That is exactly the opposite of what you get with Gothic novels, where if you are under eighteen everyone you know is like ‘So you’re possessed by ghosts/being stalked/the centre of an assassination plot, but are you ACTUALLY BURIED ALIVE? No? Then quit whining. Kids today…’
Or, how I came up with my Gothic heroine-who’s-a-boy, Jared Lynburn.
THE TURN OF THE SCREW is one of the Gothic novels which feature Children In Danger, because sometimes a threat to her own life just isn’t enough for the Gothic Heroine. It is also one of the few Gothic novels with truly unhappy endings: the other bad-ending I parodied was THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. Also written by a dude! Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James, dudes, why do you have to be such buzzkills?
DUDE: Do you wanna hear a scary story?
EVERYONE: Do we ever!
DUDE: So my sister had this hot, older governess. Yeah, I can’t tell my friends cause they will laugh. I love a member of the staff.
DUDE: So she may be thirty-three. But that doesn’t bother me. Yeah, you can call me crazy. But I know that she craves me.
EVERYONE: … This is not the story we were expecting.
DUDE: I am getting to the ghosts, OK? Jeez.
DUDE: Anyway my sister’s hot governess wrote me a letter.
SEVERAL PEOPLE: Dude, TMI!
SEVERAL OTHER PEOPLE: LET THE MAN SPEAK.
DUDE: This is actually about the ghosts.
EVERYONE: Oh, right.
EVERYONE: … Do go on.
HOT GOVERNESS: Dear Cute Young College Student I Feel Super Close To, let me tell you about my first job. I was hired by a total hottie—
SEVERAL PEOPLE: Oh for God’s sake—
HOT GOVERNESS: Who asked me to take a position out in the lonely moors of Hell and Damnation House, cut off from all human contact, and not to bother him with stuff like ‘my imminent death’ and ‘floating axes in the hallways.’ Naturally I took the job.
EVERYONE: … Seems like a bad employment decision.
HOT GOVERNESS: Well, it paid really well. Plus the dude was a stone cold fox. I have this problem saying no to super attractive people.
HOT GOVERNESS: Hell and Damnation House is so pretty!
HOT GOVERNESS: New pupil Flora is adorbs!
HOT GOVERNESS: There is no way any of this can go wrong!
NARRATIVE INEVITABILITY: Heh heh heh.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER (THERE’S ALWAYS A KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER): Oh hey letter for you.
HOT GOVERNESS: Holy Lord Flora’s brother Miles has been expelled. For mysterious doings which may have involved chasing people around with an axe, and setting fire to the school, and doing medical experiments on fellow students without anesthesia, and burying a couple kids alive under the cricket pitch.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Boyish larks! He means no harm! Wait till you see him! He’s just as cute as Flora!
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: They are so cute and blond! They could be in a Benetton ad.
HOT GOVERNESS: A Benetton ad FROM HELL.
HOT GOVERNESS: Just out of curiosity, why did the last governess leave?
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Oh, you know staff these days. Always dying mysteriously. Unreliable, I call it.
HOT GOVERNESS: Oh my god you are cuter than a basket full of kittens in tiny pirate hats.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: You see!
HOT GOVERNESS: Let’s not talk of disciplining him for killing other students with his teeth ANY MORE!
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Boys will be boys!
HOT GOVERNESS: Just saw a mysterious stranger in the empty house where I and two young children under my care live!
HOT GOVERNESS: Best not to mention it to anyone. I know how touchy rich families can get about the insane relatives they keep it in the attic.
HOT GOVERNESS: No use crying over escaped lunatics, as my mother used to say!
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: So you’ve now seen a lurky stranger lurking around our house twice. Why did you not mention this before?
HOT GOVERNESS: Oh you know… reasons…
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: …?
HOT GOVERNESS: ….
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: … Okay whatevs. Please describe this ghastly spectre!
HOT GOVERNESS: Red hair, yea high, dressed fancy.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Oh that’s the master’s valet, Quint.
HOT GOVERNESS: Oh thank God. Oh what a massive load off my mind! Oh I am so relie-
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: He died last year.
HOT GOVERNESS: NEXT TIME TELL ME THAT PEOPLE ARE UNQUIET SPIRITS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE BEFORE YOU GIVE ME THEIR JOB DESCRIPTION.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: So what did the ghost do?
HOT GOVERNESS: Well, he just stared.
