable housekeeper who owns a crystal ball, Tarot cards, and a Ouija board, and is obsessed with communicating with the dead.

Throughout this is woven layers of psychology and less contemplated phenomena of paranormal studies that give the book a sophistication and indicates a writer of intelligence and eager interest in the field. It’s difficult to explain it all in a simple review, as the more profound stuff is in the details, but one present subject that surprised me was the understanding that a ghost can be a lingering energy left by death, rather than the actual soul of the person as we usually think of it. Specifically here, it is the spirit of Melissa’s deceased husband, which the book describes as follows:

“You might well know,” Melissa said with a sigh, “that George is still here. Not really George, Evelyn; not the man you remembered and the man I loved, but the – sick George that he became. The –” Now tears welled up in her eyes, and Brad moved toward her and placed an arm around her shoulders.

“It’s only a force, something left here by his sickness. The personality change caused by the strokes,” Brad said.

Another interesting component is the power of the mind and its ability to create exterior energies when the will is strong enough, but to say more than that would be giving away way too much of the story. You’ll have to find a copy and read if you want the full experience.

So, despite taking place in one of my least favorite settings for a Gothic, this still has all the components needed to classify as one, and because it is written so well with not only the supernatural being a reality, but also a unique and eerie exploration of it, I’d recommend this to any ghost story fanatic and I give it five Red Moon Women.

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Barnabas Collins (1968) by Marilyn Ross

BarnabasCollinsfrontcoverBARNABAS COLLINS (Dark Shadows #6)
Written by Marilyn Ross (Dan Ross)
Copyright 1968 by Dan Curtis Productions, Inc.
Paperback Library Edition
First Printing: November, 1968
Paperback
157 pages

COVER ART: Production still

POV: Third-person
SETTING: Early 1900s, Maine, USA

THE STORY – PART 1: We begin on a stormy night with Victoria Winters in the library of Collinwood, reading through the journal of the late Jonas Collins. Here, we get filled in on the basic backstory of the Collins family and how Vicki came to them, just in case you haven’t seen the show or read the previous books. Vicki is particularly interested in entries mentioning a man named Barnabas Collins, who arrived mysteriously at Collinwood in the early 1900s and then mysteriously disappeared.

Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard enters the room and they begin a dicussion of the family history (as usual). Elizabeth remembers Jonas’ wife, her great-grandmother Margaret Collins, telling her of the time Barnabas stayed at the Old House, and how he so amazingly resembled his ancestor, the original Barnabas Collins, whose portrait hangs in the foyer. A fascinated Victoria presses for more, and Elizabeth decides to tell her the whole story as Margaret Collins told it… only as she begins, we are taken outside of Collinwood, out into the storm, all the way to Eagle Hill Cemetery where Margaret Collins lies in a fitful rest, still troubled over the secrets she took with her to the grave. As Elizabeth tells what she knows to Victoria, it is from the tortured ghost of Margaret Collins that we receive the true story…

BarnabasCollinsbackcoverTHE STORY – PART 2: We are now in the year 1902. Margaret Collins is the mistress of Collinwood, living there with her husband Jonas and their invalid daughter Greta. The Collins fortune has dwindled with the phasing out of the sailing business, and Jonas devotes all his time to reclaiming it with the establishment of Collins canning and fishing. This has created a cold, distant relationship among the family, leaving Margaret and Greta to pass the days with quiet unease, with a sense of repetition yet always knowing the façade of stability might crumble.

Both parents try to shelter Greta and distract her from thoughts of her condition, having been born with horribly deformed legs that are so hideous they must always be covered by a blanket as she goes about in a wheelchair. It is well accepted she will never marry, despite having a quite beautiful upper half and face, and her health is fragile, so Margaret and Jonas try to see that she will live all her days in comfort and peace at Collinwood.

Then arrives the strange but magnetic Barnabas, claiming to be a cousin from England who has returned to see his ancestral home. He wishes to stay for some time and they agree to rent him the Old House, where he claims he will be conducting complex scientific experiments during the day, and so will only be available for social calls in the evening.

