The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

Chris Szego
Posted March 20, 2008

moon2.jpgThere’s a scene at the end of the film of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (the Ciaran Hines version, natch) that I love.  In it, the hero holds out his hand, and the heroine takes it.  That’s it, just two people holding hands.  What makes it so powerful is what led up to that quiet moment – the pain, regrets and misunderstandings are all behind them now, and from that moment forward, the two of them will move on together.  Romance fans love this scene, despite its sweet placidity:  it is profound, has the emotional impact of a battering ram and, given that the hero is even wearing gloves, is entirely, utterly tame.

Interestingly enough, we also love Anne Stuart, about whose books the same cannot be said, except for the ‘battering ram’ part.

Anne Stuart’s first novel was published in 1974.  It, and many of the sixty-plus others that followed, borrowed heavily from the Gothic tradition.  Dating back to the late 1700s, gothics tend to feature a mysterious hero; a heroine who feels hunted, haunted or both; physical and emotional isolation; and usually a remote castle/lighthouse/precarious building of some sort.   The weather is often extreme, the overall sense is melodramatic and deliciously creepy, and if you haven’t said Udolpho by now, well, no eighteenth century literature bingo card for you.  

anne_stuart.jpgStuart is the first to admit that she loves the gothic form as a reader, and that it influences her own work.  But she doesn’t just use the gothic pattern, she breaks it open, scrambles it around, and adds teeth, bone and blood.  In Stuart’s novels, the heroine doesn’t just think she’s in jeopardy, she actually is in deadly peril.  What’s haunting her could cripple her future; what’s hunting her wants her dead.  The danger is real, immediate, and often fatal.   People die in Stuart’s books, and they aren’t always the bad guys.

She re-imagined the staple gothic characters, as well, making them darker and much more dangerous.  Her books are filled with thieves, ghosts, prostitutes, cons and murderers – and those are just the heroes!  In all honesty, Stuart’s heroes are often just this side of salvageable.  Which, of course, is what makes their eventual redemption, slight as it may be, so very satisfying.
 
If the hero’s journey is about salvation, the heroine’s journey is about self-knowledge.  Stuart’s heroines tend to be less criminally minded that their male counterparts, but they carry their own burdens.  Mostly, they’re afraid.  Sometimes they don’t even know it, fear has simply become a part of their everyday lives, and they work around it.  Or rather, through it: one of Stuart’s gifts is the ability to show how fear can strictly limit potential, and how vital it is to get past it.  Some things are worth being afraid of:  someone who wants to kill you for your inheritance is a pretty good choice.  But other things: the dark, the ocean, horses… these objects of fear, if surmounted, can actually help save the heroine.  Can, in fact, help the heroine save herself.

Despite being known in some circles as ‘Sister Krissie the Impeccably Demure’ (an alter ego involving a nun’s habit; Kristine is her middle name) Anne Stuart is anything but.  Rather, she’s known for her startling honesty.  The first time I met Stuart in person, she was telling a small group of fledgling writers to ask her anything.  She then proceeded to answer every question asked, including those about her weight, her earnings, and what to say to reporters who trot out the stupid questions romance writers are so often hit with (ie: “How do you do your {snicker} research?”  Stuart’s answer: “Fuck off”).  In a legendary keynote address, she once told several thousand writers:  “Your editor is not your enemy.  Marketing is.”   Funny, generous and amazingly frank, Anne Stuart does exactly what her characters do:  she faces down fear and celebrates life.

~~~

Chris Szego is not afraid of the ocean or horses or the dark.  Clowns, however, are another story.

Comments

One Response to “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night”

  1. Mr.Dave
    March 25th, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    Ghosts huh?
    I don’t know why this surprises me. I guess it makes sense that ghosts would be used as heros or principal characters in romantic fiction, despite their rather fantastic (dare I say “unrealistic”?) nature. And unlike, for instance, having a vampire or werewolf romantic hero, a certain kind of ghost seems to be able to slide into an otherwise normal world and human relationship – somehow not requiring the same explanation or justification of the supernatural.
    I think of movies like Truly Madly Deeply, To Gillian on her 37th Birthday, or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and how the ghosts are almost incidentally supernatural; mostly they are much like other human characters – but with the small difference of being dead.
    I wonder why this works with ghosts but not with other monsters or aliens or undead? Are ghosts more human than other undead? Maybe just “differently human”?

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