I was in my teens when I started reading Gothic mysteries. It seemed like a natural progression, y’know? Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Ken Holt, and then Gothics crossed my path. From a teenage perspective, they made sense. Strong women facing danger with more romance than Nancy ever saw.
I noticed that people tended to fall into two categories: Jane Eyre or Jane Austen. That’s obviously over simplistic, but I found that a lot of folks found their footing either with the perils presented by the Brontes or the human drama showcased by Ms. Austen. Both are excellent, and of course a whole lot of people love both, as they should.
In my opinion, there’s a misplaced dismissal and, frankly, snobbish elitism when mystery readers consider Gothics. They’re dismissed as formulaic, and more than a little silly.
I beg to disagree.
The Gothic tradition is formulaic to an extent, yes, because there are certain elements that need to be met – a woman out of her element, isolated in some way, the dashing hero (or is he?), the scowling villain (or is he?), and an overwhelming feeling of something dire, sometimes with a supernatural twist, but often not.
To me, that’s as formulaic as a thriller, with it’s obligatory car chases, gun play, and the hero getting shot in the shoulder but shrugging it off. Mind you, I love them both!
And that brings me to what may be the Gothic’s Gothic novel, HOUSES OF STONE by Barbara Michaels.
Whether you know her as Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Mertz, or Barbara Michaels, no one can deny that she could write a compelling tale, but her cleverness in putting the Gothic novel on display in this book is phenomenal.
Basic plot, Karen Holloway has created a name for herself by finding a small book of poems by a heretofore unknown 19th century poet known only as Ismene. When she’s presented the partial manuscript by the same unknown lady, Karen finds herself in a race to figure out who Ismene really is, but of course the challenges, both physical and emotional, keep piling up.
The manuscript is a 19th century Gothic, and that’s the area of Karen’s expertise. It also happens to be an area of expertise for Barbara Michaels.
What makes HOUSES OF STONE particularly special is that it’s a Gothic novel about a Gothic novel, while the protagonist discusses the elements of the Gothic novel. What Ms. Michaels did was write a great treatise on the Gothic novel and then use the story she was telling to illustrate all her points.
Those points are not light and fluffy, though. She discusses racism, feminism, chauvinism, and looks hard at the politics of repression of the female voice in literature, with a strong nod to Virginia Woolf’s observations about a woman needing a space of her own.
It’s also a page turner, and a must-read for anyone who loves books.
If you’ve ever dismissed the Gothic, you should read this book. If you love Gothic novels, you should read this book.
Editors’ note: we’re going to take a break from the usual Words of the Month and take the opportunity to inject some color into the issue…
Words of the Month
orange (n.) From the late 14th C., in reference to the fruit of the orange tree (late 13th C. as a surname), from Old French orange, orenge (12th C., Modern French orange), from Medieval Latin pomum de orenge, from Italian arancia, originally narancia (Venetian naranza), an alteration of Arabic naranj, from Persian narang, from Sanskrit naranga-s “orange tree,” a word of uncertain origin.
Not used as a color word in English until 1510s (orange color), “a reddish-yellow color like that of a ripe orange.” Colors similar to modern orange in Middle English might be called citrine or saffron. Loss of initial n- probably is due to confusion with the definite article (as in une narange, una narancia), but also perhaps was by influence of French or “gold.” The name of the town of Orange in France (see Orangemen) perhaps was deformed by the name of the fruit. Orange juice is attested from 1723.
The tree’s original range probably was northern India. The Persian orange, grown widely in southern Europe after its introduction in Italy 11th C., was bitter; sweet oranges were brought to Europe 15th C. from India by Portuguese traders and quickly displaced the bitter variety, but only Modern Greek still seems to distinguish the bitter (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali “Portuguese”) orange.
Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, and Dutch sailors planted citrus trees along trade routes to prevent scurvy. On his second voyage in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the seeds of oranges, lemons and citrons to Haiti and the Caribbean. Introduced in Florida (along with lemons) in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. It was introduced to Hawaii in 1792.