BarnabasCollinsinsideMargaret wants to like Barnabas but can’t help feeling apprehensive. It’s something about his aloof behavior, his icy cold touch, and how his handsome looks become cadaverous when she studies him long enough. Nonetheless, he proves to be a breath of new life for young Greta, who finds the man most charming as he begins making a routine of nightly visits to tell her stories of his adventures around the world. Margaret dislikes the way he seems to hypnotize the girl and how he becomes obsessed with referring to her as another dead ancestor, Josette Collins. She wishes to find a way to stop his visits, yet hesitates for the sake of her daughter’s happiness.

At the same time, scary things are beginning to occur in Collinsport. There are attacks from a huge, vicious bat, women are being stalked by an unknown stranger, and always with Barnabas nearby. Margaret finds out one of the maids and even her closest friend are keeping late night company with Barnabas at the Old House, which they don’t seem to remember in the morning when they have two fresh puncture wounds on their neck. According to Granny Entwhistle, the nearly one hundred year old housekeeper believed to be a bit touched, an ancient curse of long ago has returned to Collinwood to bring about the death and sorrow that plagued it before.

Barnabas1795portraitMargaret watches as the once complacent, everyday life around her falls apart, and she knows Barnabas is to blame. After some investigation, she finally discovers his secret when she sees the coffin in a secret room of the cellar at the Old House, and realizes that is where he sleeps during the day. She knows the right thing to do is destroy him with a stake through the heart, but hesitates at the thought of her daughter, who has come to depend on Barnabas as a reason to live. What kind of shock might losing him cause her? And what might result with her fragile health?

Reluctantly, Margaret agrees to protect Barnabas and keep his secret, knowing it is wrong but thinking only of poor Greta. Margaret hopes in a way she can tame him, but eventually realizes his selfishness and cruelty are without bounds, and he will torment her throughout the years soaked in death, obsession, and madness – with perhaps the most disturbing of his endeavors being his adoption of a young village girl named Judith, whose name he will change to Josette and raise her up to become his bride.

REVIEW: I had mixed feelings the first time reading this, but now it’s sort of interesting to imagine these characters in an alternate universe, almost like the show’s own Parallel Time. It was easy imagining Louis Edmonds as Jonas, and of course Jonathan Frid as Barnabas, but I have difficulty placing cast members with any of the other characters. I suppose Joan Bennet could be Margaret, and Kathryn Leigh Scott could play either Greta or Judith, but they never really feel or sound like them.

barnabasOf course, this being a novel changes the pacing and layout significantly from the show, but it covers a story that could have easily gone on for one hundred or so episodes. The events and content itself is actually probably more horrific than the show, partly due to Dan Ross’s uncanny writing. It’s slightly more graphic with Barnabas’ vampiric actions, and even the implied violence is more detailed than anything the show ever revealed. In this we are subjected to an unreasonably insane Barnabas, perhaps even scarier than the one we see in the show pre-1795. His incestuous necrophiliac obsessions along with his lack of conscience in enslaving people to crippling proportions are ghastly to say the least. There is zero romance here, and as it goes far beyond terror, I think this is easily classified as Gothic horror.

We get few period details, though there are some, and the atmosphere is hardly considered. Rather, Ross seems to prefer driving the story and letting the details fall where they may, which can sometimes result in a hollow feeling and sometimes build the world and atmosphere on its own. This is one of the better examples, and while there is some atmosphere created out of events and description, it is a rather unpleasant one and far from the Gothic fantasy that romantics may be seeking.

Notable differences from the show include Barnabas’ ugly, animal-like servant Hare, a secret room in the cellar of the Old House where he hides his coffin (which would have saved him a lot of trouble in the show), and reason to question if he was ever really trapped in the coffin at all.

It’s funny to me that the first novel featuring Barnabas would be a flashback story, detailing one of his untold adventures of a time when he’d been to Collinwood before. Going by this, it would seem that to the Collins family there have always been Barnabas’s arriving out of nowhere and looking exactly like their ancestors, and somehow this has become an accepted bizarre happening. Even at the end of the book, Victoria sets off into fantastic wondering about the mysterious man named Barnabas, where he eventually disappeared to, and if one of his descendants may one day again visit Collinwood.

