Before I first read SECRET OF THE PALE LOVER (1969) by Clarissa Ross, a friend described it to me as a book in which the heroine marries a vampire without realizing it—a fairly accurate summary. This is a fun read for anyone who enjoyed the Gothic romances of the sixties. Like just about every one of those paperbacks, SECRET OF THE PALE LOVER has a cover illustration of a terrified young woman running by night from a scary old house—in this case, a castle in France, labeled in the tagline "a satanic chateau."
Eve Lewis, a student of the occult and witchcraft legends visiting Paris, meets Count Henri Langlais, a charismatic aristocrat with "hypnotic eyes." He tells her about his nephew Leonard, who suffers from a mysterious chronic affliction of the blood. Count Henri attributes the hereditary "weakness" to an ancestral curse. It turns out that the Count and his nephew frequent the same seaside resort Eve plans to visit next. A male friend who would like to become more than that persistently warns her against the trusting the Count. Nightmares begin to plague her, including dreams of the Count presiding at a Black Mass. Her research uncovers legends of witchcraft and vampirism in the town of Langlais. Still, after spending time with the Count and his nephew at the resort, Eve becomes attracted to Leonard. It's obvious that the Count is matchmaking between the two young people. When Leonard and his uncle vanish with no notice or farewell, she's deeply hurt, until she receives a letter inviting her for an extended visit at their chateau. With the letter comes a cameo pendant; a spider hidden in it bites her. She buys a remedy at a strange little shop that, when she tries to find it again, has allegedly been abandoned for years. In short, she endures a sequence of sinister events foreshadowing horrors that may or may not lurk at the chateau. Once at the Langlais estate, she encounters the kinds of eerie phenomena one expects to find in a Gothic novel. Her suspicion that the Count belongs to a satanist cult proves correct. As is typical of such novels, she wrestles with ambivalent feelings toward her charming but enigmatic would-be suitor.
When Eve learns that the young man she originally began to care for at the resort was not Leonard, but an actor hired by the Count to impersonate his sickly nephew and draw her into a romantic attachment, she's plunged into the conflict that builds to the novel's climax. She and the actor, David, fall in love and confront the Count, who confesses the truth about Leonard. Count Henri seems remorseful over the deception and acts with incredible generosity toward the couple. As Eve gets swept along in his plans, it's obvious to the reader that she's being gaslighted (with, it's hinted, the aid of drugs). This novel isn't precisely a vampire romance, even though the heroine succumbs to a vampire's allure for a while, and whether it has a happy ending depends on one's point of view. Ambiguity (for the heroine if not the reader) and creeping fear haunt the story to the final page.
Margaret L. Carter
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