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All Gothic Fiction Coverage

Seven years after her mordant debut novel, Dietland, amassed critical acclaim and a cult following for its no-holds-barred skewering of the diet and beauty industries, Sarai Walker second novel is finally here. With The Cherry Robbers, Walker has concocted another slyly subversive feminist fable, this time in the form of a grief-laced gothic thriller that takes on weighty topics such as marriage, women’s health and generational trauma.

In 2017, Sylvia Wren is a world-renowned, notoriously private painter living in New Mexico. She’s rarely seen in public and turns down virtually all requests for interviews. However, in a moment of errant curiosity, Sylvia reads a letter from a journalist who plans to write an exposé detailing what she has uncovered: that Sylvia Wren is in fact Iris Chapel, the sole surviving heiress of the Chapel Firearms fortune, who disappeared 60 years ago.

Suddenly the secrets that Sylvia has spent decades running from catch up to her, and with nowhere left to hide, she attempts to exorcize the ghosts of her past by chronicling the family curse that claimed the lives of her five sisters, relegated her mother to an asylum and prompted Sylvia to abandon her life as Iris.

Exquisitely tense and satisfyingly spooky,The Cherry Robbers masterfully blends psychological and supernatural horror. In sensual yet spritely prose, Walker conducts a darkly erotic exploration of female desire, duty and destiny via an ensemble of nuanced female characters, each with distinct personalities and rich inner lives. Readers know the grisly fate that awaits the Chapel girls, but Walker still manages to maintain a high degree of suspense and intrigue that will keep readers frantically flipping pages.

For fans of Diane Setterfield and Shirley Jackson, as well as readers who relish multilayered, thought-provoking family sagas, The Cherry Robbers is not to be missed.

In The Cherry Robbers, Sarai Walker maintains a high degree of intrigue that will keep readers frantically flipping pages in this story of a reclusive painter whose grisly family history is suddenly exposed.

Set in 1893 London, Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands follows an appealing cast of characters as they try to unravel a mystery involving missing working-class women and a menacing group called the Spiriters. Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard takes on the case, and his investigative efforts are shared by journalist Octavia Hillingdon, who’s on the hunt for a good story, and university student Gideon Bliss, who’s romantically linked to one of the missing girls. Readers will enjoy losing themselves in O’Donnell’s atmospheric adventure, which explores themes of feminism, class and Victorian mores.

Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson takes place in 1800s Massachusetts, where Samuel Hood and his daughter, Caroline, open a progressive girls’ school after his dream of establishing a utopian community fails to bear fruit. Trouble brews when Eliza, a smart, inquisitive student, starts experiencing seizures and episodes of mania. After Caroline and other students experience similar symptoms, Samuel enlists the help of a doctor who proposes an unusual treatment. Beams’ ominous historical thriller is rich in period detail and brimming with tension, and its questions concerning gender and female agency will inspire great reading group discussions. 

A Black teacher encounters ghosts both spiritual and emotional on a visit to her hometown in LaTanya McQueen’s When the Reckoning Comes. Mira is in town for her best friend’s wedding, which is taking place at the Woodsman, a renovated tobacco plantation that’s supposedly haunted by the ghosts of the enslaved people who were forced to work there. Mira hopes to see her old friend, Jesse, who was arrested for murder years ago. But events take a terrifying twist, and Mira is forced to come to terms with the past. Reading groups will savor McQueen’s well-crafted suspense and enjoy digging into topics like historical accountability and the weight of memory.

The House of Whispers by Laura Purcell tells the story of a 19th-century maid named Hester who goes to work for Louise Pinecroft, a mute older woman who owns Morvoren House, a lonely estate in Cornwall. Staff members at the house harbor strange beliefs related to fairies, superstitions that are somehow connected to Louise’s late father, a physician whose questionable work with patients took place in caves thought to be haunted. Beyond its eerie aura and propulsive plot, The House of Whispers boasts many rich talking points, such as Purcell’s use of Cornish legends and her ability to create—and sustain—a mood of omnipresent foreboding.

These atmospheric thrillers—quintessentially gothic, decidedly unsettling—are perfect winter book club picks.

Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland is a story you simply won’t see coming. You might think you’ve figured out the pillars of its structure after a few chapters, or come to truly understand its protagonist after walking a few dozen pages with her, but to read this powerful, moving and terrifying novel is to enter into a constant state of change. The story envelops you slowly, like a cocoon, wrapping you in its ever-increasing depth and heart until you emerge, at the end, transformed.

