Why We Love a Sinister, Gothic Mystery: Lucy Foley's The Guest List

Suspects, suspense, & surprise

Thanks to you, Nancy Drew

As a kid, I read every Nancy Drew mystery available. I’d get them at the library and haul home five or six at a time. My family was one of book lovers, and every birthday or Christmas, I’d get at least one teenaged-sleuthing-female-mystery-fighting Nancy Drew. Sometimes, for variety’s sake, I’d read The Hardy Boys, an old copy of the Bobbsey Twins, or an ancient book my grandmother had of The Boxcar Children.


Even in grade school, I was an eclectic reader, mixing mysteries with biographies and science with romance. I still am. But no doubt — thanks to Nancy Drew — the mystery genre heavily influenced my future choices.


Classic Gothics


As a young adult, I was mesmerized by Daphne DuMaurier’s “Gothic,” Rebecca, and its powerful combination of romance, distrust, disease, isolation, insecurity, and death. Jane Eyre provided the same titillating thrill of loneliness, creepiness, romance that gave me the heebie-jeebies the first time I read it.


Less classic, but still good reads, I pursued Barbara Michaels (aka Barbara Mertz) who also wrote Egyptian archeologist mysteries under the name of Elizabeth Peters. My mystery binges included any book written by Victoria Holt whose real name was Eleanor Hibbert.


What’s not to love about a good Gothic? Elements of love, isolated settings, heightened emotions, uncontrollable weather, mysterious happenings, and a person under threat, usually a woman, are all essential traits of a “Gothic.” (Now, I’m wondering…wouldn’t it be interesting if an innovative modern Gothic made a man the threatened person, NOT a woman?)


More than fifty years after my fascination with Nancy Drew, I don’t crave the escapism offered by the Gothic mysteries that I used to consume incessantly, but every once in a while, I find a read that pulls me into an imaginary world filled with suspense, suspects, and surprise.


It’s fun to escape into the darkness…


Lucy Foley’s The Guest List is a great modern Gothic.


Lucy Foley’s novel, The Guest List

Guests arrive at a destination wedding on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, complete with old buildings and treacherous paths winding through bogs.


The groom is a gorgeous television star. The bride, a beautiful, high-powered magazine publisher. The guests are a conglomeration of old high-school buddies, their “plus ones,” the bride’s half-sister, the bride’s male best friend, and the groom’s questionable, “doesn’t-quite-fit-in” best man, along with the wedding couple’s parents who exhibit symptoms of dysfunction, and dozens more affluent, well-connected relatives, employees, and co-workers.


The lavish affair is hosted by the wedding planner and her chef husband who have purchased the island, renovated its buildings, and tamed the landscape in the hopes of attracting high-society events and weddings just like this one. This wedding is their first major affair, so they’re nervous and excited.


The conflict is coming


The stunning bride and groom seem perfectly matched, but as the book progresses, we begin to see cracks in their armor. The first sign is an anonymous note that the bride has received warning her not to marry this man. (The classic woman-under-threat of the “Gothic” novel.) The maid of honor is on the verge of nervous collapse. The best man forgets his wedding suit. A gigantic storm is brewing threatening to cut off transportation and communication to the island.


What transpires is “a dark and stormy night,” indeed, resulting in a dead body.

Everyone is suspect. Everyone has a secret past. Everyone has a motive.

Every time I guessed who the murderer was, I was wrong.


Reading Lucy Foley’s The Guest List brought me back to the time when I was young, huddled under a blanket with a flashlight way past my bedtime, flying through the cliff-hanger chapter endings, turning pages as fast as I could read those Nancy Drew mysteries.

A little bit scared. A little bit excited. A lot curious to find out “whodunnit.”


In the afterglow of reading, I was satisfied that the danger was over, the world was back to normal, and the mystery was solved.


Reading The Guest List was as fast and fun for the adult me as a good Nancy Drew book was when I was a child of ten.


Why we love Gothic mysteries


Why is one of the most popular genres the Gothic-mystery-thriller?


We like to put the pieces of a puzzle together. We like to be a little scared (because we know that the terror will pass. ) We like to contemplate the psychological push and pull of human nature.


According to an article in NPR, “A Dark and Stormy Night: Why We Love the Gothic,” several reasons exist for our connection to this genre:

  1. “They (Gothics) are preoccupied with contemporary problems; the essential horror of the irreconcilable world.”

  2. “here’s comfort in over-the-top catharsis of the dependable dark .. . we love knowing what to expect.”

  3. “Authors relied on pearl-clutching antics that invoke delicious thrills.”

  4. Some Gothics, [Frankenstein is a notable example], “are a reflection of modern fears — particularly the responsibility of scientific advances…both Frankenstein and his monster suffer agonizing struggles between their compulsions and their better selves.”

“Since its earliest days, the Gothic has impressed on its audience how charming it is to know what to fear. Its sprawling but recognizable collection of traits has sustained the genre for two centuries, robust amid endless adaptation and deconstruction — we understand when the Gothic announces itself, whatever form it’s in; we all still love a pretty scare.”

Lucy Foley, the Author


Lucy Foley is a British author. She told the New York Times that she and her husband had a very small wedding of just 16 guests, so The Guest List is her gift to her mother to make up for the wedding she didn’t have.


Only I bet she wouldn’t have wanted it to as scary as the one in The Guest List!


dark, woodland path

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