FRIEND: I know you’re doing your all-Gothic all-the-time readings.
SARAH: Friend, that is true. Let me tell you a funny story about live burial.
FRIEND: … No, you’re OK.
FRIEND: So you like those Amelia Peabody novels by that author Elizabeth Peters, well that lady wrote a ton of Gothic fiction under the name Barbara Michaels.
SARAH: Man, everyone writes Gothic novels under pseudonyms. I should have written a Gothic novel under an exciting false name. Do you think I should have called myself Emilia Raventhorpe?
FRIEND: … No, you’re OK.
SARAH: Anyway good, I’ve been wanting some excellent modern Gothics. I shall go buy them all for my holiday.
I was on a trip around Egypt when I read eighteen Barbara Michaels novels in a row. At one point I missed some fairly significant tombs while on the tour bus because I was enraptured.
TOUR GUIDE: So the Valley of the Ki—
SARAH: Not now someone’s getting buried alive!
GOTHIC NOVELS: Someone’s always getting buried alive.
Barbara Michaels wrote Gothic novels for thirty-three years, from 1966 (six years after Victoria Holt’s Mistress of Mellyn told everyone it was time to make like Rebecca/Jane Eyre and that the party was at the Gothic manor) to 1999, by which time people were partying elsewhere. (Partying like it was… well, you know.)
GREYGALLOWS by Barbara Michaels was published in 1972, so it was still early days for (what was then called, obviously it was a while ago) the modern Gothic. But even by then, Barbara Michaels had some fun ideas about what to do with the Gothic novel.
And she gave me some ideas too.
LUCY CARTWRIGHT: I’ve been raised sheltered in a country boarding school and I cannot wait to be picked up by my aunt and taken out to enjoy the London SEASON!
LUCY: Uh-oh. I think my aunt is trying to improve her appearance with cosmetics, and as we all know women who do that are no better than painted harlots!
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Let’s get you married off.
LUCY: Say what?
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Er. Let’s get to London!
LUCY: I fling open the carriage window eager to embrace the delights of a whole new world! Shining, shimmering, splendid… what is that smell?
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Uh, the street? Oh wait, I know, beggars! This is a good game!
LUCY: Ugh, that’s awful! Oh God living in a historical novel is disgusting. Why don’t people talk about the lack of sanitation more? Oh my God, is that the river? There’s dead dogs in it!
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: I see a dead person! Do I win? Do I win?
LUCY: This can’t be safe to drink.
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: No, best to stick with the gin.
LUCY: AUNT PAINTED HARLOT!
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Fine. If you want to be a lady about it, brandy.
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: So pick a suitor.
LUCY: Yeah I don’t know how to put this, but… no ugmos may apply?
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: … I don’t know why we can’t just betroth them at birth anymore. Damn modern sensibilities!
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Well, you’ve got the money, you’ve got the looks, shame about the limp.
LUCY: Aunt Painted Harlot, Imma put it this way. Face like this? Boobs like these? Ain’t nobody care about my waltz moves.
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Refreshing to see a disabled heroine who is sure she’s hot! The fact you have a ton of cash because of all your dead relatives will help too.
HONEST LAWYER: Welcome to the office of trying to administer Miss Lucy’s fortune honestly.
JONATHAN SCOTT: Can you hear the people sing, it is the song of angry men, it is the singing of a people who will not be slaves ag… Um. Sorry ladies. My apologies, Miss Painted Harlot and Miss… Whoa, miss, can I see the tag on your corset?
LUCY: CERTAINLY NOT.
JONATHAN: I just wanted to check and see whether you were made in heaven.
HONEST LAWYER: This is my clerk. Jonathan really, you know that political commentary makes the ladies come over all faint. Their minds cannot bear it and I have no smelling salts in my law offices of honesty!
HONEST LAWYER: Could you occupy Miss Cartwright for a minute while I talk to her painted harlot aunt about her excessive expenditure?
