I love Victorian Gothic. One of my favourite novels is Wuthering Heights, I love the bleak moors and the sense of romance.
So when I decided to write my own lesbian version of a Victorian Gothic, I knew it had to be set on the dark, desolate moors.
To make my story truly Gothic, I added an overbearing mansion, powerful relatives with secrets, and locals with doom-laden warnings. And of course, no Victorian Gothic would be complete without a menacing beast on the moors!
But despite all the horror elements, my story is still a bit lighter-hearted than most in the genre. After all, what could be more romantic than two women overcoming all odds to be together?
It was a dead place.
She stumbled as she navigated the awkward tufts of grass and gorse bushes, tripping as she caught her foot in a hole.
There were no paths or roads here, just a vast, open, unending space. No houses, no trees, no people, just the constant, biting wind and the occasional dried skeleton of a long-dead foal, abandoned in the hills and left to decay.
Isobel wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders. It was getting colder and darker as the sun, hidden behind its thick blanket of cloud, sank lower toward the horizon. She’d walked much further than she’d realised and needed to get back to the house before nightfall.
She came here to feel free, but it was an easy place to become lost, trapped in the wilderness, nothing but the darkness for company.
But that house felt like a prison to her. She had to get away and come out here if only for a few hours.
Isobel had arrived at Lansdowne just six months before.
It was a giant ruin of a house and the last of her family’s fortune. The memories she had of staying there as a child were happy ones, full of laughter and light. But when she’d arrived on that ice-cold October day she’d been struck by the forbidding darkness of the place.
She’d forgotten the great, black, iron gates, taller than two men and guarded by a huge stone wolf on either side, keeping their watch with distrustful menace. As the gates swung open to allow her carriage through, she had peered out of her window to gaze upon a shadowy replica of her childhood home.
All the charm that came with an ageing mansion had fallen away, leaving a decrepit shell. Ivy clawed along its crumbling walls, sinking its tendons into the building, and slowly tearing the stonework to delicate pieces that dropped from the wall, leaving gaping wounds in the house’s façade. The windows, once thrown open to let light pour into the many rooms, had been sealed closed, blacked out from the inside with shutters, while the wooden frames slowly turned to rot. The grand front door, which had once been a bright, shining black, with gleaming brass fittings as polished and proud as a palace guard, now stood peeling and dull. As inviting as a cave.
The beautiful, mighty building of Isobel’s youth had been infected with a disease, a disease that was causing its flesh to blacken and break.
That disease was Zillah.
Her uncle’s widow, the Marquise, had appeared from nowhere and without introduction to the rest of the family. She’d married Isobel’s uncle and taken up residence in his house, sucking up his fortune like a vampire. His health had deteriorated slowly, decaying like the house. Until he finally succumbed and left the family wealth and title to this mysterious, unknown woman.
With Isobel’s parents cut out of her uncle’s will they’d had nothing to leave her when they passed. She’d initially considered becoming a governess but then out of the blue, a letter had arrived from her new aunt, Zillah. It explained that as ‘family’ it was her duty to care for her niece and that she must come to live with her at once.
On that first day, the Marquise had swept into the grand, decaying entrance hall. She was a tall woman, slender and dark: she would have been extraordinary to look at in her youth and, as a woman of nearly fifty, she was striking enough to render Isobel speechless.
“So now I have everything my husband left me,” she said with mild disdain. “A collapsing house, a landless title, and a penniless niece.” As she spoke, she walked up to Isobel and took hold of her chin, carefully regarding the young woman’s features.
“At least you aren’t as ugly as the house,” she said and stalked off without another word.
Over the next few weeks, she became more and more intrigued by the Marquise’s decision to invite her to live at Lansdowne. They rarely spent any time together, and when they did, it was only so Zillah could watch, still and silent, while Isobel played the piano and sang.
No one ever came to the house. There were the servants, of course, Mrs Grantham, a caring but quiet cook, who preferred not to interact with her ‘betters’, and a gardener, Mr Harris, who was rarely seen and seemed to make little impact on the weeds, which were slowly consuming the house and gardens, burying them under an infestation of browning vines.