Will downtown Seattle bounce back after the pandemic? [we include this article as it deals with Cherry Street Coffee, which was just down the street when SMB closed. that the owner, Ali, had to install a buzzer at the door so that only customers could be let in says something about the state of Pioneer Square since we left. very sad!]
vermilion (n.) From the late 13th C., “cinnabar, red dye,” from Anglo-French and Old French vermeillon “red lead, cinnabar, (cosmetic) rouge” (12th C.), from vermeil (see vermeil). As an adjective, from 1580s.
violet (n.) A small wild plant with purplish-blue flowers, c. 1300, from Old French violete (12th C.), diminutive of viole “violet,” from Latin viola “the violet, a violet color,” cognate with Greek ion (see iodine), probably from a pre-Indo-European substrate Mediterranean language. The color sense (late 14th C.) developed from the flower.
Burgundy (n.) A region, kingdom, duchy, and province in France, from Medieval Latin Burgundia, from Late Latin Burgundiones, literally “highlanders,” from Proto-Indo-European *bhrgh-nt– “high, mighty,” from root *bhergh– (2) “high.” The Burgundians were a Germanic people, originally from what is now Sweden, who migrated and founded a kingdom west of the Rhine in 411. Their story is told in the 12th C. Nibelungenlied. As “wine made in Burgundy,” 1670s; as a color resembling that of the wine, 1881 (burgundy rose as a color is from 1872). Related: Burgundian.
verdigris (n.) From c. 1300, vertegrez, from Old French verte grez (13th C.), verte de Grece (late 12th C.), literally “green of Greece,” from obsolete French verd, from Latin viridis (see verdure). The reason for it being called that is not known. In other languages, “green of Spain” (German grünspan, Danish spanskgrönt, Dutch spaansch-groen), from Medieval Latin viride Hispanum. Current spelling in English is from 1789. In chemistry, confined to a basic copper acetate; popularly applied to the green encrustation on copper or brass exposed to the air.
blue (adj.1) “of the color of the clear sky,” c. 1300, bleu, blwe, etc., “sky-colored,” also “livid, lead-colored,” from Old French blo, bleu “pale, pallid, wan, light-colored; blond; discolored; blue, blue-gray,” from Frankish *blao or some other Germanic source, from Proto-Germanic *blæwaz (source also of Old English blaw, Old Saxon and Old High German blao, Danish blaa, Swedish blå, Old Frisian blau, Middle Dutch bla, Dutch blauw, German blau “blue”).
This is from Proto-Indo-European *bhle– was “light-colored, blue, blond, yellow,” from root *bhel– (1) “to shine, flash, burn,” also “shining white” and forming words for bright colors. The same PIE root yielded Latin flavus “yellow,” Old Spanish blavo “yellowish-gray,” Greek phalos “white,” Welsh blawr “gray,” showing the slipperiness of definition in Indo-European color-words. Many Indo-European languages seem to have had a word to describe the color of the sea, encompassing blue and green and gray; such as Irish glass (from PIE root *ghel- (2) “to shine,”); Old English hæwen “blue, gray,” related to har (see hoar); Serbo-Croatian sinji “gray-blue, sea-green;” Lithuanian šyvas, Russian sivyj “gray.”
The present spelling in English is since 16th C., common from c. 1700. The sense “lead-colored, blackish-blue, darkened as if by bruising” is perhaps by way of the Old Norse cognate bla “livid, lead-colored.” It is the meaning in black and blue, and blue in the face “livid with effort” (1864, earlier black and blue in the face, 1829).
The color of constancy since Chaucer at least, but apparently for no deeper reason than the rhyme in true blue (c. 1500). Figurative meaning “sad, sorrowful, afflicted with low spirits” is from c. 1400, perhaps from the “livid” sense and implying a bruised heart or feelings. Of women, “learned, pedantic,” by 1788 (see bluestocking). In some phrases, such as blue murder, it appears to be merely intensive. Blue was by c. 1600 the distinctive color of the dress of servants, which may be the reason police uniforms are blue, a tradition Farmer dates to Elizabethan times.
