How can you write a good Gothic novel in the 21st century? A classic Gothic novel requires elements of the supernatural, the strange, the terrifying. A Gothic novel tends to have a naive female protagonist, placed in an isolated setting, surrounded by dread and unexplained but deeply worrisome, inexplicable, scary occurrences. How can you have those things in an era with the internet and ubiquitous cell phones, where naive young women are much harder to find and believe?
The way you do it is the way Ruth Ware did in The Turn of the Key, a masterful modern Gothic novel: you create a hybrid of Victorian and modern, much like the setting for the book, an old Victorian mansion in the isolated highlands of Scotland, which has been upgraded with many computerized “smart” appliances, and you let the creepier aspects of the modern world reinforce the creepy, haunted aspects of the classic Victorian sensibility.
Rowan, our protagonist, is in jail awaiting trial for the murder of a child in her charge, at the outset of the book. She’s writing to a barrister, begging him to represent her. She knows she’s notorious, the crime is horrible and everybody believes she’s guilty, and even arguing that she’s not guilty doesn’t get her very far because everyone she meets in prison claims to be not guilty. She writes the particulars of the events that led up to her arrest, in the hopes of persuading him to take her case, and that’s the structure of the book. After the first chapter, you pretty much forget you’re reading what’s supposed to be a letter (though there are a couple of other letters at the very end of the book, bringing us back to the structure again), and become absorbed in Rowan’s world and her story. The suspense is really well done. Because of the way the book begins, you know that by the end, one of the three children (four if you count the teenager) is going to die, and that the death is going to be in circumstances that point to Rowan. So as you meet the characters, you keep wondering who the victim is going to be and how this is going to play out. It’s a classic example of Alfred Hitchcock’s illustration of suspense as compared to shock.
Rowan answers an online ad for a nanny, even though she wasn’t looking for a new job, already having one at a day care center in London. The ad seems too good to be true: the family needs a live-in nanny and will pay a truly outrageous salary for a nanny who will stay with them. We don’t need to have Rowan, in hindsight, pointing out that a salary that good is a danger sign; just knowing how out of line it is makes the reader suspicious, as we should be.
When Rowan interviews with Sandra, the mother of the three young children, at Heatherbrae in Scotland (isolated from everybody she knows, an important element of a good Gothic), she discovers that there had been a few nannies in the recent past, but none of them stayed for very long. There are rumors the house is haunted, and the behavior of Maddie, the older of the girls, suggests that something is very wrong around here. Ellie, her little sister, seems to be under Maddie’s thumb, and joins her, at least initially, in making things hard for Rowan. There’s also a housekeeper who clearly resents Rowan and fills the role of every sinister housekeeper you’ve ever seen in books and movies (think Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, but with a Scottish accent).
The parents hire Rowan and then immediately leave on a business trip, before Rowan’s even gotten a chance to get familiar with the girls or the area. But Sandra’s planned for that, not only leaving Rowan an instruction book any helicopter parent would admire, but having most of the house set up with recording devices and wireless communication. Rowan gets the worst of both worlds: left almost entirely to her own devices in terms of figuring out what’s going on and how to take care of the girls, but feeling always under surveillance, with the possibility that Sandra might call her at any moment and check up on her.
There are all kinds of things to worry about, too: the inexplicable and terrifying sounds of someone walking around above Rowan’s room, when there is, as far as she knows, no one else in the house and no room above hers, the poison garden, the stories about murdered children connected to the house. And that’s before Rhiannon, the spoiled and difficult teenage daughter, returns home from school to defy Rowan and make things more complicated for her.
This is a book filled with atmosphere and dread, as a good Gothic should be. It’s a page-turner, and it seems just about everyone in it has secrets they’re keeping from you, even Rowan herself. Ware does an excellent job, keeping you in Rowan’s head and making her sympathetic even as you know from the outset that she’s going to be charged with murdering one of the girls you’re also getting to know (who’s it going to be? The baby, Petra? Ellie? Maddie? Rhiannon?).
I wouldn’t dream of giving away the ending, except to say that the mystery is resolved, and that the author plays fair with you.
For a good, fun, creepy read, you could hardly do better than The Turn of the Key.