Thursday, June 17, 2010

James Lee Burke & The Gothic Novel

There is something delicious to me about the gothic novel when it is done well. Traditionally the gothic novel was associated with the paranormal and always contained crumbling castles and ghosts, werewolves, vampires and other such creatures. But in contemporary literature a new form of gothic writing has emerged which is subtle, mysterious, and very, very intriguing when it is done well. I am not talking about the current glut of vampire/werewolf novels but rather stories in which the characters are people we could know, people we could be and yet there is just that hint of something amiss, something not quite explainable, the sense that there is something else going on here.

One of the best of these is Donna Tartt's 1992 novel The Secret History which is set in an elite ivy-league college in rural Vermont. While the story is improbable it is no less intriguing and the gothic undertones provided by the dark nature of some characters, the beautifully described settings, and the hint of time-travel and communing with mythical creatures weaves a wonderful spell. I wish Ms. Tartt would do it again but so far she has not equaled this story.

Jim Harrison is another writer I admire who is adept at weaving mystery, atmosphere and mythology into a sort of gothic mist. I've written here before about how much I  love Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. Valerie Martin's A Recent Martyr and Barry Unsworth's The Stone Virgin are other novels I recommend if you love this sort of writing. But when it comes to blending story, atmosphere, mystery, seductive characters and a hint of the paranormal nobody beats James Lee Burke.

Last night I finished re-reading his Jolie Blon's Bounce and I think I loved it better this time than I did when I first read it five years ago. It is part of his terrific Dave Robicheaux series set in New Iberia, Louisiana and it seethes with atmosphere from alligators peering through Spanish moss hung trees to the ominous dark clouds laced with lightning hovering over the Gulf of Mexico but not coming ashore to relieve the relentless drought and heat. Dave Robicheaux may be one of the most interesting characters in American literature, a tormented cop with a history of addiction and bad luck with women. James Lee Burke may be one of the best writers in American literature with a gift for description, of both characters and settings, that is so finely-tuned you are rarely aware of the writing you get so lost in the story.

So the last few evenings I've been deep into New Iberia amid a cast of zydeco musicians, gangsters, Cajun fishermen, corrupt cops, good cops battling personal demons, and the offspring of plantation slaves. Two of the characters in particular, the relentlessly evil Cajun plantation overseer Legion Guidry and the mysterious Vietnam vet Sal Angelo, may not even be of this world. The ending is a little unsettling because we still aren't quite sure what happened but for me, that's good stuff. I've never been a fan of too-neat endings.

I am a reader who is very particular about the writing technique of the author. If an author's style is so noticeable that it distracts from the story I have a hard time sticking with the story. When I read fiction I want to get lost, totally lost with no distracting reminder that this is a story written by someone who has some stylistic quirks. That never happens with James Lee Burke.

So I'm off to Amazon to see which Burke novels I've missed --- I know there are a lot to choose from. And while I have a lot of respect for writers of contemporary gothic novels with lots of creepy creatures, like Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyer, I can't get enough of those writers who can weave a spell that sucks me into a dark and mysterious world, dazzles my imagination, and leaves me a little unsure of what just happened. I want to write like that.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Oh, I loved The Secret History. Wish she could do it again.

    I've been absorbed in Edwardian research for so long I've almost forgotten what it's like to read a novel.

  2. The Secret History was excellent and, yes, I wish she could do it again. She created some genuinely unforgettable characters. Personally, I loved Henry Winter --- the kind of character every writer aspires to, brilliant, fascinating, sexy with a touch of evil...


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