I have written elsewhere about my love for the modern thriller. One reason for my interest in this genre is my perception of its relationship to literary history. At the University of Virginia, I took a course called “Gothic Spaces” that examined the representation of “place” in Gothic novels, positing that many of the genre’s physical motifs — hidden stairwells, crumbling walls, haunted castles, deadlocked attics — communicated psychological subtexts in significant ways. I read the contemporary thriller as a modern manifestation of the Gothic mode as I learned it at Virginia. So many modern thrillers foreground physical edifices — think The Paris Apartment, The Turn of the Key, Greenwich Park, In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10 — and nearly all of those spaces are private homes. There is a sense in these novels that horrific things don’t happen “out in the world” but in the privacy of our own homes. In these novels, homes are entrapments, walls of mirrors, spaces that should feel safe but aren’t, places where we learn, in shock, that the people we married are not who we thought they were. There are corpses buried in the foundation (Greenwich Park, Not a Happy Family), there are near-dead bodies in the attic (The Paris Apartment), and — almost invariably — there are secrets to the ownership of these homes that prove harrowing. Beware the blissful domestic scene, these novels seem to chant — you don’t know what ills it conceals. And — don’t get trapped in your own home!
There is so much to contemplate in this problematization of the domestic space across these novels. Perhaps most obviously, this narrative convention interrogates the convention of marriage, in which “the home and hearth” serves as its easy metonymy. By this I mean that these books invite us to ponder questions of financial independence for women, marriage and even “family” as a potentially problematic social construct, and gender roles writ large. I especially feel these tensions in Shari La Pena’s books, in which we are often ensconced in a happy neighborhood on the outskirts of a city only to find that the spouse, or the couple next door, has skeletons in his/their closet that upset and distort suburban bliss. In several of these novels, too, we find husbands who are architects (Greenwich Park, Turn of the Key), and their role in the creation of spaces that ultimately trap or terrorize the female protagonists is telling. I think a Feminist reading of these texts would prove fascinating, though I am much less schooled in that literary lens, having favored “close reading” and “textualist” approaches to literature in my former academic pursuits. Still, there is so much meat on the bone to contemplate, even for those of us without the contextual crutches.
Setting aside the conjuring of physical space in these novels, though, I wanted to comment on one other interesting parallel between Gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries and the ones being published today under the auspices of the “modern thriller.” In so many of the originals (thinking particularly of Castle of Otranto), we find female protagonists who faint under conditions of extreme stress and shock. This convention feels irritatingly outmoded to the modern woman. But these “fainting scenes” had the interesting narrative result of creating confusion and lapse in the text — that is, we might not know what actually happened in a scene because the protagonist fell unconscious. In the contemporary thriller, authors are using alcohol and drug abuse to achieve the same effect. How many times do we encounter a shaky-handed protagonist pour herself too much wine and then “rub her temples, trying to remember what happened”? How often are we led to wonder whether a character was drugged in a scene? The use of substances in these scenes introduces interesting narrative disruptions — loopholes in which we scramble to figure out what might have happened. Ultimately, these lapses contribute to the hermeneutics of thriller-reading. But I find the shift between the fainting of the Gothic protagonist and the substance abuse of the modern thriller’s protagonist telling. We are no longer to read the woman’s frail body as a cause for narrative distress; it is now the introduction of an alien substance (occasionally against the woman’s will) that builds intrigue.
Would love to hear your thoughts on these observations!
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+There are many ways, and reasons, to read.
+Magpie will be undergoing a major glow up in the next week or two, and the site may be temporarily unavailable at some point during this time. We will be back up and running with a new look (but the same far-flung mix of posts, toggling between the freighted and the frivolous) in short order! I have wanted to shorten the name from TheFashionMagpie to Magpie for years now and cannot wait to introduce you to the new nest. In the meantime, should you encounter it, please pardon the dust.
+Going to do a full roundup of fall/winter boots soon, but these are such a great pick for pairing with all these fabulous fall floral dresses.
+The Home Edit just launched some great organizational pieces at Walmart — this 8-pack of clear organizing bins is under $25! You know I love these for cabinet/under-sink/craft/closet storage. I also thought this hot tool organizer was clever.
+Ordering myself a new floor mirror and cannot decide between this one I’ve been eyeing forever or this simpler one in the perfect shade of Magpie blue. For an eye-popping splurge, check out the ones from Fleur Home. Wowwww.
+For some reason the Ganni coat so many of us have been eyeing is like $100 less here than anywhere else on the internet?
+Elizabeth Strout readers rejoice: her newest installment with the Lucy Barton character will be released on Sep 22.
+Easy and adorable fall weekend outfit for your toddler: LE turtlenecks beneath LE overalls. I will say the overalls run very narrow — I find the Osh Kosh ones are a better fit for little toddler boys still hanging onto their baby fat. Micro has definitely thinned out over the past year (weep) and I have a hunch he’ll fit better in the LEs now, at age 3, then he did when he was still a little pudge at 2.
+Alice Walk just released the cutest reversible quilted coat.
+Burgundy velvet heels for under $150!