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A delicious Gothic romance strikes just the right balance of heart and horror

The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling

Set in an imaginary world version of post-war Britain where body horror and romance collide, The Death of Jane Lawrence digs into the age-old question asked by gothic novels and fairy tales alike: What do you do if your deeply attractive but hastily-married husband is hiding a very dark secret in his crumbling manor house?

To be completely blunt, Jane Lawrence probably should have seen this coming. A war orphan turned accountant, Jane has lived a quiet and deliberate life. When it becomes necessary to find a new living situation for herself, she settles on an arranged marriage as the solution, and sets about arranging one via a list of eligible bachelors who may be in need of an accountant. At the top of her list is Doctor Augustine Lawrence, a very skilled surgeon who has, for some mysterious reason, set up a small-town family practice.

Initially he seems taken aback by her proposal of a romance-less marriage, but her business skills, common sense, and steady hand when thrust unexpectedly into his operating room convince him to give it a try — as long as she agrees to his rules. She will live in town at his practice, and each night he will return to his ancestral home, Lindridge Hall, alone.

It all seems very straightforward, until they begin to fall for each other.

And then, when what was meant to be a quick visit to Lindridge Hall turns into an unexpected sleepover, Jane realizes that by night, her husband is transformed. The confident, intelligent man she has come to desire is suddenly a man haunted by some unseen terror. The deeper she delves, the more Jane begins to realize that her good doctor has a tragic and dangerous past, and their understanding is built upon a scaffolding of lies.

A little bit of Bluebeard, a dash of Reynardine, and a good helping of madwoman in the attic, The Death of Jane Lawrence is everything that I wanted from Crimson Peak but didn't quite get. As the horrors begin to stack up — a padlocked basement, a visit from a coven of doctors who dabble in dark magic, a red-eyed reflection in the window — it's a real pleasure to watch practical, pragmatic Jane say, okay, this is not what I signed up for but I'm going to fix it.

The dangerous bridegroom is a trope that goes back as far as marriage itself. For centuries, women were often handed over to men they hardly knew and expected to make a life with them, regardless of whatever skeletons or monstrous tendencies they might be hiding. It's no wonder that they started telling these stories. He turns into a wild beast at night, he murders girls and hangs their limbs upon his walls, he'll eat you up, bite by bite. He lays down his rules — don't look at me, don't open this door, don't ask questions.

That's the thing about a Gothic novel: It has to walk the line between horror and romance and not flinch away from either. 'The Death of Jane Lawrence' is up to this task.

The signs are always there. And once the deal is done, it so often becomes a case of the monster being revealed and the remainder of the story being a desperate escape attempt. Even when the husband remains somewhat sympathetic, there is rarely any hope of redemption for him, nor should there be, given his crimes.

But not so for Jane and Augustine. Because their romance is something that neither of them expected, it feels organic, and we the readers are as pleasantly surprised by its blossoming as they are. It's a true case of two weirdos finding each other against all odds, and that's about as romantic as it gets. And when Augustine's lies begin to unravel, we feel Jane's disappointment, but also her hesitation to condemn him completely. He is not beyond forgiveness. So Jane's challenge becomes that much harder. It is not enough simply to get out with her life. We want her to find some way to get out with the life we wanted for her the moment she began to fall for Augustine and realized that maybe there could be love and comfort in her future.

That's the thing about a Gothic novel: It has to walk the line between horror and romance and not flinch away from either. The Death of Jane Lawrence is up to this task, even as it descends into a sort of frenzied madness as Jane's grasp on reality weakens and the haunting of Lindridge Hall threatens to consume her whole. By the time the book reached that point of no return, I was so invested that I would have followed Jane into the very depths of hell.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

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