The Gothic novel has been titillating readers since the mid 1700s. Gothic tales require a decaying mansion, a Byronic hero, emotions gone amok, ghosts, secrets, terror, intrigue and revenge...the works.
Think of these famous brooding stories molded in the Gothic manner (There are many more, of course)
All of Edgar Allen Poe
Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Picture of Dorian Grey
Rebecca (actually a re-working of Jane Eyre)
And the astonishing Gothic tales of Louisa May Alcott
Alcott needed an outlet for her emotions as her family lived in poverty. The money she earned through her writing was plowed back into the family coffers. Remember Meg in Little Women saying "It's dreadful to be poor?" It was, so Alcott via her imagination went far away from Concord and the pinching of pennies into a different world where her imagination could sprout wings and carry her into a realm of delicious, dark mystery and intrigue and money...Louisa May Alcott's dark and stormy night.
Whether her Gothic tales should be considered as potboilers or pulp fiction is really in the hands of the reader. Jane Eyre was considered "coarse" by Victorian audiences, and Wuthering Heights flummoxed people so much they didn't know what to call it. Alcott writes too well, in my opinion, for her tales to be considered as vulgar potboilers and it is her sheer writing skill that gets her off that hook. But be prepared for somewhat of a shock if you taste the waters of this amazing fountain:
BEHIND A MASK: THE UNKNOWN THRILLERS OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT by Madeleine Stern
Four stories are included in this edition, although Alcott wrote several more Gothic tales. Like the Sorcerer's Apprentice's little brushes who couldn't stop sweeping, Alcott couldn't stop writing. As Stern says in her introduction, Louisa wrote her thrillers "when her hair was down and her dander up."
BEHIND A MASK, the first story, owes a lot to Jane Eyre and it's deja vu all over again, as the Bronte classic surely was the inspiration for Jean Muir in this story of a governess who connives to make all the men in a household where she is employed fall madly in love with her. She is bent on revenge for a former affair gone sour and proceeds to try and ruin all the men. .Jean is Jane with all the stops pulled out. She confesses to one of her lovers,"you will see me as I am- old, ugly. bad and lost." Remember Jane's words to Rochester? Jean Muir is a fascinating heroine, an actress to the core and of the men she succeeds in bagging the best catch in spite of her masquerade as a sweet-tempered, guileless young girl.
PAULINE'S PASSION AND PUNISHMENT has another leopardess for a heroine and we see her first as a woman of massive discontent pacing her room back and forth, back and forth, like a caged cat. This is a great story and you have to get past the awful alliteration of the title- Louisa loves those "p's apparently, as she further describes Pauline as "pretty, petite and petulant." But Pauline is much more than that rather benign description. She is so full of hate, so bent on revenge against the perfidy of a former lover, she becomes a sort of devil. The denouement is next to a roaring waterfall in Cuba, the air vibrating with hot passions and four people in a love-hate enthrallment that binds them together with bonds of steel teeter on the edge of an abyss...and then, and then..
THE MYSTERIOUS KEY AND WHAT IT OPENED The story begins with a prophetic poem:
Trevlyn lands and Trevlyn gold
Heir nor heiress e're shall hold,
Undisturbed, till spite of rust
Truth is found in Trevlyn dust
Sir Richard Trevlyn dies,and a strange young man appears at the Trevlyn gates and the story is off to a rollicking Gothic start. Who was the young man and why although obviously well born did he accept the position of a servant? Why did Lady Trevlyn wear a locket which she never let out of her sight and what was in it? Of course there is a beautiful girl, this one is Lady Trevlyn's daughter, Lillian. There's a decaying cemetery and a moldering coffin hiding a secret, too. Lots of loose ends will be tidied up in this suspenseful story.
THE ABBOT'S GHOST [spoilers]
"Oh. Mama, what foolish creatures men are!" observes the young lady Octavia, a girl all of seventeen, although she is probably speaking for Louisa May Alcott. Octavia is the heroine of the story, but the protagonist is a young man, Maurice, crippled while saving his cousin's life. The story opens with friends and relatives gathering at an old English estate for Christmas. The cast of characters includes Octavia's narrow-minded mother,an elegant but scheming young peeress, a titled heir, a non-titled heir, a couple of pukka sahib army types and a ghost. Well, it's all pretty tame with Alcott moralizing even more than usual. Maurice is restored to health, he can't have Olivia while he confined to a wheel chair, and the titled heir, Jasper, dies rather spectacularly when his horse falls on him. An interesting story but not a great one.