Tuesday, 22 May 2012

                 Suspense Awaits On "The Dark Shore"

It's been quite a long time since my last blog post, and I thought it might be a good time to revisit some literature, and I thought my first introduction to the romantic-suspense/gothic genre was a good idea. Susan Howatch's first novel, published in 1965, has often been compared to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca which can be said of many books of the romantic suspense/gothic genre. However, The Dark Shore has a compelling quality all its own. The familiar and often reused plot is here - a young bride, newly married to a wealthy and successful man, finds herself thrown into his world - namely, his home estate which is filled with secrets, danger and the shadow of his departed first wife who died in suspicious circumstances. The setting is in the same part of Britain - Cornwall. But Howatch puts her own unique spin on the often-told tale, created characters with not only a connection to the "hero" Jon Towers and his past, but also all of whom had motives for killing his first wife, Sophia. At a party at the estate ten years ago, the first Mrs. Towers "fell" off one of the cliffs, and Jon left England in part to escape memories of the past and the whispers of the gossips. 
Sarah, his new spouse, eager to begin a new life with Jon in Canada, not only is very uncomfortable visiting Clougy, where Jon had resided with Sophia and the place were she met her death, but the new Mrs. Towers is also unnerved by the strong connection between Jon and his "cousin" Marijohn, who seems to have psychic abilities. Jon has another motive for returning to Clougy: he wishes to reconcile with his son, Justin, who has been estranged from him since his mother's death. It's not long before Sarah begins to notice a change in Jon, he has become withdrawn and short-tempered, and then a series of strange "accidents" begin to occur. Inevitably, the heroine begins to doubt her husband - how well does she really know him? Is he capable of murder? Is she doomed to suffer the same fate of her predecessor? Are those around him out to get her?


 Three other characters - Eve Randall, Michael Rivers and Max Alexander- all have apparent motives for murder, as does Jon, but the murderer is not so easy to guess until right near the end of the novel. There are so many secrets, such a tangled web, that the reader begins to feel the same amount of confusion and terror as Sarah.

The character that I enjoyed the most, besides Sarah, is Justin. He is a very appealing, sympathetic young man whom you know was hurt deeply by his mother's death and his father's distance from him. In the end, it is Justin's memory of that terrible night that enables him to discover the killer's identity and race to spare Sarah from certain death. 
The story and setting by today's standards seems quite dated (no cell phones or internet), but that makes the atmosphere Howatch created all the more menacing. You feel Sarah's growing sense of dread and isolation. Who can she trust and believe in?

Comparisons to the works of du Maurier, Charlotte Bronte and Anya Seton are inevitable, but this genre experienced a big revival in the 60s and 70s and many authors were very successful in the genre as well as others - Howatch, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, Dorothy Eden, Virginia Coffman, Caroline Farr, Charlotte Armstrong, and several more. This is my favorite of Susan Howatch's novels I have read so far, next to The Waiting Sands. Howatch, along with more gothics, would go on to publish many "saga" novels, most famous of which are Penmarric and Cashelmara.

The Dark Shore is a good starting point if you want to try out Howatch's novels or if you are a newcomer to the classic romantic suspense genre.

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