Saturday, April 4, 2020

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times: Treasures from the 60s and 70s

The top shelf of one of my bedroom bookcases is home to hardcover gothic suspense novels published in the 1960s and 1970s. Loads of women were writing gothics in those two decades. And then, suddenly, poof! Sometime in  the early 1980s it seemed none were being published. Historical romances hit the bookstore shelves to replace the gothics, and I was cut adrift, with no interest in a genre that was mostly romance with a smattering of highly questionable history. Although I searched at every bookstore I could find in Greater Boston, it was clear that contemporary gothics were gonesville. Romantic suspense novels were still in vogue, however.

I was initiated into the cult of the 1960s gothic fiction at my high school library and quite by chance.  It was a Friday afternoon in the autumn of 1968, and I was a sophomore looking for something fun to read for the weekend. I bumped into a classmate, who was one of the "popular" girls. I was in awe of her beauty, and she was not a mean popular girl, although I'd never exchanged words with her. 
I tried to figure out why on earth she was in the library, and on a Friday afternoon! She was alone. In fact, we were the only two students in the library, both of us rushing to snatch a book before catching our respective buses home. I was stunned when she actually spoke to me. “You have got to read this book.” And she pulled Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt off the shelf, thrust it in my hands, and  dashed off with another title from the same shelf.

I had no idea that I would be completely swept off my feet by Saturday morning. The young, naïve
governess, the brooding manse, and the two enigmatic leading male characters, all set in Cornwall. Part of the formula for the gothic at this time was that there had to be two men. For the naïve reader, it was impossible to tell which one of the two was bad, evil, and dangerous, and which was trustworthy, good, and heroic. I had to have more.
That next Monday I returned to the library and picked up Bride of Pendorric. My next was Kirkland Revels. I did not mind a bit that the plot was basically identical to Mistress of Mellyn. I did not read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier until after discovering the Holt gothics, and Jane Eyre came next, which occurred when my mother noticed my absorption in the Holt novels. 
As far as my personal collection of Holt novels goes, I originally owned a number in mass-market paperback. After moving to the Adirondacks, I found lots of the hardcover originals at library book sales and bought them. 

The Legend of the Seventh Virgin, to my mind, is the best Holt novel. It is more creative generally, strays from the "formula," and mixes Cornish history with the modern-day tale. It was the one I forced my mother to read,  and she loved it.
Of course, Victoria Holt was the pen name of the prolific English author, Eleanor Burford Hibbert (1906-1993). Hibbert used many pseudonyms for the various genres she wrote in. (Jean Plaidy, Phillipa Carr, and others.) Hibbert's biography on Wikipedia is fascinating, particularly when one considers all she accomplished. Do check out the section "Writing Discipline." 
I never cared for the Phillipa Carr novels or the Jean Plaidy, despite the fact that I have always loved historical fiction. It was the style of those series that just didn't grab me.

Also on the bookshelf are a number of Mary Stewart's novels of romantic suspense, and a few of Phyllis Whitney's. I did not discover Whitney until my 20s, when I found them a good escape from the stresses of my teaching job. The best Phyllis Whitney romantic suspense novel in my opinion is The Winter People. (It was very hard to find a description online that fits the novel I know. Click on "more" to get the full blurb.) I read that for the first time just 12 years ago. Superb drama, superb suspense. A close second is Snowfire, which I read more recently and which I highly recommend. Not all of Whitney's novels are as interesting as these two, and, yes they are formulaic with one huge exception.
Whitney was obsessively particular about physically, personally immersing herself in the locale for each novel before setting pen to paper. Her settings are richly atmospheric, which as many of you know, is key for me.

Starting in the 1980s, the Holt books became romantic suspense novels set in exotic locales. I did not like them as well as the gothics and read only a couple.

By the way, I love some of the gothicky fiction that's been published since 2010, when the genre seemed to be making a sort of comeback. What I find most interesting in many of these novels is how they combine elements from lots of other genres to create completely satisfying fiction for people who have gothic blood running in their veins. The finest example I can think of is a standalone gothic thriller by Elli Griffiths, The Stranger Diaries (2019). I gave it five stars when I read it last year.



  1. What a fascinating post - it took me back in time to when I used to read as many Jean Plaidy books that I could borrow from the library. I do remember reading Victoria Holt's books too and enjoyed them as well. I remember the name, Phillipa Carr, but I don't think I've read any of the books under her name. I've read some of Mary Stewart's books - her Merlin and Arthur books and was absolutely spellbound.

    Here's the link to my post -

    1. Hi Margaret,
      Here's my reply to your post. And thank you for participating!
      Hi Margaret,
      You are at last on my blogroll, so I can stay on top of all of your posts, which I've enjoyed mightily.
      I LOVE Antony Beevor's books relating to World War II. So informative, especially down to every last detail about individual human lives so well integrated with the larger events ongoing. I think I have all of his books, though I have a couple I haven't read.
      And Thomas Hardy's biography. I have read at least three of his novels, all of them when I was 18-22 years, and each one of them was difficult for me. I guess I found them all to be depressing and all from a male viewpoint, which I found stifling toward his female characters. I hate to be so blunt! My best friend from college loved his work, so I think it's just my viewpoint.
      The Agatha Christie Notebooks sound fascinating!! Will look that one up for sure.
      And Now A Response To Your Comment:
      I was totally and completely overwhelmed and enthralled by the Arthur-Merlin books by Mary Stewart. Her masterpieces I believe. What memories!

  2. All of these sound good to me but, especially: Mistress of Mellyn. I do need something to transport me away! Stay safe my friend.

