In the summer of 1844, Tom Lyman flees to Bonaventure, a transcendentalist farming cooperative tucked away in eastern Connecticut, to hide ...

Guest Post || Jackson Kuhl - What Makes a Book Gothic?

In the summer of 1844, Tom Lyman flees to Bonaventure, a transcendentalist farming cooperative tucked away in eastern Connecticut, to hide from his past. There Lyman must adjust to a new life among idealists, under the fatherly eye of the group’s founder, David Grosvenor. When he isn’t ducking work or the questions of the eccentric residents, Lyman occupies himself by courting Grosvenor’s daughter Minerva.

But Bonaventure isn’t as utopian as it seems. One by one, Lyman’s secrets begin to catch up with him, and Bonaventure has a few secrets of its own. Why did the farm have an ominous reputation long before Grosvenor bought it? What caused the previous tenants to vanish? And who is playing the violin in the basement? Time is running out, and Lyman must discover the truth before he’s driven mad by the whispering through the walls.

by Jackson Kuhl
30 October 2020

Lately I’ve been reading Mary Roberts Rinehart. She was an enormously popular author and playwright from the early decades of the 20th century, often compared to (but less well-known than) Agatha Christie. Although she began writing earlier, there are many stylistic parallels between the two, so much so that some of Rinehart’s novels read like BBC productions in which upper-crusters with absurdly fussy accents ferret out killers in quaint villages.

Rinehart died in 1958 at the age of 82, but her fiction went on to have a second life during the gothic paperback boom of the late 1960s and 70s. Many of her novels and longer stories, which readers first encountered in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, were reprinted as Dell Gothics. You know the covers: a frightened woman running at night, a sinister house with a single lit window looming behind her. Publishers like Dell, Ace, Avon, Signet, and others churned out these mass-market paperbacks, usually retailing less than a dollar.

It seems strange that a mystery writer in the Christie vein would be repackaged in the genre garb of, say, Poe or Mary Shelley. Yet consider the overlap. Rinehart’s stories — The CircularStaircase and The Confession are good specimens — often involve a woman arriving at a spooky or strange house, and after some shocks and even creeping terror, gradually unspools the mystery of an unexplained disappearance or murder. Gothic AF.

The simplest way to describe gothic fiction is to define it as a story in which the repercussions of something in the past — a person, an event — are felt by the main character in the present. Consider the long shadow cast by the titular Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece, orMerricat’s mischief in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Such a wide net catches a lot of fish. The plots of many westerns, for example, involve ripples from the past breaking over the protagonists’ heads — the aftermath of the Civil War, sometimes, but more often than not vengeance over some murder or misdeed.

But gothics are also mysteries, something westerns usually are not. It’s no coincidence that Edgar Allan Poe, the writer most closely associated with the American gothic, is also credited for writing one of the earliest detective stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in 1841. Likewise, the narrative of Frankenstein is framed by the rescue of Victor Frankenstein by the captain and crew of an arctic expedition. How did he come to find himself in the polar wastes? And who was the bigger man Victor appeared to be chasing? It takes a whole book for the reader to learn the answers.

Although the gothic has its origins at least as early as 1764’s The Castle of Otranto, it’s really an offspring of Romantic literature of the early 19th century. As a kind of countercultural reaction to the Enlightenment, the Romantics prized passion and emotion over reason or rational thought. That included emotions like terror and fear — hence the Swiss sleepover party in 1816 that began with German ghost stories and ended with Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre.

A sense of jeopardy is baked into the genre, although I would go one step farther and specify that the fear is more aptly claustrophobia. A sense of entrapment, of the walls closing in figuratively if not literally, is essential to heightening the mystery, underscoring it with desperation as the heroine — and with skill and luck, the reader too — searches anxiously to escape.

And of course, you can’t have gothic without the physical manifestation of that anxiety. WhenPoe’s narrator arrives at the ancestral home of his friend Roderick Usher, he notes the crack running from roof to foundation, something not generally conducive to hygge. So vital are those creaking walls and groaning rafters to the story that whole works are named after their settings: The House of Seven Gables, Jamaica Inn, The Haunting of Hill House.

Other aspects materialize here and there — elements of romance or even eroticism, for example, and my favorite trick, the unreliable narrator — but genres work best, I think, when they don’t micromanage. The moss-covered fundament of gothic is suspense. It uses every part of itself, every candelabra and shadow, to imperil its protagonist.

Which is why publishers took Rinehart’s nearly fifty-year-old books, slapped a fleeing woman on the cover, and sold them on drugstore wire racks. She wrote mysteries but her best works veer into suspense. It was a trick Christie used too: she’s known for Poirot and Marple yet it’s creepy reads like And Then There Were None and The Pale Horse that stand out.

Fortunately, today Rinehart’s books can easily be found on used-book sites, her secrets ready to be discovered by new readers like the latest owners of some old and neglected house. I recommend her — but make sure to wear shoes you can run in.

Jackson Kuhl is the author of the Revolutionary War biography SAMUEL SMEDLEY, CONNECTICUT PRIVATEER, and the fiction collection THE DEAD RIDE FAST. Kuhl has written for Atlas Obscura, Connecticut Magazine, the Hartford Courant, National Geographic News, Reason, and other publications. He paddles the waters of coastal Connecticut. For more information, visit

Publisher Information

Established in 2016, AURELIA LEO is an independent publisher and bookseller. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, we specialize in diverse speculative fiction, namely: horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Our flagship titles are Helios Quarterly Magazine, Selene Quarterly Magazine, and Invictus: Quarterly Comics and Illustrations.