With manipulated heroines and a central desire to unsettle the reader, a new brand of book is putting a modern twist on the 'domestic gothic' tradition - and giving it literary credibility.
Discomforts of home
In Lucie Whitehouse's spry, suspenseful new novel The Bed I Made, a young woman escapes from London to the Isle of Wight, off the coast of the UK, to avoid an unhinged but charismatic boyfriend who will stop at nothing to keep her in his life. As far as Kate is concerned, she has broken up with him. But Richard, a property developer, can't accept that. He bombards her with threatening texts and e-mails. How long will it be before he works out where Kate is and comes after her?
With its persecuted-maiden heroine, desolate seaside setting and revenge-thriller plot, The Bed I Made is a classic example of "domestic gothic" - a tag literary critics have used for years to describe books such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but that now encompasses a specific type of serious-minded but compelling novel by a specific type of (almost always female) writer: Maggie O'Farrell, Joanna Briscoe, Julie Myerson and Sophie Hannah are key names.
At the genre's most ragingly commercial end are the psychological thrillers written under the pseudonym Nicci French by the married ex-journalists Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. The first Nicci French novel, 1997's The Memory Game, had a distinctly "literary" tone and was very obviously influenced by Ruth Rendell, especially the more left-field, psychologically exploratory novels Rendell publishes under the nom de plume Barbara Vine. The Memory Game sold respectably, but it took Gerrard and French until 1999 and the stalker shocker Killing Me Softly to refine the formula.
By contrast, O'Farrell's After You'd Gone (2000), which arrived seemingly out of nowhere and went on to sell more than 250,000 copies in paperback, is sedate and interiorised, with few obvious genre flourishes. It's about a woman in her early twenties called Alice who, upon arriving in Edinburgh to visit her family, sees something mysterious in the mirror at the train station, something that is withheld from the reader until the very end. It shocks her so much that she heads straight back to London, where she steps deliberately into oncoming traffic. The novel unfolds around her as she lies in hospital in a coma.
A former literary agent who had a hit with her debut novel The House at Midnight in 2008, Whitehouse professes ignorance of the term "domestic gothic", but makes a decent fist of defining it all the same. "I think it would describe stories that magnify the uncertainties and fear that a lot of people, especially women, experience in the course of normal life," she says. "They explore what it would be like if those fears - such as meeting someone who appeared charming but turned out to be dangerous - were realised, and with greater consequences than ordinarily they would have."
They're "women's books", then - but at the same time not, or not quite. O'Farrell says that, at readings and signings, her audience is overwhelmingly female, "although every so often a man comes up and says: 'Do you know, I really liked your book?' They always sound so surprised". O'Farrell studied English at Cambridge University in the early 1990s and has always been happy with the domestic gothic label. After all, it places her within a tradition of the kind of novels she grew up reading: the Brontës, of course, but also Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's chilling 19th-century chronicle of postnatal depression The Yellow Wallpaper. (Motherhood is the subject of O'Farrell's new novel, The Hand That First Held Mine.)
Subsequent O'Farrell novels such as My Lover's Lover have exhibited the same obsessions with family secrets, strategies of escape and concealment and lives obscurely aligned. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) adds mental illness to the list. Esme is the youngest of two daughters born into a prim, upper-middle-class Scottish family living in India at the tail end of the British Empire. Surly and awkward, she embarrasses her parents in social situations and is for this reason committed to an asylum, where she stays for 50 years.
"I've always been fascinated by what has happened to the same kinds of women at different times in history," says O'Farrell, "thanking my lucky stars that I was born when I was, as I don't have much doubt that I'd have ended up like Esme." The first gothic novels appeared in the 18th century and scandalised polite society with their sensationalist plots and suggestive subtexts. Books such as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho were read in the main by impressionable young women such as Catherine in Jane Austen's witty parody of the form, Northanger Abbey. The name of the game was "thrilling terror" - exploiting the long-established link between fear and the sublime.
The new strain jettisons much of what we now regard as overwrought about the gothic, emphasising instead the ordinariness of the world its characters inhabit - hence "domestic". But the governing impulse to shock and unsettle remains the same. Which begs the question: isn't it antifeminist of modern, intellectually emancipated women to enjoy reading about women being stalked, manipulated and terrorised?
Not quite, says Dr Leigh Wilson, a senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Westminster in London. "In a way I think the term domestic gothic is a tautology. The gothic has always been about the home, from Walpole's castle to David Lynch's suburbia. Today, as much as in the past, the home is still primarily associated with women and with the idea of femininity, love, motherhood and so on.
"These have always been areas of conflict and tension for women, and in many ways the home is more of a conflicted area now that women are supposedly so emancipated. So the gothic is still the place where these things are worked out, rehearsed, investigated, indulged in and resisted. The seductive, attractive thing about the gothic is that it allows us to fear and desire something at the same time. Kicks that are only about desire can't really compete with that."
In a subplot about a woman who has gone missing from her boat, The Bed I Made alludes winkingly to a novel of enormous significance to contemporary writers of domestic gothic: Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. (O'Farrell got her homage in first in My Lover's Lover, whose overimaginative heroine, Lily, believes she's being haunted by her boyfriend's ex-girlfriend.) For years, du Maurier was rubbished as middlebrow and conservative. Now she's immensely fashionable. A couple of years ago, she even became the heroine of a domestic gothic novel based on her life, Justine Picardie's Daphne. Wilson describes the revival of interest as "part of a trend, beginning really in the 1980s - and not just within feminist literary studies - to take popular and middlebrow culture seriously".
Perhaps it's limiting, though, to always see novels through the prism of genre. O'Farrell's books are wonderfully rich and complex - a world away from the Nicci French-style supermarket thrillers of, say, Jane Hill - while Whitehouse insists she wasn't aware of using genre archetypes (the lonely, neurotic woman; the predatory, unfeeling man) when she was writing The Bed I Made. "It started one night when I'd been out to a party in the centre of London and got talking to a man who approached me in a bar," she explains. "There was nothing sinister about it - men and women meet like that all the time, of course - but on the way home I started thinking about how easily that situation could go wrong, not in the obvious way of being attacked but more insidiously and over a longer term. I also wanted to write about loneliness and how that makes people vulnerable."
Fear is derived from an awareness of this vulnerability - which is why men are so often the source of it in these books. Whitehouse continues: "We don't have the social and financial restraints of previous generations of women, but that also means we don't have their support structures, like family. Having a relationship with someone new who exists outside these support structures is a leap of faith that doesn't happen in other areas of life like careers and straightforward friendships."
Power and the fear of relinquishing it - this, then, is what domestic gothic comes down to; what everything comes down to, in the end. The Bed I Made by Lucie Whitehouse (Bloomsbury) and The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell (Headline Review) are out now.