JONATHAN: Absolutely, absolutely. Let me just put on the smooth jazz.
JONATHAN: So, while I am delighted to have a fine-looking honey such as yourself over, don’t you think you have a right to hear about the disposition of your own money?
LUCY: Whoa buddy, next you’ll be saying I have the right to my own actual life!
JONATHAN: Women should have rights! The poor should not be downtrodden! Also can I have your phone number!
LUCY: … I find your ideas interesting and I’d like to subscribe to your socialist newsletter, but I only give out my digits to hotties. Later.
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Let’s try to marry you off well. You know what dudes love? Harping.
LUCY: Aunt Painted Harlot, R U 4 real?
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Harping always gets dudes hot. It is a sure fire thing. May I introduce your new harp instructor, Fernando.
LUCY: Can you hear the bells, Fernando?
FERNANDO: Er, no.
LUCY: You can ring my bell, is what I’m trying to say.
FERNANDO: … Oh, right. Man, I love bells!
BARON CLARE: *stands disdainfully to one side, doing his best Mr Darcy impression*
BARON CLARE: *knows that chicks always dig Darcy*
LUCY’S HOT FRIEND: Hello, handsome!
BARON CLARE: Who let the dogs out, woof, woof!
LUCY: Why do the hot ones have no manners?
BARON CLARE: Hey there sweet thing. You have a great face. I barely notice the limp.
LUCY: … Wait, is he doing the Victorian equivalent of negging me?
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: … Hot!
LUCY: I had a dream that someone put me in a collar. Not a hot dream, like a dream about being trapped in some way? By society? Maybe. It was either a metaphor or food poisoning.
FERNANDO: I think you will feel better if we make out.
LUCY: I guess Baron Clare is super hot. But so is Fernando. It’s a puzzle. I’d best just sit here and see who does the best job wooing me.
JONATHAN SCOTT: Just glad to be invited to the tea party!
LUCY: Who invited you?
JONATHAN: Without clean drinking water London is going to have another outbreak of cholera. And we all pretty much have the typhoid already. Have you noticed that?
LUCY: When I said I wanted someone to talk dirty to me… THIS IS NOT WHAT I MEANT.
BARON CLARE: My father totally killed all three of his wives. Looking hot today, Lucy. I like them pallid and on the verge of death.
LUCY: I was just, uh, up late pondering the mysterious hotness of musical dudes. But I’ll be fine. Why don’t you sit down next to me and tell me all about your… large estates.
BARON CLARE: The villagers call my house Greygallows! The villagers never liked my family. Maybe because we set our rents so high? Or maybe it’s because of all the murdering we do. I’ve never really been able to work that one out.
LUCY: Cool story, bro.
FERNANDO: You’re going to marry that hot baron, aren’t you?
LUCY: Hard to say. Ladies don’t have many choices in life, and at least he gets me hot beneath the petticoat.
FERNANDO: I shall throw myself off the balcony!
LUCY: Fernando, don’t! We’re only on the second floor, it would be really embarrassing.
FERNANDO: OK let’s make out instead.
LUCY: OK… Wow, making out is awesome. I think my petticoats are about to go on fire!
FERNANDO: That tingling feeling you have is LOVE.
LUCY: God and Queen Victoria say you’re right…
FERNANDO: Let’s run away and be married! Here’s a ring.
BARON CLARE: It’s a beautiful night. We’re looking for something dumb to do. Hey baby… I think I wanna marry you.
LUCY: Well, this is a conundrum.
BARON CLARE: Here’s a ring.
LUCY: Heh heh heh. I definitely don’t already have one of those! What’s this on the ring, your family crest? It’s like… an animal…
BARON CLARE: It’s a bunny rabbit!
LUCY: Awwww! I love bunnies.
BARON CLARE: And a doggy!
LUCY: Awwww! I love doggi-
BARON CLARE: And the bunny is being held in the doggy’s snarling jaws, look, baby!
BARON CLARE: That’s the bunny rabbit’s head a few feet away.
FERNANDO: Baby, be mine! There is a curse on the house of the Clares. All their wives die.
LUCY: You’re looking good right now, Fernando, but…
LUCY: What if I don’t want to marry anyone, auntie?
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: I totally accepted cash from Baron Clare in exchange for you, and if you don’t marry him we’re going to go to the country where I will shut you up and psychologically torment you.
LUCY: Is there a curse on the Clares, though?
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Curse, pish tosh. Yeah, maybe. So what? Marry him or I’m going to smack you around! Let’s get started now. Smack smack smack smack-
LUCY: … Team Fernando!
FERNANDO: At last Lucy, we will run away together!
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: Unhand that girl, or I fire!
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: I don’t want no scrub. A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from my niece. Lucy, this dude is from Liverpool, and his real name is Frank Goodbody!
LUCY: Well, he does have a gooooood…
AUNT PAINTED HARLOT: I still have a gun.
LUCY: Fernando, I am deeply shocked.
LUCY: I feel all faint. Maybe from the shock. Or maybe from the typhoid. My aunt was right, I should have stuck to the gin and not drunk the water.
BARON CLARE: That’s cool. I like them disease-ridden. Let’s get hitched!
LUCY: It is our wedding night and I am ready!
BARON CLARE: Ready for sleepy bye bye, you tired little moppet.
LUCY: No… I…
BARON CLARE: You are all tuckered out from the wedding! Rest now.
LUCY: Well, it’s been a long trip in which I did not get laid, and now holy God it’s the Village of the Damned.
BARON CLARE: Yay, sweetie, we’re home!
LUCY: So here we are at Greygallows, which is a huge tomb, and it will not stop raining, and I am still not getting laid. I am so bored, I am going to turn to acts of charity. Hey, maid, would your sick brother like some nourishing food?
HOUSEMAID: You are the greatest.
HOUSEKEEPER: Rock on, milady. The entire staff would like to express our appreciation, and our sorrow for the fact you are soon going to be murdered.
LUCY: … thanks for that.
LUCY: Is it cool if I am nice to the villagers? A girl needs a hobby.
BARON CLARE: I mean this sincerely: go into any disease-ridden hovel you can find. Roll around in bedsheets smeared with sickness. Find a dying child and let it cough in your mouth.
LUCY: Awesome, thanks!
HOUSEKEEPER: You want a tour of the house? Right, so Greygallows is built like a fortress basically because everyone in the village totally hated the usurping first Baron Clare, and they hated his king Henry VII, and they loved his wife Lady Elizabeth, who walks these halls as a ghost since her untimely death.
LUCY: What did she die of?
HOUSEKEEPER: Hard to say, but we think it was probably the being murdered that did it.
BARON CLARE: Baby, let’s go riding! I’ve saddled and bridled this lovely mad horse for you.
LUCY: Nah, I’ll walk.
LUCY: Just wandering the lonely halls at midnight, nothing to see here… Ahhhh! Ahhh! An intruder! Call the police!
BARON CLARE: Pumpkin, stop your fretting, it’s just an unholy spirit from beyond the grave.
LUCY: I am freaked out!
BARON CLARE: Did you promise to obey me or not? It’s in the marriage vows so I know you totally did. Drink up this lovely laudanum and you will be right as rain.
LUCY: You know what else was in the marriage vows? I believe it is law that you have to love me up and down and kiss me all over my face!
BARON CLARE: … WHY YOU HUSSY.
BARON CLARE: Hands off the goods, lady, you’re not getting my manly flower tonight!
LUCY: We could just cuddle.
BARON CLARE: Oh I know where that leads. Cuddle vixen.
LUCY: OK, not getting laid, I’m gonna go to church and meet some people. Hey, the vicar and his sister are both total cupcakes.
VICAR AND MISS FLEETWOOD: Good day to you, ma’am.
LUCY: I’ll go pay them a visit.
