The day begins with a message that a dear one’s cancer has spread so far and so deep that only days remain. She is far away, and we will not get there in time to say goodbye.
This cancer death comes on the heels of two others.
I feel a weight, like a heavy, flat, wooden beam, settle on my shoulders. All day long, things light on that beam, adding to its weight.
The project I’ve been working so hard on is suddenly, without explanation, terminated. A trusted colleague throws me under the proverbial bus. There’s an unexpected delay; there’s a heart-breaking disappointment. A rejection slip falls through the mail slot. Thunk, thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
At the three-way stop, the car who should be after me roars out in front of me. Then the driver, who has children in the car, reels around to gleefully give me the finger through her back window.
It is June, but the temperature is falling fast; I shiver. And then rain lashes against my windshield. I watch the rude lady’s van disappear, with her tender, impressionable children inside, into the gray. Gloomy thoughts and fears of loss clunk and roll heavily in my head. People get sick, I think, and people are cruel, and people betray you. People are downright, evilly, rude.
By the time I get home for the day I am sorely bent over, chin near the floor, weighted down. My throat aches from not crying. I do not want to have a pleasant conversation, a fine meal, or good and caring company.
I want a Gothic novel.
I choose Arcadia Falls, by Carol Goodman, and I enter Meg’s (the protagonist’s) world. She, too, is bereft; her young husband died last year of a sudden, inexplicable heart attack. Added to wounding loss is betrayal; Jude lost all the family savings to a hedge fund. Meg, who has not worked, who has put her pursuit of her doctorate on hold now, flails around to find work that will support her and her sullen, aching daughter, Sally.
What she finds is a teaching job at a private school for the arts. It is tucked away in upstate New York, in deep woods, down paths that are hard to follow. Those dark and devious pathways feel just like the geography of my mind right now, and I pull the afghan around me, glad that darkness is meeting darkness here. Pain lego-s up with pain. I sink deeper into the cozy chair and deeper in to Meg’s world.
That world is especially satisfying because Meg is a lover of words, a woman who gave up dreams of art as a young woman; she is a folklorist. She loves words and story just like I do, so I gladly take this dark and frightening journey with a kindred spirit.
Meg blunders and makes mistakes; she initially pushes her daughter even further away, even deeper into her own grief. The personnel at the school are a mixed lot: some seem open and friendly. Others are persecuted and long suffering. A few are bitterly, dangerously secretive.
And a student dies in mysterious circumstances and the darkness just gets darker, more opaque, cold-frightening in its mystery.
And Goodman weaves in a folk-take, the tale that lured Meg to this God-forsaken outpost, and its archetypal characters—the pure and the devious, the saviors and the damned–seem very real and believable. And the story plays out against the past–the choices of the founders affect the lives of those in the now.
I plunge into the book, not knowing whom to trust, wanting to shake Meg when she’s thoughtless or just plain wrong, feeling her hurt and isolation. I understand the joy she finds in teaching, and the guilt she feels in her attraction to the rugged sheriff. (Well, of COURSE, there’s a rugged sheriff.) I fret over Sally and whether the girl stays safe. I shy away from even the most open of the characters, knowing a murderer sleeps in their midst. I go with Meg out into the dark, into the whipping, cutting snow, and when we finally come home,–two more dead bodies later,–the mystery is solved. The past weaves into the folktale weaves into the story of Meg and Sally, a great secret is revealed, and safety is, at last obtained.
I read like a hungry traveler for whom the book is food. And it really does sustain me.
Plunging into Meg’s darkness helps me find a way up out of mine; I climb with her out of mystery, dire financial straits, panic, loss, betrayal, and isolation. Meg mis-steps, but she recovers; she is, finally, truly pure of heart. Pure of heart wins love of child—and love of rugged sheriff, too.
Meg’s slog through the darkness and emergence into the light mirrors my own mental travels, my own wounded state. By the end of the book, even knowing that some things just suck and that there’s nothing we can do to stop them or to help our dear ones in their path, I am feeling emotionally better.
Why are gothic novels so satisfying? NPR.org (“A Dark and Stormy Night: Why We Love the Gothic,” by Genevieve Valentine), says these works, which may be quaint and rustic in setting, actually hit modern fears head-on. “…they’re preoccupied with contemporary problems; the essential horror of the irreconcilable world,” writes Valentine. “There’s comfort,” she tells us, “in over-the-top catharsis of the dependable dark…we love knowing what to expect.”
And that is exactly it. I knew the darkness was going to be outrageous at this private school in the woods where people keep crashing down the oddly unfenced slope, into the chasm, down to their deaths. And I expected, too, the ascent into safety, the reconciliation, the reward for the true of heart.
No book can fix all of our ills, heal our friends, teach manners to the needy, or sew up the gashes of betrayal. But a Gothic novel can carry me deep, make me acknowledge the horror, and bring me back home.
It does not fix or heal me, but this story makes me ready to carry on.
Image taken from amazon.com