Before I ever read a romance novel, I devoured Gothics by Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt. When I was probably around twelve I found them on a bookshelf in our basement, and I think over the course of one summer I read everything both authors had written.
Gothic romances were and are the perfect blend of the creepy and the sexy. Usually set on a crumbling estate, the innocent heroine shows up (sometimes as a governess or poor relation or new wife) to meet the dark and mysterious lord of the manor/castle/whatever. These books were always told only from the heroine’s POV as she tried to piece together spooky happenings (ghosts, curses, diaries left behind by mysteriously dead former wives) while simultaneously fearing the hero and also wanting to bone him.
Sadly, there was no boning in Victoria Holt’s novels, but Eve Silver’s Dark Gothic series is here to rectify that. His Dark Kiss is the second book in the series, but totally works as a stand-alone read.
Emma Parrish arrives at Manorbrier Castle to act as governess to the son of her late cousin, Delia. Rumors abound that Lord Anthony Craven, Delia’s husband, was responsible for her death, but practical Emma dismisses this all as “stuff and nonsense.”
When she gets to Manorbrier, however, she realizes some seriously spooky shit is going on. First of all, the previous two governesses died under mysterious circumstances.
She overhears her student, adorable plot moppet Nicky, discussing her with the cook:
“I haven’t met her yet. But if she is like Miss Strubb or Miss Rust or…” The child shivered and hesitated briefly before saying the woman’s name in a hushed whisper. “…Mrs. Winter, then I think I should not like to meet her at all. And certainly if she is like Mrs. Winter, then she should go away and never come back. Papa could send her off in a pine box. Just like he sent Mrs. Winter.”
A pine box? Emma stood frozen, digesting the implications of all she had overheard. Clearly the child was frightened, and had quite possibly been ill-treated by his previous governesses. That he had suffered was a sad thing to be sure, but his trust could be gained with patience and love. So she worried not overmuch as to Nicky’s opinion of her, but the mention of a pine box for the unknown Mrs. Winter gave her pause. There was only one type of pine box he could mean.
A chill crept across Emma’s skin. It seemed that Mrs. Winter had left Manorbrier in a coffin, and by the child’s account, it was Lord Anthony who had put her there.
One of the things that’s tricky in a Gothic is making the hero a menacing and potentially murderous figure, while simultaneously making him desirable to the heroine and reader. Like a true Gothic hero, Anthony is darkly mysterious and handsome, and has a penchant for wandering around his castle with his shirt unbuttoned but tucked in. The Gothic hero sometimes intersected with (or was a precursor to) the vampire hero, so if you’re confused as to how he could be appealing, think about Spike or Angel or whoever Sarah McLachlan was singing about in “Building a Mystery” (ah, the nineties. Good times).
Emma doesn’t think Anthony is a murderer. He’s a devoted and loving father to Nicky, and he’s also very kind to those in his employ (when a maid gets pregnant out of wedlock, he keeps her on and also pays for the care of her sick mother). But there’s definitely something fucked up going on at Manorbrier. For one, all the other servants seem creepy and tight lipped about everything, like they’re all in on some huge conspiracy. Then there’s the mysterious Round Tower that Emma is explicitly forbidden from entering.
One day Emma is enjoying the fresh air when she sees the coachman, Griggs, carrying a bundle into the Round Tower:
From the bottom of the bundle dangled a human hand, the fingers curled like talons, the skin wrinkled and pale save for a terrible blackened lesion that marred the flesh, the center glistening wetly in the sun. Emma gasped and lurched away. ‘Twas not just any body, but a terrible, frightening thing riddled with disease.
Taking another involuntary step backward, she held up one hand, palm forward. Such a futile gesture aimed at warding off the horror that confronted her. She swallowed against the bile that crawled up her throat as frozen talons of true horror gouged her heart.
Griggs looked down.
“His Lordship likes ’em fresh,” he said. “Says it’s best for the harvest.” With a grunt, he hefted his morbid parcel, turned his back on her, and disappeared into the tower.
Now, any sane person would be like:
Not the Gothic heroine, though. The Gothic heroine is gonna wait until midnight, put on her flimsiest nightgown, grab a candle, and go figure this shit out.
One of the things this novel does really well is keep Anthony a darkly intriguing figure while also making him super bone-able. It’s a tough chord to strike, balancing fear and desire together, and going too far in any direction will ruin the mood so to speak.
Emma is illegitimate and acutely aware of what an affair with the lord of the castle could mean for someone in her position. That said, she and Anthony are drawn to each other with a delicious intensity. And the sex scenes in this book are hella hot.
One of the things that was a little frustrating, but also frankly a convention of the genre, is that much of the conflict could have been solved by Emma and Anthony talking. “Hey, why is Griggs carrying bodies into the Round Tower?” would be a pretty reasonable question to ask. Emma doesn’t often explicitly voice her concerns and when she does Anthony answers her in a vague and roundabout way. It keeps the mystery going, but it’s irksome.
That mystery is resolved nicely though and the clues as to what the hell is really going are peppered throughout the book in a way that the reader can solve it if they want to.
Now I do want to add a trigger warning. There’s a scene where a woman is in labor and in distress, and there is a frank conversation with the physician about performing an abortion (and how it would be performed) in order to save her life. This could be upsetting for anyone who had experienced something similar.
His Dark Kiss is also fairly creepy. It didn’t give me nightmares, but the horror element is sufficiently explicit that it might freak out more sensitive readers. Since I read creepy shit all the time, it didn’t bother me much.
If you’ve never read a Gothic and want to try one, or are just looking for seasonally spooky read, His Dark Kiss would be a good place to start.