    1. Hi Diane,
      Compared to contemporary thrillers and suspense novels, Mistress of Mellyn may seem a bit out-dated, but if you're in the mind-set to be swept away and are willing to suspend disbelief (!), you will thoroughly enjoy it. I will be very, very interested to hear what you think! A great romance, says my 16-year-old self, who I still listen to, by the way!

  3. Oh my goodness, Judith, I was addicted to Victoria Holt's gothic books in my twenties! Loved, loved, loved her books and haunted the library hoping they had others or someone would bring one back that I hadn't read. I was astonished though when I found out she was Jean Plaidy as I couldn't get on with those at all. Oh! I have Stranger Diaries on my Kindle, I didn't realise it was 'that' good (even though I love Ruth Galloway) so I will get to it soon.

    How are you doing? Hearing a lot about how serious things are in NY state.

    1. Cath, it sounds like we had the same experience--the sheer love of the Holt gothics and the disaffection with the Plaidy novels. Exactly. I tried to go with them several times, but they fell flat.
      The Stranger Diaries, Cath, is much, much better than good. It had me guessing and enraptured all the way through, on the edge of my seat, and I was so alert all through that I was shocked by the ending. Utterly shocked. This novel will take you away, for sure.
      Ah, New York State. Things are very, very bad, very critical DOWNSTATE, as they say. UPSTATE, actually we're more than upstate, we're Northern New York, we have NO idea how many cases we have here because the only people tested are people who are so critical that they must be admitted to the hospital. Other people who are sick are given a test for influenza. If it's negative, they are assumed to have COVID-19, and must quarantine. But because all of these people are never tested, their numbers are not added to the NYS numbers of cases. No one knows, no one, how many cases there are in upstate New York.
      Additionally, the vast majority of people who own houses in my town do not live here year-round. They own "vacation homes." And according to our overly busy electrician and our Town Supervisor, most of these vacation home owners are here right now. They came from the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, from New York City, Westchester County, northern New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Because they're all here, our local grocery store is constantly depleted of goods. No chicken, very little meat of any kind, no paper goods of any sort, very little produce, no soup, etc.
      Of course, the vacation home owners have every right to be here, but the essential services were not prepared for them all to be here. Sigh.
      That's our situation.
      But we have food, and lots of eggs and cheese and pasta and rice and flour, etc.

    2. Thanks for the explanation about 'upstate' and 'downstate', I knew you were way north of NY city but not that you are 'north, north' so to speak. So pleased that you're well away from epicentre, I hoped you were but wasn't sure. I'm not surprised to hear that second home owners have flooded into your area. It started to happen here in the South West of England because we too are a major centre for second homes. Luckily the gov quickly cracked down on it because the NHS in our area is also not equipped for a huge influx of people. Article on the local news tonight in fact about the authorities visiting B&Bs and holiday homes to check they're not full of tourists. And we have police on the major roads stopping people and sending them home. I honestly don't know how people can be that selfish or that stupid. You take care.

  4. This is a very interesting, in-depth post. I never have understood the definition of gothic and looked into it a bit when I read The Woman in White (based on your recommendation). I could have read some of these authors when I was younger, I am not sure.

    I am now reading The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter by Sharyn McCrumb (from 1992, set in Appalachia -- Tennessee). It has been described as gothic. Have you hear of this author?

    1. Hi Tracy,
      I have not heard of Sharyn McCrumb. I'll be very, very interested to hear your views of this one. If it's gothic, I'll likely be interested.

  5. My mother read a lot of Victoria Holt. I didn't know the same author was Jean Plaidy AND Phillipa Carr. That's just amazing.

    It is funny how literature is not immune to fashion. I know we have exchanged titles about more modern Gothic novels and I did read The Stranger Diaries on your recommendation! So thank you. Did I mention to you before and/or have you read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield?

    1. Ruthiella,
      I had The Thirteenth Tale in the house for a number of years and then passed it on. I will pursue it now, though, with your recommendation. So glad you liked The Stranger Diaries.

  6. Well that was a real blast from the past for me. I rad Victoria Holt as a youngster too, never got into Jean Plaidy either. I recall reading that Victoria Holt was so insecure about her writing abilities that she entered a short story in a newspaper competition under yet another name - and it won. I loved Phyllis Whitney books too but haven't read any for years. I think I've read everything by Mary Stewart, she's great at suspense and atmosphere.

    1. Katrina,
      When I read Snowfire and The Winter People in more recent times, I realized more intensely just how skilled she was at crafting her novels of suspense. Very affecting. I think she had her best years and then toward the end of her writing career I don't think they were anywhere near as good as when she was at the height of her form.
      I so agree about Mary Stewart. I just read her novels over and over and they STILL satisfy completely.

  7. Sometimes I think we were separated at birth (although I have never come across Antony Beevor). In my case, it was a delightful nun in my 7-12 school who pointed out Mistress of Mellyn and I think Dorothy Eden. Weirdly, my sister is now the Director of Admissions at this school and I am sometimes tempted to go check on the current state of the library collection (then I remember my copy of The Quiet Gentleman was purloined). I didn't like Phyllis Whitney's gothics as much as you, although had enjoyed her children's mysteries so it was a natural progression to move on to them. Mary Stewart is the best of this group, in my opinion, and I always liked Jane Aiken Hodge's gothics and her historical romances a lot. One author who doesn't get much attention (she only wrote three books) is Mary Elgin. I think her books are as close to Mary Stewart as it gets. If your library has any (and ever reopens) you would like these.