Notes on the Unlikely Gothic


Unsettling, atmospheric fiction can come in a number of forms. Sometimes the dread is psychological; sometimes, it’s entirely psychological. That isn’t to say that the lines can’t be blurred–over a century ago, The Turn of the Screw illustrated that there’s abundant tension to be mined from the spaces and ambiguities between the two.

Elizabeth Hand’s short novel Wylding Hall is a neatly contradictory book. It’s structured as an oral history, and largely features the members of a British folk band looking back on the making of their second album. Space was booked in an ancient estate, and from the outset, things seem….strange. The local community is fond of mysterious festivals involving wrens; one of the band’s members becomes obsessed with the nature of time; and there are hints of a mysterious figure due to appear in the near future. The whole thing is wonderfully ominous; at the same time, given the circumstances, there are also plenty of good reasons why the band’s members don’t simply get the hell out of a situation–one person’s wrongness is another’s transcendence, after all.

It’s structured as an oral history, and there’s a good sense of each character–both who they were at the time of the events recounted, and how they’ve spent the ensuing decades. And there are a handful of images in here that are magnificently unsettling–including one that’s been etched into my brain ever since I finished reading the book.

Jan Elizabeth Watson’s first novel Asta In the Wings impressed me considerably when I first read it a couple of years ago. Her followup, What Has Become of You, is just as memorable, albeit in a very different way. Here, the setting is a small town in Maine; Watson’s protagonist is a writer working on a true-crime book that hearkens back to her own troubled past. She takes a job at a private school, where she bonds with a student whose social alienation reminds her of her own. The town is already reeling due to one recent murder, and it isn’t giving away too much to say that more bad things are in store. Some of the novel’s thrills come from Watson’s understanding of the reader: there are certain intentional ambiguities throughout the novel, and the key comes from figuring out how each will (or won’t) develop.

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