Friday, September 21, 2012
FFB: Curse of the Island Pool - Virginia Coffman
First introduced to us in her San Francisco home as Cathy Blake, our heroine quickly learns that she is the long lost heir to the Amber fortune and is now the new owner of the plantation formerly owned by her dead cousin Ellen Amber. Cathy flies to a little island in the Antilles (called St. Cloud in the book but in reality St. Vincent) where she meets her other cousin Michael Amber, our dark and mysterious Byronic hero. Almost immediately Cathy's head is filled with colorful anecdotes about Ellen's unusual death in the island pool of the title. Slightly sinister Soochi, a young maid in the Amber household, frequently talks of Ellen's ghost haunting the grounds and Miss Nell, the elderly housekeeper and Ellen's only friend, warns Cathy to beware of all the Ambers. They are up to no good and she is convinced one of them caused Ellen's death. If all this whispered gossip and chattering superstition were not enough Cathy is woken almost every night by the sound of drums in the forest. There are hints that the locals use the area around the lagoon for voodoo rituals and God knows what else.
This is the grand stuff I expect from a Gothic. Far from the tawdry trash most people think of when Gothic novels are mentioned Coffmans' books are plot driven with unusually drawn characters. It should be larger than life, with a creepy setting that dominates the atmosphere and nearly controls the characters' lives. Coffman scores big with her setting. She found ways to invigorate the Gothic genre by choosing exotic settings rather than the usual damp castles in Germany and England.
Coffman is also a subtle stylist with a gift for language. We know this genre is based on well worn archetypes, but in Coffman's hands the Gothic gets a well-deserved facelift. Sure, Cathy takes her first step outdoors at night wearing the requisite nightgown (or, because she's in the French Antilles, her peignoir) but each time Coffman visits one of these now cliche scenes she makes it come alive with her storytelling skill, her vibrant descriptions and, occasionally, a remarkable gift for creating the perfect frisson. What more can you ask for?