Sorrowland follows Vern, a pregnant woman who flees to the woods in a desperate attempt to escape the religious compound that was once her home. She fights for survival, first as an expectant mother, then as a fierce parent and protector of twin children. But the compound, it turns out, isn’t willing to let her go so easily, and not just because of its cultlike grip. Something darker is at work in Vern’s life, something at the core of her existence that she’ll have to face if she’s ever going to have a future.

As Vern gradually awakens to the wider world and its wonders and terrors, Solomon charts her journey through prose that is both economical and fiercely emotional. What’s most striking is the way in which Solomon captures Vern’s creeping, often frightening realization that the world is altogether more complex and monstrous than she once thought. 

Full of horror, love and incisive observation, Sorrowland is so perfectly plotted that readers won’t be able to predict what’s to come any better than Vern can. It’s a truly powerful piece of storytelling.

Full of horror and love, Sorrowland is so perfectly plotted that readers can’t predict what’s to come any better than its characters can.

Wild and wicked women—long may we praise them. Long may we be them.

Three magical tales mine the rebellion and persecution of willful women in America’s past and present to chilling effect. If you have any feminist leanings, these books will inflame them. If you don’t, these books may incite them.

There’s a fascinating interplay of past and present, and fiction and reality, in Plain Bad Heroines, Emily M. Danforth’s debut novel for adults. Two stories unfold in parallel. One begins shortly after the turn of the 20th century, when the scandalous and not-so-subtly titled bestselling book I Await the Devil’s Coming—an incredible, quotable and, best of all, real piece of queer history—ignites a dangerous fervor at a tony Rhode Island school for girls. The book’s author, Mary MacLane, writes about ambition, sensuality and lust, including her attraction to other women. Two girls in particular, Clara and Flo, become gloriously, passionately entangled with the book and with each other. They see themselves in the text in ways they never have before, and they form a club to honor MacLane. When MacLane writes, “Do you think a man is the only creature with whom one may fall in love?” and “I wish someone would write a book about a plain, bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her,” it is easy to see the appeal.

But the book becomes both talisman and curse. Soon Flo, Clara and another classmate end up dead, all three found with the same copy of the infamous red book, leaving the school’s principal and her partner to sort through what happened and manage both the guilt and the ongoing threat.

Alas, the curse doesn’t end there. A century later, another rebellious teenager becomes obsessed with MacLane, as well as with Flo and Clara’s story, and writes a history that gets optioned for film. This second storyline focuses on the conflicts and passions surrounding the film’s production, which is plagued by some of the same omens that bedeviled Clara and Flo.

Plain Bad Heroines is smart, feminist and funny (as well as beautifully illustrated by Sara Lautman), and invites more psychological reflection than fright despite its significant body count. A sense of dread builds, then dissipates and builds again, without ever truly finding release. Danforth propels her story not with scary moments but with beautiful writing, indelible characters and complex relationships.

In contrast to Danforth’s metafictional take, Alix E. Harrow’s second novel, The Once and Future Witches, is a more traditional witches’ tale. Magic and history abound in this suspenseful saga, which boasts an impressively rich and notably inclusive cast of secondary characters.

In 1893, put off by the elitism and stodginess of the local suffragists, three long-estranged sisters reunite to form a more inclusive movement for women’s rights, one that encourages the embrace of their magical powers. In doing so, the Eastwood sisters make an enemy of a dangerously overzealous politician who is both more and less than he seems. Witchcraft is far from the only activity Gideon Hill wants to suppress. He criminalizes suffragists, unionists and all manner of “unnatural women” and threatens anyone who would give them aid. The only thing the women he targets have in common is their refusal to cooperate with the powers that be. Still, they unite against the common threat, sparking a magical battle royal in the town of New Salem. Fairy-tale elements and the sisters’ tentative, tender steps toward forgiving past wounds add depth to the struggle.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Alix E. Harrow discusses being caught between fairy-tale magic and real-world rage.

Magic Lessons, Alice Hoffman’s new prequel to her beloved 1995 bestseller, Practical Magic, organizes its strong feminist themes organically. Heartbreaking and heart-healing, this intense and gorgeous novel answers a unique question: How does a bastard and orphan, criminal and daughter of a witch, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, grow up to become a heroine and mother in Massachusetts? Lush and enchanting, Magic Lessons reveals the nearly tragic but ultimately triumphant origin story of Maria, matriarch of the illustrious Owens clan introduced in Practical Magic.

