This post is part of a virtual book tour organized by Goddess Fish Promotions. Blair Yeatts will be awarding a $25 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour. Click on the tour banner to see the other stops on the tour.
Answering 1000’s of blog-tour interview questions about This Madness of the Heart, along with composing a few blog posts, had the curious result of making me think more about what I write—instead of just creating a massive sense of blog-overdose. So at the moment, anyway, this seems like an intriguing question.
I didn’t know I was writing “gothic” mysteries when I wrote them. New York Times Bestselling author Gail Godwin pointed out my new genre to me after taking a look at Madness. What came to my mind when she used the word was a hazy recollection of formulaic mid-20th C books by Victoria Holt, and I knew (or at least hoped) that Madness had little in common with these. I was so profoundly puzzled that I went to the Internet to look up “gothic” novels. Here I give you the elements of a gothic novel, according to Robert Harris (http://www.virtualsalt.com/gothic.htm):
1. Setting in a castle, mansion, or other mysterious/haunted structure: Madness focuses on a haunted plantation and a likely-to-be-haunted old chapel and Victorian mansion.
2. An air of mystery and suspense: yep.
3. An ancient prophecy or curse: The whole Durham family in Madness is under an old Vodun curse.
4. Dreams, visions, portents of evil: Miranda is a true dreamer and has more than one prophetic dream.
5. Supernatural events: definitely, especially on All Hallows Eve.
6. High emotion: Madness has its fair share of this, but not, I hope, to the point of being overwrought.
7. Women in distress: Well, yes, but not in the helpless, screaming, soon-to-be-ravished sense; Madness has a more feminist take on female distress.
8. Women threatened by tyrannical male: Ditto
9. Metaphors of gloom and horror: Not so much, but some
10. Gothic vocabulary chosen to enhance mood: Yep.
So much for gothic: apparently Godwin chose her word well. But why would I have written a gothic novel, when I intended to write a mystery? To the best of my knowledge, the last gothic novel I read was Anya Seton’s Green Darkness somewhere around 1980—and I’m not even certain it was gothic! Sure, I’d read and loved Mary Stewart as a teenager, and they were definitely gothic, but I can hardly remember them now.
Maybe asking why I wrote mysteries would be easier. I’ve always loved mysteries. I owned the whole Nancy Drew corpus as a young teenager. That morphed into a taste for Agatha Christie, and eventually for people like Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, Elizabeth Peters, P. D. James, Nevada Barr, and Charles Todd. But why did I read mysteries, and these writers in particular? I know I wasn’t like JFK, who liked mysteries as puzzles. I cared very little about figuring out whodunit: I enjoyed the ongoing characters and watching how their minds worked. Maybe even more than that, I liked the reassuring structure of the sleuth who would always return in the next book: horrible things happened, and they couldn’t be undone, but sense could be made of them, evil vanquished (more or less), and life would go on. That’s probably a good summary of my idea of a good fiction read: complex, clever, likeable characters who survive serious violence and evil (perhaps from book to book), and bring resolution and meaning in the end, even if there’s not exactly a happy ending. In fact, that’s not a bad description of the three Miranda Lamden mysteries I’ve completed.
I often call my books mystery/thrillers because the definition of “mystery” seems too constrictive—apparently real mysteries emphasize whodunit plotting, deceptively likely villains, alibis, and timing. I prefer to go my own way. My personal definition of a mystery would be a story involving a murder/murders/violent crime and the adventures and difficulties had by the main characters in figuring out how and why it happened. This doesn’t mean that the readers—or the characters—are ignorant of the guilty one’s identity, although they may be. The book’s action consists of solving the puzzle behind the crime, but the puzzle is always more complex than the simple identity of the villain.
So now we return to the original question: why gothic mysteries? I suspect the answer lies in why I included “gothic” elements in my books (and they all have them) without knowing they were gothic—or even being a reader of gothic fiction. It’s a question of definitions, points of view, and simply how people make sense of the world. As a retired professor of religion with a mystical bent, spirit is part of my world. It’s woven into every piece of reality, every human being, and into non-human nature as well. I could no more write a book about life and death, danger and insight, without including “spiritual” elements than I could write the same book in Mandarin. But what to me is normal and universally present in reality . . . is “gothic,” “supernatural,” “unrealistic,” and “overwrought” to many of the people who spend their time sorting ideas into literary categories.
