Sunday, July 28, 2013

10 Round Gothic Novel Smackdown: Susanna Kearsley vs. Barbara Michaels

10 Round Gothic Novel Smackdown: Susanna Kearsley vs. Barbara Michaels
I love Gothics. I can't help it.

Literary types will wrinkle their noses, but they fulfill a vital purpose in a young girl's reading life: wish fulfillment and escapism. I might not be young anymore, but my head can still be turned by a book description with words like "windswept shores," "unsolved mystery," and "buried secrets."

That's why I snapped up Susanna Kearsley's The Shadowy Horses when Amazon offered the Kindle version for $1.99. But instead of describing all the ways Kearsley's book missed its mark, I decided to compare it to a book called The Sea King's Daughter by an author who has the Gothic style mastered: Barbara Michaels.

Let's take a look at the ways each book delivered or failed to deliver on the promises that are implicit in a good Gothic novel. We have Kearsley in blue trunks and the Michaels in red trunks.

Round 1: Young, pretty, usually naive heroine.

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna KearsleyKearsley: Check (mostly). Verity Grey is an archaeologist who works for the British Museum. She has academic and professional chops, yet still comes across as younger and less experienced than the other archaeologists in the novel. Most, if not all, of the male characters reference how pretty she is, including a ghost and a small boy. This actually gets kind of irritating after awhile.

Bonus: Does the heroine's name have special significance? Yes. "Verity" means "truth." Verity's employer refers to this when asking Verity for her opinion, saying he'd believe her over other less-than-truthful characters.

The Sea King's Daughter by Barbara Michaels
Michaels: Check. Sandy Bishop is a college student who, although she's a great swimmer and diver, isn't a professional treasure hunter. She and her stepfather discovered a Spanish galleon sunk off the Florida coast, but the conditions were such that amateur divers could make the discovery without specialized equipment. Now, her estranged archaeologist father has asked her to come help search for Minoan treasure in Greece. Her naivety comes without question; Sandy is going to college to become a PE teacher, for heaven's sake.

Bonus: Does the heroine's name have special significance? Yes. The very first line of the book is, "Don't call me Ariadne. That's not my name anymore." Sandy's real name is that of a Minoan princess who betrayed her father, Minos, to escape with Theseus after he kills the Minotaur. Unfortunately for Ariadne, Theseus ditches her not long after this. During the course of the book, Sandy finds disturbing similarities between herself and the mythological Ariadne.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel? Part of the fun of reading a Gothic is seeing how the character fails to see the warning signs of a dangerous situation unfolding around her. She needs to be trusting so she can fall for a dashing but dangerous love interest (see point 3 below). Also, she needs to have somewhere to go in terms of character development. We have to see her getting smarter and being changed by her experiences as the book develops.

Who wins the round?  It's a tie. Verity has special knowledge, while Sandy has a special skill. Verity has made bad relationship choices, Sandy makes some bad choices period. Both heroines are likable, but Sandy stands up for herself a bit more convincingly. Overall, though, there's not a clear edge for either author.

Round 2:  Interesting location in which the heroine feels out of place.

Kearsley: Check. Verity travels to Eyemouth, Scotland, a cold and dreary place that's a far cry from the London hustle and bustle she's used to. She can barely understand the thick Scottish accent, and is constantly having to look words up in a Scots dictionary. It's easy for the reader to picture the generic kind of windswept moors described in so many Gothic novels, but Kearsley adds a great deal of description to help you get a more accurate mental picture of local geography, festivals, and traditions. There are points, however, where the book feels like a travelogue as much as a narrative.

Eyemouth, Scotland.
Image by Flickr user David Farrer.
Used with Creative Commons license.

Bonus: Do you experience a local festival? Yes. Verity and her love interest, Davy Fortune, attend the crowning of the Herring Queen. The problem with this is that nothing really happens except the festival. I kept waiting for some dangerous incident to occur, but all they did was wander around and remark on how they couldn't wait to make out later. The festival itself wasn't integral to anything that was said or done during that scene. This is bad. Writers: if you're going to indulge in local color, it MUST tie into the plot.

