I’ve always enjoyed romantic suspense, especially if it leaned really hard into the suspense aspect of the sub-genre. This sub-genre was enormously popular in the mid-to-late twentieth century; with authors like Dorothy Eden and Phyllis A. Whitney and Susan Howatch, among many others, scoring a number of successes with their books and even becoming international bestsellers. The sub-genre was so popular, in fact, that other female writers–who technically didn’t write romantic suspense–were often marketed as such, with the same styles of cover and fonts and cover design; often covers featuring a cover featuring a wind-swept beautiful young woman with long-flowing hair and a long gown, usually in the foreground with an enormous, spooky, brooding house/castle/mansion in the background with a solitary window lit up and the woman almost inevitably had a look of fear on her face. (I’ve always thought of them as girl running away from lighted window covers.)
But Victoria Holt was different from the others. Her books were varied, and while there were certainly tropes she followed, she often toyed with them in ways that were always clever and smart and original. Sometimes she followed the Jane Eyre style; in which the first third of the book is the main character’s history and how she wound up “running away from the lighted window”; sometimes she just inserted you right into the midst of the story as it developed….and once the mystery/suspense kicked into gear, it was impossible to stop reading.
I met Gabriel and Friday on the same day, and strangely enough I lost them together; so that thereafter I was never able to think about one without the other. The fact that my life became a part of theirs is, in a way, an indication of my character, because they both began by arousing some protective instinct in me; all my life up to that time I had been protecting myself and I think I felt gratified to find others in need of protection. I had never before had a lover, never before had a dog; and, when these two appeared, it was natural enough that I should welcome them.
I remember the day perfectly. It was spring, and there was a fresh wind blowing over the moors. I had ridden away from Glen House after luncheon ad I could at this time leave the house without a feeling that I had escaped. This feeling had been with me since I returned home from my school in Dijon; perhaps it had always been there, but a young woman senses these emotions more readily than a child.
My home was a somber place. How could it be otherwise when it was dominated by someone who was no longer there. I decided during the first days of my return that I would never live in the past. No matter what happened to me, when it was over I should not look back. Early in life–I was nineteen at this time–I had learned an important lesson. I determined to live in the present–the past forgotten, the future left to unfold itself.
Kirkland Revels was the second novel British writer Eleanor Hibbert wrote under the name Victoria Holt; she used, over the course of her incredibly prolific career (using a manual typewriter for most of it) many different pseudonyms, including Jean Plaidy (historical fiction focusing on royalty; fictionalizing the lives of kings and queens and the mistresses of kings) and Philippa Carr (historical romantic suspense novels, all linked by the concept that each novel featured the daughter of the main character in the preceding novel, beginning with The Miracle at St. Bruno’s). The first Holt novel, Mistress of Mellyn, launched the Victoria Holt name quite successfully; she wrote numerous bestsellers under that name for decades. The first Holt novel I read was The Secret Woman, a novel I still remember fondly because its plot was so complicated and the mystery essentially unsolvable–the twist at the end caught me completely by surprise. Holt often did this with the mystery/suspense side of her novels–tightly plotted, and just as many twists and turns as any other suspense novel. (Although one of my personal favorites, On the Night of the Seventh Moon, has about as original–and far-fetched–a plot as anyone could have ever dreamed up; I’m still surprised, all these years later, her agent and publisher went with it.)
Kirkland Revels was unique for its sub-genre in that the heroine, Catherine, spent the entire suspense part of the book pregnant. The first half of the book details Catherine’s background and sets up the suspense half of the novel; she’s come home from a boarding school in France, her home is empty and strange, haunted by the absence of a dead mother and an absent-minded, rarely present father when she meets Gabriel Rockwell on the moors and also finds a stray dog. She and Gabriel have a whirlwind romance, they wed, and he brings her home to meet his family in the brooding mansion, Kirkland Revels–which is located near the ruins of an old abbey, whose stones were used to build the mansion and is supposedly haunted by a monk. But her time in this strange house is limited when Gabriel falls from a balcony to his death and the dog also disappears; she returns to her home as a young widow…only to discover she is actually pregnant from her brief marriage, and returns to the Rockwell manse as her child, if a boy, will inherit everything.
And soon, things take a turn to the dark side:
One prospective master of the Revels had died violently; was something being plotted against another?
That was the beginning of my period of terror.
Catherine soon finds out that her mother isn’t actually dead, but completely insane and locked away in a mental hospital; her father tried to shield her from this knowledge, and Catherine herself isn’t so sure of her own sanity as weird things continue to happen to her at the Revels. Is she imagining things? Is she really seeing the ghostly monk or is her grip on sanity slipping, the same way her mother’s did? (It was widely believed in the past that madness, or insanity, was inherited; the prospect of inherited insanity drove the plots of several of Holt’s books set in the past.) Holt was really good at building suspense and tension; all of her books read quickly, despite the old-fashioned, formal style in which she wrote them.
Kirkland Revels was never one of my favorite Holt novels, and I rarely, if ever, reread it when I was younger–I used to reread favorites over and over again–but now, as an adult, I realize that the reason the book wasn’t a favorite was the notion of a pregnant heroine in danger, the danger growing as she grew closer to term, made me uncomfortable; much the way Pet Sematary by Stephen King disturbed me so much I never reread it until recently. I’m glad I gave Kirkland Revels a reread; it’s actually quite well done–and while later Holt heroines might have been mothers (hell, the heroine of The House of a Thousand Lanterns was not only a mother but was on her THIRD marriage in that book!), they were never again pregnant throughout the suspense portion of the book.
Definitely worth a look, Constant Reader.