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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic


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"Somebody's trying to kill me and I think it's my husband: The Modern Gothic" by Joanna Russ

(c) 1973

Journal of Popular Culture

Spring, 1973


Science fiction author and feminist literary theorist Joanna Russ published this little gem just as the first shock waves from the explosion of sexy historical romances were being felt in the reading world.  It is cited quite often in analyses of women's fiction. 


I obtained a copy when I was writing "Half Heaven, Half Heartache" at Arizona State University West.  That copy was hidden away -- and not guarded by spiders! -- in the only 3-ring binder not shelved with all the others.  I found it this morning, brushed off the accumulated dust, and plunged in.


Russ's analysis of the gothic romance as it was published in the 1950s and 1960s is hilariously spot on, to the point that one isn't quite sure if she's being sarcastic or scathing.  (I think probably a bit of both.)


She identifies the main elements of the gothic romance of the mid-twentieth century as follows:


1.  The Heroine, almost always orphaned, young, lonely.

2.  The House, usually large, sinister, and named.

3.  The Super-Male Hero, who is dark, brooding, older and more experienced than the Heroine, and who often treats her with "anger and contempt."

4.  The Other Woman, who is prettier, sexier, wiser, more adventurous than the Heroine, and whom the Heroine fears but is also envious of.

5.  The Young Person, whom the Heroine befriends  ("If the person is a girl, this is done by buying her clothes.") and/or protects.

6.  The Shadow-Male, who wants to marry -- or may have already married -- the heroine, generally portrayed as kind and gentle but eventually revealed to be a thief, a murderer, a serial killer, or worse.

7.  Selected Other Family Members, frequently including the Housekeeper

8.  The Ominous Secret.


A central point of her analysis is that the female main characters Don't Do Anything, unless they Do Something Wrong.  They are not the ones who puzzle out the mystery of The Ominous Secret, though they may uncover some of the clues.  Uncovering and understanding are two different things, and gothic heroines are not much given to the understanding part.


Apparently, however, they are given to understanding clothes and food, which are described in great detail.  And scenery.


Russ uses the following books for her analysis, and I would love to get my hands on all of them just for the full effect of the descriptions:

Columbella (1964) by Phyllis A. Whitney

Nightingale at Noon (1962) by Margaret Summerton

The Least of All Evils (1970) by Helen Arvonen

The Dark Shore (1965) by Susan Howatch

I Am Gabriella! (1962) by Anne Maybury

The Brooding Lake (1953) by Dorothy Eden


The essay was reprinted in Russ's To Write Like a Woman:  Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, Indiana University Press (1995).  Although I've not read any of her fiction, I have thoroughly enjoyed her books and articles on feminist literary criticism.  I'm seriously considering springing for a used copy of this one.