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Keys of Hell (1975) by Louise Osborne

keysofhellfrontcoverKEYS OF HELL
Written by Louise Osborne
Copyright 1975 by Louise Osborne
Published by Popular Library
Paperback
254 pages

COVER ART: Charles Copeland

POV: Third-person
SETTING: 1970s, Canada

THE STORY: Gwen Caroll has spent years isolating herself from people. It started when she lost her parents in a car accident at sixteen, and then again her God parents who were missionaries that ended up hacked to pieces by jungle savages. So, wishing to never experience that kind of pain again, she lives alone and rejects human contact, utilizing her occupation as a journalist to delve deep into paranormal studies, hoping to make contact with her deceased loved ones.

Then Gwen’s lonely little world gets turned upside down by a neighbor in her apartment building who desperately seeks help. Nonnie and her young daughter, Laura, need a place to hide while mysterious men are breaking in and raiding her apartment. To explain, Nonnie tells of her own sad and complicated past, detailing troubles with a vicious husband and mother-in-law who track her down everywhere she goes and will stop at nothing to take her daughter from her.

keysofhellbackcoverWhile it may not be the most pleasant circumstances, Gwen is immediately touched by Nonnie and Laura, enjoys helping them and begins to value the friendship they build after avoiding these things for so long. It sparks such a change in her that she even opens up more to the advances of Robert Wildfield, a professor in psychic research she meets during an experimental gathering in a haunted house, whose interest at first seems purely professional as he believes Gwen to harbor some untapped psychic abilities, but it’s soon evident romance is in the air.

Meanwhile, Nonnie’s estranged and wealthy uncle notifies her of his recent relocation into the country at a nearby old mansion called Lions Head. Thinking this is the answer to her prayers, they hurry in the night to meet him, wearing disguises to fool the hired goons, and are relieved to discover Uncle Ben is willing to provide them with all the help he can. He offers his home on the notion there is very little chance of Nonnie’s husband and mother-in-law tracking her down there, and even offers Gwen, who has recently lost her job in the city, a position to stay on as his secretary.

It all seems ideal, like they could live happily ever after, but what Uncle Ben doesn’t know is that deep in the woods surrounding his new home stands an abandoned chapel where secret rites take place at night. A place where there are black hangings with strange symbols, and where the crucifixes have been inverted and turned to face the wall.

keysofhellinsideWhen a visit from Robert soon coincides with nude bodies washing up on the beach, he recognizes the markings cut into their flesh as signs of the Devil, warning Gwen and her friends there is a Satanic coven among them. And as Gwen finds herself falling more deeply in love with Robert, it soon becomes evident his occult knowledge may be their greatest defense when the gruesome cult decides to invade Lions Head.

REVIEW: This one really surprised me with its unusual approach to the unfolding of events. If you read the back cover and then the book, you’ll see that not only is the description inaccurate but it’s all a bit more complicated than the common tale of a woman falling in love with a dangerous man and following him to a spooky mansion that might seal her doom. On the contrary, there seems to be three specific moods and focuses in the story – the first being concerned with Gwen’s backstory and tapping into the spirit world, the second taking a more modern thriller approach to rescuing Nonnie and Laura from the hired goons, and finally the real flesh-and-blood dangers of psychotic devil worshipers.

It’s very difficult to determine exactly where this story is going for awhile, which I admire very much and is what kept me reading. Although the supernatural overtone is initially what drew me in the beginning, it takes several steps back as the story progresses. This can often be a bad sign, but everywhere the story kept leading me was too interesting to give it much thought. I even enjoyed the somewhat slower bits describing Gwen’s apartment, routines and her lonely life in the city. This book has a life of its own, and that’s really the ultimate thing that makes a good book.

I’d recommend this for that reason, and if you’ve got a taste for the presence of the supernatural, loud or subtle, and the twistedness that Satanic cults tend to bring in books.

