Wednesday 1 November 2023

Review: The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor by Shaenon K. Garrity

 Having read a lot of gothic literature over the last few years, I’ve started pushing out into unknown areas. The other month I read a (translated) version of Belarusian gothic novel King Stakh’s Wild Hunt and watched an opera adaptation of it in Belarusian. Last week a delved into something really strange and unnerving to me, a book that is not only designated YA (pronounced “yah!”) but also a graphic novel.

Haley is a gothic novel nut. She’s written four essays about Wuthering Heights, she knows the dance, she dresses in long skirts and waistcoats, the other children laugh at her and her teacher begs her to write about something else. Walking home from school on a dark and stormy night (naturally) she sees a figure in the river and wades in to save him. She finds herself transported to Willowweep Manor, where all the rules and tropes of gothic literature come to life.. sort of.

Willowweep has a large imposing manor, which is actually a castle. You can tell the book is American, the main character complains the castle is “three centuries and four European architectural traditions smushed together”, as if that’s not exactly what is expected from one. 

 The Manor houses three brothers; one is a light-hearted flibbertigibbet with a curled moustache, one is surly and strong and the third is missing. There’s also a stern housekeeper and a ghost. There’s some fun with Haley’s knowledge of the gothic and these characters, asking if the housekeeper ever fondles her mistresses lingerie (which we later find out she does, but not in a Rebecca kind of way). We learn the surly brother manifests an Irish Wolfhound whenever he sits down. We also learn that the ditzy younger brother has gambling debts, despite never having gambled and he also has “bills from gentleman’s clubs that only exist in quantum possibility.”

Of course, the castle holds a big secret, but the secret is not a curse, or the sins of the fathers, it’s a sci-fi doo-hickey that holds their pocket dimension together - it’s not even a secret, it’s in the blurb. The characters of Willowweep even know this, which is why the younger brother knows the clubs to be only quantum possibility. Much like the world itself, the elements of gothic romance are only a skin on a sci-fi engine, and a rather thin skin at that, merely ticking a number of checkboxes. 

This mix of sci-fi, gothic, and self-conscious lampshading creates some fun moments. There’s a moment when all the gothic bad guys burst out of a room, including their core component, Italians (blaming Radcliffe for that). There’s some fun with cute possessed animals getting punched and even my favourite thing, an ornamental hermitage. But mixing gothic with the tone of the Scream movies doesn’t really work because gothic is  already a genre that is pulling itself apart between its full-blooded commitment and its rampant theatricality - it simply cannae take it.

I liked Haley. I liked her commitment to the things she loves and her enthusiasm when she enters the gothic(ish) world. I liked her snarky comments about maidens in gothic novels having little power other than to ‘tutor unsettling children’ (Though I did disagree with that. Women protagonists in gothic novels, despite their tendency to faint, are remarkably resilient and often (especially in a Radcliffe novel) are some of the only characters to come out the other side and live a happy life.) I also liked the brothers, especially Cuthbert in his dim-witted cheerfulness.

One of the most noticeable features of a gothic novel is the oddly stiff tone which takes a little getting used to. The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is instead light and breezy. Another element are the long pages of description, which are replaced her by images. This, of course works in gothic cinema and may have worked here if the illustrations had been woodcuts, or charcoal with chiaroscuro effects but instead the images are digital, plasticky and bright. There are a few rain lashed moors, and dark castle interiors but I have seen episodes of Scooby Doo with more atmospheric visuals.

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is entertaining, and I’m sure lots of people have (and will) enjoy it but there isn’t all that much in it for someone wanting an unusual take on the gothic novel.

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