As an amateur Gothicist, I am in mourning. It seems that Gothic Literature is dead. Gone are the Poes, Melvilles, Irvings, Hawthornes, Jacksons, DuMauriers…it would seem that most of the “Gothic” literature of today is also classified under “Mystery” or “Sci-Fi”. Quite frankly, it would appear that Gothic Lit is, for lack of a better word, nevermore.
That being said, I set out on a search for something that would pass as Modern Gothic. Unfortunately, many of today’s novels are either sardonic and witty, or an attempt to recapture British classics like Jane Eyre (also a classic Gothic novel) or Pride and Prejudice. Nothing like Rebecca, The House on Haunted Hill sat on the shelves of Redding’s Barnes and Noble. I toyed with the idea of choosing one of these types of novels, or even a Sci-Fi, but decided against it. I wanted something with that specific Gothic feel.
Gothic Literature itself is difficult to define. It is made up of a number of devices, such as family secrets, unreliable narrators and madness, ghosts and death, estates and mansions, monsters…the list goes on and on. But it is the feel of Gothic that makes it so. It is not horror, which is often gory and a cheap thrill of in-your-face scare. It is subtle and crafty, like something playing tricks on your mind.
With this in mind, I found The Thirteenth Tale. It is categorized as Gothic and included many classic Gothic devices: family secrets, ghosts, creepy children, an estate, incest, and of course, the return of the repressed. Skeptical, I bought it and went home immediately to read it.
The Thirteenth Tale is a story with two main characters. Margaret is a reclusive young woman who works in her father’s bookshop. She specializes in biographies of obscure persons, while still maintaining a love of fiction classics like Jane Eyre and The Woman in White. Margaret is sought out by famed writer Vida Winter, who is sickly, to write her autobiography. Winter’s life is shrouded in mystery, having given bogus stories to reporters for years. As Vida’s story unravels, Margaret finds herself enraptured in secrets that eerily parallel her own. Giving any more details would just spoil the story!
The Thirteenth Tale does not signal the rebirth of the Gothic for me. It is, however, a good read. It’s a good story, with unexpected plot twists and a satisfactory working of characters. Its constant explanation and neat, tidy wrap-up is more characteristic of mystery or detective fiction, however. It felt stretched in some areas, such as weaving Jane Eyre and other British Gothic classics throughout the story, or tying the narrator’s own story in with the writer she interviews. It evens alludes to Henry James’ Turning of the Screw in regards to the governess in the story. While, like most of today’s literature, it relies heavily on other Gothic stories, The Thirteenth Tale stands well on its own.