Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Johanna van Veen Blurs the Gothic in Sapphic Horror Story My Darling Dreadful Thing

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Johanna van Veen wants you to know that her debut novel, My Darling Dreadful Thing, is a gothic love letter. I didn’t have to ask her, it’s nearly the first thing you’ll read when you pick this up from Poisoned Pen Press on May 14th, 2024. As is becoming more common, this book begins with an author’s note. More than a list of trigger warnings—though there are some—this note sets expectations. I’m just going to help set a few more.

My Darling Dreadful Thing cover

First, I want to start with what I loved about this book. If a gothic love story was the goal, the goal was met. This book was reminiscent to me of Wuthering Heights and, even more strongly, Rebecca. And considering I adore those books, this praise is not given lightly. The atmosphere, setting, and characters all screamed gothic romance. Though I do think van Veen’s focus on secrets being the defining characteristic is up for debate. 

This could be because I don’t feel like the secrets created a lot of tension. At least to me, maybe because this book fit the genre so well, I saw them coming. The one secret I didn’t see coming could really go either way. It was revealed but walked back in a way that left things a little murky on which was right. But that murkiness is exactly what this book plays into, so again, I’m not calling it a flaw.

The murkiness I do have problems with both relate to Roos as a main character. Roos is supposedly twenty-one, but do to circumstance and the way she is written, I took her to be much younger. This gave the book a young-adult feel to me, rather than the adult it is marketed as. The other quality of Roos that felt off was her manner of speaking. My Darling Dreadful Thing takes place in the 1950s. I could have sworn, for most of the first half at least, that it was set in a more Victorian time. The seances certainly contribute to that feel, but it was more so just how Roos felt as a character. 

I believe this was an intentional choice of the author’s. It does make sense. Roos is best friends with a spirit who died a long time ago. The spirit of a young girl, too. Roos met her at such a young age and their bond is so strong that it is only natural she would emulate her companion. And based on her trauma, I can’t fault the girl for some arrested development. But it does need to be said that since this book is mostly in first person from her point of view, it often comes across as a very different novel.

That being said, the blurred lines between narrative and reality is the core of this novel. If you set aside the love story for a moment, anyway. This book is a question of madness. The interlude chapters make this explicit. Is Roos mad or can she really see spirits? More importantly, is Roos mad or can she be tried for murder? These questions and ones like it are discussed at length regarding both Roos and her love interest. And the answer to that is one you’ll have to choose for yourself.

My Darling Dreadful Thing exists in shades of grey. It is at once classic and modern, naive and mature, grounded and unhinged. Johanna van Veen paid homage to the gothic romances she loves, but she modernized them a touch. Not only did she shift the usual timeline up, she gave us a sapphic romance. Now, I don’t mean to imply that these relationships didn’t exist in the previous centuries of the gothic novel. Only that they were not so readily put into the hands of readers. I’ve been seeing a lot of sapphic vampires lately, let’s bring on the sapphic gothic.

My Darling Dreadful Thing can be purchased from your favorite bookstore starting May 14th at an MSRP of $14.99. Remember to support your local independent bookstore!

Images courtesy of Sourcebooks

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