by Jonathan Thornton
"The dreams are coming thick and fast. She's impatient for me now. There are no words to express it - the terrible freedom, the malice and rage. To look through her eyes is to know the dark centre of the world. I dread it and it is thrilling."
Catriona Ward's The Girl From Rawblood (2017) is a striking and powerful gothic novel. With its themes of hereditary illness, madness and death, a haunting female spectre and the central domineering presence of Rawblood itself, a crumbling, sprawling ancestral home, the book vividly evokes the tone and feel of the gothic, with loving tributes to classics of the genre from Frankenstein (1818) through to Gormenghast (1946-1959). However The Girl From Rawblood is more than an expertly executed pastiche. Ward uses the tropes and trappings of the gothic to really dig down into what makes the genre tick, exploring and exposing the genre's neuroses to discover what makes the genre so compelling after over a hundred years of gothic fiction, and why the concerns of the gothic are still resonant to us today.
Iris Villarca lives alone with her father in the family mansion Rawblood. She is the last of her line, a family cursed by tragedy and the disease Horror autotoxicus. Her father has given her a list of rules to live by to mitigate the effects of the disease - above all she must not form attachments to others, which can only end in pain and misery - but Iris breaks her father's rules and falls in love with Tom Gilmore, the son of a local farmer. As her father struggles to protect her and she fights for her freedom to choose her life, the curse of the Villarcas strikes and Iris learns about 'her', the terrifying spectre that is the true force behind the downfall of generations of her family.
Across a range of narrative voices, but always circling back to the central perspective of Iris, The Girl From Rawblood tracks the misfortunes of the Villarcas across the generations. Ward deftly weaves together a complex plot, which as it evolves creates both a sense of preordained doom reminiscent of a Nordic saga and a feeling of atavistic, primal terror. The evils of the past and the ghastly mistakes of her ancestors compound down the generations, culminating in Iris and her conflict with her father. The novel is not just an exploration of a family haunted by a terrifying spectre, but the process by which this spectre is brought into existence.
The large cast and the decades spanned by The Girl From Rawblood allow it to explore the concerns and obsessions that have shaped the gothic down the years, but very much on Ward's own terms. Sections of the book are narrated by Charles Danforth, friend and colleague of Alonso Villarca, Iris' father. As we read through his diary entries, it becomes clear that Charles and Alonso were more than just friends, and used to be lovers. Sublimated and repressed homosexual desire recur throughout gothic fiction, from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872) to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House (1959). Ward is interested in exploring this sexual repression; Charles and Alonso's relationship has disintegrated because of a society that labels their orientation "degenerate". The frequent quotations of Bible verses during moments of distress show how Charles has tried to turn to religion to repent for what he sees as a sin. The book clearly shows that it is this repression, and the resulting inability of these two passionate men to process their feelings openly and healthily because of the demands of the society that they live in, which causes their relationship to curdle into destructive co-dependence.
The gothic has always had a fascination with science, with works like 'Frankenstein' born out of the dawn of new scientific understandings that threatened to upend humanity's worldview, even as it was achieved with outlandish and grisly methods. Charles and Alonso are both students of medicine, and work together on hereditary diseases in an attempt to understand the Villarca curse. The cool, rational reasoning behind their wrong-headed ideas about inheritance is contrasted with the horrific animal experimentation they carry out in Rawblood's basement. These echo the real experiments from the early years of modern medicine that inspired Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson to write horror stories. Alonso says,
"The science of life is a superb and dazzlingly lighted hall, which may be reached only by passing through a long and ghastly kitchen."
It is by this reasoning that Charles and Alonso justify their experiments. However, the modern reader will know that Alonso's theories about heredity are wrong, and that the experiments he is doing cannot give him the information he needs. Similarly, the curse that haunts the Villarcas is something supernatural, and cannot be understood by the laws of science and rationality.
The darker side of an age without medical ethics is explored during Iris's stay in a mental asylum. Insanity is a favourite theme of gothic fiction, and The mad woman in the attic is a gothic staple, but here the plight of the mentally ill is explored with sympathy, the horror coming not from any overused tropes about asylums and the mentally ill being scary, but from the horrendous abuses suffered by Iris and the other patients. Iris is heavily sedated as punishment, strapped to her bed, and worst of all subjected to experimental lobotomy treatment without her consent, all in the name of "curing" her. Again this reflects the real suffering of people committed to asylums in very recent history.
Gothic fiction developed over a period of history which saw bigger conflicts and wars, and ultimately the technological horrors and mass deaths of the two world wars. Thus the destructive potential of technology and the fear and trauma of these wars is something that worked its way into the mode. The Girl From Rawblood opens in the run up to World War I, and the spectre of the impending conflict hangs heavy over the book. Alonso decides to remove the temptation of Tom by sending him off to join the army; he returns psychologically scarred by the horrors that he has seen on the front. Part of the novel is told from the point of view of Frank Coulson, Tom's cousin, who is sent to the same asylum Iris is held at to recuperate after losing his leg in the war. The butchery of soldiers at the front is compared to the butchery of the mentally ill in the name of cures and the butchery of animals in the name of science.
As Iris's story spirals out backwards and forwards through time towards its brutal conclusion, the novel explores the anxieties, fears and horrors that have shaped gothic fiction over the years, bringing to it Ward's modern perspective. Exorcising the spectre that haunts the Villarcas involves engaging with the nightmares that have plagued the past two centuries. However the novel's powerful conclusion brings us back to focus in on the novel's central relationships, between Iris and her father and Iris and Tom. In a story in which love frequently winds up being a force for destruction and pain, it is fitting and moving that it ends by exploring the possibility of redemption through love
For generations the Villarcas have died mysteriously, and young. Now Iris and her father will finally understand why. . .
At the turn of England's century, as the wind whistles in the lonely halls of Rawblood, young Iris Villarca is the last of her family's line. They are haunted, through the generations, by "her," a curse passed down through ancient blood that marks each Villarca for certain heartbreak, and death.
Iris forsakes her promise to her father, to remain alone, safe from the world. She dares to fall in love, and the consequences of her choice are immediate and terrifying. As the world falls apart around her, she must take a final journey back to Rawblood where it all began and where it must all end...
From the sun dappled hills of Italy to the biting chill of Victorian dissection halls, The Girl from Rawblood is a lyrical and haunting historical novel of darkness, love, and the ghosts of the past.
Please note this is the American Version of Rawblood