Michaels: Check. Sandy travels to Thera, a Greek volcanic island that was once a stronghold of the Minoans. There's a far more serious language barrier here since Sandy doesn't speak, write, or read Greek. You get a lot of description in this novel, too, but it doesn't weigh down the story like Kearsley's does. The landscape also clearly pertains to the plot since Sandy is helping her archaeologist father look for the remains of Minoan treasure in the island's volcanic caldera.
Thera, Greece.
Image by Flickr user The Philly Lambs.
Used with Creative Commons license. 

Bonus: Do you experience a local festival? Yes. Sandy witnesses a ritual in which the women of the village carry a saint's image around the town to bless the houses and fields. Michaels does it right by showing the village women making way for one other mysterious woman who comes down from her cliffside villa to attend the festival. Obviously important and held apart from the local peasant women, we take note because the other characters do, too. As Sandy's father joins her, he catches sight of the mysterious woman...and promptly freaks out, fleeing the scene. This WTF moment helps break open the subplot that has to do with the goings-on of the previous generation.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel?  Part of the fun of a Gothic is escapism combined with wish fulfillment. If you're a bored housewife in Lincoln, Nebraska or a lonely single girl in Bakersfield, California, you'd probably rather read about moors or desert sands or even Asiatic steppes than, say, Chicago. Both Greece and Scotland qualify as exotic locales that pique my interest. Also, Gothics need to take place in an isolated location so the characters have a hard time leaving or running away when the scary shit starts to go down.

Who wins the round? It's another tie. Both books feature an archaeological mystery that's intricately tied to their settings. Both are described so that you feel you're there. Kearsley's descriptions pall after awhile, but they're more lush in general than Michaels, so there's no clear winner.

Round 3: Dashing but dangerous love interest.

Kearsley: In this corner, we have David (Davy) Fortune. That name is so awesome I'm jealous I didn't think of it first. In terms of description, David is tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, dark-haired...a veritable Scottish Heathcliff who actually wears a kilt in one scene. Visually, Kearsley is on track for the win.

However, poor Davy comes up short in the "dangerous" category.  Every good Gothic heroine needs to think that her handsome, stalwart man might also be the bad guy who's trying to scare her away from her goal. Otherwise, where's the fun in that? The relationship needs challenges. In a romance novel, those challenges are usually communication issues or personality flaws in the hero and heroine.  In a Gothic, those challenges need to be based on danger and uncertainty.  The hero needs to walk that fine line between smokin' hot and holy-crap-this-guy-might-be-trying-to-kill-me. Unfortunately, the relationship between Verity and Davy had no challenges whatsoever. It also had very little heat.  A fifth-grader could read this book without getting any untoward ideas.

Michaels: In this corner, we have Jim Sanchez. He's also tall and broad and handsome, with a healthy tan from working outdoors. He doesn't always button his shirt all the way, which is good for Sandy, but also fits with his character. It's hot as hell in Greece in the summer and he's an archaeologist. Plus, this book was written in 1975, when Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck did this sort of shit all the time.

The "danger" category is also a little light for Jim. However, on a strict one-to-one comparison with David Fortune, Jim takes the cake. At one point, he tells Sandy he'll do anything he can to stop her from diving and looking for Minoan treasure. Of course, he camouflages any nefarious intent by claiming it's for her own safety, but the reader understands there's potential menace there. Also, Jim offers to go swimming with Sandy every day, ditching work to do so. This comes off not as chivalrous, but as creepy. He just wants to be there if and when she discovers something.  This adds to Jim's vague sense of menace. Again, it's not much, but it's more than Davy Fortune gets.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel? It all goes back to escapism. Women readers want to meet a man they'd fall in love with on the page. That love needs to be tested.  So if they think that handsome devil might actually be a devil, it makes it all the more delicious when the heroine (and the reader) still can't resist his charm and good looks.

Who wins the round?  Michaels.  If it were based on name choice alone, it'd be Kearsley by a landslide. But David Fortune is never menacing in the way a good Gothic hero needs to be.

