As a scholar of the classic Gothic novel of the nineteenth century, from time to time I like to read twenty-first century Gothic novels to see how well the seeds that Mrs. Radcliffe planted are flourishing. I’m happy to report that authors like Michelle Pillow and novels like her latest publication, Forget Me Not are keeping the Gothic tradition alive and well. By utilizing standard Gothic plot devices, but making them their own, the genre has evolved into something more spiritual and less terrifying than its originators may have first imagined.
Forget Me Not has all the classic Gothic elements a reader could want, and it draws heavily upon those early novels for its setting and atmosphere. We can also define it as a regency novel—since it’s set in England in 1812—when George IV was still Prince Regent of England. Readers today might call it paranormal rather than Gothic, and, of course, it also falls into the romance novel category.
The story begins when Isabel Drake and her sister Jane are speculating about whether Rothfield Park is haunted. The family has let the manor house from its owner, the Marquis of Rothfield. Legend says that during a fire, a child and servant died in the house. Jane claims that she has seen evidence of hauntings in the castle, but Isabel thinks Jane has just let her imagination get the better of her after reading a “shilling shocker.” (Shilling shockers were popular short books in the nineteenth century that often plagiarized longer best-selling Gothic novels and were abridged to be affordable, costing only a shilling.) This scene recalls Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and the thrills that Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe have over reading “horrid” novels by Mrs. Radcliffe and others.
Isabel, however, has bigger problems than ghosts. Her parents do not like how she treats her governess so they have decided to hire a tutor approved by the colonel, nephew to the Marquis of Rothfield, whom they plan for her to marry. Isabel wants nothing to do with marrying the colonel or with a new tutor.
In anger, Isabel goes riding and comes to the woods, where a heavy mist is setting in. There she meets a mysterious child who asks her to play with her, but Isabel refuses, feeling spooked. As she tries to return home, she has an accident with a tree branch and falls from her horse.
Isabel has no memory of the accident, but by the time she recovers, she finds her parents have left her alone at Rothfield with her new tutor, Dougal Weston. Here, I admit, my willing suspension of disbelief was a bit challenged—no self-respecting noble family of this time would leave their daughter alone with just the servants and a handsome male tutor—but Michelle Pillow will provide some surprising and ultimately believable explanations for this chain of events before the novel is over.
Dougal Weston turns out to be unlike any tutor Isabel ever expected. He really doesn’t teach her much of anything—just asks her to read and then discuss with him what she read. Isabel soon starts to suspect he isn’t a tutor but someone with an ulterior motive for being at Rothfield.
Nevertheless, Isabel finds herself falling in love with him and confesses to him that she is now repeatedly seeing the ghost child. Dougal appears interested in the history of the house and the ghost child, but he also tries to comfort Isabel and calm her fears. His comforting eventually goes a bit too far—though Isabel doesn’t object—and you guess it, they have quite enjoyable sex. Before long, Isabel is starting to consider how she might shirk off her social status and marriage expectations to run off and live in a cottage with Dougal.
Eventually, however, Isabel begins to suspect Dougal is just using her to learn more about the ghost child. Dougal then asks Reverend Stillwell to speak to Isabel about the ghosts. Reverend Stillwell is a sort of medium who can communicate with the dead; he explains things to Isabel about ghosts that make her feel more comfortable and realize she isn’t crazy. He also will encourage Isabel and Dougal to seek happiness.
I can’t say more without giving away all the plot twists, but I will just say that I love how Michelle Pillow takes old Gothic themes and makes them new. Before the story is over, there’s even a cursed man who has made a Faustian pact to obtain knowledge from evil wizards in exchange for his soul. However, he can prevent himself from going to hell if he captures other souls for the devil—a classic Victorian twist previously used by authors like George W.M. Reynolds in The Necromancer (1852). Pillow also draws on regency novel conventions—there’s even a runaway marriage to Gretna Green, worthy of a Jane Austen novel. Finally, I didn’t see the final plot twist at the end, though I think I should have, but in any case, I was delighted by it.
Forget Me Not is not quite Jane Austen, but if you enjoyed books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, then Forget Me Not should give you plenty of ghostly pleasure. If you’re a fan of television shows like The Ghost Whisperer or films like The Sixth Sense, you’ll also find more enjoyable modern spins on ghosts and the Gothic in these pages. After you finish Forget Me Not, I suspect you will want to read more of Michelle Pillow’s novels—fortunately, she has written plenty in both the romance and paranormal genres.
For more information about Forget Me Not and Michelle Pillow, visit the author’s website.