Gothic & the Books I like to Read


What are your favourite books? It's a question that immediately touches on who you are. Like your taste in food (homegrown) and music (contemporary folk), or the way you wear your hair (a 'don't know what to do with it' messy). It's a question my middle son asked me the other day. At 17, he's into Goethe, Karl Marx, Tolkien and Agatha Christie. He also plays classical piano and Death Metal and Spanish classical guitar. And yes, he's got long flowing hair. We've just bought his A Level texts; they include The Handmaid's Tale and The Road. I was so happy that he'll be reading such brilliant, thought-provoking and emotionally resonant books.

It's reminded me just how much I loved The Road. I read it years ago in one sitting, so enthralled by its depiction of a father's love, that I stayed up till 4 am, crawling out of bed three hours later to do the school run with the story and words still filling my head. Yes, I was frustrated by the plot, but utterly seduced by the poetic quality of McCarthy's words. After years of raising a family and juggling work only to fall exhausted into bed, it is, I think, the book that got me back into both reading and writing.

Words are amazing, yet in speech, it's how you speak that counts. The voice, the face, the connection to your audience - body language is nine tenths of the content. The words in traditional spoken stories are in the moment, economical and vivid, or full of the fun and the rhythm of sounds we relish. But in a book? Well, there's a whole new dimension. Because on the written page the reader can go back over it again and again and the process is more measured, judged. It has to live up to the ultimate test - do I want to turn the page? It's kind of scary, writing.

I'm really bad at reading. For years I was a painfully slow reader. I have to hear each word in my head as I try to visualise the sentence and connect with the meaning. As a child I struggled with books, even though I loved them - the letters were colours and shapes dancing in front of me, a torment I longed to unravel. Then at 17, like my son, I fell in love with Tolkien. I'd gone to work as an au pair in Germany. I was a long way from home but fortunately I'd packed one book - a second-hand bumper edition of Lord of the Rings. It was a world that blossomed in my head, and that summer, I spent every spare moment immersed in it.

Since then, family and work allowing, I've devoured romance, thrillers, literary classics and factual books on history, science and nature. Jean Plaidy, Stephen King, Roald Dahl, David Attenborough, the Brontë's... Oh, my word, Wuthering Heights quite changed my view of how a hero should behave. How could Heathcliff be so charismatic and yet such a monster? Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola, was another book that shocked me - an intense story of an unhappy wife plotting against her husband. It had passion, beauty, intrigue and an encroaching horror that lingers long after its tragic conclusion. It's an early domestic suspense with a gothic feel set in the claustrophobic backstreets of Paris. And a page turner. I realised that literary and accessible weren't necessarily incompatible.

When I say gothic, I don't mean Victorian vampires and grotesque gargoyles peering down from cathedral rooftops. I mean something that teeters on the edge of humanity. Dark emotions, dangerous possibilities, ambiguity and psychological horror. The horrors of the mind are more terrifying than the creatures and half-humans that headline the classic tales of gothic. Gothic is a frame of mind, strong on story, but steeped in language, atmosphere and setting. Often it's highly visual, a metaphor for the almost physical thrill of the forbidden. It's seductive even when you know the characters are wicked. The excitement comes from what a character might do in spite of their better instincts. It's like eating an expensive bar of dark chocolate - moreish and bitter sweet. Gothic is where beauty and terror thrive in the same place. I've been reading Michelle Paver, Andrew Hurley, and I'm just about to start Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House - just in time for Halloween...

I'll be at the Repton Literary Festival on Friday 26th October. At 4pm I will be talking about Cuckoo, playing with gothic and my journey from traditional oral storyteller to author. And at 8pm I will be performing my latest storytelling set - Gothic Tales, a collection of traditional British folktales with a dark twist. If you're at the festival, and see me, do say hi and I'd love to hear about any books you'd recommend. This is my current TBR pile: