Jane Healey on the best gothic novels

Dark foreboding houses, sinister housekeepers and psychological thrills abound in The Animals at Lockwood Manor author’s favourite gothic fiction.

09/03/2020
2 minutes to read

The Animals at Lockwood Manor is a grippingly atmospheric tale of family madness, long-buried secrets and hidden desires. In August 1939, as war looms, Hetty Cartwright is tasked with the evacuation and safekeeping of the Natural History Museum’s mammal collection. But, sequestered in Lockwood Manor with the irascible Lord Lockwood and his resentful servant, Hetty and the animals may still not be safe. Because Hetty is sure she’s being stalked through the darkened corridors of the house by someone – or something . . . 

Author Jane Healey drew inspiration for The Animals at Lockwood Manor from the gothic fiction she loves. Here, she shares a selection of her favourite gothic novels.

Growing up in my own haunted house, in which a ghostly woman was seen to walk out of one of the wardrobes at night, I have long been fascinated by the houses in gothic novels and the sway they hold over their occupants. The six novels in this list of favourites – many of which directly influenced The Animals at Lockwood Manor – illustrate the way that the gothic genre uses tropes like the madwoman in the attic and Bluebeard’s chamber to explore the perils of domesticity for its female characters, and how the echoing rooms of houses can become archives of forgotten stories of the women who came before them.


The Yellow Wallpaper

by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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On the opening page of this short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in 1892, the heroine references its place within the gothic tradition, fancying that the colonial mansion her husband John has taken her to to convalesce is ‘haunted’, an opinion that makes John laugh at her. ‘Of course, one expects that in marriage,’ the narrator states with a brittle brightness, noting that her husband, a doctor, does not believe she is really sick but still recommends she rest from all excitements and forbids her from any work. The narrator is desperate to write, and for a life outside of the house, and finds her situation mirrored by the wallpaper in the old nursery where she is trapped, which seems to move in front of her eyes and hide creeping madwomen behind its pattern of bars. The Yellow Wallpaper is an electric story that feels so modern to read, scathing and incandescent in its fury and deliciously unnerving.



The Doll Factory

by Elizabeth Macneal

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The attic in The Doll Factory isn’t a place where a madwoman is held against her will but a studio that the artist Louis gifts his lover, Iris, the heroine of this grimy and lush gothic delight of a novel. Iris’s studio is a place of freedom and creativity, unlike the dank cellar where the murderously misogynistic collector Silas wishes to keep her locked up as one of his curiosities – so that no one else may look at her and so that he may control her absolutely. His desires are only a reflection of the wider societal forces in the book that aim to keep Iris in her place as she is watched, observed, judged and shamed for wanting to become a painter herself and not just a shopgirl or a muse, a subject rather than just an object.



Rebecca

by Daphne Du Maurier

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Manderley, the infamous house at the centre of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, haunts its pages from first to last, just as Rebecca does. Her husband Maxim’s first wife and the house are woven together, equally maddening to the newest Mrs de Winter, and equally seductive. This is a novel of obsession and of two women who struggle against the strictures of wifehood. While Rebecca play-acts the perfect homemaker and undermines Maxim’s authority to deadly effect, the narrator loses all confidence in a maze of rules and social obligations and struggles to understand the secrets of her brooding, taciturn husband. Du Maurier’s novel is a masterclass in atmospheric prose and the Manderley of her description – doused in the scent of Rebecca’s azaleas, licked by fog and peopled by the ghoulish Mrs Danvers – can never be forgotten.



White is for Witching

by Helen Oyeyemi

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In White is For Witching, the malignant haunted house has its own voice, making up one of the four narratives of this labyrinthine novel, and is sinisterly possessive towards the teenage girl, Miranda, who lives there with her family and is mourning her late mother. Oyeyemi digs deep into gothic imagery and metaphor in this novel – attics, ghosts, locked rooms, unwelcome guests, mirrors, monstrous women, madness – to haunting effect, as Miranda fights to escape the fate of her female ancestors who are trapped as ghosts inside the walls of the house. What I admire most about this novel is the way that reading it makes you feel dizzy and wrongfooted, and how skilled Oyeyemi is at marrying mundane domesticity with horror.



Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys

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Jean Rhys’s reworking of Jane Eyre delves deep into female madness, mother-daughter relationships and intergenerational trauma, and was a big influence on my own novel. Rhys plays with gothic imagery of mirrors, ghosts and doubles, and explores how the brutality of colonialism underpins so many of the grand manor houses that appear in gothic fiction. Wide Sargasso Sea’s heroine, Antoinette, who is later named Bertha by her husband as part of his attempts to control her and rewrite her identity, is desperate to feel safe, a feeling she identifies with houses and places like the convent where she is schooled. But women in Antoinette’s world are only allowed to remain in their homes through the patronage of husbands who take ownership of both building and woman, bending both to their will and naming the woman’s grief, concern and fury as madness. Antoinette’s revenge is thus to be taken upon Rochester and Thornfield Hall simultaneously. Rhys’s prose is unmatched in its bruising clarity, both achingly plaintive and bitterly matter of fact, and always mesmerising.



The Bloody Chamber

by Angela Carter

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In lush, baroque prose, Angela Carter plays with gothic and fairy tale tropes in The Bloody Chamber, laying bare their monstrous foundations and subverting expectations of helpless virginal heroines. In the title story, the young bride’s mother saves her from her lascivious Bluebeard husband, while in ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, an inverted gothic romance, the vampire queen is ‘both death and the maiden’, and sits in a rose-scented chateau wearing her mother’s antique wedding gown and waiting for young men to consume. She welcomes them with a parody of girlish courtesy, with coffee and sugar cakes, and afterwards weeps as shards of skin and bone are neatly cleaned from under her fingernails with a ‘little silver toothpick’. What I enjoy most about this collection is how Carter explores the pleasures of the gothic genre – for its heroines, who are welcomed into velveted chambers and gifted furs and jewels – and for its readers too.



The Animals at Lockwood Manor

by Jane Healey

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With the Second World War looming in the summer of 1939, the Natural History Museum’s extensive taxidermy collection is evacuated to the estate of Lockwood Manor. Ambitious Hetty Cartwright is tasked with safe-guarding the collection, but soon finds she has taken on more than she bargained for. Forced to contend with the short-tempered Lord Lockwood and his hostile servants, Hetty’s only comfort is a blossoming friendship with the enchanting Lucy Lockwood. But when precious specimens start to go missing and a more sinister presence is felt in the house, Hetty starts to uncover long-buried secrets some would prefer to keep hidden . . .