HOT GOVERNESS: … Intrusively!
HOT GOVERNESS: I super want to get the hell out of dodge, but I cannot abandon my charges, and I must face down this horrible spirit.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Very commendable! I will be right behind you.
HOT GOVERNESS: Thank you!
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: … Only further back. Way in back.
HOT GOVERNESS: Please tell me everything about this valet.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Well he used to polish the master’s boots with champagne, which honestly was a bit extravagant-
HOT GOVERNESS: Please tell me everything about the valet relating to the fact he is now haunting the kids I governess.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Yeah, he was always hanging around Miles in a creepy fashion.
HOT GOVERNESS: Oh, ew, ew, ew.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Also he was a bit too chatty with his superiors, such as myself, know your place is what I say—
HOT GOVERNESS: But less about his manners and more about his creepiness with children?
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: You are always banging on about the children. There are two of them you know! We’ve got a spare!
HOT GOVERNESS: So how did the valet Quint die?
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Oh oh I know this one! Mysteriously!
HOT GOVERNESS: How many mysterious deaths have occurred in like, the last year?
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Oh, I can’t even deal with you, lady. ‘Investigate mysterious deaths’ ‘protect helpless children’… I can’t do everything all the time, okay! I’m keeping house here! The mortality rates may be high but the linen is spotless!
HOT GOVERNESS: Flora and Miles are really the ideal kids, aside from the whole unearthly apparitions problem. Whatcha up to, Flora?
FLORA: Not much, not much! Just entertaining the eldritch shade of a woman in black by the lake. How’s you?
HOT GOVERNESS: Oh sweet waffles covered in maple syrup from the underworld. Another ghost.
HOT GOVERNESS: So, eldritch shade of a lady just appeared. I presume it’s our mysteriously dead governess.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: … Probably a safe bet.
HOT GOVERNESS: Governess and the valet were banging, I presume?
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: They were pretty much banging everybody, is the thing.
HOT GOVERNESS: Everybody? Like, who?
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Here’s the town register.
HOT GOVERNESS: … Right. What about you, kindly housekeeper?
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Look it was just one time, I’d had a bit too much sherry, and they were as hotass as they were evil. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
HOT GOVERNESS: …. Uh, I meant, do you have any advice for me at this time?
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Nope, not really, kind of at a loss about how to deal with the staff right now. First they have an orgy in the town square, then they die mysteriously and haunt the children. So hard to find good help these days…
HOT GOVERNESS: So tell me stories about Miles.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Other than hanging around with the Valet of Doom and lying about the Valet of Doom and the Governess of Evil’s love affair, he is a perfect little angel and always goes to bed on time!
HOT GOVERNESS: Seriously do you think he killed somebody at school or what?
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Hard to say but he looks darling in his little waistcoats!
FLORA AND MILES: Hug hug hug! Let’s read Shakespeare! Let’s play charades! We love you hot governess! Pay no attention to that evil ghost behind the curtain!
HOT GOVERNESS: I must say Miles is very accomplished for his age.
MILES: It’s almost like I’m being tutored by a damned soul from beyond the grave!
HOT GOVERNESS: Say what?
MILES: Treacle tart?
EVIL GHOST VALET: Hey girl you look fetching in your negligee.
HOT GOVERNESS: COME AT ME BRO.
EVIL GHOST VALET: I like a girl with spirit.
HOT GOVERNESS: Too many ghost puns rushed into my head all at once! Cannot cope!
FLORA: Hey governess I was just wondering where you were? Got kind of disturbed from my sleep.
HOT GOVERNESS: BY WHAT?
FLORA: Not unquiet spirits, that’s for sure! Maybe a mouse.
HOT GOVERNESS: Oh flying monkeys of damnation both the kids are out of bed.
MILES AND FLORA: We’re just in dark communication with evil creatures from the depths of hell, lady, go back to sleep.
HOT GOVERNESS: Okay, so the children are in evil communion with the undead, and may at any moment be lured to their own destruction, and either die or spiral into madness. Actually I feel as if I’m spiraling into madness myself! Muahahaha! Muahahahaha!
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: So… if lives are in danger, should we alert the master or what?
HOT GOVERNESS: No way, lady. I have my pride.
FLORA AND MILES: We are awesome at arithmetic.
HOT GOVERNESS: This is very suspicious. I am a really bad teacher! They must be getting maths lessons from beyond the grave! Oh will nobody stop these gifted academic fiends?