Round 4: A nurturing father figure.

Kearsley:  Check. It's eccentric millionaire and maligned archaeologist Peter Quinnell, who has spent most of his life looking for the lost Ninth Roman Legion, which disappeared somewhere near Eyemouth. Quinnell is handsome and charming, but most of his colleagues think he's also batshit crazy. Verity starts out thinking he might be nuts, but realizes he misses very little and actually is one of the sharpest guys around.  He's kind to Verity, puts her up in his mansion, really likes cats, and is free with his liquor. I like the guy already.

Michaels:  We have several candidates here.  You could argue that this figure is:
  • Frederick, Sandy's abrasive professor father. He's rude and self-centered, he is teaching her about archaeology and gets really surly when she and Jim are together.  
  • Sir Christopher, an archaeologist digging on the other side of the island. He's antagonistic toward Frederick and takes an interest in Sandy, offering her money so she can get the hell out of Dodge, as well as a job next summer.  
  • Jurgen, a mysterious German colonel who figures heavily in the second half of the novel. At several key points, he seems to be warning Sandy and protecting her against the machinations of his own lover, Kore.  
Why does this matter in a Gothic novel?  For some reason, Gothics usually have nurturing father figures and menacing mother figures. It's all a part of isolating the heroine. You can't give the heroine a dependable best friend or an older female mentor, because then they could help her see past her own naivete. Uh-uh. Not in a Gothic. She can have a kindly older male caretaker or mentor, but when it comes to matters of the heart, this person has to remain clueless.  This is why an older, grandfather-type plays well in these kinds of stories.

Who wins the round?  It's a tie. None of Michaels's characters fit the bill as well as Peter Quinnell does for the Kearsley book, but at the same time, the Michaels story is richer because each of these characters brings a piece of the "father figure" mythology.  

Round 5: A mysterious and menacing older female figure.

Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca is the OG
when it comes to the menacing older
female character in Gothic novels.
Kearsley: There's a menacing and vaguely mysterious female figure, all right, but she's younger instead of older. Her name is Fabia, and she's Peter's granddaughter. She's not a professional archaeologist like Verity--she's just lending a hand for her grandfather. She stays out late, dislikes Verity, and has it out for Peter because she feels Peter loved archaeology more than Fabia's father (Peter's son). Verity never quite trusts her, which is smart. However, Fabia doesn't do any of the traditional menacing things, like tell the heroine, "You need to leave for your own good or bad things will happen to you."  Although Fabia does pose a danger late in the novel, by then, it's really hard to give a crap.

Michaels: We've already mentioned Kore, the strangely alluring older woman who comes to the village festival and freaks everyone out. She's actually the mistress of a mysterious German colonel who lives in a fancy villa up on a cliff above the village. She is not German, however; she is Greek. This brings up a lot of loyalty issues for the older village folk, for whom World War II wasn't that long ago. As the book goes on, Kore gets more and more mysterious. At one point, she walks straight up to Sandy and warns her to get lost. What does she know that Sandy doesn't? Later in the book, Kore takes care of Sandy after an accident. She chants, goes into trances, watches Sandy while she's sleeping, and lets weird guests into the villa during the middle of the night. Yes, this qualifies as menacing and mysterious.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel?  The menacing female is very important. You have to fight fair, and as a writer, it's a little unfair to pit a big, strong man against a tiny, seemingly defenseless female. It's fine to hint that the big, strong man is out to get her, but usually, the villain or villain's assistant is a woman. This way, it's a fair fight when the heroine gets to take her down. Plus, it's very traumatizing for a woman to read about a woman being victimized by another woman. We're used to reading about glass ceilings or horrible male bosses or terrorists/kidnappers who are male. But when our heroine is put down or led astray by a fellow woman? That's disturbing on so many levels.  After all, as Madeline Albright said,
"There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

Who wins the round? Michaels. Fabia, Kearsley's antagonistic character, never really gets up to much menace until it's too late to care. Kore gets kind of annoying toward the end of the Michaels book, but I'd take annoying and mysterious over Fabia's annoying and...just annoying.

