Friday, September 21, 2012

FFB: Curse of the Island Pool - Virginia Coffman

I wonder if Coffman read any Anne Radcliffe.  She seems to have taken the formula of the late 18th century Gothic thriller and given it the modern update that everyone is now familiar with.  In her third novel Curse of the Island Pool (1965) she gives us a textbook example of what would become the template for all Gothic suspense books in the craze that developed in the mid 60s and lasted well into the early 80s. Young American heiress travels to an exotic country where she meets a modern day Byronic hero, several superstitious and secretive servants, a puzzling mysterious death and most important of all a house and estate with a terrible secret. It's a good one, my friends.

First introduced to us in her San Francisco home as Cathy Blake, our heroine quickly learns that she is the long lost heir to the Amber fortune and is now the new owner of the plantation formerly owned by her dead cousin Ellen Amber. Cathy flies to a little island in the Antilles (called St. Cloud in the book but in reality St. Vincent) where she meets her other cousin Michael Amber, our dark and mysterious Byronic hero. Almost immediately Cathy's head is filled with colorful anecdotes about Ellen's unusual death in the island pool of the title. Slightly sinister Soochi, a young maid in the Amber household, frequently talks of Ellen's ghost haunting the grounds and Miss Nell, the elderly housekeeper and Ellen's only friend, warns Cathy to beware of all the Ambers. They are up to no good and she is convinced one of them caused Ellen's death. If all this whispered gossip and chattering superstition were not enough Cathy is woken almost every night by the sound of drums in the forest. There are hints that the locals use the area around the lagoon for voodoo rituals and God knows what else.

JMW Turner's painting of La Soufrière erupting in 1812.
Usually the house is the star in any true Gothic. Donald E. Westlake has joked that a Gothic is a book where the girl gets a house. A lampooning reduction of the often complex and involving plots but true nonetheless. However, in Curse of the Island Pool it is the surrounding grounds that become the foreboding presence in a role usually given to the house. The pool is the scene of Ellen's mysterious death a site Cathy finds herself drawn to repeatedly finding clue after clue all of which point to the possibility of not an accident but murder. Ominously, the island also has an active volcano La Soufrière -- literally "the sulfur one" -- smoking and belching and threatening to erupt in a violent display of ash and lava any day.

This is the grand stuff I expect from a Gothic. Far from the tawdry trash most people think of when Gothic novels are mentioned Coffmans' books are plot driven with unusually drawn characters. It should be larger than life, with a creepy setting that dominates the atmosphere and nearly controls the characters' lives. Coffman scores big with her setting. She found ways to invigorate the Gothic genre by choosing exotic settings rather than the usual damp castles in Germany and England.

Coffman is also a subtle stylist with a gift for language. We know this genre is based on well worn archetypes, but in Coffman's hands the Gothic gets a well-deserved facelift. Sure, Cathy takes her first step outdoors at night wearing the requisite nightgown (or, because she's in the French Antilles, her peignoir) but each time Coffman visits one of these now cliche scenes she makes it come alive with her storytelling skill, her vibrant descriptions and, occasionally, a remarkable gift for creating the perfect frisson. What more can you ask for?

7 comments:

  1. Sounds great John, which is not something I ever expected to say about a 60s Gothic (love that Westlake quote). I dare say there is some scholarly work to be done on the proliferation of these books from the 60s onwards. I keep coming across examples of such by all these male authors like Harry Whittington, Dean Koontz, Ron Goulart and Michael Avallone wrote so many. I really don't know the subject very well at all, but I really enjoyed the review - ta!

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    1. I will admit that this was my first love. Long before I got hooked on Christie, Queen and Carr I was reading authentic Gothic books (Walpole, Radcliffe and the rest) and the neo-Gothic paperbacks of the 60s and 70s. Only recently have I become extremely interested in discovering just which writers were among the earliest among the neo-Gothics and who might be *the* writer who started that whole craze.

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  2. I was reading all those Gothics back then, John. I loved the stories, loved the Byronic hero, loved the mysterious covers though I had a hard time figuring out from book to book why anyone in their right mind would run outside at night in their nightgown...uh, peignoir. My own inclination would be to hide under the bed.

    I read a great deal of Virginia Coffman and I loved your review. You 'got' the Gothic vibe, kiddo. Don't remember much of any of the books I read back then, I just know that they were pretty wonderful.

    They were formula, but a formula that worked wonders.

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  3. Not the sort of book I would usually read, but based on your review it might be fun to try it, should a copy ever fall into my hand, such as at a used book sale.

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  4. From this point on, I will be telling my wife that the magic of our love is the only thing saving her from the menace of voodoo death.

    And she says I'm not a romantic...

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  5. I remember reading novels like this one as a teenager. Forgotten about them entirely.

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  6. Sounds good, John! I never read any Coffman when I was in my Gothic romance phase--lots of Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney...and a few others that I'm forgetting at the moment. Gotta love those 60s covers with the ladies all running 'round in their nightgowns (or what looks like nightgowns).

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