This entry in the canon of Andre Norton Gothics reads a bit like a book of the heart. It’s set on a fictional key off the coast of Florida, where Norton was living when the book was written. She clearly put a lot of work and thought into it, and some good, wicked writer-fun as well.
It’s full of classic Gothic elements. The orphaned girl, of course, shipwrecked with her sickly uncle on mysterious Lost Lady Key. The stalwart master of the Key, a ship’s captain with a contract to salvage ships wrecked on the reef—an occupation regarded by many as a kind of piracy. The captain’s strange, flighty sister and the rival captain who sees her as a way to get hold of the Key and the wealth it represents. The ancient Native witch and her sinister spells. The formidable housekeeper and servants both loyal and treacherous. And, best of all for us genre fans, a ghost.
Heroine Persis, modeled on the likes of Jane Eyre—tending toward the plain end of the looks spectrum but still attractive to men—has a somewhat complicated history. Her uncle has lost much of his fortune but has hoped to recoup it on this voyage to the Caribbean. Persis discovers that he, and after his death she, has inherited the property of a late relative. The inheritance is shadowed by old, dark secrets, and there are challengers, one of whom turns out to be the wicked Captain Grillon.
Somehow Persis has to protect the cache of papers that proves her claim, and get them to a lawyer in Key West. Meanwhile she’s stranded on this tropical island, under threat from the wicked captain and his allies, and haunted by the ghost of the hunky captain’s house.
This house is built on an ancient Native mound that was once a temple—with human sacrifice for added shiver points. It has a long and blood-soaked history, which continued under the latest round of invaders. The ghost is the wife of the former owner, who murdered him with the help of a strange and deadly fan.
There are actually two fans. One works as a fan, carved with cats and set with black opals. The hunky captain’s sister has that in her possession. The other, Persis finds with the help of the witch and the ghost. It is not a functional fan but rather a sheath for a dagger.
Persis’s adventures involve a great deal of jeopardy, the drugging and poisoning of her loyal servants, attempted abductions including the kidnapping of the hunky captain—whom she manages to rescue. And, because this is a Norton novel, a significant amount of time underground. The tunnels this time begin in a cistern under the mansion and lead to a pen full of sea turtles—turtle soup being an island delicacy—and past that to the ocean. Sea turtles are huge and make effectively scary monsters.
The romance is just barely there, which is also a Norton trademark. Persis is first repelled and then reluctantly attracted by the masterful captain. When they have to work together to save the house, the island, and Persis’ inheritance, they make a solid team. Romantic it’s not, in any conventional sense, but it’s an effective collaboration.
One thing that I found really interesting about the novel is its representation of colonialism. The island’s original inhabitants, from whom the witch is descended, were a sort of Aztec- or Maya-like culture with temples and blood rituals that Persis witnesses in dreams. These people were conquered by the Seminoles, who were conquered in turn by waves of Europeans and enslaved Africans. The result is a melange of languages and cultures, and a tangled mass of allegiances and loyalties.
The message is that the conquerors will always crush the conquered. And they, in turn, will do what they can to get back what was theirs. It all piles on top of itself like the European mansion on top of the temple mound, with its ghost and its memories manifesting as dreams. It’s a surprisingly dark and perceptive vision in the midst of a romantic adventure.
I’ll be continuing in the Gothic vein next time, with the almost too iconically titled Velvet Shadows.
Judith Tarr is the author of numerous novels including The Isle of Glass and its sequels. Her work has been nominated for the Locus Award and the World Fantasy Award, and has won the Crawford Award. She lives in Arizona with a herd of Lipizzan horses, an assortment of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.