A Gothic Phase

Author: Kate Morton

the distant hoursI’ve been going through a bit of a gothic phase lately. No, not like back in high school, when I spent all my time sulking in my room, picking at my black nail polish and listening to the Cure. (These days I spend my time sulking in my room, picking at my grey nail polish and listening to history podcasts.) I’m talking about the silly yet addictive fiction genre in which a sensitive, bookish young single woman finds herself on some windswept island or wuthering moor somewhere in the UK, ideally near a crumbling ruin where she can discover a ghostly connection to a doomed woman from the past and conveniently swoon into the aristocratic arms of the local lord. If there’s anything better suited for a cold, dark winter evening, I don’t know what it might be. The Distant Hours, by Kate Morton, is a prime example of the new generation of gothic romances.

Edie Burchill unearths a circa-WWII mystery when a long-lost letter (mailed in 1941) is finally delivered to Edie’s mother in 1992; although reading the letter deeply upsets her, Edie’s mother refuses to discuss it. Curious, Edie follows the letter’s trail to Milderhurst Castle, home of the three eccentric shut-in Blythe spinsters — and, Edie learns, the place where her mother was relocated for safety during WWII as a young girl.

The elder two Blythes are twins who have spent their lives looking after their frail, damaged little sister Juniper, who had an emotional breakdown after her fiancé abruptly jilted her in 1941. The three lead a reclusive, mysterious life in their run-down estate, supported all their lives by royalties from their father, Raymond Blythe, author of the bestselling children’s classic The True History of the Mud Man. As Edie returns to Milderhurst and befriends the Blythes, she slowly pieces together the mysteries of their strange, Havisham-esque lives. But is she ready to learn the horrifying truth about the betrayals, forbidden love, and murder hidden in her mother’s past?

The funny thing about gothic romances is that the present-day plot usually isn’t where the action is; all the really good, creepy stuff happens in flashbacks to the past. The modern-day heroine is pretty much stuck driving back and forth to small villages, listening to chatty old-timers, and researching in dusty old libraries — the book equivalent of when a movie tries to make an action scene out of someone frowning intently and typing furiously on their computer. While Milderhurst Castle is a gloriously Gormenghastly shambles, the excitement is mostly reserved for the circa-WWII plot line that takes place in Edie’s mother’s day. It’s not a “mystery” in the sense that you could solve it yourself from clues scattered thoughout the story, more of a psychological suspense novel that gradually unfolds before you as you read.

It’s definitely possible to overdo it with these formulaic novels, and The Distant Hours faithfully crosses off each item on the list of requirements. Shy, bookish female protagonist – check. Tumbledown castle with plenty of thunderstorms – check. Hostile old ladies harboring homicidal secrets – check. While this book adheres firmly to the conventions, the enjoyably sinister mood and layers of mystery keep the story moving along, and the final, climactic flashback had a surprise twist I didn’t see coming. If you’ve got a rainy evening and a glass of wine, I’ve got the delightfully just-scary-enough page-turner for you.

Stephanie Perry
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