Six days a week, I wake up early to take our dog, a 2-year-old whippet named Lilybean, for the first, and longest, of her two daily walks. This morning ritual has more to do with my preferences than with Lilybean’s. Lily is a highly gifted sleeper, capable of napping in postures most creatures couldn’t endure while wide awake—sliding face-first off a chair with her nose smooshed against the floor; flat on her back with all four limbs straight up in the air; stuffed completely behind the sofa cushions, like loose change—and she’s never been much of an early riser. When she was a puppy, with a bladder the size, and occasionally the reliability, of a six-sided die, she had to be taken out at 4 a.m. every day as part of her housebreaking routine. I’d fumble with the alarm and scoop her out of her crate, myself still half-asleep. She’d open her eyes and bleat once, weakly, in semiconscious protest, before falling into an irritated coma in my arms, where she’d remain as I carried her the 20 or so steps to the back door.
So the 6 a.m. power walk is not really Lilybean’s ideal. If she had her way, we’d conduct our mornings like civilized people: wake at 9 a.m., eat the newspaper, take our time. One of her favorite things to do is to get up after a long night’s rest, shake herself off, and greet the day by trotting directly to one of her other beds and going back to sleep. But we live in a small Pennsylvania town, Carlisle, that sits in the bowl of a valley, and in the warmer months, the heat and humidity tend to pool throughout the day. Mornings are gorgeous; being out in the late afternoon is like standing over the fryer in a food truck where all the customers are malaria-bearing insects. I’m a naturally early riser, having been blessed with an unusually punctual sense of blinding panic. James Bond could set a mental alarm clock thanks to years of elite spy training; I can do the same thing using nothing but my knowledge that disaster is imminent and all my plans are doomed. Might as well use that power for something good, right? So Lily gets outvoted, 1-1, and we go for a stroll while it’s nice out.
Our morning walks are fairly long, three miles or so. We’re out for an hour and often more. For Lilybean, who realizes that she has plenty of energy and loves being outside the second she remembers outside exists (i.e., in that thrilling daily moment when she comes downstairs and notices the front door) the misty world of post-dawn sidewalks and nature trails is an exhilarating trove of experience and information. It’s as if she’d found a form of social media where it never stopped being 2012. I can’t count the number of times she’s buried her nose in a bush recently vacated by another dog, inhaled, and then looked up like, “Oh my God … great tweet.”
For me, though, while there’s plenty I like about being out so early—the cool air, the morning blooms, the not having to talk to any neighbors—it can also, as the miles and fields pass, grow slightly tedious. Call me a philistine, but unlike Lily, I’m just not that excited to receive neighborhood updates via the medium of stale animal pee. Don’t we have Nextdoor for that? So I’m always looking for ways to make walks more entertaining. Lately, I think I’ve found the perfect solution: gothic audiobooks.
By “gothic audiobooks,” I don’t mean some kind of Fields of the Nephilim spoken-word project. I mean recordings of the original, first-generation gothic novels from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the pale, spiraling brainchildren of writers like Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. Gothic novels combine horror and romance, telling tales of ancient ruins, haunted caverns, mysterious doubles, virtuous lovers, and cunning villains. The atmosphere of these books, an artifact of the early romantic era, sublimates eroticism into terror; the descriptions of nature are voluminous. To my shame, I’ve never had much luck enjoying these books in print. As murmurous companions on morning dog walks, though? They’re revelatory.
For one thing, they are very, very long. My favorite, Radcliffe’s genre-perfecting The Mysteries of Udolpho, from 1794, runs more than 30 hours, 26 of which are given over to descriptions of trees. Reading a thousand-page novel can feel like a heavy commitment; having a 32-hour novel softly spoken into your ear while watching a whippet scan for squirrels is a different thing entirely. It’s reassuring. That novel is there for you. You will have descriptions of trees to listen to on Monday, and more descriptions of trees to listen to on Thursday, and if you need descriptions of trees to listen to next Wednesday? Bam, traveler; have some cypresses.
It isn’t just length, however, that makes the gothic audiobook a dog walker’s friend. By its very nature, the form is heavy on sensational plot twists and also stabby as hell. Contemporary novels, saddled with the legacy of psychological realism and embarrassed by anything that seems like a soapy plot device, will rarely go the full distance when it comes to secret twins poisoning an evil count in his moldering castle to avenge their mother, an undead countess; your gothic novel, however, will take a story like that and say, “Fine, but should we toss in some pirates?” There’s a special sort of narrative innocence that manifests in un-self-conscious sensationalism; Lewis’s The Monk, from 1796, includes something like 12 poisonings, a secret ritual in a graveyard, the Spanish Inquisition, and a ghost called The Bleeding Nun. In my regular reading, I might want that quality or not, depending on the day. But there’s something about walking down endless streets of near-identical houses, startled rabbits on the lawns, honeysuckle scent in the air, that throws a desperate sword fight on the ramparts of a medieval wall into appealing relief.