As an infant, Maria was found abandoned in a field. By the age of 19, she had witnessed ample evidence of love’s destructive power in the lives of countless women who were beaten, betrayed, bought and sold by men who should have protected them. Maria’s birth mother had to give up her child to protect her from her father, who supposedly loved her too much. Maria’s adoptive mother, Hannah, was accused of being an abomination by a man she thought loved her. So when Maria meets the right man, a good man who only wants to love her, she doesn’t trust him. Plus, she’s already met the wrong one, who cemented her distaste for romantic love.

This is an impressive tale—equal parts love story, history and horror. One of the novel’s most terrifying aspects is that, much like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, this fictional tale is grounded in the well-documented persecution of women in 17th-century New England. Eventually love wins out, but that is only one part of a broader story in which an abused, neglected and discounted woman rises, finding a way to save herself, safeguard her family for generations and make systemic change for others along the way. The whole thing is absolutely riveting and rewarding from start to finish.

Three magical tales mine the rebellion and persecution of willful women in America’s past and present to chilling effect. If you have any feminist leanings, these books will inflame them. If you don’t, these books may incite them.

In Peter Cameron’s latest novel, an American couple referred to only as “the man” and “the woman” check into the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel in an unspecified northern European country. This is no ski junket; they are finalizing a long-awaited adoption of a child they hope will mend the widening rift in their marriage.

So far, pretty normal, right? But not long after check-in, the man finds himself in the hotel bar, where he is befriended by an ex-circus performer of indeterminate age and treated to the local alcoholic delicacy, a lichen-derived schnapps “tasting faintly of bleach and watercress and spearmint and rice.” The town’s two main attractions appear to be the orphanage and an enigmatic healer who goes by the name of Brother Emmanuel.

The man and woman’s first appointment with the orphanage lands them—possibly by accident—in the healer’s den, which might or might not have been fortuitous, given the woman’s apparently untreatable cancer. This turn of events then cascades into a series of Waiting for Godot-esque moments in which anticipation is frequently met with frustration and further delay.

As in Samuel Beckett’s famed play, we learn a great deal about the Americans as they await their next disappointment, chatting among themselves and with the Fellini-ish cast of supporting characters. Every time the reader begin to adjust to a new normal, Cameron slips in something to unsettle it all, such as the hotel’s doors (one of which the man kicked in after losing his room key) being UNESCO-certified artifacts salvaged from a Cairo opera house. That’s the kind of revelation that will make minibar charges seem trivial.

Perhaps What Happens at Night might have been more aptly titled When Serling Met Sartre. It’s a weirdly compelling mix of all the elements that make us human and all the situations that test our humanity.

Maybe these characters should have read a Yelp review before they booked this reservation. It’s likely that the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel doesn’t get many repeat customers.

Perhaps What Happens at Night might have been more aptly titled When Serling Met Sartre. It’s a weirdly compelling mix of all the elements that make us human and all the situations that test our humanity.

Thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright has always assumed the role of outcast, even in her own mind. She finds solace among the taxidermic specimens of the natural history museum, and she takes her assignment to oversee their care as they are removed from London during World War II very seriously. Jobs like this are almost never available to women, and Hetty is determined to prove her worth. But upon arriving at Lockwood, the manor home where the specimens are to be kept safe, Hetty immediately encounters setbacks. The first is the dangerous Major Lockwood, whose domineering attitude is offset by that of his meek, charming daughter, Lucy.

Lockwood Manor, with its empty rooms, unending chores and possible ghosts, functions as a central character. Lucy’s mother, the late Heloise Lockwood, suffered immensely in the house, always concerned about being followed by a woman in white—a ghost, a demon or perhaps something conjured by her own mind. The dead woman is shrouded in mystery, from her questionable parenting choices to her untimely demise. 

When the museum specimens begin to disappear and move about the house, Hetty doesn’t know what to do or think. Are the animals moving of their own accord, or is foul play involved? How can she best protect them while keeping the peace at Lockwood and ensuring her future employment with the museum?

Comparisons between Jane Healey’s debut and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent are accurate, as The Animals at Lockwood Manor fits beautifully into the category of gothic fiction. Healey juxtaposes a sweet same-sex love story against the bleak backdrop of World War II, although the novel avoids focusing too closely on the war itself. Instead, the romantic escalation drives the plot forward, though frequent dream sequences threaten to derail the momentum.

This is a strong debut, full of creepy cliffhangers, lovely descriptions and a believably inelegant heroine. 

This is a strong debut, full of creepy cliffhangers, lovely descriptions and a believably inelegant heroine. 

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