“First Contact” Welsh Gothic
Echo in a Dark Wind by Julia Withers (an early pseudonym of American author Jerrold Mandis, Signet Books, 1966), falls into the “first contact” Gothic novel type, whereby an outsider aligned with the primary readership – in this case, a young, sophisticated interior decorator (!!) from New York – encounters the Other in a primitive throwback to wilder, more savage days in a centuries-old Welsh fortress.
This post contains spoilers!
First of all, Angela, our heroine, is modest, kind and generous. She has a humble background, but her lucky break was an astonishingly well-connected High School art teacher who got her into a New York art & design school. Living the Dream. Angela is successful and an Independent Modern Woman™️, who gradually reveals the obligatory sparky nature of this kind of heroine through verbally challenging churlish Male behaviour.
She has some fun* ideas about British stereotypes (how cute) and is surprised when they don’t quite match up to real life but adjusts quite well.
There are some dodgy perceptions of Welsh history and places where geography becomes erratic. I’m not entirely sure where “Castle Morgan” is.
Pedantic note on naming your Gothic castle: Don’t name your Welsh/English castle after your family, that’s not how it works. It makes you sound insecure, gauche, desperate, trying too hard. Unless that’s the point/joke. Then do it, so your clued-up snooty characters can point this out and snigger. Remember: the place is more important than the people. People come and go, the place is always the same. Unless, of course, you’re Dracula. And then, that sort of is the joke.
In Wales, you might be confused because Welsh puts the adjective last, and so translated literally back into English makes it appear as if “Castle” comes first. It doesn’t.
Ok, moving on, sweeping rapidly by the dodgy concept of geography and history, the fact the fictional earldom is “Penhearst”, a mash-up of Welsh “pen” + Old English “hearst”, which I … I am also going to leave alone for now, and also do you understand what an earldom is and how it differs from a lordship and do you get how hereditary titles work? The answer to this is a resounding “nope” so we’ll just leave that alone too.
No, I lied, hang on.
The M4 (referred to as a “highway”) was built in 1963. The Severn Bridge was opened in 1966 after work began in 1961. They can drive from London to “Castle Morgan” on this motorway. You do not, for the love of all that is holy, go past Offa’s Dyke. I mean, yes, of course you had to before the bridge was built, but even then you cannot, cannot, cannot, cannot, go via Merthyr Tydfil if the nearest town to “Castle Morgan” is Chepstow. Let me show you why:
That space in the middle of the totally pointless loop you just did? Those are mountains. That’s why it – you know what, never mind.
Ok, I’m fine now.
Gothic Tropes in ECHO IN A DARK WIND
- Ominous dreams
- A Dark and Stormy Night
- Everyone’s Got Secrets (and one of them genuinely is that there’s Something in the Attic)
- Dark Brooding Man [BONUS: Dark Brooding Man who is Haunted by The Past]
- Isolated Protagonist
- Scary Castle (the traditional variant of Creepy Old House)
- Ghost Story / Someone Blames “The Ghost”
- She Died On Her Honeymoon / History of Violent Death (accidental or otherwise)
- History of Dispossession and Conquest and General Misery
- Indolent Aristocracy Who Are Probably Also Broke
- Heroine has No Other Women Friends
- Attempted Murder of Heroine
- Physical Injury / Deformity
- Am I Going Mad / Is [This Person] Going Mad
- Femme Fatale
- Obligatory (but largely unintentional) anachronisms, also known as TOTALLY RAGE-INDUCING GRASP OF HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY
- What A Nice Man (hint: he’s usually not)
- What A Scary Awful Man (hint: this could go either way, but he’s almost certainly the hero if pitted against the Nice Man as a contrast)
- Meet the Locals [BONUS: The Locals Are Not On My Level / Don’t Like Me]
- Hero Represents Modernity, Is Pitted Against Representations of The Past
You’re Not In Kansas Anymore, Dorothy
Well, New York, and her name is Angela. But let’s not let that get in the way of a good subheading.
All this “history” and attempt at describing how she gets to “Castle Morgan” is not genre or plot relevant except to set the scene and position Wales as Not America. They have exotic things there, such as relics of feudalism, which contrast sharply with modern (1960s) progressive White American Values. TM.
The point of it all is not to be accurate, so I’m being (deliberately) unfair. No, the point is that this all creates a narrative/atmosphere of dispossession and alienation, where the fictional history of the area is reduced to “Celts” versus Anglo-Saxons versus Normans, and the Welsh are “cattle-raiding” agrarian strangers in their own land.
Moreover, the three “locals” we meet by Chapter 9 (there are only 13 chapters) could win Gothic Bingo all by themselves. They pretty much conform to all the stereotypes you would expect: see my Meet the Locals trope post.
There is the “simple-minded” lad named Holford (why?), the childlike loyal servant, and the large youth whom Angela meets at the river, a mute unable to communicate except through grunting sounds.
This brings us to Megan Hughes, the older, unattractive and surly housekeeper. “Meg” is the first local we meet and seems to have a Cockney accent? I suspect this is because the author thinks there is only one working class accent in the British Isles (or at least, only one they assume their readership recognises) and calling people “mum” is/was the only form of address for people of this class.
All the characters, in fact, are written as English. The Othering is in their non-American-ness, which, in the same way British Gothic tends to Other Europeans, means it’s a sweeping generalisation that lumps all the inhabitants at Castle Morgan into one group, an alien culture, and as we dig into the personalities of these individuals we can see why each of them are Not Like Us.
