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Laura Purcell Picks Her Favourite Gothic Fiction

Posted on 20th September 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Lauded by no less than The Woman in Black’s Susan Hill (‘…terrific. Perfect setting, great build-up, chilling’), Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions was an instant, creepy winner. All eyes were on where she would take us next, and her brilliantly-conceived gothic tale The Corset will guarantee your lights staying switched on, well after bedtime. For Waterstones, Laura Purcell picks five books that have inspired her to be a master of the gothic craft.

I grew up as a devotee of Jane Austen. Sometimes people look at me askance when I say this, trying to reconcile the polite comedy-of-manners adaptions they’ve seen on TV with the dark subject matter of my own work. But as Austen fans know, Jane was no stranger to the Gothic genre. She penned the affectionate parody Northanger Abbey with tropes from the popular books of her day: the romances of Ann Radcliffe and the scandalous, ‘immoral’ work of Matthew Gregory Lewis. And it is Northanger Abbey, really, that exemplifies why I love the gothic novel: its sheer range. It can be a satire with a happy ending. It can involve adventure, thwarted lovers - or just plain horror. 

When we apply the word ‘gothic’ to literature, we are frequently describing an atmosphere: something uneasy, blurring our boundaries. Authors have become increasingly inventive with this. Although I still love a tale set in a remote castle with a heroine running - invariably in her nightgown - across misty fields, these aspects are no longer necessary to earn the appellative. If a story challenges your perceptions and leaves you unsure of what to believe, if it flirts with the idea of a world beyond what we can see, there is a strong likelihood that it is gothic.

And isn’t that a perfect metaphor for what we are doing when we sit down to read a story? We’re seeking to blend our own, everyday life with something fictional, leaving one foot in either realm. I like the tales that don’t force us to choose. I’m fond of saying that most gothic fiction has both a supernatural ‘Mulder’ and rational ‘Scully’ interpretation. You can read it differently every time. Here are five of the books I read over and over again, without ever quite making up my mind.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

It’s hard to pick only one work by Daphne Du Maurier, because her catalogue of novels and short stories is bursting with gothic gems. But Rebecca was my first and it’s the one that haunts my imagination. 

Our heroine, who is so ambiguous that she doesn’t even have a name, marries a rich, older man to escape the chains of servitude. Yet life at his dazzling Cornish home, Manderley, is far from what she expected. She feels suffocated by the shadow of her husband’s first wife. Goaded by literature’s creepiest housekeeper, she begins to investigate her predecessor, only to find a truth she could never have imagined... 

I have to admit, the first time I read this novel I simply devoured it as a twisty, exciting treat. But the more you think about it, the richer it becomes. And the more disturbing. It took a while to see how Du Maurier had played with then inverted my sense of right and wrong. Who was the villain? Was the ending happy? I’m not sure I’ll ever decide.

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From the exclusive beaches of Monte Carlo to the verdant grounds of Maxim de Winter’s stately home Manderley, Daphne du Maurier’s gothic classic transports the reader into a social and psychological world of creeping menace and dark desires. Rebecca endures as du Maurier’s masterpiece and Mrs Danvers, the superbly sinister housekeeper, stands as a fictional icon.
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Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights was one of my first ‘classics’ and I’ve reread it every year since. It’s one of those stories that lingers in the mind and never lets go. 

A tale of obsession, revenge and the darkest corners of the human soul, you would be forgiven for thinking this is a depressing read. But the disturbing events that took place at Wuthering Heights are related by gossipy servant Nelly Dean, who serves our anchor in a sea of complex, passionate and unlikeable characters. At times, she is positively comic. Yet there remains a thread of unease - how much of the tragedy is actually Nelly’s fault? She was not always a trustworthy servant, and perhaps she is not a reliable narrator either… 

Another one that troubles you the more you think about it! 

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Torrid, iconoclastic and utterly unique, Emily Bronte’s sole published novel evokes the violence of doomed romance like no other work of literature. Detailing Cathy and Heathcliff’s self-destructive relationship amidst the wild, feral atmosphere of the Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights remains an incomparable masterpiece of British fiction.
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The Shining by Stephen King

Veering hard on the horror side of the gothic genre, The Shining takes a modern setting (well, it was modern in 1977) and makes it far more terrifying than an antiquated castle could ever be.

A town cut off by snow and the faded glory of the Overlook Hotel build the atmosphere in Stephen King’s masterpiece, but for me the real meat of the story is in the family drama. How many of the strange goings-on in The Overlook spring from the imagination of a troubled child? Is the father and caretaker Jack Torrance possessed by something dark, or are we just witnesses to his tragic descent into alcoholism? This is horror with a beating human heart.

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One of King’s most famous novels is also one of his most chilling; the spine-tingling story of a hotel caretaker driven to monstrous insanity by supernatural forces. Sustaining a finely wrought atmosphere of ineffable menace, The Shining delivers iconic set-piece after set-piece.
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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

It’s been cheering to see Jackson receive the recognition she deserves in recent years. To read her books is to enter a kind of madness - not one of chaos but something seductive and carefully controlled. No character shows Jackson’s art better than this story’s heroine, the twisted yet somehow loveable Merricat. Her strong voice draws you into a world of isolation and unbreakable rules.

The desire of the Blackwood family to protect their home and privacy makes for a claustrophobic read with a feel of witchcraft and dark magic, although there is nothing overtly supernatural at play. What Jackson does best is make us imagine more than we see, leaving the most terrifying things unsaid.

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A masterpiece of black comedy and sepulchral atmosphere, Jackson’s signature work introduces a gallery of unhinged characters and sinister machinations in a twisted tale of venality and willful greed. Boasting one of the great lead protagonists of gothic fiction in the disturbing Merricat, We Have Always Lived in the Castle skirts the edge of sheer perfection.
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Affinity by Sarah Waters

It feels a bit of a betrayal not to pick Waters’ spellbinding ghost-story, The Little Stranger, which has just been adapted into a film, but Affinity moved me in ways few books have managed. I can’t forget it. I can’t forget screaming ‘No!’ at the pages, blindsided by Waters’ plotting yet again.

The narrative follows recently bereaved spinster Margaret into the grim fortress of Millbank Penitentiary, where she volunteers to visit the prisoners. Margaret finds herself drawn to and increasingly obsessed with Selina Dawes. Selina claims to be a medium, but her last séance ended in disaster, leaving one woman dead and another deranged. 

I adored the way this book distorted my perceptions, making me alternatively believe and distrust Selina. The atmosphere sneaks up on you unawares, and you will come away from Affinity with feelings of melancholy and dread that are difficult to shake off.

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Waters’s second novel takes the richly evoked Victoriana of her debut, Tipping the Velvet, and interlaces an ineffable layer of the supernatural and uncanny. Set in the imposing Millbank Prison, Affinity explores the burgeoning attraction between a ‘lady visitor’ and a sinister, manipulative psychic in beautifully crafted prose and gloriously gothic imagery.
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