Love classic Gothic novels, but prefer protagonists with a little more spunk than the defenseless damsels typically featured in these works? Then the books of Leanna Renee Hieber may be just what you’re looking for. In Darker Still, the first in her Magic Most Foul series, Hieber follows the tropes of her Gothic predecessors, writing in an epistolary style and featuring murder, mystery, and the occult set in a romanticized past. The story takes place, however, in a museum in 19th-century New York, rather than in the stereotypical Old World gothic manor.
Darker Still tells the story of Natalie, a young woman who has been mute since her mother died in a tragic accident. Natalie’s father works at the brand new Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the museum acquires a mysterious new portrait of a handsome English lord, Natalie finds herself inextricably drawn to the painting. Also intrigued by the painting is Mrs. Northe, a respectable older woman with an interest in intellectual pursuits, women’s rights, and the occult, who soon becomes Natalie’s close friend and mentor. Together, Natalie and Mrs. Northe investigate the painting, discovering a frightening plot led by demonic agents of evil. Natalie is able to enter the painting and interact with the trapped lord inside. As Natalie and Lord Denbury begin to fall in love, Natalie searches for a way to free him from his enchanted prison.
Sometimes, our modern perspective can leave us feeling dissatisfied with some of the shortcomings of Victorian literature and culture even while we admire the beauty of the era. Leanna Renee Hieber gives us the best of both worlds by introducing a number of important modern twists into the Gothic genre. One of the most notable of these is her not-so-subtle inclusion of feminist characters and themes. This is especially important in a genre known for its damsels in distress and parodies of female sexuality. In Darker Still, the male character is the one in need of rescue and is saved by an active female protagonist. Said protagonist, Natalie, is a virtuous but flawed woman who acknowledges a healthy (as opposed to over-exaggerated and demonized) interest in the physical aspects of romance. The book also contains frequent references and explicit commentary on the institutionalized sexism in Victorian society.
Another way this book promotes feminism is by exploring the complexities of female relationships. Instead of featuring isolated female characters in a male-dominated world or indulging in the sexy lesbian vampire trope, Darker Still includes a number of female characters who have complex interactions unrelated to the men in their lives. Most notable is Natalie’s relationship with her strong, independent, female mentor, Mrs. Northe, who becomes both a close friend and a surrogate mother figure.
Another important change that Hieber makes is subverting the trope of mental illness and handicaps in Gothic fiction. In many Gothic stories, mental illness or handicaps of any kind are properties of the villains, meant to reflect their twisted morality and perverted nature. But in Darker Still, it is the protagonist who is handicapped. Significantly, Natalie is not the “mad woman in the attic,” suffering from unspecified mental illness and devoid of personality or coherent thought. Instead, Darker Still presents a sympathetic portrayal of trauma-induced selective mutism and provides insight into living with a disability.
If you’re a fan of the Gothic novel, I definitely recommend checking out Darker Still or any of Leanna Renee Hieber’s other works! Click the IndieBound affiliate link below to buy Darker Still from an independent bookstore, and support The Gothic Library in the process!