Cupid & Psychics

By ELOISA JAMES

Who wouldn’t want to be psychic? You would have moved your retirement into bonds a week before this financial crisis started. You would never question whether you were in a rickety plane or, for that matter, a rickety marriage. No tall, dark stranger would catch you without makeup: your hair would be perfect for that all-important “accidental” meeting. And you would never come down with salmonella because your secret friend would whisper: Alert! Alert! Bad Tomato!

Your life would be wonderful! Right?

The five novels I explore here strongly suggest the opposite. Their heroines are plagued by voices that ignore stomach aches and wallet troubles. Instead, their psychic abilities cause waking nightmares: encounters with the dead, depraved, and vicious. I was repeatedly struck by links between these novels and classic gothics such as The Castle of Otranto. The heroine experiences the same delicious blend of horror and romance — although our rejection of tight corsets means she can’t faint at bloodcurdling moments. Yet even if modern heroines don’t lose consciousness, these novels make their loathing of psychic ability part of the plot; modern heroines face a choice whether to accept their abilities or to turn their back on that entire world: in short, to faint or not faint.

Take Karen White‘s heroine in The House on Tradd Street, for example. Melanie is a real estate agent who suddenly inherits a gorgeous, old house — which she doesn’t want because it’s full of ghosts. The woman and her little boy in the garden are one thing, but that sinister face at the upstairs window? Creepy. Melanie would like to take a wrecker to the house, at least until a gorgeous writer, Jack, starts investigating a tragic secret hidden in the past of her new home. He shores up her courage and, perhaps even more important, convinces her that she has a “pretty amazing gift” rather than a curse. I had a whacking nightmare after reading this book — but that was probably my fault for being unable to put it down and reading late into the night while my own (old) house creaked around me.

Melanie’s wish to flee rather than fight off vengeful ghosts would be entirely understandable to Andie, heroine of Marianne Stillings’s Killer Charms. Andie is a tough policewoman, in the middle of a sting to take down a “psychic” con-man named Logan Sinclair, when she moves into a haunted house and starts seeing some very unwelcome ghosts. Logan himself intensifies the idea that psychic ability is no fun. While he seems charmingly fake — “Furrowing his brow, he sought to display that wee touch of modesty that convinced clients he was sincere in his duty, humbled by his task. True believers just loved that crap” — it turns out that he dislikes hearing from desperate ghosts and would rather just play the con man, just as Andie would rather just be a cop. But Andie doesn’t have a corset and so she can’t faint. She may dislike ghosts, but she’s stuck with solving their problems.

In Cait London’s For Her Eyes Only, Leona doesn’t see dead people, but her visions certainly gesture in that direction, as she has visions of a terrifying man with thin black braids snaking around his head as he spews silent curses. Not fun — especially because the murderous man is clearly after her and her family. Luckily, a rugged cowboy type, Owen Shaw, asks her for help with his sister, who is grappling with a similarly unpleasant psychic gift. Owen’s ruthless common sense and alpha male tendencies give Leona the protection she needs, right in line with classic gothic plots. This book edges closer to horror, especially given a creepy pool on Owen’s property that tries to entice Leona to a watery grave. Yet Leona, like Melanie and Andie, finally accepts her objectionable talent and launches into battle with evildoers.

The question of responsibility is pivotal to Lori Handeland’s Any Given Doomsday, since her heroine ends up fighting to save the world. Elizabeth Phoenix abhors her psychic abilities: “If wishing could have made the bursts of intuition disappear, they’d have been gone shortly after I was able to voice what I’d been seeing all my life.” When the book opens, she’s working as a rather grouchy bartender, having lost her job as a cop; there’s only so many “hunches” a cop can have before the force doesn’t want anything to do with you. But all of a sudden she finds herself battling an army of freakish creatures. In order to save the world (not to mention her own skin), she ends up pairing with a bad boy from her past, Jimmy Sanducci, who turns out to be not exactly human. Things definitely turn even weirder once Lizzy and Jimmy head into the desert and start tangling with fallen angels and the like. Their romance is complicated by a beautiful shape-shifter named Sawyer and a spell that turns Jimmy into a sex slave. In short, this novel is something of a giddy ride involving empaths, angels, psychics, vampires — you name it. It’s a gothic on speed.

The voices Taige Branch hears in Shiloh Walker’s The Missing aren’t ghosts but living people in danger. She has a “weird tool,” as she calls it: one that allows her to save lives, but only if she can reach the endangered person in time. Her abilities are wider than that: she can “read” people just by touching them, and even deliver debilitating mental blows. She’s only a girl when she meets Cullen, a sweet geek of a boy. What makes Cullen particularly dear to Taige is that she can’t read him by touching him: they get to fall in love like other teenagers. That is, until she doesn’t manage to save his mother in time and he turns on her in a rage. The Missing does a wonderful job of clarifying just how hard it is to have a “weird tool”; Cullen doesn’t come back until he’s a widower with a little girl called Jilly, who’s gone missing. This is a spooky and complicated book, but it is brilliant in illustrating the personal danger of psychic ability — the way in which that responsibility could leave a person marooned, unable to form a meaningful relationship with another human being. I loved the way it entwines a sensual, deeply romantic love story with an unflinching look at the drawbacks of psychic ability.

Read these books, and you’ll feel a little better about not foreseeing the decline in your ailing retirement fund. Psychic ability doesn’t seem as much fun when it delivers men with hair like black snakes rather than tall, dark strangers. And the whole responsibility to save the world, captured children, or desperate ghosts? Give me a good corset and a faint any day!

If you’d like to discuss just what makes up a modern gothic — and what kind of psychic ability you’d personally like to have — please stop in to chat with Eloisa in the Romantic Reads Book Club, where she’ll be joined by Karen White and Lori Handeland! You can check out Eloisa’s past columns in the Archives.