When we talk about classic Halloween reads we tend to think of M.R. James, Dracula or Frankenstein and they’re all brilliant. Most people don’t automatically reach for the Brontes, but for me they were my first scary reads. I was ten when I first read an abridged version of Jane Eyre, closely followed by watching the BBC series with Timothy Dalton as Mr Rochester. In my ten year old mind this wasn’t a love story, or a feminist manifesto but a really spooky ghost story. My abridged version included the supernatural experience Jane has when her guardian Mrs Reed has her locked in the Red Room. Aware of stories about orbs of light fitting around the graveyard at night, Jane bangs on the door desperate to escape. In her state of fear and passion Jane sees a light and feels the presence of her dead Uncle Reed. She tries to beat down the door before falling into a faint.
Thornfield Hall is remote, dark and brooding rather like its owner. Every hint leans towards something spooky going on. Rochester’s first appearance is preceded by a huge black dog appearing from the fog, and Jane thinks it is a supernatural being. Rochester appears on a black horse and soon on his return things start to go bump in the night. Jane hears strange laughter in the night, banging from the door to the attic and one night, smoke is billowing from Rochester’s room. The blame for this attempt to burn Rochester in his bed is laid at the door of Grace Poole, a strange servant who seems to have no purpose in the house. I remember my ten year old self being scared but thrilled by this mystery of who or what exactly occupies upstairs. The scene of the night before Jane and Rochester’s wedding really spooked me. Jane wakes to see a tall, dark haired, woman wearing her wedding veil. She’s looking at her own reflection which is ghastly white. She then slowly moves round to look at Jane in the bed and my heart is speeding up at this moment. I was scared stiff but couldn’t stop reading. Jane recalls a ghastly visage, darkened circles round the eyes, reddened lips. There is definitely something vampiric about her, rather than ghostly. Rochester tries to gaslight Jane into thinking it’s a dream, but she has proof it was something more human than spectre. Her wedding veil is rent in two. Now Rochester says it must have been Grace, but Jane is unsure. This looked like someone completely different and why would Grace tear her wedding veil?
At ten I only thought about the ghostly aspects of this and when the truth was revealed I saw a monster and not a person. Bertha Mason was simply a madwoman foisted upon Rochester, because my focus was on Jane and her love story. Of course with re-readings and a feminist awakening in my teens I could see that this was an awful tragedy for Bertha too. I also loved The Wide Sargasso Sea and understood that in another reading of the story Bertha was born Antoinette and sent into a marriage with Rochester. Due to being passionate and wild natured she is rejected by Rochester who expected a more measured, obedient bride, sexually shy and generally calm and quiet. For being herself she has her name taken away, is removed from the Jamaica she loves and is imprisoned in an attic with only a servant for company. No wonder she’s angry!
Charlotte’s sister Emily is also adept at creating a gothic atmosphere and there are parts of her novel Wuthering Heights that are downright terrifying. Of course Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship is dark, dangerous and obsessional. The atmosphere is brilliantly creepy with the bleak moors, driving winds and lowering skies. The house is old and remote, containing many years of unhappiness by the time our first narrator happens upon it in a storm. He desperately needs shelter and although the people of the house seem odd and the master unnecessarily brusque and harsh towards the younger residents, he is grateful of a room for the night. The room he is given contains books with the name Catherine Earnshaw inscribed inside the cover and he wonders idly who she might have been. The wind is wild outside the window and he settles into his bed grateful he has found the place. He is woken by what sounds like tapping at the window and he thinks it must be branches. He opens the sash to grasp the branch and snap it off but the window breaks and he finds himself holding a freezing cold child’s hand. I remember being so scared by the thought of this ghostly child, floating at the window, desperate to be let in. She pleads with Lockwood to let her in. She is so cold. Yet when he tries to let to go, she grasps on tightly. In fear, Lockwood forces the wrist down into the jagged edge of glass left in the window frame. He then pulls it back and forth until blood runs from the white cold wrist. This is pure horror. If we imagine this scene being filmed as it’s written, it really would be scary.
