REVIEW: Gothic by Philip Fracassi

Philip Fracassi’s new horror novel Gothic opens with its protagonist Tyson Parks trapped in an untenable situation. Twenty years ago he was a New York Times bestselling horror author, hailed as Stephen King’s heir apparent. But times have changed and his more recent books have been commercial and critical failures. His smug Manhattan agent—lounging in the posh corner office Tyson’s labor and talent financed—berates him like a child for falling out of step with the fickle tastes of the fiction market. Tyson’s latest manuscript is both late and diverges significantly from the book he pitched to his anxious publisher. The creative well is running dry and his business partners are growing impatient while his debts mercilessly compound.

GothicTyson’s fortunes change, however, when his supportive partner Sarah buys him an ornate Victorian Gothic writing desk as a present for his 59 th birthday. A smoothly polished stone slab supported by decadently engraved rosewood, the monumental antique is intended to reignite Tyson’s creative spark. And it works, beyond Sarah’s wildest hopes. From the moment Tyson sets fingertips to keyboard, he is drawn into a fugue state in which the words flow easily and the hours slip by, leaving him pages of disturbingly compelling tales of witchcraft and human sacrifice. Publishable pages. But while his writing career makes a dramatic recovery, his personal life takes a drastic turn for the worse. After receiving the desk, loyal family man Tyson finds himself growing distant and dismissive towards his friends and loved ones, even gradually becoming paranoid and outright violent. A new, malignant Muse is his constant companion. If that wasn’t enough, in addition to the desk’s dark influence, Tyson finds himself targeted by Diana, the mysterious and ruthless last scion of the aristocrat who originally owned the artifact. For the desk is, in reality, a repurposed altar dedicated to blasphemous occult rituals.

The clever conceit at the heart of Gothic is that it is an unabashedly old school horror novel about an old school horror novelist. It’s a book that the reader can easily envision Tyson Parks writing himself at the height of his popularity. Tyson may be struggling because he’s behind the times, but Gothic celebrates the era when writers like him were most successful, when names like Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, and Peter Straub adorned every drugstore paperback spinner rack. Fracassi wisely avoids directly aping King’s voice and tics, but King in particular is referenced multiple times in the book. The writer’s descent into madness immediately brings to mind The Shining, and the seductive, haunted artifact that gives with one hand while exacting a terrible price with the other reminds the reader of a certain cursed possessed car. In fact, this parallel is amusingly lampshaded by Tyson’s best friend, Billy: “Can you believe it Tyson? It’s like Christine…but wood!”

While Gothic is clever and occasionally referential, it doesn’t go overboard on postmodernism or irony. It takes a somewhat silly premise—haunted furniture—and combines it with familiar (some might even say played-out) gothic horror elements like warlocks, moonlit ritual sacrifice, and devil worship, and then proceeds to deliver a serious, straight-faced horror story. Fracassi uses these well worn tropes not to mock them from the smirking perspective of an “evolved” 21 st century horror writer, but because they are still COOL.

Gothic, as they say, goes hard. The book limits itself to an intimate cast of characters and imbues them with a great degree of interiority, making their insecurities, fears, and struggles relatable to the reader. Fracassi then tightens the screws, subjecting each of them to an inexorably escalating sequence of horrors. Moments of outright violence are infrequent, but are graphically and squirm- inducingly described. While it is handled with what I felt to be appropriate gravity, there is one scene of sexual assault that may be too intense for some readers. Gothic is a novel that draws the reader in and makes them care about the characters before absolutely devastating them. As demonstrated in the shocking climax, no one who comes into contact with the demonic desk survives completely unscathed. Gothic concludes with an extended denouement that hints at even grimmer implications for the world at large.

While plot and characterization are generally quite strong, the character of Diana was the weakest aspect of the book. Her ancestry and its entanglement with the desk’s origins are important to the narrative, but despite the cold-hearted tenacity she displays throughout most of the book, she appears uncharacteristically careless at a crucial moment. Gothic has an uncommonly strong cast of characters, however, and this one false note does little to tarnish the book as a whole.

The horror genre is currently blessed with an abundance of talented authors all pushing in different directions, innovating and deconstructing and elevating, but it’s gratifying to see one newer writer recognize that the classic tropes became classic for a reason. Sometimes an old-fashioned spooky story about possession and devil worship just hits the spot. Gothic is an immensely satisfying love- letter to the golden age of paperback horror.

Read Gothic by Philip Fracassi

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Robin Marx

Robin Marx

Born in Spain and raised in the United States, Robin Marx has lived in Japan for more than two decades. He works in the video game industry, handling localization and international licensing. In addition to over a dozen video games, his writing has appeared in a number of role-playing game supplements. He lives with his wife and their two daughters. You can link up with Robin over at: https://mastodon.social/@RobinMarx