(N. B. I am effectively dispossessed from my own culture by this novel, which is a very interesting position to be in.)
The isolation of the protagonist is a key part of building suspense and creating atmosphere. My previous post on Isolation as a Gothic Trope breaks this down further, but in this case, it’s achieved by the following tropes:
- The locals are either hostile (Meg Hughes) and/or uncommunicative, people to whom the heroine can demonstrate her kindness and on whom she can bestow generous patronage, or be frightened by.
- The castle is geographically isolated and sprawling, totally impractical to live in, and enables one to be both totally lost where no one can hear you scream while simultaneously being in “a house full of people”. The decay and desolation of the castle is echoed in the corruption hinted at in the lives of its inhabitants: for David Morgan, a metaphorical corruption of the flesh and mind; for the Trefins, some dodgy dealings going on and some questionable sexual ethics displayed by Leonore; for Trevor, his alcoholism and feckless lifestyle. Again, see my previous post on Corruption as a Gothic Trope for more on this.
- The only other women are Not Your Allies. In this case, Angela has two to contend with: the unfriendly housekeeper, and Mrs Leonore Trefin, who lives at the castle with her husband Wayne and will be one of the managers when the castle is opened as a hotel. Leonore is vicious, flirtatious and mean, pitting her husband (whose advances Angela has to shake off) against Trevor Morgan, the young, irresponsible playboy who owns it. There is one other woman mentioned, but of course, she’s already dead: the first wife of David and Trevor Morgan’s father, who was killed on her honeymoon.
Trevor, bless his drunken heart, is doomed from the beginning – as soon as he’s positioned as naive, affable, irresponsible, alcoholic, feckless and a bit of a man-child. There’s only one fate for men like that, although he doesn’t actually cop it until Chapter 9, which seems remarkably late in the day for the bodies to start dropping, but it lulls you into a false sense of security.
This (eventual) murder comes after three clumsy attempts on Angela’s life, one from a halberd that falls off the wall, grazing her arm, and then from placing a sharp burr under her horse’s saddle so that it goes mad and tries to throw her when she mounts.
Angela is also stalked through the dungeon complex in the dark, which of course includes a fully-kitted-out torture chamber, for some reason. But then she wouldn’t have found the Secret Chamber through a Revolving Wall. I love those. She is then trapped behind the revolving wall by the mysterious stalker, and left in the claustrophobic darkness all alone. (See my previous post on Darkness as a Gothic Trope).
The Gothic Hero(es)
Michael Pierce-Bryson is a lawyer, whose name screams English. He is not intended to be Welsh, so that’s a good thing, but his double-barrel name indicates a higher social position and well-to-do background, and makes him a worthy ally/love interest for our spunky sophisticated (as yet unmarried) 60s heroine. He is against the renovation project she has been sent to complete, as it will bankrupt the owners. He is, however, positioned as her ally, not holding her job against her, the one who explains about the family dynamics, the (dodgy) medieval history of the area, and is giving her compliments and cuddles by the end of Chapter 4.
My initial instincts, in order: He’s the bad guy. That’s it. That’s the thought.
David Morgan is Trevor’s brother, suffering from PTSD after horrific experiences as a POW in Malaysia during the Malaysian war. He is reclusive, churlish, filled with hatred and bitterness for humanity, hates the idea of the castle being turned into a hotel, is brusque and blunt, and is temporarily persuaded to show his soft, sensitive side by Angela after she asks him why he doesn’t just kill himself and have done with it. Lovely.
David is described as a caged falcon, proud, and even satanic-looking in the dark when he finds Angela trapped behind the revolving dungeon wall.
My initial instincts, in order: He is the misunderstood hero. Obvs.
Angela, of course, is drawn to Pierce-Bryson, and convinces herself that David either has a split personality or is a paranoid schizophrenic, and despite ruling him out as her would-be assassin once she sees his softer side, rules him right back in after her ordeal in the dungeon and confides her suspicions to calm, outwardly sane, Pierce-Bryson.
Since Angela has already had a run-in with an affable, “normal”-seeming neighbour in New York who only occasionally spouted conspiracy theories, then pushed a man under a subway train because she believed him to be a Russian spy, of course Angela suspects the obviously damaged David to be deranged, rather than the “normal”, affable Pierce-Bryson, who more closely resembles her neighbour in these outward respects and only occasionally remarks how much he is against the project and why it’s a bad idea.
Spoiler Alert: I’m not wrong.
There is a nice twisty complication where the mute boy with giantism (Rhys) returns as a “Lenny” character in Of Mice and Men, with both a history of accidentally injuring one of his boyhood tormentors, and being hidden in the castle as a result. The near-misses Angela has experienced come from Megan, his mother, trying to drive her away so that Rhys will not be found and the authorities not alerted.
Rhys performs the scapegoat function for Trevor’s murder, and then as one of Angela’s allies in the showdown with Michael Pierce-Bryson, the other, of course, being misunderstood David Morgan, also framed for murder along with Rhys.
It’s all rather involved in the final two chapters, and there’s no room for emotional growth or exploration. David kisses her at the end, leaving hatred and bitterness behind (his brother’s only been dead for a couple of days, but let’s gloss over that and get straight to the nice conclusion).
Ultimately, Wales has nothing to add to the novel except to be a setting that represents wildness, ‘backwards’ locals, savagery of landscape and loneliness in general, and that it’s a good place to find castles. Is it Welsh Gothic? Well, kind of.
Overall, a solid 3* out of 5.