Most adaptations tend to focus on the love story, but this could be a really tense story of ghostly horror. There are ghosts aplenty in this house. Hindley drinks himself to death haunted by the loss of his wife. Heathcliff is so haunted by Cathy he pushes Lockwood aside and tries to call her back from the moors. When she dies he dashes his head violently against a tree till he’s bleeding. He then goes to her grave and tries to dig her up with his bare hands. I watched an enjoyable adaptation, again with Timothy Dalton, where Cathy’s ghost lures him back to Wuthering Heights. Her ghost floats across the moor calling to him and he follows all the way back to the farm where he is shot as an intruder. Then he and Cathy flit out onto the moors together as wandering spirits, reliving their childhood wild days exploring and hiding from the adults. It’s not true to the book, but I loved that it embodies those gothic origins to the tale.
I love that these quiet sisters, living together in a Yorkshire vicarage, came up with these dark obsessional characters and horrific scenes of gothic horror. I believe my early reading choices are what shaped my love of writers like Laura Purcell, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale and last year’s The Lost Ones by Anita Frank. As soon as I start a book like this I smile to myself and I feel something of that magical excitement I used to get when reading a chapter of Wuthering Heights before bed or settling down at Saturday teatime to watch an adaptation of Jane Eyre. Both these Victorian tales create a similar feeling in the reader. It’s the confusing mix of excitement and terror that every good horror story needs, it’s what keeps us reading – as well as being too scared to turn the light off.
Another writer strongly influenced by Jane Eyre in particular is Daphne Du Maurier. Most readers have come across her short stories thanks to the film versions of The Birds and the brilliantly creepy Don’t Look Now. However, the book in my list of all time favourite reads is a Rebecca. This book is up there with the best psychological thrillers of all time and takes that theme of ‘madwoman in the attic’ and brings it into the 20th Century. It also has one of the scariest gothic creations in housekeeper Mrs Danvers – still hopelessly devoted to her dead mistress, the first Mrs de Winter. In a great first line – ‘ last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ – we are introduced to the gothic mansion, the ancestral seat of the de Winter family. Large, foreboding, and clinging to the edge of a cliff in Cornwall. When master of the house, Maxim de Winter brings a young bride home from Europe they are both assailed by memories of his beautiful and brilliant late wife Rebecca, who drowned while out sailing. This haunting is a psychological one and the attic is the mind. The unnamed second wife is plain, young, inexperienced and gauche. She has no idea how to run a house like Manderley and everywhere are signs of her predecessor: the west wing, the embroidered R de W everywhere, her correspondence in the morning room. The staff continue to run the house as before and instead of taking charge she tries to fit in. She lives under the impression that she’s second best and will never measure up.
Many of her qualities echo those of Jane Eyre and there’s a lot to be said about older men wanting more acquiescence and a chance to mould a younger, second wife. While this young woman tortures herself about how much her husband must have loved this brilliant woman, Mrs Danvers starts to turn the screw. Cadaverous in appearance and very severe when communicating, she does everything she can to intimidate her new mistress. She even shows her Rebecca’s lingerie, totally sheer and embroidered with R they conjure up an image of sexual experience, something else this woman doesn’t have. Worst of all, she suggests that copying a portrait of Maxim’s ancestor Lady Caroline de Winter might be a good costume for the ball they’re holding. On the night she appears at the top of the stairs to gasps from the guests and unchecked anger from her husband. Totally bewildered and distraught, her sister in law informs her that Rebecca had done the same thing for the last ball. It was like a ghost appearing at the top of the stairs. Mrs Danvers lures her to the west wing and almost talks her into jumping from the window in a scene of heart-stopping tension. When the truth about Rebecca emerges what will it mean for everyone at Manderley? This book is a romance, but with strong gothic overtones in its setting and although Rebecca does not physically appear as a ghost, she is often more present in this house than anyone else. It is most definitely within the Bronte’s genre of gothic romances and delivers good, old-fashioned, creepiness. Look out for a new adaptation of Rebecca coming soon to Netflix.