Each year when autumn worms its way into my consciousness, I begin looking for the ideal gothic book. I can test this by looking at the Goodreads lists of best gothic novels and noting how many of them I’ve already read. The thing now, since I’ve already covered much of the canon, is to discover modern writers who can still evoke that feeling I seek. This is all complicated by the subjective nature of what readers term “gothic.” Many of the books on the lists don’t fit my own working connotation, so I keep looking. One recommended title was Jennifer Giebrecht’s debut novel The Monster of Elendhaven. I’m still trying to decide whether it is gothic or not.
It’s a little hard to classify, actually. It certainly has some gothic elements, as well as some horror. There are secrets and plagues and gruesome murders. There is a monster from a polluted sea, but not quite your grandfather’s monster. A human monster. Or at least partially. The tale is written with some tongue in some cheek. There are funny elements and there are many serious moments. There’s magic and mayhem. If I were to try to characterize it the closest I might come would be a Tim Burton treatment of horror. Like Burton, Giesbrecht creates a Halloween mood, but sometimes the humor undercuts it. This makes it difficult to pin down the work as a whole and figure out if this is the gothic I’ve been seeking.
Set in a time difficult to define and in a fictional nation, it is the kind of novel that can be read without much consequence. The references to the Allfather make comparison with Nordic regions natural, and there is perhaps a touch of Beowulf here. In crafting the monster Giesbrecht has made a pretty unlikeable character. He is a monster, after all. But not a sympathetic one. As in other modern treatments he is a stand-in for chaos. There’s also an environmental sensitivity here. The monster arises from a polluted sea that derives from, of all things, human greed. So maybe there’s a parable here. A short book, it doesn’t take too much of a time investment, but it may leave you wondering what exactly it is that you just read. It is dark, and gritty, and fun. A nice combination for an October night. Is it gothic? That one’s a little harder to answer. It depends on how I’m defining it on any particular day.