Gothic novels are probably best known for being set in a manor house of the aristocracy, usually decadent and depraved, with the new generations haunted by the sins of their predecessors, unable to determine (or unwilling to admit) what exactly is causing all their turmoil… but there’s another element of the Gothic novel’s setting that still inspires terror. The moors. Dry, heather-covered tracts of country land, or wet, acidic peat bogs, England and its neighboring countries are known for the horrors set in these ecosystems, and there’s no better Gold Standard than this one:
In this coziest of mysteries, the villagers of north Scotland town Lockdubh still have their chimneys swept the old-fashioned way, by Pete Ray and his traditional brushes. When the police constable discovers a body stuffed into one of the chimneys, the whole town knows Pete must have done it… until they find Pete dead on the moors.
The story of the creepy brother and sister, Miles and Flora, and their suicidal governess(es), has been popular for more than a hundred years. At the time of its writing, Henry James wrote the Christmas ghost story in serial, and just two years ago Mike Flanagan adapted it to the screen in The Haunting of Bly Manor. If you haven’t read this archetypal novella set on the English moors and full of ghostly dread, I recommend the Folio Edition, which is introduced by Colm Tóibín and beautifully illustrated by Audrey Benjaminsen.
Set at the edge of the whispering Yorkshire Moors, M.R. Carey develops the chilling atmosphere of a maximum security prison. Inmate Jess Moulson wakes in her cell there, her face burned beyond recognition, remembering nothing of the murder for which she’s being accused. While she starves herself in the infirmary, Jess enters dreams of others, at the instruction of the voice she believes must be her guardian angel, and the ten-year-old boy she’s accused of killing.
Mary Yellan’s mother is dying, and her final request is that Mary join her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn across the moors at Jamaica Inn, looming out of its savage landscape. The coachman warns her against the falling-down edifice, and indeed, there’s much to fear of the coast and the people who inhabit it. Plus, any time Alfred Hitchcock adapted a book to film, you can be sure the source material was fascinating.
In a turnabout from the dry moors above, the story, “Bog Girl: A Romance” in the collection Orange World tells of a boy who works the peat fields. One day, he finds a body—a Bog Body, from centuries ago, likely sacrificed in the old British ways. Surprisingly, he falls in love with the bog girl. Even more surprisingly, the bog girl loves him back. This story comes with the Karen Russell guarantee: it’s not like anything you’ve read before.
Similar to the story above, this true crime book takes place on the wet moors of Ireland. Hoff and Yates tell the story of rural County Tipperary, where when a beautiful young girl starts acting out of the ordinary, her family and friends take it upon themselves to exorcise from her the fairy who possesses her body. It’s a horrific, fascinating story of how traditional beliefs can lead to contemporary crimes, even at the hands of those who love the victim the most.
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Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can find her short works at Oxford American, Narratively, Mental Floss, and FANGORIA, among other publications. She co-hosts Everything Trying to Kill You, the comedy podcast that analyzes your favorite horror movies from the perspectives of women of color. Follow Mary Kay McBrayer on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her author site here.