VICAR AND MISS FLEETWOOD: … We said GOOD DAY.
BARON CLARE: … Oh hey.
LUCY: Dude! You were meant to be away on business.
BARON CLARE: Awkward.
LUCY: Is business Miss ‘Total Cupcake’ Fleetwood? Oh my God, I am trapped in a loveless and sexless marriage, and pride is my only comfort.
MISS FLEETWOOD: Nice weather we’re having.
LUCY: No, no, Lucy, be cool. She’s the vicar’s sister for heaven’s sake. She’s not some floozy. Your marriage is fine.
BARON CLARE: Hi sweetie. Feeling sickly?
LUCY: I feel great.
BARON CLARE: You were hotter when you were at death’s door. That’s how I always picture you.
LUCY: Always nice of you to come by for tea, Miss Fleetwood. I was thinking that ladies robed in transparent white coming from my husband’s bedchamber MIGHT NOT BE GHOSTS, if you know what I’m saying.
MISS FLEETWOOD: I’m afraid I don’t follow.
LUCY: What I am saying, you brazen trollop, is… Ahhhhh behind that tree a ghost it’s a ghost hold me Miss Fleetwood!
MISS FLEETWOOD: What were you saying before we were interrupted by a ghastly spectre?
LUCY: Er. Don’t recall.
BARON CLARE: I hate limping women, they’re so lame.
LUCY: Um. Insensitive!
BARON CLARE: Sign this paper.
LUCY: Am I signing away my whole fortune?
BARON CLARE: Women, always with the dumb questions!
LUCY: Off to amuse myself with charity work again. Man, I could use getting laid. Uh-oh, poverty, typhoid, houses rotting and falling down… a dude raving at me… I don’t understand you, buddy. I don’t speak Yorkshire. Little help here? Hey, old man Jenkins?
OLD MAN JENKINS: He says he’s starving because the Industrial Revolution messed with him and they’re only hiring women and children because they are cheaper and then the women and children die. And he says your husband is a total… tick.
LUCY: Is that an exact translation, old man Jenkins?
OLD MAN JENKINS: … Almost.
LUCY: It strikes me that I could do something about all this with my money.
BARON CLARE: I think you’ll find as we’re married that it is my money, and I need it to buy Italian marble fireplaces.
OLD MAN JENKINS: I’m going to explain economics to you, milady.
LUCY: Use small words. I cannot stress to you how poorly I have been educated.
BARON CLARE: Baby I love it when you ride your horse dangerously. You’re so hot when you jump Break-Your-Wife’s-Neck Hedge and go around Oncoming-Death-Blind-Corner.
LUCY: Thanks I guess. My only comfort is my trips to the village where at least I can help people.
VILLAGERS: We have locked our doors. Go AWAY.
LUCY: Guys, c’mon, don’t be like that.
VILLAGERS: Stay back! We all have cholera.
BARON CLARE: Oh, munchkin, when I think of you shut out of houses filled with sweet infectious death it makes my blood boil. Stupid peasants.
LUCY: Honey, you accidentally left me riding around on the moors in the fog and darkness!
ELDRITCH SHRIEK: spooks horse.
LUCY: I have fallen off my horse and am dying of exposure on the moor.
GROOM: I save you, milady!
HOUSEKEEPER: I nurse you tenderly back to health, milady!
BARON CLARE: It’s so hard to find criminally neglectful staff these days. I’m firing that groom who saved you.
LUCY: Rosebud, I can only describe your behavior as freaky and murderous.
BARON CLARE: How about you sign another bit of paper that will give me your money, and then you can go visit more disease houses!
LUCY: … Yay?
JONATHAN SCOTT: Hi, all these pieces of paper signing away your fortune has made everyone at the honest law office a bit concerned?
LUCY: JONATHAN BOY AM I GLAD TO SEE YOU.
JONATHAN: Lucy you look fine as ever. How are you?
