The Dismembered Is a Well-Constructed Gothic Novella

The Dismembered Cover

Gothic horror is having a moment. Not that it ever went away or wasn’t popular, but with the doom and gloom of the past few years, it’s hard to ignore the desire to escape to something a bit more dramatic than real life—something with sharp and foreboding architecture, dark secrets, and lots and lots of blood. 

One of my favorite moments in Gothic literature is when the woman being distraught for some sinister reason, leaves the comfort of a creepy mansion or cottage to try to go it alone in on foggy moors. When Jane Eyre leaves Whitcross to walk across the moors in desperation and ends up sleeping on the heath at night giving herself up to nature. *Swoon* When the two women in Sarah Water’s, Fingersmith leave the house in the fog of night to get one of them hitched, Immaculate. 

This is why I was so drawn to the cover of Jonathan Janz’s, The Dismembered. Now, I know what you are thinking, it’s wrong and naughty to judge a book by its cover, but as a high school English teacher, I can say that the book’s cover does loads in helping a student find the book that they are looking for. I have had to rebuy and update my classroom collection because old grubby bent corner versions of Dracula don’t pique the teenage interest the way some of the new flashy movie-inspired covers often do. Credit to Matthew Revert on the gorgeous cover art. 

A castle rises out of the fog.
Photo by Cederic Vandenberghe on Unsplash

The Dismembered’s cover screams Wuthering Heights meets Frankenstein in a ’70s bog green color palette showing a frightened woman in a ghostly white dress looking over her shoulder running away from…us? Could it be us? A dark castle manor house is in the background with well-manicured trees and wild bushes all around, and I am so here for it. It’s pure Gothic horror, Paperbacks from Hell candy, and I was totally sold. The tagline is also delightfully alluring: “Young lovers trapped in a nightmare of terror and obsession.” Love and danger? Hook, line, and sinker for me. Now, this cover art has intentional weathered corners and even a manufactured bent corner, which gives it that look that it is something you found hidden in a bookshop instead of a well-worn copy that has been assigned multiple times in an English literature class.

Gothic fiction has expectations. Spooky ominous houses, women being tormented, monsters who are really men, blood, lots of blood, and The Dismembered fulfills them all. 

It takes place in 1912 England when Arthur Pearce, an American author, overhears an oafish brute of a man accosting a woman on the train and decides to step in and be the hero she is anticipating. Sarah Coyle is thankful and charmed by the author’s bravery. She thinks he will benefit her family by helping convince her youngest sister not to marry a creepy Count Richard Dunning who has the charm of Vincent Price and the stare of Christopher Lee.

Arthur agrees half out of curiosity and half out of needing a paycheck, but mostly because Sarah resembles someone close to him. He travels with Sarah to her family’s estate, Altarbrook, and meets her charming parents, an absinthe-addicted brother, a sexy, literary-loving sister, and the youngest who is soon to be betrothed to “the devil himself.” They receive an invitation to have dinner at the Count’s place and make the trip to Count Dunning’s castle, which looks has vaulted ceilings, spooky spires, and a large stain-glassed window, which is reminiscent of an Edgar Allan Poe story. The Count is charming, but things only escalate from there. The descriptions were rich and beautiful but clipped in comparison to other Gothic greats who spend hours describing the color of air or the many crags of a nearby cliff. 

For an immersive Gothic novel, The Dismemebered is spot on with the details, language, and creep factor. The stylized vocabulary and language took a bit to get used to at first and I had to remind myself, okay we are going there, but once I adapted, I appreciated the attention to detail.  

A row of white candles in various forms of melting
Photo by Bee Felten-Leidel on Unsplash

Where it differs from traditional Gothic novels is in the modern pacing, it seemed to take on more of an action-adventure novel movement once they arrived at Sarah’s home. It’s definitely not a slow burn. Its novella size won’t allow it to meander. There are also quite a few twists and turns for such an economical book as Janz stayed always a few steps ahead of me not giving away any notions of what would happen next. 

One of my only criticisms is that while the novella format is compact it leaves less room for characterization. I often confused the three sisters and their importance to the plot, which may also be referenced near the ending where they become cryptically indistinguishable. 

I would have also liked more of the themes explored. There are some interesting dynamics between the working-class characters and staff as opposed to their wealthy employers. The differences between the staff at Altarbrook versus the many staff at Count Dunning’s estate. While it may not been an intention central to the plot, it was obvious that these relationships were of interest to the author. I would have liked to see them fleshed out a bit further as well in how monsters can’t be monsters without staff to support their plans and create a sense of credibility to their actions.

Economical and referential in all the right ways, The Dismembered will satisfy gothic horror fans looking for a cozy read by the fire as they stare out the window watching the fog rolling in and wondering if those shadows could really be something more.

Jonathan Janz is a prolific writer and teacher who works mostly within the horror genre but dabbles within many sub-genres. His previous include a ghost story, The Siren and the Specter and a post-dystopian bio-monster novel, The Raven. He is currently at work on Veil, his forthcoming sci-fi horror novel and a short fantasy/horror story called, Dobrogost.

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Written by Chrissie D.

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