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Chateau in the Shadows (1969) by Susan Marvin

ChateauintheShadowsCHATEAU IN THE SHADOWS
Written by Susan Marvin
Copyright 1969 by Julie Ellis
Published by Dell Publishing Co., Inc.
First Printing, September 1969
Paperback
156 pages

COVER ART: Robert McGinnis

WARNING: If you’re trying to kick your caffeine addiction or limit your coffee intake, this book may set you back into the habit.

POV: First-person
SETTING: 1960s, Canada

THE STORY: Phyllis Evans is thrilled when the New York company she works for sends her out on assignment to act as secretary for Everett Daley, the millionaire business tycoon, while he recovers from wounds he suffered in a recent plane crash. This means she will be traveling to his French Chateau located in a snowy, mountainous region of Canada… a much needed getaway just as much as a job opportunity.

Arriving during a heavy snowstorm, however, she finds not all is well at Chateau Champlain. Yes, she is put up in style – with a suite of rooms all to herself and a very light work load that gives her much free time for skiing and sightseeing and coffee-drinking – but something strange is going on among the inhabitants of the chateau, particularly with Mr. Daley’s sister who is serving as his nurse and a doctor she has brought along to treat him during his recovery, both of whom are very much at odds with the regular household servants.

ChateauintheShadowsbackcoverAt first Phyllis just enjoys her daily cups of coffee, deciding their clashing is none of her business… until the housekeeper, Mrs. Harris, begins insisting she leave as soon as possible. Mrs. Harris claims to have had psychic powers all her life and her second-sight tells her that Mr. Daley has been possessed by demons ever since his accident and that the evil hovering over the chateau intends death for Phyllis as long as she remains there. Of course, Phyllis writes this off as a simple old superstitious woman, perhaps high strung, but then begins to wonder about it the night a bat flies into her room and terrorizes her when she knows all the windows were locked. An omen, Mrs. Harris calls it.

Still, Phyllis chooses to stay on and see her work through, drinking coffee when she can, and finds her spirits significantly lifted when Dick Jamison, an attorney of Mr. Daley, arrives for a stay as well. Both being New Yorkers, and the only two normal people there, they begin bonding quite quickly, but it gets difficult to enjoy when attempts on their lives start to occur. That’s when they know there is real danger at the chateau, and while it would be best to leave, they are both sure they’ve found true love and neither wants to leave the other in danger. But without enough evidence to involve the police, they decide to stick together and solve the mystery themselves, in between drinking many cups of coffee.

REVIEW: Yes, there really is that much coffee-drinking in this book. When Phyllis isn’t crashing cars or having hunting knives thrown at her, she’s either drinking coffee, fixing coffee, asking one of the servants to fix her some coffee, or wishing to God she had a cup of coffee. At first I laughed, then I was baffled that it wasn’t stopping, and then I finally just accepted that Julie Ellis must have really liked coffee. Maybe she was drinking it a lot to write this book. It never disrupts the story at all, but it is pretty funny when you count how many times coffee is mentioned.

ChateauintheShadows22In all seriousness though, I liked this book a lot. It’s told in first person with an energetic and evenly paced voice, moving along fast in a very modern style and tone, despite coming from 1969. The protagonist is also pretty emotional in a casual way and does not hesitate to punctuate many of her thoughts and actions with exclamation marks!

The supernatural tone sort of dies off halfway through the book and it becomes more of a mystery, but the icy atmosphere of desolate mountains and an old house of danger remains. This is one of the better ones if you’re looking for a wintery atmosphere, as Ellis does a great job of describing the crisp morning walks, the skiing, and the feeling of a warm fireplace while watching a snowstorm rage outside. I was reading it by an open window in sunny May weather and it still entranced me.

The ending is a bit of a shocker, though you could feel cheated by it if that kind of thing is important to you. You’re really not given enough clues to guess how it will turn out and it springs new vital information on you in the last minute. It still makes sense, you just have to be able to enjoy the journey overall here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julie Ellis – using the pseudonym Susan Marvin here – also sometimes went by Susan Marino, publishing Gothic romances under both names and suspense thrillers under her real name. She passed on in 2006 but her website is still maintained by her family. You can visit it here: http://www.julieellis.net

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The Twisted Tree (1973) by Lynn Benedict

TheTwistedTreefrontcoverTHE TWISTED TREE
Written by Lynn Benedict
Copyright 1973 by Victor Banis
Published by Avon Books
First Avon Printing, February 1973
Paperback
158 Pages

COVER ART: ?