I think I may create a new genre: “Spiritual Mysteries,” maybe. Or “Murder and Spiritworld.” Even “Dimensional Mysteries.” You get the idea. Labels may be necessary, but they sure can suck the life out.
Bad religion can be deadly. So Miranda Lamden, small-town religion professor, discovers in This Madness of the Heart. The dark hollers of Eastern Kentucky offer fertile soil for shady evangelist Jasper Jarboe, new president of Grace and Glory Bible College, as he beguiles the small mining town of Canaan Wells with his snake-oil charm.
When Miranda isn’t teaching at Obadiah Durham College, she’s investigating paranormal phenomena—or enjoying a turbulent romantic relationship with backwoods artist Jack Crispen. JJ’s inquisition-style gospel has alienated her long since, but when he announces his plan to transform her forest home into an evangelical Mecca, complete with neon cross and 40-foot Jesus, Miranda girds her loins for war. But JJ isn’t finished: he goes on to launch an attack on her friend and fellow professor Djinn Baude with an avalanche of vicious rumors. Not only does he accuse Djinn of demonic communion with the old Voudon witch whose curse killed the college’s founding family, but he also smears her with insinuations of lechery and vice.
With JJ’s urging, hate boils over into violence and tragedy, sweeping Miranda up in its flood. One death follows another as a miasma of evil overwhelms the tiny community, and only Miranda can see clearly enough to halt its spread.
This Madness of the Heart is the first in a new series of Gothic mystery-thrillers featuring Professor Miranda Lamden, whose spiritual gifts have drawn her beyond university walls to explore the mysteries of other world beliefs. Her unique vision brings her into repeated confrontations with evil, where too often she finds herself standing alone between oblivious onlookers and impending disaster.
Enjoy an Excerpt:
I had to stop him! Now, before the damage was done!
I never even got to try.
Like a sullen current of arctic air pouring through a cracked door, cold snaked down over us, coiling around my senses, freezing my anger, congealing my blood: an implacable sister to the malevolence in the garden. I ground my teeth to stifle the scream begging to be born. Even so, a small voice spoke from outside my fear, detached and curious.
“This cold is not the same,” the voice observed. “There’s a difference. It’s not threatening so much as warning, ‘Keep off! Stand clear! Don’t interfere!’”
Immobilized by fear, I was incapable of interfering.
At first I thought my teeth were chattering. A split second later I realized the wind had dropped without warning, the riot of sound had ceased, and a clicking sound had filled the darkness. “Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch,” the sound ran on and on—no more than a field of insects, of snakes, singing in the night.
The light from JJ’s lantern brightened, bloomed, and died, shooting soft rainbows into the night. Cold weighed even more cruelly upon my breast, pressing me against the rough wall at my back, blotting all light from my eyes. Then the clicking stopped, and in the utterly empty dark, I heard the sound of stone rasping on stone, of crumbling brickwork tearing loose from rotten mortar, and the hollow thunk of heavy masonry falling ponderously onto yielding clay.
A soft sigh whispered through the grove. Then there was silence.
About the Author:Blair Yeatts grew up in the midst of a large, old southern Virginia family, much like the family of her main character. She followed her parents into a career in academia and taught religion at the college level in Kentucky for many years. Her special areas of expertise are psychology and Earth-based religions, in which she has done considerable research.
From childhood, Ms. Yeatts has been a fan of mystery fiction, starting with Nancy Drew and moving through Agatha Christie to twentieth century giants like Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D. James, and Nevada Barr. She is fulfilling a life’s dream in writing her own mysteries.
Ms. Yeatts shares her home with her photographer husband, two cats, and a dog. She has a lifelong love of wild nature, and prefers to set her stories in rural areas, where threads of old spiritual realities still make themselves felt. Her first three books take place in different parts of Kentucky and Tennessee.