MILES: So maybe it would be nice if our uncle came down and saved us from the ghosts.
HOT GOVERNESS: Send him a postcard. ‘THE DEAD ARE COMING BACK AGAIN. NOBODY WILL BE SPARED, NOT EVEN THE CHILDREN. WISH YOU WERE HERE, XOXO.’
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: It’s possible he might be interested to hear Miles was expelled. And also about the fearful spectres from hell.
HOT GOVERNESS: Okay, okay, I’ll write a note.
HOT GOVERNESS: Miles it would be great if you could tell me, just so I know, do you want to escape the evil ghosts or die and become a hideous imp of hell? Also did you kill someone at your school or burn it down or what?
MILES: Let’s not worry about murders past or future! Jenga?
ICE-COLD WIND OF HELL BLOWING THROUGH ROOM: puts out candle
HOT GOVERNESS: Holy mole and toad and wolverines!
MILES: Didn’t feel a thing! Are you chilly?
HOT GOVERNESS: Come quick Kindly Housekeeper I think the Vile Governess Ghost may be trying to drown Flora in the lake!
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Where’s Miles?
HOT GOVERNESS: He’s playing piano upstairs with the Valet of Doom. I don’t even care. He is an imp from hell, he and the Valet of Doom can start a band called DAMNED AND LOVIN’ IT. To the cuter child!
FLORA: Hey. I was just sitting about in a copse playing with dead plants. Normal eight year old stuff.
HOT GOVERNESS: Okay let’s all just drop the act. Where’s the Evil Governess?
EVIL GOVERNESS: Did someone mention me?
HOT GOVERNESS: Back restless spirit! Go back to hell from whence you came!
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: I can’t see anything…?
FLORA: Nor can I. I totally super can’t see a thing!
HOT GOVERNESS: You know you are much less adorable than I originally thought.
HOT GOVERNESS: Now let me collapse in despair, terrified that I am crazy but also by all the goddamn evil ghosts and their dread chill enveloping me in eldritch horror!
MILES: Mind if I sit?
HOT GOVERNESS: Nope.
MILES: My allegiance is unclear but our lives are pretty terrible, huh?
HOT GOVERNESS: Yep.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Flora says she feels sick, that you are crazy, and also that you have a poop face. But I believe you that the ghosts exist.
HOT GOVERNESS: How come? I mean, lady, it ain’t the most plausible story I ever heard.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: She called you a ho fo’ sho’! Clearly dark forces are at work.
HOT GOVERNESS: Fair enough. Take that brainwashed devil child up to her uncle. I am going to face down the ghosts and try at least to save Miles.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: We could both go…?
HOT GOVERNESS: Nope!
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: Seriously I have a train timetable right here we could go right now…?
HOT GOVERNESS: I scorn your train timetable.
KINDLY HOUSEKEEPER: I could pack us a lunch it would be no trouble!
HOT GOVERNESS: Ghostbusting or bust!
MILES: So, just you and me here. Having a nice dinner. Awfully jolly.
HOT GOVERNESS: Yep. I’m just staying here to spend time with you.
MILES: Very thoughtful! Very thoughtful!... How are the green beans?
HOT GOVERNESS: Delicious. How are the dark spirits from Hades?
MILES: … This is so awkward.
HOT GOVERNESS: Anything you want to tell me about anything?
MILES: I might have some stuff to tell you but first I gotta see a ghost about a hellhound.
HOT GOVERNESS: Hold up. You know my postcard that said ‘SEND HELP STOP THE UNDEAD ARE COMING STOP CHILDREN SUPERNATURALLY GOOD AT MATHS STOP’?
HOT GOVERNESS: You steal it?
MILES: Boy did I!
HOT GOVERNESS: You steal stuff at school?
MILES: Nope. Just talked to my friends about ghosts from hell.
HOT GOVERNESS: Aw, Miles! It was a cry for help! You didn’t even set the badminton court on fire or anything!
MILES: … Er… no…
MILES: I know I’m possessed by a hideous spectre, but lady, you really have a vivid imagination.
VALET OF DOOM: Did someone order a ghastly apparition at the window?
HOT GOVERNESS: Certainly not!
MILES: Oh cheddar cheese on a cracker, is that the Evil Governess?
HOT GOVERNESS: Yes you admit there are ghosts! No it’s the Valet of Doom. Don’t worry Miles! Go back to hell, you can’t have this sweet relatively innocent child! Back I say back!