Blue pencil as an editor’s characteristic tool to mark corrections in copy is from 1885; also as a verb from 1885. The fabulous story of Blue-beard, who kept his murdered wives in a locked room, is from 1798. For blue ribbon see cordon bleu under cordon. Blue whale attested from 1851, so called for its color. Blue cheese is from 1862. Blue water “the open ocean” is from 1822. Blue streak, of something resembling a bolt of lightning (for quickness, intensity, etc.) is from 1830, Kentucky slang. Delaware has been the “Blue Hen State” at least since 1830, supposedly from a nickname of its regiments in the Revolutionary War.
blue (adj.2) As “lewd, indecent” recorded from 1840 (in form blueness, in an essay of Carlyle’s); the sense connection with the color name (see blue (adj.1)) is unclear, and is opposite to that in blue laws (q.v.). John Mactaggart’s “Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia” (1824), containing odd words he had learned while growing up in Galloway and elsewhere in Scotland, has an entry for Thread o’Blue, “any little smutty touch in song-singing, chatting, or piece of writing.” Farmer [“Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present,” 1890] offers the theory that this meaning derives from the blue dress uniforms issued to harlots in houses of correction (from c. 1600), but he writes that the earlier slang authority John Camden Hotten “suggests it as coming from the French Bibliothèque Bleu, a series of books of very questionable character,” and adds, from Hotten, that, “Books or conversation of an entirely opposite nature are said to be Brown or Quakerish, i.e., serious, grave, decent.”
What We’ve Been Up To
Do you remember how excited we were when Ernest Cline wrote Ready Player One? You should, because we could not stop talking about it, and were selling it right up until we closed.
Amber even got to sit in the prize-winning DeLorean, which was extra-special cool!
So you know I was over the moon when the sequel, Ready Player Two, came out. But then, I just sat there and stared at it, not reading it, because what if it wasn’t as good? Second books often aren’t, although technically this isn’t the second book, since Armada dropped in there. But you know what I mean. What if…?
If you’re in the same place, go ahead and dive in. You’re in for a treat!
When we left Wade Watts (a/k/a Parzival, or just “Z”), he and his spunky crew had won James Halliday’s challenge and had been rewarded with his empire. Life was good.
Nine days later, Wade discovers a secret that Halliday left for him to find, and suddenly everything goes nuts. The old OASIS Haptic goggles and gloves are suddenly obsolete, but the new and completely hidden technology, OASIS Neural Interface, will literally change the world.
This is not necessarily a good thing, and it divides the crew. And then there’s a new riddle to be solved, a game to be won. Things get even worse.
obloquious (n.): mid-15th C., obloquie, “evil speaking, slander, calumny, derogatory remarks,” from Medieval Latin obloquium “speaking against, contradiction,” from Latin obloqui “to speak against, contradict,” from ob “against” (see ob-) + loqui “to speak,” from Proto-Indo-European root *tolkw– “to speak.” (etymonline)
sedition (n.) From the mid-14th C., “rebellion, uprising, revolt, concerted attempt to overthrow civil authority; violent strife between factions, civil or religious disorder, riot; rebelliousness against authority,” from Old French sedicion (14th C., Modern French sédition) and directly from Latin seditionem (nominative seditio) “civil disorder, dissension, strife; rebellion, mutiny,” literally “a going apart, separation,” from se- “apart” (see secret (n.)) + itio “a going,” from ire “to go” (from Proto-Indo-European root *ei- “to go”).
