Sunday, June 24, 2012

omg, I've written a gothic with a male ingenue

Bumbling around links this morning and started reading about Joanna Russ' article about Modern Gothics, which does not appear to be available on the web in its entirety, but there are enough good blog posts about it to get the general idea, particularly this one here.

I actually have a whole library of 'modern gothics' from the very era she is describing, c. 1970, written by Barbara Michaels, who actually transcended the subgenre in many ways. Michaels has a feminist streak (her other nom de plume is Elizabeth Peters and her best-known books are the Amelia Peabody mysteries). Although she wrote a few 'typical' gothics with a bewildered, helpless protagonist, more often she tweaked the formula to feature heroines who were well-rounded, proactive and capable of standing up for themselves. Sometimes they were even male.

So I'm reading along happily and come across this quote from Russ:

The Modern Gothic is episodic; the heroine does nothing except worry; any necessary detective work is done by other persons, often the Super- Male. Whenever the Heroine acts [...] she bungles things badly. There is a period of terror, repeated sinister incidents, ominous dialogue spoken by various characters, and then the sudden revelation of who's who and what's what.[...]Most striking about these novels is the combination of intrigue, crime and danger with the Heroine's complete passivity. Unconscious foci of intrigue, passion, and crime, these young women (none of whom are over thirty) wander through all sorts of threatening forces of which they are intuitively, but never intellectually, aware.

Aha! So that's what was bugging me about early versions of Curious Weather! I was writing a gothic with Trace in the ingenue's role! I kind of knew it ("intuitively," you might say), but it helps to have it defined so clearly because now I know what symptoms to watch for. The passiveness, the fascinating/threatening mentor, the undercurrent of sexuality...

There's even the trope of "Girl meets House" in Curious Weather--Trace is constantly aware of being out of his element, in a house more luxurious than he is used to, and a house that happens to be packed to the rafters full of spirits and sinister entities, at that.

Honestly, I'm a little bewildered how I internalized by all these classic gothic elements. They must be awfully deeply ingrained in the genre consciousness, because never read Rebecca, or Jane Eyre, or any of the classics. So how did I come by this cache of clichés?

Having realized the formula, however, I'm somewhat reassured by it. It gives me a framework I can understand and subvert when necessary. For one thing, in this rewrite there are two ingenues--Trace, and Miss Fairweather herself, as shown through the flashbacks of her diaries. Trace is actually more passive than Miss Fairweather, at least in the beginning, but it is a deliberate passiveness. Because he is the stronger, more patient of the two, he can afford to watch and wait.

Miss Fairweather plays the heroine in her flashbacks--although in her naiveté she sees her niece as the innocent one--and in classic gothic fashion she finds herself choosing between two attentive and attractive men. Of course, she chooses the wrong one. In the present-day storyline, Trace becomes the embodiment of her Super-Male, and she resents him for it. She has the knowledge and ambition to save herself, but not the resources.

Neither of them is the type to watch and wait forever, though. Unfortunately, when they act in this story, they *do* bungle things. Miss Fairweather does something horrible in the flashbacks, Trace makes a big mistake in the main storyline. Of course this story is the opening act of the book, so I hope they will still learn and grow by the end of the plot arc. And of course they both are working frantically to learn as much as possible and best the other; neither is blind to the dangers the other poses and they have a known, common outside enemy to rally against.

My agent told me that Gothics were coming back into vogue in publishing circles, so I hope this one will be well-placed to ride the trend. Thank you, Barbara Michaels.


Jan Gephardt said...

I am glad you made a breakthrough--but, for what it's worth, Trace never, ever struck me as either "passive," or an "ingenue."

As you say, he's getting the "lay of the land" and actively observing--not sitting around on his taut, well-formed little fanny waiting to be rescued! :-)

Holly said...

*ponders Trace's taut, well-formed little fanny*


Oh! It's possible you were lampooning the purple prose of those Mary Sue heroines... my mistake!