The Modern Gothic Explained in Ten Books
By Amanda QuickMay 1, 2023
The wave came out of nowhere a few years back and swept over the suspense/thriller/horror market before a lot of readers realized what was happening. Back at the start, the term “psychological suspense” was often used to describe the books, but it didn’t take long before booksellers, readers and reviewers realized what was really going on. Proving yet again that genres aren’t so much invented as they are re-invented, the Gothic novel was back.
Before I get to my list of ten examples of the Modern Gothic I want to thank the two people who offered advice and recommendations. I would have been overwhelmed by the curating task without the guidance of Barbara Peters, the owner of The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona, and thriller writer, J.T. Ellison who has written a couple of great examples of the Modern Gothic and knows the genre well.
The first step was to settle on a working definition of the Modern Gothic. For the purpose of compiling this list I’m using the one that Barbara and J.T. and I came up with in the course of a Zoom chat. (I think wine may have been involved). We concluded that the new Gothic is founded on the three elements that characterized the old version.
1) The protagonist is trapped in a remote, claustrophobic or otherwise isolated situation. (Traditionally a creepy old house, sanitarium, private boarding school, etc.)
2) The source of the danger is from within—family, household staff, et. al.—not from outside.
3) And here’s the kicker: There is a question of amnesia, unreliable memories, madness, or the supernatural. The protagonist has a reason to question reality.
From a writer’s point of view, the great thing about the Gothic is that it is so adaptable. The core elements work beautifully across a spectrum of plots. I leaned on all three in my new release, The Bride Wore White. This is a novel of romantic suspense which includes an isolated house on the cliffs, a dangerously dysfunctional family, and some serious gas-lighting.
With our agreed-upon definition in mind, Barbara and J.T., helped me assemble the following list of ten books that provide a sampling of the breadth and depth of the Modern Gothic:
Mexican Gothic by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia: This is the book that made me aware of the Modern Gothic. Set in Mexico in the 1950s and featuring a smart, bold heroine, it’s a terrific example of Gothic horror. (Hint: mushrooms!)
Her Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison: A sharp, modern retelling of the classic Gothic, Rebecca.
The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden: This one has all the elements of the classic Gothic—nanny, mysterious child, family secrets, strange household staff—but it is served with a lovely feminist twist.
The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager: An actress retreats to an isolated lake house to escape bad press. Boredom sets in. She drinks. A lot. She picks up a pair of binoculars and starts watching the house across the lake. Think Rear Window laced with horror.
A Dangerous Education by Megan Chance: This is Dark Academia (a popular Modern Gothic niche) infused with women’s fiction. We’ve got a 1950s school for wayward girls. A teacher with a secret past. The quantum physics theory of entanglement. The shadows of McCarthyism.
Hidden Pictures by Jason Rekulak: Recovering addict takes a job as a nanny in what looks like the perfect household. Everything is just too good to be true. Then the kid starts drawing disturbing pictures. Is the supernatural involved? This is an excellent example of gas-lighting and Gothic horror.
The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas: A terrific Gothic set in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence. A new bride. A haunted mansion. An exorcism. And what really happened to the first wife, anyway?
The London Séance Society by Sarah Penner: Drenched in atmosphere and the supernatural this is a Gothic mystery set in the intensely claustrophobic world of 19th century séances. What can you believe when you are surrounded by people who claim to speak to the dead?
Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney: An isolated mansion. A dysfunctional family. Secrets from the past. An unreliable narrator. What could possibly go wrong?
Forget What You Know by Christina Dodd: Childhood amnesia, quirky characters and an isolated town named—wait for it—Gothic. The local flower breeder has a psychic vibe. The killer knows the secrets of her past, secrets she can’t remember. Great example of how a small, remote community can stand in for the traditional haunted mansion.
Here’s to the latest incarnation of the Gothic novel. The good news for those of us who love to read it and write it is that it seems to have settled in for a nice, long run. Then, again, it never really went away.
About The Bride Wore White by Amanda Quick:
Being Madame Ariadne, Psychic Dream Consultant, wasn’t Prudence Ryland’s ideal gig, but it paid well which was reason enough to do the work—until she realizes that her latest client intends to kill her. But Prudence, a master at reinvention, finds a new job and home as far away as possible and is finally able to relax—which turns out to be a big mistake. Letting her guard down means being kidnapped and drugged and waking up in a bloodstained wedding dress in the honeymoon suite next to a dead man. With the press outside the hotel, waiting with their cameras and police sirens in the distance, it’s obvious she’s being framed for the man’s murder. Prudence knows who is responsible, but will anyone believe her?
It doesn’t seem likely that rumored crime boss Luther Pell or his associate, Jack Wingate, believe her seemingly outrageous claims of being a target of a ruthless vendetta. In fact, Prudence is convinced that the mysterious Mr. Wingate believes her to be a fraud at best, and at worst: a murderer. And Jack Wingate does seem to be someone intimately familiar with violence, if going by his scarred face and grim expression. So no one is more shocked than Prudence when Jack says he’ll help her. Of course, his ideas for helping her involve using her as the bait for a killer, but Prudence feels oddly safe with Jack protecting her. But who will protect Prudence from her growing fascination with this enigma of a man?