LUCY: I keep having weird accidents and this house is filled with ghosts and sometimes my husband’s eyes glow red! … On the whole, can’t complain. And yourself?
JONATHAN: Everyone in the village seems to really love you.
LUCY: Aw, I like them too. Especially since my husband is kind of… you know…
BARON CLARE: *drinks*
BARON CLARE: You know what makes me want to throw up? My wife’s face and also her limp.
BARON CLARE: And also brandy.
JONATHAN: You might be wondering if the law will protect you from your husband hurting you or stealing from you. The answer is no. He even owns your dresses.
LUCY: Well, he wouldn’t look good in them.
JONATHAN: Sorry, babe. I wish you had total control of your money, and that you had been taught Greek, and that you had the vote, and that your husband wasn’t trying to kill you.
LUCY: You know you are much hotter than I originally thought.
BARON CLARE: I am drunk and I am here to rip off your clothes!
LUCY: Are you kidding me?
BARON CLARE: I can also punch you in the face.
HOUSEMAID: And I can whack you with a hairbrush!
BARON CLARE: You are fired.
HOUSEMAID: Tell me something I don’t know.
JONATHAN: Let’s go to the moors and have a little chat about how if your husband murdered you he would inherit all of your money. We should run away together!
LUCY: That would be awesome except for the bit where he divorced me, nobody ever hired you again, and we starved. Maybe if I banged him…
JONATHAN: Wait, you haven’t? Well, isn’t it a beautiful day on the moors!
MISS FLEETWOOD: Hi guys. I don’t enjoy the works of George Eliot.
JONATHAN: She’s not that hot. Hello, Middlemarch is genius!
BARON CLARE: Time to manhandle my wife some more!
JONATHAN: Time to wrestle you to the floor and then be banished into the rain by your thugs!
LUCY: … WHAT A MAN. I gotta read me some Middlemarch!
HOUSEKEEPER: I’m sure your husband means no harm despite the fact he beats you on the regular. Tea?
LUCY: … Thanks.
A NOTE SLID UNDER LUCY’S DOOR: This note is totally from Jonathan and not your evil husband plotting to kill you. Please meet me in a dangerous and secluded location. XOXO!
LUCY: I find something about this suspicious.
BARON CLARE: I have emptied the house of all our servants, and we two are alone in this desolate manor. Fancy a glass of drugs?
BARON CLARE: Ahahahaha. I totally meant, fancy a glass of wine?
LUCY: Let me just water this plant with my glass real quick.
BARON CLARE: What’s that?
LUCY: Nothing, my sweet! This is some delicious murder wine. What a killer vintage!
LUCY: Imma just lie here in bed and wait for my chance to escape.
BARON CLARE: Imma just sit here by my wife’s bed and wait for her to die.
JONATHAN: Baby, you OK?
LUCY: Jonathan, look-
BARON CLARE: *poker smash*
LUCY: … out. Dammit!
LUCY: So you’re planning to murder me.
BARON CLARE: Oh my gosh no.
LUCY: Well, I have to tell you, that is a huge relief.
BARON CLARE: I’m just going to tie you up and leave you on the moors to die of exposure. Like calling your horse or dosing you with drugs. It’s not actual murder!
LUCY: … I really cannot express my relief.
BARON CLARE: Anyway it’s all Aunt Painted Harlot’s fault, she totally led me to believe you would die of consumption! It’s so unfair that you didn’t die of natural causes!
LUCY: My heart bleeds for you.
OUTSIDE: the sound of hoofbeats
LUCY: Woo hoo! Rescue!
MR FLEETWOOD: staggers in.
LUCY: Vicar, you are all covered in blood and mud, but hey, I’m tied up, I’m not going to judge. Could you please release me?
MR FLEETWOOD: My sister’s dead and so is the baby, so it’s time to stop murdering your wife and just be sensible. Can we be sensible?
BARON CLARE: I will burn down this whole house and everyone inside it!
LUCY: I’m going to take that as a ‘no.’