Round 6: Incidents of danger that warn the heroine away from her current course of action.

Kearsley: Nope. Not even close. There's no actual villain, violence, or conflict for most of the novel. (Note to Kearsley: Are you kidding me?) This is what irritated me most about the book.  A couple times, objects sort of move around, presumably at the hand of a ghost.  But although the Sentinel is creepy, this ghostly Roman soldier never harms anyone. Most of the characters never even interact with him.

In addition, there are no accidents sabotaging the dig, no one warning the archaeologists to stop looking for the Ninth Legion or else, nothing remotely sinister. No one wants to steal the treasure, stop the excavation, or harm any of the participants. Mostly it just rains and people stop work to go inside, pet cats, and get drunk. Not a single character's physical safety is endangered until the final chapter, when the ridiculous climax and denouement occur. This makes for a pretty boring read, especially in a book that seems to hew so closely to many other Gothic tropes. One character, whose fey son can see and talk to the ghost, tells Verity to stop using the boy to communicate with the ghost, but there's no hint of the "or else" that every good Gothic needs. Writers, you can't build a strong plot without conflict and an antagonist. I can't believe the Kearsley book was such an epic fail on this account.

Michaels: Check. We've got spies, rockslides, booby traps, errant gunshots, a kidnapping disguised as a rescue, drugging, and more. There are a buttload of reasons why Sandy needs to say sayonara to her father's dig, but in traditional Gothic fashion, she stays.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel? The stakes have got to increase as the book goes on. Verbal warnings can only go so far. The villain needs to do things that make the heroine fear for her life. This not only makes it more interesting for the reader, but it also gives the heroine a chance to show her mettle.  Unless she's tested, how will she develop as a character?

Who wins the round? Michaels. No contest.

Round 7: Events that seem to be supernatural.

Kearsley: This started out well. There's a ghostly Roman soldier haunting the dig site. He's called the Sentinel, and seems vaguely menacing. The only person who can see him or hear him is a little boy, Robbie, the son of Peter Quinnell's housekeeper.  Robbie is a little disturbed by some of the encounters with the ghost, and there's one creepy scene where Verity feels the ghost near her in her office. But for the most part, the ghost is benign. In fact, the ghost's true intentions are revealed a little too early, if you ask me. Overall, the supernatural peters out without providing much more than a bit of atmosphere and a hint of conflict for the ghost whispering boy's father, who thinks he and his son are being used by the uppity archaeologists.

Michaels: This started out well, too. Sandy, who has never been to Greece, starts having weird living daydreams where she knows she's been to some of these places before. She sees an artifact in a Greek museum and knows its purpose, sees herself using it in the past. There's some mysterious connection between Sandy, her father, the legends of Atlantis, and the destruction of Crete. There's also a local female-based cult that mixes elements of Christianity with earlier pagan beliefs, including the idea of ritual sacrifice. Although all of these elements seem like they should be tied together, they don't really coalesce in the end. In the first part of the novel, Sandy's seeming past-life experiences play a large role. They don't in the second, and the novel ends with a weak return to them that doesn't really explain anything. Writers, if you can't explain something that seems supernatural, don't include it. Tie it to your plot, provide hard details of how it's happening, or forget about it.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel? It makes shit interesting. Again, it's all about upping the ante and giving the heroine more than she can handle. Not only does she need to sort out her feelings for the hero and deal with the antagonistic female in her life, but now she's supposed to deal with ghosts? Jesus, our heroine says. Give a girl a break.  But we can't, because that's how books work.

Who wins the round? It's kind of a fail-tie. Both authors introduce supernatural elements that aren't really explained and tied to the on-the-ground events well enough.

Now, there are a few characteristics of both books that aren't necessarily de rigeur for Gothics, but that merit additional comparison:

Round 8: An archaeological mystery.
19/365+1 What did the Romans ever do for us?
Plaque on the spot where the Ninth
fled Boudicca's army in 61 AD.
Image by Flickr user Dave Crosby.
Used with Creative Commons license.