During those lonely months, Isobel had become filled with a longing despair that can only come from deep isolation.
Her respite finally came when Zillah hired a lady’s maid, Kate.
She’d started at Lansdowne in January. After a bitterly cold winter and a dismal Christmas, Kate had been a fresh beacon of light and joy. Zillah was seen less and less, taking to her rooms sometimes a week at a time, and Kate would often be free to talk with Isobel. For the first time in months, she’d had someone to laugh and share her thoughts with.
But there were still long hours and sometimes days of loneliness when she wouldn’t see a soul. It was then that she would escape to the moors, to walk along the desolate hills and spend hours wandering the countryside but never staying after dark.
Isobel picked up her pace. She wasn’t usually one to hurry but there was something about this creeping night that made her blood run cold. She stopped to listen. She was sure she heard a howl.
She could see Lansdowne House up ahead. The gates were closed, and she prayed they weren’t locked. The sun was sinking beneath the horizon. She had barely minutes before the world around her was plunged into night. As she came to the road leading to the house, she ran and was sure she could hear running behind her.
‘Just an echo,’ she told herself, but pushed herself to run faster, nonetheless.
She reached the gate and her heart surged with relief: it was open. She burst through and clanged the gate closed behind her. The clashing of the iron rang out in the darkness and she moved to pull the bolt across.
Something caught her eye, a shadow looming on the road. She thought it might be a silhouette cast by a tree or a rock. But something about it made her stop, made her blood freeze in her veins, her muscles tense, and her breath catch in her throat.
She tried to force herself to breathe, force herself to push the air from her chest, then lock the gate and go inside. But she was paralysed, staring into the gloom.
Then it moved.
The shadow moved towards her. She wanted to scream, to run, but all she could do was watch as it came closer. Stalking through the darkness, great black haunches, thick, black fur, and two shining eyes that stared straight into her soul.
They faced one another in the darkness. Just a few feet apart.
Isobel needed to lock the gate, she knew she had to lock the gate, she knew that beast could tear right through her. But all she could do was watch as the beast watched her.
Then it left. It turned and stalked off into the night.
Shaking, but finally breathing in hard, ragged gasps, Isobel locked the gate and backed away, before turning and running into the house.
She slammed the front door. The noise echoed around the cold, empty hallway. She locked and bolted it, hoping to keep as far away from that beast as she could manage.
“Will you be wanting your dinner now, ma’am?”
Isobel jumped at the sound of someone so close to her.
She turned to see the cook, Mrs Grantham, standing in the darkened hallway, but the cheerful smile on her face fell as she saw how terrified Isobel looked.
“Is there something wrong, ma’am?”
Isobel didn’t know how to explain, how she could describe what she’d just seen.
“I…” she stammered, “I think I just saw a wolf…”
“Well, it was a dog, a black dog… but its eyes–”
“A HOUND!?” The woman seemed suddenly terrified.
“I believe so, yes,” said Isobel, concerned by Mrs Grantham’s sudden fear. “Have you ever seen one?”
“No!” said the woman. “I have never seen it, never. They say it is as large as a man, as black as coal, and with flaming eyes that look as if they know you.”
“Yes!” Isobel was grateful that at least what she had seen was real and not some imagining brought about by the madness of isolation. “That’s what I saw! Are they dangerous?”
“Dangerous?” Mrs Grantham looked at Isobel as if she were mad. “It is the Devil himself, ma’am, a portent of death, an omen! The house is cursed!”
She turned and hurried off back to the servants’ quarters, leaving Isobel alone in the hallway.
She struggled to sleep that night. Her dreams were filled with black dogs and glowing eyes chasing her through the dark. She was fleeing across the moors, running faster and faster but it wasn’t fast enough: the hound was gaining on her, its teeth bared, its eyes aflame.
She could see the house but she couldn’t reach it, couldn’t get closer, and then she fell. The hound leapt upon her, all claws and teeth, ready to rip her to pieces. Only it was no longer the hound, it was the Marquise, Zillah, holding her down, holding her tightly, ready to bite.