POV: First-person
SETTING: 1970s, USA

THE STORY: Young Evelyn Matthews has just recently buried her parents after many years of caring for them in their old age. Her immediate decision is to get away from the city and into a more serene setting, a place where she can rest and put the past behind her. Given her experience with caring for the elderly, she finds a great opportunity in a nursing position at a house called Enniscare, a secluded retirement home for elderly women of sophistication.

Upon arriving, however, the weirdness begins immediately. First is the encounter with a mysterious and skeleton-like old crone roaming the grounds, telling Evelyn, “There is no death!” and other cryptic things as she runs around in a state of madness before disappearing behind a tree. Then, as Evelyn stands there baffled, she is approached by the young and handsome Adam Enniscare, who assures her she couldn’t have seen one of their patients because they are all having their afternoon rest.

TheTwistedTreebackcoverWith that, he sort of oddly dismisses her tale and brings her inside the house, a luxurious place decorated in the style of a Victorian grand home. There, she meets Adam’s mother, Mrs. Enniscare, and sister, Clara, who are both also odd and curiously secretive. Right away Evelyn can tell there is a deep tension going on in this family, and she soon comes to realize everyone at Enniscare, staff and patients alike, is a bit off and likely even insane.

Her first night at Enniscare is filled with disembodied voices calling her name, the sound of an unseen intruder breathing in the darkness of her bedroom, and a book of death-obsessed poems that seems to follow her everywhere she goes. And if that’s not bad enough, there’s a storm that rages all through the night and sends a tree branch crashing through the window just as a patient attempts to give her an urgent warning, then drops dead at her feet.

Evelyn starts to think she may not like it so much at Enniscare, but leaving is difficult when she keeps having to rest and recover from nearly falling off rocky sea cliffs and seeing disturbing things she can only take to be hallucinations. Then on the brighter side, Adam has developed quite an interest in her and she begins feeling a deep attraction to him as the two sneak around to be alone, much to the disapproval of Mrs. Enniscare.

TwistedTreeinnerhookBut there’s a reason beyond old fashioned values that Mrs. Enniscare doesn’t want these two together. There’s still some secret in the family they’re not telling Evelyn, and she can’t say why but she suspects it has something to do with the grove of peppertrees on the estate. That’s where the old hag keeps disappearing, and Evelyn can almost swear the surfaces and positions of those trees keep changing.

There’s a war going on at the house called Enniscare. A spiritual war below the surface, playing out like a deadly game of chess, and soon Evelyn will have to choose a side.

REVIEW: The Twisted Tree is definitely one of the weirder Gothics I’ve read. There’s a mentality to it that I don’t often come across in any book, and it’s not easy to describe but, as the title suggests, it is pretty twisted. It throws the death and insanity over you like a diseased blanket, something like keeping you cozy while poisoning you. This book is definitely going for morbid, though it’s quite subtle and not something you’d find in the words so much as what comes out of them when you’re lost in reading.

This actually plays out like more like a low budget horror film from that great time of the ‘60s and ‘70s than any other Gothics I’ve read. It could have easily been a movie script and directed by someone like S. F. Brownrigg (I’m thinking Don’t Look in the Basement), though whether it would’ve been made or not is questionable. This can come off as a rushed effort at times and probably could have benefitted from a little more time and work. Somehow it seems to play out in a two-act structure, and much like an edited movie, I can’t help but feel there are scenes missing that would’ve provided a fuller experience.

