Haunted Mansions and Eclipses

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta

Written by Marta Acosta

One of the things I like best about my house is the light coming through all the windows, but yesterday evening, I sensed that the quality of light was odd. My husband said that it was probably just the fog rolling in, but I’ve lived in a fog belt all my life and this was different.

“No, it’s not fog. Something is wrong.”

Then my son mentioned that there was supposed to be a solar eclipse. I went outside and, indeed, the moon had blocked out the sun for a blazing “ring of fire” event. Jay Anderson, an eclipse expert, is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “That change in the lighting…lends a kind of other-worldly feeling to the environment that seems to be signaling that something is afoot.”

This uneasiness is one of the things I tried to evoke in my modern gothic, Dark Companion. On the surface, everything at Birch Grove Academy for Girls is beautiful and serene. However, Jane Williams, my main character, soon develops a sense of disquiet. Is she imagining things, or is someone really watching her? Why is she, a poor plain foster teen, suddenly the focus of so much interest?

Before I’d ever heard the term “gothic,” I was drawn to stories about poor young women who find themselves in isolated settings with people who keep secrets. In many gothics, including Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the large houses represent the wealth and power of their owners. Jane is excluded from the comforts of her uncle’s home and locked in the terrifying Red Room. She’s then banished to imposing and brutal Lowood Institution, where students are kept cold and starving. Jane believes that she’s finally found a haven at Thornfield Hall, but the house and its master have dark secrets.

A gothic heroine is invited to an isolated mansion specifically because she is so very all alone and without resources. She will cede authority to the new “protector” who provides her with food and shelter. Her desire for love can be used to manipulate her as well, and she’s easily dissuaded from her initial suspicions that all is not as it seems.

And, yet, these lonely girls are not completely subservient. It is in their nature to resent the entitlement of those who control them and to resent the injustices of life. This dynamic of class/power fascinated me as a girl. It always seemed that if the heroine could discover the secrets of the house, she could shift the dynamic. Small new houses can hold few riddles within their thin walls, but large ancient houses can possess a multitude.

The question in a gothic is: when will the poor girl gain the confidence to trust her instincts that something is very wrong?

Because sometimes there really is an eclipse.

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