VALET OF DOOM: Okay, okay. Jeez, I know when I’m not welcome.
HOT GOVERNESS: I SAVED THE DAY!
MILES: Bad news: I think being un-possessed killed me. : ( x__x
HOT GOVERNESS: … Oh, I am hella fired.
AUDIENCE: The true mystery of the Turn of the Screw is how the hell Hot Governess ever got another governessing job.
THE TURN OF THE SCREW is, as you can see, hella depressing, Being sad after reading it can be cured by reading Jenny Crusie’s MAYBE THIS TIME, an updated romcom version of The Turn of the Screw, in which the lady is not a smitten 20-something but a cynical 30-something, the dude who offloads the kids on the lady has to come back and man up, and the dead previous ingénue plays an important part. (How much do I love updated romcom versions of classics? As much as I love Jenny Crusie, who singlehandedly introduced me to contemporary adult romance novels with her book BET ME.)
‘I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one's own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I—well, I had THEM.’ Unlike Jane 'Criminally Careless Babysitter' Eyre and like Linda in Mary Stewart’s NINE COACHES WAITING, the never-named governess is set on protecting her charges, and they will do sketchy things in order to do so. I wanted to do something with that—the bad decisions that people will make, trying to look after the kids when Gothic secrets threaten on every side.
Yet the Hot Governess of THE TURN OF THE SCREW doesn’t just want to protect the children in her care… she’s afraid of them. Linda in NINE COACHES WAITING is a bit afraid of Philippe, too, who is after all one of the Scary Gothic family ‘tigers breed true’ she thinks as he is like ‘Let’s hang my uncle!’ In The Turn of the Screw matters are much worse: the governess is really scared of the kids as well as scared for them, scared that they are utterly corrupted by the supernatural goings-on and scared of what Miles might have done at school.
Still, the kids of THE TURN OF THE SCREW and NINE COACHES WAITING are just that: kids, too young to be super scary unless you want to go with Full-On-Devil-Child, too young to be held entirely responsible for their actions. Teenagers are both extremely capable of menace (thugs and vandals!) and extremely capable of being menaced (they have to go to the Gothic manors their parents take them to or be homeless, they have secrets kept from them for their own good, few people will take them at their word because teenagers are silly/overly dramatic/exaggerate/whatever reason people use to dismiss those who aren’t quite adult). Teenagers and the Gothic fit hand in glove.
In Barbara Michaels’s WITCH, which I’d be totally parodying if it wasn’t for the fact that would mean I’d be parodying FOUR Barbara Michaels novels (and no, WITCH isn’t my favourite… you’ll see, I’m parodying my favourite), the Gothic hero is Tim, a teenage boy who everyone thinks is mad, bad and dangerous to know… he doesn’t end up with the heroine, she is a single mom who used to do volunteer work with kids and feels bad for him but uneasy about him. She’s really sorry for him, and seeing him in danger upsets her… and she is constantly thinking ‘Thank God my teenage daughter can’t see him, this boy is a stone cold fox and obviously not boyfriend material due to being extremely crazy.’
Tim is both a child who needs protecting and adult enough to be feared: he’s described as tall and impressively muscled for his age. Tim is in fact being framed for many a crime, is a sweetie who loves kittens, and is in extreme danger, making him both Gothic hero and heroine. I thought it was cool to have a middle-aged heroine, and Ellen is awesome, but Tim—and Ellen’s daughter Penny, who does show up and is instantly on Tim’s side, because cheekbones—are kids in danger who nobody trusts. Because they’re children, who are sometimes—but not always when they absolutely need it—protected.
I thought it would have been awesome to see some of their story, or see some of NINE COACHES WAITING from Philippe’s point of view, or THE TURN OF THE SCREW from Flora or Miles’s point of view. They know they are in danger… and they know, as surely as any Gothic lady in a nightgown, that even if they have phones in their pockets, they are on their own. Because nobody will believe them.
Because they are not adults, they are still in the powerless position women were in back in the Gothic heyday—and not just any women, but governesses and poor relations—people who were in a very precarious position.
The Gothic set-up being ideal for YA, the desperation of people to protect children and the desperation of the children who can never be entirely protected, is part of why I wrote Unspoken, because those are some interesting questions--what would you do, to protect the helpless? What would you do to protect yourself? And of course, how helpless are the people we see as helpless, really?