From Out Of The Shadows

This semester, I’m teaching a course on American Gothic Literature, so I have gothic and all of its shivery goodness on my mind. I’m always fascinated by where gothic and mystery overlap, and one of their points of connection involves how, typically, something must come forward from the shadows.

In gothic, there are usually actual shadows, such as those cast by the moonlight peeking through the ominously twisted tree branches in a dark forest, or those thrown by the flickering light of a torch—or it may be the shadows of the mind, where, in gothic, madness so often lurks and brings back repressed things with a vengeance.

In mystery, shadows are similarly cast, but depending on what genre we’re talking about, they may work differently. For example, a thriller might give us shadows right off the bat in the form of shadowy figures, dangerous landscapes, etc., while cozies tend to give us more of a gradual revelation: the community and characters often look bright and sunny…until the body “drops.”

Both gothic and mystery in general can be focused on the big reveal, along with any number of smaller revelations along the way. Moreover, the characters have shadow sides, too. Protagonists and antagonists alike have secrets and tendencies that may be revealed when we least expect it.

This presents quite a challenge for the writer. It’s not easy to pull off a believable emergence from the shadows that has been plausibly set up but isn’t broadcast a mile away. Plus, experienced readers are anticipatory…we know not to relax too comfortably into the story because something is coming our way from the shadows. All of this to say: when we are surprised, we should applaud the author.

What are some of your favorite examples of “coming forward from the shadows” (in mystery or otherwise)?

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14 thoughts on “From Out Of The Shadows”

  1. I don’t know that there’s much “coming out of the shadows,” but Edgar Allen Poe has to rank among one of my favorite American Gothic authors. Reading “The Tell-tale Heart” still gives me shivers (one of the best audio books I’ve ever heard, although I can’t remember the narrator). Poe did such a great job of wrapping shadows around the most innocent items. Fun course!

  2. Made me think! Without giving away the details, the most shadowy book I’ve read lately is John Connolly’s Charlie Parker book, The Whisperers. He manages to write a very convincing thriller involving supernatural forces. I wan’t quite sure to the end what was human, what was supernatural and what these characters were up to. Creepy.

  3. Mary and Pamela, I love him too. Poe = The Most Excellent King of Gothic (were there to be such a title)

    Theresa, aw, thanks for saying that.

    Keenan, I haven’t read that one but am adding it to my list now! Thanks for the title.

  4. Oooh, great post, Cynthia! I suppose one of my most favorite recent examples is my friend Natalie Parker’s “Beware the Wild” which includes an enchanted swamp and she does great things when talking about the swamp swallowing the light. It makes it both ominous and living and breathing.

  5. I read mysteries both for the “big reveal” and for the smaller shadow revelations along the way. I think having many shadows make characters more interesting and more authentic. There is not a one among us who along life’s journey, does not have shadows, both large and small. The question is do we walk past the shadows or do they engulf and strangle us?

  6. Gothics, oh, I love them. And Poe, the best. The classic gothic works even in the modern era. Did anyone else read Joyce Carol Oates Winterthurn series? I was hooked from book one. And may i take a moment to nod at my all time favorite Gothic TV show – Dark Shadows! How perfect is that?

  7. Oooh, I wish I were in your class, Cynthia! I love gothics and would love to see the titles on your reading list. My all-time favorite is Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.

  8. What a great post! It’s so hard to write a mystery without a Scooby-Doo reveal. Emerging from the shadows is a great way to think about it.

  9. Oooh, fascinating! I want to take your class. You need to share the syllabus with us! Would my all-time favorite book, “Wuthering Heights” be considered Gothic literature?

  10. 3 no 7, excellent question!

    Kait, I read the first one. She’s incredible. Did you like the Dark Shadows movie? 😉

    Sam, a Scooby-Doo reveal? HA!

    Sue and Ellen, I would love it if you were in the class! Sue, Du Maurier is sheer perfection, agreed. And Ellen, absolutely.

    Thanks for your comments, everyone!

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