The ghost is the least substantial of the monsters. The vampire is fully flesh, an oversexed Lord Byron falling in love with an unspecial Midwestern girl, and dreaming about tearing her throat out. The zombie is all hunger and rot, his second death achieved by the expedient, non-magical method of beating in his skull. The werewolf is a Cold War cautionary tale about menstruation. These monsters all want
something, all are
The ghost owes its existence to the story, because the experience of the ghost is fleeting, momentary. You go to the old house, mount the steps, consider the drafts and the cold as it moves around like a living thing. Your sleep tingles with discomfort, and you trip the line that triggers the recording of the woman. What does she want? Nothing really. She wants to be seen, wants to play the story out. A ghost is a like a story, or a storyteller, who both lies and comforts when the lies bore home.
This book has all of the qualities of the haunted gothic. There are ghosts and rotting estates, several generations of green-eyed children, a storyteller, a writer, a listener. The tone is dreamy, thoughtful, constructed out of pages from 19th century novels and the smell you find in used bookstores. It's self-conscious, but not in a cheeky, post-modern way.
A woman raised in a bookstore gets a letter from a successful writer near the end of her life. The writer is a famous liar, who has never told the truth about her own beginnings. The writer, who is dying, wants the woman to write the final truth. They broker a deal: the biographer can ask three questions about something true, something verifiable, and can't ask questions about the end. The biographer goes to the moors, it rains, there are gardens and cups of tea. There's a cat named Shadow, who is mercifully just a cat
, and not some sort of walking pathetic fallacy.
She hears the writer's tale, and the tales of others: a governess, a foundling, a doctor, a set of twins. She has a story herself. Each time their mouths open to tell a story, the story pops out whole and perfectly polished, like a stone hidden under the tongue. People don't talk like this, they write like this. I have to say I didn't mind. There's no attempt to make the story contemporary, because it's a story about readers and our peculiar time travel.
For gothic, it's pretty tame. There are fires, murders, madwomen in the attic, but the ending is redemptive, constructive. Which is interesting, because lots of 19th century gothic has at its center a kind of Catholic panic: the Englishman (or American) heads out to the rotting, Catholic countryside and confronts the aristocratic idolitors drinking the blood of virgins and whatnot. He overcomes using his magical boom-stick and the myth of progress and democracy. Cue fire and the walls coming down.
This tale owes more to Jane Eyre
, with its typically English manor houses. Here, the writer doesn't even import a mad post-colonial to strike the match. It's a closed, English world, which may be remarkable. I'm racking my brain right now to come up with a gothic tale I've read that doesn't construct the monster out of an other: women, Catholics, the French, what have you. (You know, not that that isn't fun too.) That may due to this book's particular monster: the ghost of books, the countrysides of our imaginations made manifest on the page. Spooky.