When I was 12 or 13, I read a book called The Other Side of Dark by Joan Lowery Nixon. There wasn’t a ton of YA in those days (this was before cell phones and streaming music, back when we had to look up information in encyclopedias and dinosaurs roamed the earth) so whenever a new young adult book showed up at the library I’d grab it, whatever the genre or topic. I don’t remember the writing or specific details of the plot very well but I do recall the central conflict of the book—a young woman has just woken up from a coma after four years, and she’s the only eyewitness to her mother’s murder but she can’t remember anything.
This idea was so powerful and frightening to me—to be in a body and have lost four years of your life, to know that information about a crime was deep inside your brain but to have no way to dig it out. I couldn’t imagine how terrified I might be in the same circumstances, to not have the security of memory and knowledge. I fell in love with these kinds of stories, stories where girls and women found themselves in baffling circumstances, surrounded by strange atmosphere and people they may not be able to trust.
A love of those kinds of books led me fairly quickly from other teen suspense/horror authors like Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan to the more adult fare of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. Holt’s and Stewart’s books were considered classics of “romantic suspense” by the time I was a teenager, but I always put their books squarely in the same Gothic canon as books like Jane Eyre.
In fact, Victoria Holt’s Mistress of Mellyn and Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting have a lot in common with Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel. All three novels have a young governess coming to an isolated estate to take care of a difficult charge. All three stories have a secret related to the family that owns the estate that the heroine must uncover. And all three stories dare the young woman to decide if she should trust some wealthy, brooding man with her love.
I eventually outgrew the nonstop reading of Gothics, but I still love stories where a woman finds herself in uncharted territory, where she doesn’t have all the facts, where she must uncover the truth and determine who to trust (broody rich guy entirely optional).
Trust, it turns out, is the most frightening element of all. Is it safe to trust, to release control, to have a confidante or a lover? Or is it safer to suspect everyone around you, to uncover the mystery but keep your heart and mind close? And if knowledge is deliberately being withheld from you, or if you’ve lost your memory, then how can trust ever be truly granted?
The women in these kinds of novels find their strength and courage despite difficult—sometimes seemingly impossible— circumstances. They refuse to accept the status quo, to keep quiet, to hide away when people tell them not to ask questions. And these books are always dripping with atmosphere, tropes that make your heart beat faster even when you know what to expect—strange places, dark passages and mysterious sounds in the night. Modern novels often use similar tropes – a loss of memory, a strange location, characters the heroine isn’t sure she should trust—to great effect. The expectations of trope can guide readers toward a certain conclusion which can then be subverted, changed, made into something new.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (1847)
The grandmother of the girl-in-peril-at-a-mysterious-estate tale, the template from which so many others followed. Jane herself is distinguished by her bravery, by her strength of character, by her dogged determination to discover the truth about the strange goings-on at Thornfield Hall and its master, Mr. Rochester. Every year, in October, I re-read this book along with my other Gothic favorites. You can’t beat the atmosphere, especially in the Thornfield section of the book. 176-year-old spoiler: It also introduced the notion of the “attic wife”, a devastating moment in the story that has become a modern internet meme.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)
Impeccably written, unbearably suspenseful no matter how many times I re-read it, du Maurier’s modern classic begins with one of the most immortal opening lines of all-time: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
As a reader, you immediately want to know why the narrator is dreaming of Manderley. Was this place wonderful? Was it terrible? Why is she dreaming of this house? The slow revelation of each layer of mystery, the closeness of the POV which puts the reader right in that mystery with the narrator, feeling it as she feels it—I can’t find enough superlatives for this, one of my favorite books of all time and one of the most influential on my own writing.
Madam, Will You Talk?, Mary Stewart (1955)
Is this book a little gendered, a little dated? Yes. But is Charity Selborne one of the gutsiest heroines you’ll ever read? Also yes. While on holiday in France she accidentally stumbles into a mystery involving a teenage boy and his accused-murderer father. In hopes of protecting that boy, she leads his enemy away from him, resulting in one of the most frightening, relentless car chases I’ve ever read. Her determination in the face of real terror and grinding exhaustion is on par with any modern slasher’s final girl.
The Last Time I Lied, Riley Sager (2018)
Riley Sager is particularly good at crafting the strange atmosphere-mysterious past-woman in peril story, and The Last Time I Lied is my personal favorite of his. Sager was inspired by the film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock (talk about atmosphere! There’s no film that does it better) and his version ticks all the boxes for me – missing girls, a remote summer camp, and a heroine with a patchy memory, lots of survivor’s guilt, and a determination to uncover buried truths.
Mister Magic, Kiersten White (2023)
A heroine with no memory of her past? A group of strangers who insist they know her but she isn’t sure she should trust? A strange, shadowy figure who might be real but might not? A strange house in a remote location? SIGN ME UP. White cleverly uses Gothic and horror tropes to create a very modern story about memory, identity, childhood, and community, and how those things can morph and change. This was one of the best books I read this year.