To celebrate the paperback publication of her bestselling Gothic thriller The Taxidermist’s Daughter, Kate Mosse, No.1 bestselling author of Labyrinth, spoke to One Book Lane about her love of all things Gothic.
My latest novel The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a Gothic thriller. Set over four days in 1912, as the flood waters rise ever higher on the Sussex coast, it’s a whodunnit and a whydunnit. Although my inspiration is a combination of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, The Taxidermist’s Daughter has many of the characteristics of early Gothic fiction – isolated crumbling buildings, catastrophe following catastrophe, a sense of peril building to a violent, terrifying climax, families in peril, a hostile landscape, a melding of physical and psychological terror. The twist is that, unlike most traditional Gothic fiction, my female ‘hero’ Connie Gifford carries the story rather than being a victim of circumstances. Rather than being saved by her suitor, Harry, it is Connie who does the rescuing!
But what, exactly, is Gothic fiction? It started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Awaking from a dream, he began to write and the first edition was published weeks later on Christmas Eve 1764. Published pseudonymously, he claimed it was a ‘translation’ of an Italian story set during the Crusades. It was on the title page of the second edition that the word ‘Gothic’ appeared. A new genre was born. There are catastrophes, ghostly interventions, revelations of identity, battles and duels. Inventive and terrifying by turns, the novel was a runaway hit and set up in the reading public a hunger for these exciting, pell-mell novels, where anything might happen.
Thirty years later, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho can make a claim to be the mother of the genre. The story takes place in 1586 in southern France and northern Italy, it tells the story of Emily St Aubert, who is orphaned after the death of her beloved parents and finds herself imprisoned in the castle of Udolpho – crumbling, creepy, isolated of course – by a menacing, dangerous guardian. Radcliffe was the JK Rowling of her age – a superstar author – and such was its popularity that Udolpho became shorthand for a certain sort of Gothic story. Austen’s Northanger Abbey is, from start to finish, an acknowledged satire of Udolpho.
Gothic fiction continues to captivate because it stimulates all the senses – our desire for a good story, our desire to be scared out of our wits (but safely), our desire for epic, significant stories.
Mary Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece Frankenstein took the Gothic genre a step further. The story of how the novel was written – a sojourn on the banks of Lake Geneva with friends, including Byron and Shelley and the eighteen year old Mary, daring one another one to tell ghost stories – is as famous as the novel itself: wild and inhospitable landscapes, a story of faith and the occult and alchemy, the blurred line between good science and bad, it’s moving, sad, elegant, subtle and full of jeopardy. Victor Frankenstein and the Monster he creates are both terribly human, wounded creatures, both beautiful and repulsive. The incredible final scenes of death, remorse and grief out on the ice floes make this both a superb Gothic novel and a work of imaginative genius.
Some Gothic fiction tiptoes closer to horror, for example Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories. Poe had a lurid, troubled imagination and all of his fiction is imbued with fear, loathing, dread, inevitability, decay and guilt. Fifty years later, Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker’s masterpiece Dracula cemented the idea of Gothic fiction being as much about the terrifying transformations within the human soul as the threat from nature, landscape and environment.
At the British Library in London, until January 2015, is a fantastic exhibition: Terror & Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. From Walpole to modern times, it tells the story of how this kind of fiction became so important and so dominant, and why we are still drawn to the dark side.
Modern Gothic owes a great deal to Daphne du Maurier, the work of film studios such as Hammer and the renaissance of both vampire and zombie literature. A forgotten masterpiece is Shirley Jacksons’s 1959 classic The Haunting of Hill House – where the house itself is the enemy, gathering its strength to defeat the four strangers who arrive there looking for shelter. Stephen King described it as one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century. In the 21st century, writers such as Neil Gaiman and Sarah Waters could claim to be the heir apparents of the first Gothic writers.
In the end, Gothic fiction continues to captivate because it stimulates all the senses – our desire for a good story, our desire to be scared out of our wits (but safely), our desire for epic, significant stories. With exaggerated landscapes, larger-than-life villains and heroes, Gothic fiction is a way of facing the darkness, inside ourselves and in the world around us, and yet living to tell the tale . . .
Enjoy The Taxidermist’s Daughter . . . but remember to keep the doors locked and the lights turned high!