LUCY: Well, Jonathan and Mr Fleetwood are both unconscious, I am tied up, and the house is burning. This is it I guess.
HOUSEMAID, GROOM AND ASSORTED VILLAGERS: We have come to save you milady!
LUCY: Charity rocks.
LUCY: Should we do something about putting the fire out?
VILLAGERS: Fire so pretty.
LUCY: You know, both my husband and his house were never really all that.
LUCY AND VILLAGERS: Burn baby burn! Disco inferno…
JONATHAN: So Baron Clare was actually secretly married to Miss Fleetwood the whole time.
LUCY: Wow, Gothic dudes love bigamy.
JONATHAN: So nice they do it twice. Anyway he married you because he thought you’d die, and then whoops, you were fine. So sometimes they tried to scare you off with ghosts. Mr Fleetwood would dress up as a White Lady.
LUCY: Wow, Gothic dudes love cross-dressing.
JONATHAN: Makes them feel all fancy. And Miss Fleetwood was up the duff, so it became really urgent to kill you off. But now everybody’s dead except you, me and the villagers. Woo hoo! Lucy, I will condescend to you and dismiss your disability, but I will also work on social reform with you and help you get more education! How about it?
LUCY: Good enough!
So, I enjoyed GREYGALLOWS. Not my very favourite Barbara Michaels (my very favourite Barbara Michaels is coming, don’t worry) but: cool book, fun that it hits on some of the topics of THE WOMAN IN WHITE with extra—that isn’t fair!—and –hey, feminism, though!
And it also deconstructs the Gothic hero a little bit: that handsome manor-owning dude brooding at the back of the ballroom with the dark lock of hair falling in his eyes who gives you tingles when he kisses your hand… still might be going to murder you. Someone is trying to kill you, and it really might be your husband.
But the thing that struck me most about GREYGALLOWS was the village. It never even gets named. And yet it was so clearly awesome. It was still loyal to the memory of Richard III, my favourite King of England. Its people barred the doors to Lucy because, hello, infectious diseases are infectious. It was pretty clear that the house and the Clare family were cursed, cursed, cursed… and the curse did come true. Old man Jenkins was clearly a secret genius. They saved the lady of the manor, and they watched the manor burn.
And yet they didn’t get much pagetime, even though they Saved the Day.
And even so they got much more pagetime than is usual with a Gothic manor. Either the Gothic manor is lonely on the moors, or lonely on the cliff (how are they getting the milk in? What in God’s name happens when all the toilet paper runs out and you’re thirty miles away from the shops…) or there IS a village and it’s just extremely cursorily mentioned. Yep, village, people post their letters there, but forget the fact there are actual people there and they probably have opinions about the lords of the manor.
Especially if there is something very… odd… about the manor and the people up there.
It all started to feel weirdly feudal. These people should be characters, and not just side characters because they weren’t nobility. If the book is set in modern times, there should be tension, because the lords of the manor don’t have the power they once did.
And so I went around the Cotswolds, because it’s beautiful there—even the stone is gold—and I made up my own town out of bits and pieces of towns, a legend of a ghost in Evesham, a sweet shop from Broadway and a pub from Bourton-on-the-Water. Bourton-on-the-Water, Moreton-in-Marsh, the Severn Vale, Stow-on-the-Wold. Fabulous names, and I wanted a name like that.
And Sorry-in-the-Vale has secrets, and a divided attitude to the lords of the manor who have been gone so long. It’s a bit of what Stephen King calls The Peculiar Little Town – because well, that’s a lot of fun.
The Gothic manor seems to so effortlessly swallow the town in its shadow, in most books. I appreciated that it didn’t in GREYGALLOWS, and I wanted to play with a complicated relationship between Sorry-in-the-Vale and Aurimere House in UNSPOKEN.
Also, I am going to have a whole made-up MAP of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Isn’t that fancy!
Are there any made-up places that you have loved, oh internet of my heart? Do you like them or the real places better?