Meaning “conduct or language inciting to rebellion against a lawful government” is from 1838. An Old English word for it was folcslite. Less serious than treason, as wanting an overt act, “But it is not essential to the offense of sedition that it threaten the very existence of the state or its authority in its entire extent” [Century Dictionary]. (etymonline)
peenge (v.): to whine, fret and complain of cold and hunger, to pretend poverty. (Says You!, episode 219). From the Oxford/Lexico site: To whine, complain in a whining voice; to mope, fret.
traitor (n.) c. 1200, “one who betrays a trust or duty,” from Old French traitor, traitre “traitor, villain, deceiver” (11th C., Modern French traître), from Latin traditor “betrayer,” literally “one who delivers,” agent noun from stem of tradere “deliver, hand over,” from trans- “over” (see trans-) + dare “to give” (from PIE root *do- “to give”). Originally usually with a suggestion of Judas Iscariot; especially of one false to his allegiance to a sovereign, government, or cause from late 15th C. Compare treason, tradition. (etymonline)
caterwaul (n.): “disagreeable howling or screeching,” like that of a cat in heat, late 14th C., caterwrawen, perhaps from Low German katerwaulen “cry like a cat,” or formed in English from cater, from Middle Dutch cater “tomcat” + Middle English waul “to yowl,” apparently from Old English *wrag, *wrah “angry,” of uncertain origin but somehow imitative. Related: Caterwauled; caterwauling. As a noun from 1708. (etymonline)
whinge(n.): “to complain peevishly,” British, informal or dialectal, ultimately from the northern form of Old English hwinsian, from Proto-Germanic *hwinison (source also of Old High German winison, German winseln), from root of Old English hwinan “to whine” (see whine (v.)). Related: Whinged; whinging. (etymonline)
lynch (v.): 1835, “inflict severe (but not deliberately fatal) bodily punishment (on someone) without legal sanction,” from earlier Lynch law (1811), in reference to such activity, which was likely named after William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania, Virginia, who c. 1780, led a vigilance committee to keep order there during the Revolution. Other sources trace the name to Charles Lynch (1736-1796) a Virginia magistrate who fined and imprisoned Tories in his district, c. 1782, but the connection to him is less likely. The surname is perhaps from Irish Loingseach “sailor.”
It implies lawless concert or action among a number of members of the community, to supply the want of criminal justice or to anticipate its delays, or to inflict a penalty demanded by public opinion, though in defiance of the laws. [Century Dictionary, 1895]
Originally any sort of summary justice, done without authority of law, for a crime or public offense; it especially referred to flogging or tarring-and-feathering. At first the act was associated with frontier regions (as in the above citation), though from c. 1835 to the U.S. Civil War it also often was directed against abolitionists. The narrowing of the meaning to “extra-legal execution by hanging” is evident by the 1880s, and after c. 1893 lynching mostly meant killings of blacks by white mobs (especially in retaliation for alleged sexual assaults of white women). This shift in use seems due in part to the work of African-American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells. “Lynch mob” is attested from 1838. Compare earlier Lydford law, from a place in Dartmoor, England, “where was held a Stannaries Court of summary jurisdiction” [Weekley], hence:
Lydford law: is to hang men first, and indite them afterwards. [Thomas Blount, “Glossographia,” 1656]
Also in a similar sense was Jedburgh justice (1706) and, as a verb, to Dewitt (1680s), a reference to two Dutch statesmen of that name, opponents of William of Orange, murdered by a mob in 1672. Related: Lynched; lynching. The city of Lynchburg, Virginia, dates to the 1750s when John Lynch, brother to Charles but a peaceable Quaker, had a ferry landing on the James River there. (etymonline)
mob (n.): From the 1680s, “disorderly part of the population, rabble, common mass, the multitude, especially when rude or disorderly; a riotous assemblage,” slang shortening of mobile, mobility “common people, populace, rabble” (1670s, probably with a conscious play on nobility), from Latin mobile vulgus “fickle common people” (the Latin phrase is attested c. 1600 in English), from mobile, neuter of mobilis “fickle, movable, mobile” (see mobile (adj.)).
Mob is a very strong word for a tumultuous or even riotous assembly, moved to or toward lawlessness by discontent or some similar exciting cause. Rabble is a contemptuous word for the very lowest classes, considered as confused or without sufficient strength or unity of feeling to make them especially dangerous. [Century Dictionary, 1897]
Also used of a promiscuous aggregation of people in any rank of life (1680s), and in Australia and New Zealand used without disparagement for “a crowd.” Meaning “gang of criminals working together” is from 1839, originally of thieves or pick-pockets; the American English sense of “organized crime in general” is from 1927.