There is nothing literally Satanic here, but the supernatural element is unusually dark and unsettling. As a bonus, it’s also a pretty original concept, and, after everything you’ve read beforehand, does a good job of driving the story over the edge of madness by the end.

banis02And while I hate giving away too much about endings, I must say that if you’re reading this for romance, DON’T! This romance is doomed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: An interesting thing about Victor Banis – using the pseudonym Lynn Benedict here – is that he was not only a long lasting writer of Gothic romances in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but also a major contributor to the gay pulps of the same period, often credited as “The Godfather of Gay Fiction” for his large and influential body of work. I’d recommend reading up on him for anyone interested in earlier times for gay rights or gay pulp.

Some links:
Victor J. Banis – Wikipedia
Victor Banis, The Grandfather of Gay…
Victor J. Banis interview

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The Dangerous Cliffs of Severon (1993) by Vickie Britton

TheDangerousCliffsofSeveroncover1THE DANGEROUS CLIFFS OF SEVERON
Written by Vickie Britton
Copyright 1993 by Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson
Published by Zebra Books, trademark of Kensington Publishing Corp.
First Printing: November, 1993
Paperback
348 pages

COVER ARTIST: ?

POV: First-person
SETTING: 1800s, England

THE STORY: Lisette Moore is a young woman living in Victorian England. Her father travels the world making a living with his renowned musical talent and he sends her money regularly to sustain herself, but when he suddenly dies under tragic circumstances, she’s left alone and penniless with no means of support. All she knows is the knowledge of music he passed down to her, luckily along with his talent, and so she seeks out a position as a music tutor, which is surprisingly met with fast response by Jules Severon of Severon Castle.

Meeting him in his ancient and beautiful home, Jules admits he responded with haste based on her surname, associating with the great Stanton Moore and being almost certain she was his daughter. He could think of no one better to hire for the services he needs, which Lisette believes to be the common instructing of a young child but learns through some rather awkward circumstances that she is to assist Jules’ brother, Damon, a full grown and handsome man, and already an accomplished composer.

Damon has recently been in an accident in which his carriage turned over the side of a bridge, plunging it deep down into the gorge of Severon Cliffs and killing his wife, Serephine. It has left his hands severely wounded and he cannot play his compositions which must be finished soon for a stage play he and Serephine were working on before her death. Under the circumstances, it would seem the play should be put off for awhile, but the dates have already been set and the Severons are in no financial position to allow this play to fail.

TheDangerousCliffsofSeveronbackcoverLisette accepts the position but soon learns that life at Severon Castle is quite on the edge. Not only is Damon short-tempered and still in mourning, but the housekeeper suspects he had a hand in foul play leading to his wife’s death, and that Lisette may now be in grave danger. She even speaks of Serephine’s ghost still roaming the castle in search of revenge, which sounds like old fashioned superstition to Lisette until she starts seeing the female apparition as well… soon followed by certain instruments disappearing and Damon’s compositions being destroyed.

Add to that a playwright who is now stubbornly changing Serephine’s original script against everyone’s wishes, a failed actress gone mad now over the death of her mentor, and a variety of other troublesome characters, Lisette begins having serious doubts that she’ll be able to see this through to the end – especially with her growing “inappropriate” feelings for Damon.

REVIEW: Although The Dangerous Cliffs of Severon has a good setting and many key ingredients, it somehow comes off as more of a period melodrama with a dose of romance rather than an actual Gothic. It has the old castle, the tragic backstory, the possibility of ghosts, etc., but there’s a lot more emphasis put on the challenges of seeing that the play is finished and successful, dosing you with a bit of romantic tension now and then.

Despite this, I still enjoyed it for the intelligent writing, decent suspense, and particularly the period details, which seems to have been an important aspect for the writing duo in enjoying the construction of this story. I don’t know if it’s all accurate or not, but the words can really paint a picture in your head of every location and object so that you really feel you’re in a full world of Victorian life. Severon Castle absolutely comes to life, and there are even strong details of street life in London that could rival some of the Barbara Michaels I’ve read, including the ambiance of a grand theatre and a beautifully described scene of stopping for tea and pastries at a “quaint little inn”.

So if you’re in dire need of dark Gothic atmosphere, you’ll find this one far too bright and clean, and probably exuding the essence of a more pure romance. However, if you’re very into the details of Victorian life or rich people living out high class drama in a luxurious castle, then this might be a good read.

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