Kearsley: Check. The Ninth Roman Legion marched deep into the north of England to subdue the warlike border tribes. They vanished sometime between 108 AD, when they rebuilt the fortress at York, and about 150 AD. They were never heard from again. It's a damn good premise, and made me seek out more information about the historical mystery. The book doesn't really solve the mystery one way or another, which is to be expected based on the set-up. Because the mystery still exists, Peter Quinnell can hardly claim to have found conclusive proof that the Ninth was massacred on the Scottish border (although that's what the book hints at).

Minoan palace at Knossos, Crete
Ruins of the Minoan
palace at Knossos, Crete.
Image by Flickr
user inis22mara.
Used with Creative
Commons license.
Michaels: Legend says that the lost city of Atlantis fell into the sea, somewhere in the Atlantic. But what if Atlantis were really in the Mediterranean? What if the mystical city were really a garbled representation of the fate of the Minoan civilization? A cataclysmic volcanic eruption in about 1500 BC destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete and Thera, a thousand years before Plato described Atlantis in his writings. Frederick and Sandy are looking for artifacts that might be buried under the water, proving that a magnificent city did fall into the ocean, and that Atlantis can and should be identified with the Minoans.

Who wins the round? Tie. These are both awesome archaeological mysteries to explore. Both authors provide information about the mystery's set-up as well as tidbits that have been uncovered to support or detract from the characters' theories.

Round 9: Nightmares of the heroine.

Kearsley: Verity dreams that she hears horses' hooves pounding the ground outside her window. But no one else hears the horses, and when she finally mentions it, everyone confirms that there are no horses on the grounds that could possibly have made the noises she heard. Ghost horses! Cool, right? Unfortunately, the nightmares don't lead her to any conclusions, and don't really represent anything. Are they supposed to be the ghosts of Roman horses? Do they mean the Ninth is really there, at Eyemouth? Verity doesn't come to either of these conclusions. It's a huge missed opportunity for Kearsley. Plus, it's also the title of the damn book, so you'd think it would mean a little more.

Michaels: Sandy dreams that she's in the Labyrinth with the Minotaur. She watches Theseus follow Ariadne's ball of string to the center of the maze, where he'll face off against the nightmarish creature (half-bull half-man). The dreams are extremely vivid, pretty well done, and creep Sandy out. They cause her to identify with her real name, Ariadne, and make her see the connection between Ariadne and herself: will she betray her father for Jim the way Ariadne betrayed her father, Minos, to run away with Theseus?

Who wins the round? Michaels. The dreams actually tie into the symbolism of her name and the mythology behind it.

Round 10: The sins of the fathers. 

Kearsley: Yes, the doings of the previous generation come back to bite the heroine's generation in the butt. I won't say how, in case you want to read the Kearsley. But there is a secret that leaks, and it leads to the only real incident of physical danger for anyone in the whole book. Still, that being said, the secret isn't really that big deal, and the reveal feels minimal and lame and rushed. Plus, neither the secret nor the reveal has a damn thing to do with the archaeological mystery or the ghost. It's just crap the characters have to sort through.

Michaels: Yes, the doings of the previous generation come back to bite the heroine's generation in the butt. In fact, there's an entire subplot involving Frederick, Sir Christopher, Jim's uncle (a cohort of Frederick and Sir Christopher's), Kore, and Jurgen. Because this book takes place in 1975, the previous generation's escapades took place during World War II and involve the resistance movement against the Nazis on Crete. There's something hinky between Frederick and Kore, and we find out that someone betrayed someone else  to the Nazis all those years ago. Yeah, that's pretty kick-ass.

Who wins the round? Michaels. Come on. Weak drawing room intrigue or a World War II resistance movement?

Okay, after 10 rounds, it's time to crown a winner!

Rounds tied: 5
Rounds to Kearsley: 0
Rounds to Michaels: 5

Now, this isn't to say the Michaels book is perfect. It's not. It has some pretty big flaws in the second half of the book. However, it kicks the crap out of Kearsley's limp, dreary, soggy tale. The winner is Barbara Michaels.

10 Round Gothic Novel Smackdown: Barbara Michaels, Winner