- Contemporary Adolescent Gothic
A popular theme in Gothic fiction for adolescents is the way the heroine—usually an intelligent, gifted, and oftentimes alienated pre-teen—works out a problemmatic relationship with her family and friends. The dramatic build-up involves the use of literary trappings, as they are known, drawn from late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British and German Gothic traditions, like haunting voices, animal and human vessels, and harbingers of evil spirits—typically cats, crows, and old ladies who live alone. (The eccentric old ladies here have a particularly American flavor inasmuch as they resemble Puritan spinsters or town scolds.)
But when the central focus of the novel shifts away from a nineteenth-century reliance on outer trappings, like enchanted forests and conventional corridors peopled by ghosts, to a psychological presentation of the pre-teen heroine's troubled emotional life—her suspicions, fears and terrors—in the form of her obsessive need for secrets and/or her using time by herself for indulging escapist fantasies in order to resolve her problems, then the Gothic genre can transcend its historical confines and become more seemingly realistic and accessible to a contemporary audience.
Of the three new Gothic novels for adolescents, Witch Water by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and The Haunting of Julie Unger by Valerie Lutters, both published by Atheneum in 1977, and Time Tangle by Frances Eagar (Nashville and New York: Thomas Nelson, 1976), only the first presents with total believability the delicate, potentially volatile balance which exists in the sensitive heroine's mind between her world of escapist fantasy and her actual situation in ordinary reality.
The major problem with the second novel, The Haunting of Julie Unger, is that Valerie Lutters managed her characters rather poorly, introducing them to the reader prematurely through blunt and unconvincing dialogue rather than through other more "introductory" methods, such as narrative commentary or interior monologue. Her heroine, Julie Unger, is initially presented as withdrawn and brooding, almost stoic at [End Page 111] moments, trying desperately to deal with the pain she feels about her father's recent death. In the past, she had always been closer to her father than to her mother, and she had even taken up her father's profession of photographer as her own hobby. The theme and plot revolve around an interesting situation—Julie's ability to forsake a wish-fulfillment fantasy she generates about the return of her father's spirit whenever she visits the lake near old Mrs. Seely's, where she and her father used to photograph Canada geese. But the conversations Julie has with the other main characters in the novel—Julie's nervous mother from whom Julie feels removed and distant, her nagging grandmother who will not allow Julie to deal with her disappointment and depression alone, and Mrs. Seely, the strange old woman who keeps numerous animals, lives alone, and left a well-paying job in some city to return to her hometown in Maine—suffer from being too mechanical, overloaded as they are in function, substituting for more probing means of character development.
For example, the following conversation about Julie's father's death between Julie and Mrs. Seely takes place much too early—in the second chapter—for the reader to have acquired a good grasp of how Mr. Unger's death was affecting her. In chapter one, she is secretive and quiet, especially in response toward her mother and grandmother when they annoyingly insist upon knowing where she goes whenever she steps out of the house. This same brooding Julie then jumps out of character in chapter two by surprising the reader with the unabashed anger she expresses to Mrs. Seely who is, at this early time in the novel, a relative stranger to Julie. The reader is also expected to have a sympathetic response to Mrs. Seely's direct expression of friendliness; but like Julie at this point the reader also has just been introduced to Mrs. Seely and is not completely sure if she is friend or foe:
The woman said nothing more, just stared at Julie, and then stared some more. . . .
"Well, you're here later than usual this summer. You...