I’m truly honored to have a very special person on the blog today – romantic suspense author, Janis Susan May. Janis is such an interesting person and has so many accomplishments to her name, that I barely know where to begin. She’s been writing romance novels for years, and in 1980 she was one of the founding members of the Romance Writers of America, now one of the biggest and most prestigious writing organizations in the world. Whew!
In the intervening years, Janis has lead a fascinating life. She’s traveled all over the globe, spending much of that time in the Middle East, where she indulged in her “deep and abiding love of Egyptology.” Her Naval officer husband even proposed to her on a moonlit night near the pyramids of Giza–sounds like Janis’ life belongs in a romance novel!
Janis now writes for Harlequin’s digital first imprint, Carina Press, and she has a new romantic suspense novel coming out in less than two weeks. She’s here today to tell us all about it. Take it away, Janis!
A Single Candle in an Upper Window
I love the old-style Gothic romances. You know the kind I mean – mostly published in the late 60s and 70s, the cover was almost universally dark, with a great brooding castle or manor house set out in the middle of a foreboding landscape. In the foreground there was a pretty young thing, usually in something voluminous and ruffly, running for her life and sending a terror-stricken glance back over her shoulder. The big castle/manor house is totally dark, save for one brilliantly lit window high up under the eaves.
Even at the time I could appreciate that the covers were more than slightly ludicrous – I mean, the ruffly voluminous thing was obviously supposed to be nightwear, but who could get to sleep inside all that pouffy yardage? Not only that, if she wanted to get away, isn’t it silly to run like mad while you’re looking over your shoulder? That’s more likely to send you sprawling down on your face than help you escape.
There’s no accounting for true love, though. Some of the stories were wonderful, more were monuments to words-by-the-foot predictability, some were unabashed dreck, and I read them all. Some of them I still do. Through several moves and cleaning out my late mother’s home, I got rid of thousands of books, but my beloved Gothics stayed around.
Good or bad, the stories were basically simple – a young woman pretty much alone in the world takes a position – governess or companion were the most popular – in a big, creepy house. There is a varied cast of characters, usually including the brooding, misunderstood master of the house and a nice young handsome man. Sometimes the nice young handsome man was the villain, but most of the time no matter how badly he was misunderstood the dark master was the hero – almost an archetype of the tortured hero. The heroine is invariably plunged into the mysteries of the past and nearly suffers death before the villainy is uncovered, the truth revealed and sunshine and light reign thereafter.
While drenched in heart-palpitating romance, the stories – at least the ones I loved – were always squeaky clean, with nothing more than clasped hands, touching sighs or the occasional chaste kiss.
At the time of first reading, during those long-ago days, I supposed I liked them because they represented a promise. I was young and reasonably pretty. I wanted adventure and true romance. If it happened to that (generally) air-headed fruitcake of a heroine who followed an anonymous note into the dark cellars at midnight after three people had been mysteriously killed, what could I – smarter and blessed with a caring family – expect?
Yes, I have always been among the reality challenged. Don’t ask me about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
However… now I am no longer young and hope I am a great deal wiser than the innocent young woman I used to be, and I still love these old Gothic stories of love and danger.
Perhaps it is because they represent a time in my life that was incredibly happy, or perhaps it is because the good ones, the ones that I have kept and continue to reread, the ones with plausible stories and good characterization, are simply the best of what is admittedly a wildly uneven genre. Or perhaps it is that they, in the main, are more human in scale and pacing than most anything you can find today. While they are exciting and have a deep mystery, there is no gratuitous gore or horror or sex. Everything is kept to a sedate, mannerly pace one can enjoy reading instead of the exhausting (and more often than not boring) bang-bang-bang unending chase/machine gun tempo of more recent romantic suspenses where one can hardly draw breath between one crisis and another.
I have said for years what a pity it is no one writes that kind of story any more. Fortunately, I can’t say that any more, because I have just published a modern Gothic called INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS.
True, there is no pretty young thing tearing madly across a darkened lawn on the cover, but there is a wondrous creepy old house. I guess Carina Press metaphorically paid the electric bill, because in my cover house every window is blazing with light – and it’s still creepy.
It’s funny – I never cared much for high fantasy and certainly never intended to write any, but… In INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS the heroine Aurora has come to Merrywood, the estate of her late father’s friend, to attend a convention honoring her late father’s books. She never knew her father and was raised with little or no knowledge of him. He wrote a series of high fantasy novels that have spawned a rabid fandom, intellectual debate and a series of conventions. He also committed suicide in front of her when she was barely three years old.
Things at the convention go wildly awry; first of all, Aurora’s former love shows up, intending to write a book about her father – the very thing that broke them up in the first place. Aurora begins having strange dreams where she is taking part in ceremonies her father wrote about. His friend, her host, and his colleagues are annoyingly possessive of her. The conventioneers regard her as a-not-quite-human icon, the essence of the books come to life. And she is not the only being from the books come to life; creatures from the books begin to appear, creatures that appear to be real and not just costumed conventioneers. Aurora realizes that not only her sanity, but her very life may be in danger… but by then it is too late to leave.
During editorial conferences (some call them editorial combat) with my wonderful editor Mallory Braus, we both found that the idea of a snippet of one of Aurora’s father’s books at the beginning of each chapter would set the mood of that chapter wonderfully. I had wanted to do this from the beginning, but had not mentioned it because (1) I didn’t think it would sell and (2) I had no idea of or inclination towards writing high fantasy. However, with Mallory’s enthusiastic urging I tried, and was astonished when the varied stories of the non-human creatures of my imaginary world flowed easily from my fingertips. So easily, in fact, that some of these chapter head ‘snippets’ were two and three pages long!
After a lot of internal debate – and urging from both Mallory and my trusted beta readers to go ahead and write the seven book series – I agreed to rein in the snippets to a reasonable length instead of eliminating them. However, the idea of taking on the series – seven books!!! – is a bit daunting. I am much more comfortable with my good old-fashioned Gothics. As I should be. After all, one most intelligent and perspicacious reviewer said I was the obvious successor to Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt!
I’d like to know your opinion. INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS is being released by Carina Press on March 12, so let me hear what you think. (And keep an eye out for my new Gothic, THE CURSE OF THE EXILE, which is very nearly complete – Scotland, an ancient family curse, two handsome brothers, a ghost who isn’t one, revenge, greed and a female librarian in a crumbling castle during the mid-19th century…What’s not to like? Hopefully some nice publisher will buy it!)
Vanessa, here. Janis, I can’t wait to read this book, because I also loved those old Gothic romances–Victoria Holt was one of my favorite authors, as was Mary Stewart. I’m so glad you’re revitalizing this wonderful genre!
Well, readers, you heard the lady. What do you think? Do you like Gothic romances as much as we do? What are some of your favorites? One of mine was Mistress of Mellyn, which is pictured above–which ones do you remember?
And don’t forget to stop by Janis’ website for details on all her books, and to read an excerpt.