I’m not sure how much you know about whippets. If you can picture a greyhound—the barrel chest, the wasp waist, the delicate, deerlike head—then size it down by half, you’ll get the idea. Lily is white, with fawn spots and wide, dark eyes. She’s a lovely creature. We lived in L.A. until she was almost two, and five or six times, no exaggeration, people stopped their cars to cry out “that’s a beautiful dog!” Once, we met a famous songwriter this way. He practically leapt out of his tiny car. “I’m such a fan of your work!” I started to squeak, but he wasn’t paying the slightest attention to me. He was only interested in Lilybean. She thought he was all right, but not nearly as exciting as some grass a few feet to the left of him.
Like many dogs bred to race and hunt fast game, she has two basic speeds: off and hyperspace. When she’s off, she collapses in a heap on whatever soft thing happens to be near her, her entire skeleton having been suddenly transformed to moist string. When she’s on and she wants attention, she’ll sit bolt upright in front of my wife, Siobhan, or me, quivering slightly, like the head of an electric razor, and bore holes through our brains with her eyes. By nature, though, she’s a tiptoeing, careful little animal. Scatter paper across the floor of a room and she’ll hot-lava her way across the uncovered spaces rather than risk disturbing any of it. I think it comes from having no padding on most of her frame. Nothing makes a dog behave delicately like 0 percent body fat.
The gothic, even more than most other genres of horror, is a weird and endlessly fascinating site of contention for all sorts of issues involving gender, power, the body, and sexuality. Pale, blameless heroines are forever being taken prisoner by their wicked step-uncles—if there’s one lesson you’ll learn from gothic audiobooks, it’s to give step-uncles a wide berth—and subjected to bizarre psychological torments. They withstand these torments by being so absolutely pure that their innocence becomes a kind of holy armor, a radiant power that keeps them magically unscathed through fire and shipwreck (during these scenes, Lilybean often pauses to lick moss). In Udolpho, our protagonist, Emily St. Aubert, runs afoul of the wrong step-uncle and winds up in a small room with a mysterious door that only locks from the outside. The number of scares involving this door, what comes through it, what doesn’t come through it, what ancient (and mysteriously locked) chests are used to brace it, what stabbings transpire in its general vicinity—it’s incredible. The door of a thousand dissertations! Not infrequently I will find myself nodding as Lily and I traipse around the Mooreland tennis courts. “You think of romanticism as essentially marked by a sort of Byronic fatalism w/r/t social constructions of the good,” I’ll mutter, “but in its early years it was so straightforward about morality.” Lily will look back at me, like: “Duh.”
A final magnificent quality of gothic audio fiction is that, unlike podcasts or novels with less, let’s say, generous plots, you don’t really have to pay that much attention to keep up with it. Big events crash down quickly, in ferocious, unmissable flurries. In between—well, look, I’m not saying the tree stuff isn’t important, even beautiful—I’m just saying that as you walk, as the soothing British cadence of the narrator establishes a rhythm for your footsteps, it’s easy to let the mountains, the waterfalls, the dark forests wash over you in a blur. Here you are at the limits of the neighborhood. The dog is clipping along next to you. The houses are growing scarcer. If you keep going, you’ll come to the Amazon distribution centers, with their long rows of loading bays and identical trucks. In your ear, the heroine is crossing the Pyrenees, where the snow-covered trees plunge downward on slopes whose sublimity and majesty can scarcely be described, and she doesn’t know Signor Rivaldi is plotting to marry her against her will to the albino murderer Count Romando, and sprinklers are tsking in the yards, and an old man is polishing his vintage Mustang at the curb, and cataracts tumble down from the mountains with a dizzying beauty that makes the heroine pause to write a sonnet, and the narrator actually reads the sonnet, and the dog stops to pee on some mulch, and … You can safely let all this roll over you without noting every detail. You make your way home, where your dog selects a bed for her 7:15 a.m. nap, and tomorrow morning, when Count Romando plunges to his death from high atop the glacier as you saunter past the YMCA, you’ll still know more or less what’s going on.
It’s possible that one of the reasons I enjoy gothic audiobooks so much is that they’re narrating the scene I’m already watching. What’s Lilybean, after all, but a character from a gothic novel? She’s beautiful, she’s fragile, she’s easily alarmed, she’s obsessed with nature, and she tries very hard to be good. She’s held prisoner by a villain (me) who tries to subvert her true nature (chasing squirrels in traffic). She’s kept in a state of permanent confusion, controlled by powerful forces she doesn’t understand. Occasionally she’s moved far from home with no explanation. Yet despite everything, she maintains her hopeful, trusting nature. She’s like an Emily St. Aubert who farts at dinner parties.
Maybe Udolpho makes so much sense to me in this context not because it complements our morning walks, but because it tells their story. The Mysteries of Lilybean! If she could narrate her own life, after all, it would probably be a melodrama, full of wild twists (and THEN the evil baron took the dead mouse AWAY FROM THE BEAUTIFUL LADY) and the occasional deus ex machina (SUDDENLY she saw a nacho, lying UNPROTECTED upon the GROUND). It makes sense. I see her pausing at her casement to pen a sonnet on the sublimity of her frisbee. I see her describing trees at spectacular length, concentrating on their fragrances.