The Mob was not a synonym for the Mafia. It was an alliance of Jews, Italians, and a few Irishmen, some of them brilliant, who organized the supply, and often the production, of liquor during the thirteen years, ten months, and nineteen days of Prohibition. … Their alliance — sometimes called the Combination but never the Mafia — was part of the urgent process of Americanizing crime. [Pete Hamill, “Why Sinatra Matters,” 1998]
Mob scene “crowded place” is by 1922, from earlier use in reference to movies and theatrical productions; mob-rule “ochlocracy” is by 1806.
ochlocracy (n.): “government by the rabble,” 1580s, from French ochlocratie (1560s), from Greek okhlokratia (Polybius) “mob rule,” the lowest grade of democracy, from kratos “rule, power, strength” (see -cracy) + okhlos “(orderless) crowd, multitude, throng; disturbance, annoyance,” which is probably literally “moving mass,” from PIE *wogh-lo-, suffixed form of root *wegh– “to go, move.” “Several possibilities exist for the semantic development: e.g. an agent noun *’driving, carrying, moving’, or an instrument noun *’driver, carrier, mover’. … An original meaning ‘drive’ could easily develop into both ‘stirred mass, mob’ and ‘spiritual excitement, unrest'” [Beekes]. For sense development, compare mob (n.). Related: Ochlocrat, ochlocratic; ochlocratical. Greek also had okhlagogos “mob-leader, ochlagogue.”
There are three reasons for this most personal of posts:
This woman gave birth to me nearly 63 years ago. She loved words, and word play. She encouraged me to look up a word I didn’t know. She played word games with us on long car trips. She was always working on a crossword, and we’d always find scraps of paper around the house on which she was trying to create as many words as possible out of one, longer word. Oddly, for all of her love of words, she wasn’t a big reader. But she passed on this love of language to her children. Due to her, her children are big readers.
Eventually, I would find myself living in Seattle and in need of a part-time job and I’d wander into a small bookshop that was about to open in the summer of 1990. I’d work there for the next 27 years and own it for the last 18. When things got tight, when it was hard to meet the rent – especially in the last few years – she’d be my loan officer, even though we both knew it was a gift, not a loan. She loved that I had a bookshop and dearly wanted it to succeed. To a great extent, she was the reason it lasted as long as it did. If nothing else, she’d listed to my tales of woe about the state of the shop. When we closed it, she was a heartbroken as anyone.
Lastly, though it always seemed growing up that everyone knew her, that wasn’t true. I never made a public acknowledgement about her financial aid to the shop. That just wasn’t how we did things. It was between her and me – but you see it really wasn’t. It was between her and everyone who loved the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. So I wanted to acknowledge it publicly, thank her publicly for all that she did for the shop, for the extra years her help gave us all.
She was always my guardian angel, and she was the shop’s guardian angel.
She’s an angel of the first degree.
Dottie Thomas Dickey ~ April 14, 1927 – December 8, 2020
dread (v.): From the late 12th C., “to fear very much, be in shrinking apprehension or expectation of,” a shortening of Old English adrædan, contraction of ondrædan “counsel or advise against,” also “to dread, fear, be afraid,” from ond-, and- “against” (the same first element in answer, from PIE root *ant-) + rædan “to advise” (from PIE root *re- “to reason, count”). Cognate of Old Saxon andradon, Old High German intraten. Related: Dreaded; dreading.
