Delete both the cover and the publishing date from Douglas Clegg’s Nightmare House and some readers may have a difficult time guessing when it was actually published (my kindle edition was published in 2012). Set in the early twentieth century, this delicious gothic horror novel of Esteban “Ethan” Gravesend’s deeply personal encounter with his inherited haunted mansion utilizes many of the elements of novels from the past. As I read, I was reminded of the flavor of such classics as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, by Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte (both published in the mid-nineteenth century), but I noted that several reviewers on the book’s Amazon page mentioned Henry James’s Turn of the Screw (known to be greatly inspired by Jane Eyre—but with ghosts) which was published just at the turn of the twentieth century and is also a gothic horror novel.
The prologue sets the stage by describing the narrator/protagonist’s entire life, from birth, including his relationships with his parents (and a brief summary of their lives), as well as his remembrances of the titular mansion from childhood when his grandfather was still alive. This convention of the past is no longer considered normal or acceptable in popular fiction. As modern writers we are expected to begin our novels in medias res (into the midst of things, without preamble). Chapter one continues on in this vein, discussing more of Ethan’s life, his marriage, and more remembrances of his grandfather and the estate Harrow he will one day inherit from him. In this novel, I found some of this tedious, but only briefly, because the details were not only interesting—they became pertinent later in the story. By part six of chapter one, the story actually begins.
Another interesting device Clegg used from popular fiction’s more distant past is the use of a digression. Digressions are interruptions in the flow of the novel to temporarily switch to another topic. In this novel, these occurred whenever the elderly Ethan interrupts the narrative of the story to tell the reader something he deems important. Traditionally these were often used rhetorically, to further convince a reader of the veracity of a claim. I believe Clegg used these digressions consciously as a stylistic choice to create the feeling of a period gothic novel.
Dark, disturbing family secrets also figure large in all of the novels mentioned, usually revealed toward the endings of these novels, often as part of the climax. Here, too, this story reveals some disquieting secrets.
Clegg also utilizes what I assert is another convention of these novels from the past—the orphaned child, the unloved child, or the unhappy childhood. Just like Jane Eyre and Heathcliff (of Wuthering Heights) Ethan’s childhood is not what it should have been. His mother pretends to be an invalid and secretly sleeps with her “doctor.” And his father seems to abhor him. The reasons for these attitudes is revealed in the exciting climax of the story.
Clegg’s use of language also harkens back to an earlier time. It’s just that little bit more flowery, with more complex sentence structure, than we tend to use today. The text was still quite clear and easy to read, however. He didn’t take this affectation too far. I found his approach effective. Here’s an example:
My young life was uneventful save for my naming. My mother—since the accident that precipitated my birth—claimed a weak heart. Her many medications were famous among us: she could not leave her bed without a spoon of some remedy; she could not kiss my father good morning without some wee dram of medical potion to get her heart to its normal capacity; and she often spent months at spas in Saratoga and across the sea—leaving me with a nanny and my father, neither of whom I particularly liked.
Douglas Clegg intentionally used writing conventions of the past to give his novel the distinct flavor of a period gothic novel. He utilized slightly more antiquated language, digressions in his narrator’s voice, an unhappy childhood for his protagonist, disturbing family secrets, and a very detailed summary of the protagonist’s life up until the moment the story begins. I found Clegg’s use of these elements in Nightmare House to be not only effective but also charming. As a young adult I was quite enamored with the Brontes’s works and adaptations of their works as well as other period dramas so perhaps it’s no surprise that I found this novel appealing as well.
I could easily have explored further how Clegg utilized gothic novel conventions and/or elements of American Romanticism in this piece, but I felt that the elements I mentioned would be more useful to modern writers of popular fiction. (This could quite easily turn into a full-blown academic treatise.)
If you wish to explore these elements further, these sites present quick and easily digestible summaries:
Invaluable on Gothic Literature
ThoughtCo on American Romanticism
*Some links in this post are affiliate links which reward me with a tiny commission at no cost to you.