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As I should've mentioned ages ago, Issue 11 of the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies is now online. It contains many interesting articles on a range of topics - white noise in horror, Charles Fort, dark pop art, and the class politics of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - but I my appetite was especially whetted by Fiona McCulloch's essay "'Looking Back': Scottish Queer Gothic Returns in Zoe Strachan's Ever Fallen in Love. I didn't even know there was a Scottish Queer Gothic genre and after reading a couple of paragraphs decided to buy the book and read it before continuing with the essay, to avoid spoilers!

Ever Fallen In Love is narrated by Richard, a thirty-something gay computer games artist who lives quietly in the Highlands. The layout's a bit funny - the narrative of his present-day life comes in conventionally numbered chapters, but they're intercut with chapters flashing back to his days at St Andrews university, all of which are numbered "0". When Richard's sister comes to stay Richard finds his thoughts turning to his student days, and especially his relationship with a charismatic fellow student called Luke. A tale unfolds of teenage experimentation that eventually turns into something a lot nastier, with shattering consequences.

It's a strange novel. From the first page Strachan sets out her Gothic wares for all to see, with references to Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Dorian Grey (though I'm not convinced by the reviewer's assertion that the hero's name Richard is meant to be a partial anagram of Dracula!) And there are plenty of Gothic conventions in the novel. The most obvious is that of the evil double or doppelganger. Interestingly, two of the most famous Gothic novels on this theme were written by Scots - Hogg's Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - so Strachan is in good company. There is also a ruined woman, an abandoned manse, and large amounts of secrecy and guilt (with what McCulloch calls "the return of the repressed".

But anyone expecting a chain-rattling, bodice-ripping novel in the High Gothic style will be sorely disappointed by Ever Fallen In Love! Strachan's prose is highly readable and deceptively simple. I was also surprised by the sheer amount of kitchen-sink mundanity. Much of the book is taken up with conversations between characters as they make tea, cook dinner, walk on the beach and so on. This does at times come within a hair's-breadth of being boring, but the unhurried pace does suit Strachan's choice of subjects - this is a story that comes to light slowly, like Plath's 'terrible fish', and the horror it inspires is a slow-acting poison rather than a sudden shock.

But what interested me most was the way various "alterities", or types of otherness, interact to create unease. Richard is gay, but both he and Luke are also Scottish, and not particularly posh. This means that when Richard leaves the frying-pan of his old home (the sort of old mining town where overt gayness can still result in death) he ends up in the fire of St. Andrews, AKA the most snobbish place in the entire universe, except possibly Durham. And there's still plenty of homophobia too, despite the town's bargain-basement Brideshead image the university is anxious to project. In my review of Adam G Nevill's book Banquet of the Damned I mentioned how much I dislike St Andrews, which is an architecturally beautiful but impossibly precious holding pen for wealthy Oxbridge rejects. It's the sort of place you would send your daughter if you were keen on the idea of her dying a virgin. Although the scenic little town has appeared in many novels, Strachan's is the first I've read that shows a deep understanding of its real nature, and the students come to life with a vividness that is actually quite upsetting!

Richard and Luke are both "other", which is interesting as Scotland itself seems to serve as a kind of historical Other for England sometimes. But this isn't just a case of "let's hate the upper-class English". Richard and Luke are by no means working-class heroes, and their response to their own 'othered' status is to pass it on by giving someone else in their vicinity a jolly good othering. And as you may have guessed, that "someone" is a woman. Again, I was initially taken aback by the nature of the "ruin" Lucy undergoes, because it honestly didn't seem that bad at first. It's only when you think about the motivations for it, and witness the aftermath of the event, that real horror finally blossoms.

And as for the queer angle, there's certainly a rich vein of horror to mine. As it struggles to embrace a new era as a part of Europe, modern Scotland certainly has its share of flamboyant homophobic killings and of course Richard encounters all the usual prejudices. Where Strachan excels is in the depiction of how even liberal straight people can unwittingly torment gays and lesbians on a daily basis, due to the assumptions they make and the things they say (even "ironically".) I didn't feel McCulloch's otherwise excellent review really did justice to this side of the book and to the way Strachan distills oceans of agony into a short stretches of seemingly banal, casual dialogue.

Altogether Ever Fallen In Love is a very successful example of modern Gothic, even if it is very different from the highly-coloured gothic of Joyce Carol Oates, Patrick McGrath or Angela Carter. It is a watercolour of a novel, all delicate tints and subtle shade. And of course proficiency at watercolour is said to be the hallmark of the true artist! It's a shame Strachan doesn't tackle Dundee in any detail, given that Richard ends up spending a lot of time there. Dundee (where I went to University) is a fascinating city unlike any other, but has been outrageously overlooked by the popular Scottish authors, as far as I can see. As a city it barely ever features in books, and when it does it is only to be brushed lightly over or shallowly slagged off (yes, I'm looking at you, Ian Rankin!) It's an Other within an Other, and as such fully deserves treatment by a skilled gothic writer. But none of this should detract from Strachan's achievement with this book. It's comforting to see a non-genre writer do so well with such an array of gothic tropes!


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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