As a noun from c. 1200, “great fear or apprehension; cause or object of apprehension.” As a past-participle adjective (from the former strong past participle), “dreaded, frightful,” c.1400; later “held in awe” (early 15c.). [thanks to etymonline]
Jess Walter is getting a ton of national critical praise for his new book. The Washington Post reviewed it as “one of the most captivating novels of the year” and The New Yorker called it a “masterful novel“. Congratulations to Jess!
oubliette (n): A “secret dungeon reached only via trapdoor and with an opening only at the top for admission of air,” 1819 (Scott), from French oubliette (14th C.), from Middle French oublier “to forget, show negligence,” Old French oblier, oblider, from Vulgar Latin *oblitare, from Latin oblitus, past participle of oblivisci “to forget” (see oblivion). Used for persons condemned to perpetual imprisonment or to perish secretly. (thanks to etymonline and John Connolly)
mesel (adj.): “leprous” (adj.); “a leper” (n.); both c. 1300, from Old French mesel “wretched, leprous; a wretch,” from Latin misellus “wretched, unfortunate,” as a noun, “a wretch,” in Medieval Latin, “a leper,” diminutive of miser “wretched, unfortunate, miserable” (see miser). A Latin diminutive form without diminutive force. Also from Latin misellus are Old Italian misello “sick, leprous,” Catalan mesell “sick.” The English word is archaic or obsolete since the 1500s, replaced by leper, leprous, but its lexical DNA survives, apparently, as a contamination of measles. (thanks to etymonline)
What We’ve Been Up To
Books and physics
In high school, I got a D— in physics, and the only reason I got so good a grade was that my physics teacher had been really good friends with my late cousin. Ms. Lopez made me promise I’d never take physics again if she gave me that grade, and I happily agreed.
She’d be massively unsurprised at my current dilemma.
We just moved to a new place. I have 60 boxes of books, which should surprise exactly no one, especially those of you who know me. I have not only signed and collectible copies of books, but manuscripts and Advance Reader Copies and ratty paperbacks that I adore.
I also have three – yes, three – bookcases. And even they don’t have enough shelves on them; I have to add at least one more per bookcase.
Now, I’ll grant you that the lady from whom we bought the house left another one, and I’m using it, but even then, well, it’s not going to be enough. Not by a long shot.
It’s a challenge, but I’m up to it. I think. It’s making my wife a little crazed, but she knew this about me when she married me, it’s going to be fine.
All of this is in order to explain why I don’t have a review for you this month. Also why I got a D— in physics back in high school.
I guess I’m not in an objective mindset to be able to write up the last two books I read and do justice to them. The new John Connolly, The Dirty South, is sort of a prequel, taking place after his family was wiped out but before he caught The Traveler. Great idea, great characters, great story and… [a shrug of the shoulders….] The new Craig Johnson, Next to Last Stand, also gets a shrug – interesting germ for a story, characters I adore, etc, but…. guess I’m getting tired of Longmire’s indecision about running for office again. I understand that while the indecision has been going on for years for us readers and for only a few months for the characters, I’m tired of it. It’s much like the story lines in the TV series that didn’t grab me. You’re stuck with it. Still, I love a good art mystery, so I’d recommend you read this piece by Craig about where the idea for the story came from: The Strange Life and Mysterious Disappearance of a Very American Painting. Still, the questions remains” can there be a Longmire series after or when Walt retires?
“This week, I stumbled upon some very good advice Kurt Vonnegut set out, in 1988, for the citizens of the world of 2088. Sure, it was part of a Volkswagen ad campaign for TIME, but it still counts as salient advice from one of our great literary minds—and though it was supposed to be for people living 100 years after he wrote it, almost all of it applies to those of us trapped in 2020 as well. (And if not, well, at the very least, I got a laugh out of “bag ladies and bag gentlemen.”) Here’s what Kurt thinks we should be doing to save ourselves:”
“The movie positions its team of almost sorta immortals (they can die eventually, but they tend to heal quickly from even the most surely fatal of injuries) as both avenging angels roaming the world doing justice and ancient sad sacks grown tired with their mission. Well, at least Charlize Theron’s team leader Andy (short for Andromache of Scythia) is a bit over it all, sick of the world’s ceaseless parade of horrors, one that all her butt-kicking over the millennia has done little if anything to stanch.”
“Credit to director Gina Prince-Bythewood for teasing that out, and to screenwriter Greg Rucka, adapting his own graphic novel. The Old Guard is a naked attempt to kick off a franchise, but I wasn’t bothered by all those obvious table-setting mechanics because what they’re establishing is so tantalizing.”