This is the time of year when my reading takes a supernatural turn. The approach of Halloween initiates the mood, and chill autumn evenings invite the pleasures of sitting snug and cozy while vicariously experiencing creepy thrills. During this season, I often find myself turning to old favorites like Edgar Allan Poe or modern masters of the supernatural like Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series.
It’s true for me as a writer, too. I’ve just written a short story called “The Black Cat” that’s a bit of a riff on the tale by Poe. Another short story I composed this time of year, “The Secrets of the Sibyl,” is a conscious effort to import motifs from Gothic literature into the historical setting of my Roman novels, a sort of “Roman Gothic,” if you will.
“The Secrets of the Sibyl” takes place in the 4th-century world of the Late Roman Empire and is set in the ancient town of Cumae. For 4th-century Romans, Cumae had great historical significance. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, their great national epic, Cumae is where the wandering Aeneas, fugitive from the defeated city of Troy, first set foot on Italian soil. Cumae, an ancient Greek city renowned as home to the Sibyline oracle, is already known to Virgil’s hero, and his first thought is to seek counsel from the prophetess:
“But Aeneas, that righteous man,
The dread Sibyl’s secret sanctuary sought:
A cavern, enormous,
Hewn from the native rock.
A hundred pathways lead there,
A hundred mouths give utt’rance,
Proclaiming with a hundred voices,
The Sibyl’s hidden knowledge.”
–Book 6 of the Aeneid
For the 4th-century Romans of my story, Virgil was not only the author who had given voice to the legendary beginnings of their nation, but a literary genius whose influence on them and subsequent Italian generations was comparable to that of Shakespeare in the English-speaking world. Once I’d mastered enough Latin to read the Aeneid in Virgil’s original language, I was equally smitten.
With the quote above as inspiration, I eventually conceived a story that would give my young series heroine an ancient, crumbling villa to explore, a villa located in Cumae. Since the town is on the Bay of Naples, where wealthy Romans typically owned summer homes, it wasn’t too difficult to create the scenario. Add an old servant in possession of a horrible secret, a visit to the site of the Sibyl herself, a nighttime prowl through the decrepit villa—and voila, Roman Gothic. I had great fun composing it.
Does October bring out the Gothic in you? What sorts of things do you most enjoy reading and writing this time of year?