by Eric Jefferson
In the romance novella Castle Doom (1998), Jill Gregory confronts racial stereotypes in the way that she portrays Nicholas, the “dark” knight of the story. Gregory’s frequent use of words that indicate color, such as “dark,” “brown,” and “black,” relates to three different points. First, the hero of any romantic novel is often referred to as “dark.” It is so common as to be a cliché that the hero, the prince, or the knight in shining armor is always described as “tall, dark, and handsome”; however, it is often assumed by the reader that the hero is white-skinned and the word “dark” is interpreted as being a reference to his hair color. Additionally, the word “dark” is often used to indicate the personality of the hero in a romantic novel. It is conventional for a romance author to describe the hero’s personality as “dark”—deep, brooding, and angry—and to be nursing some sort of emotional wound that only the heroine can salve. While Gregory’s constant description of Nicholas as “dark” does participate in both of these interpretations of the words—Nicholas does, indeed, have dark hair and an explosive personality—I would argue that Gregory employs the word “dark” in a third way, which is to suggest that Nicholas’s skin is dark, and that he is a black man. She then plays upon the negative stereotype of “dark” and transforms the word, so that the “dark” man turns out not to be evil, corrupt, and brute but, rather, heroic, protective, and loving.
In a romantic novel it is a common convention to have the hero portrayed as tall, dark, and handsome. When readers are first introduced to Nicholas, they are unaware of the hero’s skin color, but they are aware of the hero’s other physical characteristics that associate him with physical darkness. At the beginning of the story when the guard Galdain tries to rape Arianne, Nicholas saves her. Gregory writes that “suddenly a deeper shadow moved through the gloom of the stable … Arianne saw a shadow, nothing more. Then a huge hand appeared, seized the guard’s tunic, and hurled him across the stable” (94). Without seeing the character, the reader knows that he has huge hands, is strong enough to throw a man across the stable, and has a shadowy presence. From the beginning of the novella, then, before we even know his name, Gregory associates Nicholas with psychical prowess and, even more significantly, with darkness. As the story develops Nicholas is described as “dark and handsome, with fiercely dark hair” (100). Here Gregory is portraying Nicholas as the stereotypical hero in a romance novel. Nicholas is dark haired, muscular, and tall. In a similar scene the narrator, speaking from Arianne’s point of view, refers to Nicholas’ “dark hair” and “broad build” and describes him as a “dark, wild, impossibly handsome young man” (99-100).
The second quote, pointing out Nicholas’ “wild[ness]” suggests not only that Nicholas has dark hair but also that his temperament is dark. Here the word “dark” refers to the personality and emotional state of Nicholas. When he becomes angry and furious the narrator describes him as being “dark” and “cold.” For instance, when Nicholas and Arianne are talking in the cabin, Nicholas says to Arianne, “You’ve grown into a lovely woman now, entrancing woman.” When Arianne reacts by “step[ping] forward and slap[ping] him,” the narrator explains that “[d]ark fury blaze[s] in his eyes. He [catches] her wrist and Arianne [feels] fear flood through her” (103). In romance novels it is common for the hero to be emotionally dark or distressed. Mary Jo Putney argues that the hero must have a dark personality because it evokes a strong emotional response from the reader. The dark hero is wounded, emotionally and/or physically damaged, and “like an injured lion he is dangerous, for he is still powerful and may lash out at those around him” (101). In Castle Doom, Gregory covers everything Putney describes as the “perfect romance novel.” Nicholas has the dark personality, he has the broken past, he is emotionally disturbed, and lashes out at Arianne numerous times throughout the story. After Nicholas and Arianne escape Julian’s knights, both Nicholas and Arianne take refuge in a cabin in the forest. As they try to warm-up by the fire, Nicholas says to Arianne, “Go and warm yourself before the fire. Then we must talk.” Arianne responds, “What makes you think I have anything to say to you, my lord?” All of a sudden Nicholas lashes out, and “Arianne [sees] the surprise that darken[s] those gray eyes that [miss] nothing” (101).
Whereas Putney thinks that readers prefer dark romance novels because they are more realistic (99), Dorren Owens Malek argues that the dangerous hero appeals to readers of romance novels because it keys into women’s desire for power. Malek describes the time when she picked up Anne Mather’s Leopard in the Snow. Malek states, “the hero is a racecar driver […] at the beginning of the book he is jaded recluse, disgusted with the world but by the end […] the leopard [is] tamed” (73). The hero described by Malek in Leopard in the Snow is reminiscent of Nicholas in Castle Doom. Malek claims that romance heroes, like Nicholas and the racecar driver, are portrayed as tough, macho, and dangerous because “in the end the hero capitulates to the woman because he simply must have her, and women want to triumph against a strong, dangerous man” (75).
So far I have established that by describing Nicholas as dark—both in terms of hair color and temperament—Gregory is doing the same thing that many romance novelists do by portraying Nicolas using the conventional elements of the hero. But what is remarkable is Gregory’s repeated use of the term “dark”—she uses the term more than thirty-five times in a story that is less than one hundred pages. Gregory’s repetitiveness of the word “dark” relates to the third way that she uses the term. And in this third case, she is not only providing readers with the stereotypical hero, but breaking stereotypes as well.
Gregory not only insists that the reader pay attention to how frequently she writes the word dark, and that Nicholas is a hero with a dark personality, but she also insists that Nicholas’s character is a man of color, using the term “dark” to refer to Nicholas’s skin color. She is even more direct when Arianne describes Nicholas as “swarthy” (158). The word “swarthy” means “dark complexion, color, or cast.” Gregory describes Nicholas as having a “scar, white and wicked, cutting across one lean cheek” (100). Here she cues the reader to pay attention to her use of different colors, particularly skin color. By describing Nicholas with a white scar on his cheek, she is letting the reader know just how dark his complexion is. A white scar would be prominent and noticeable only on a darker skin complexion.
After having informed the reader that Nicholas is a man of color and is tall, built, strong, and dangerous, Gregory later adds that Nicholas has whip scars on his back and has been in prison. During the couple’s love scene, the narrator describes that “Arianne’s hand slid[es] down his powerful back, and her fingers [pause] as she discover[s] the many scars embedded in his flesh.” Nicholas responds, “These are whip scars … from when I was imprisoned” (145). The modern day American reader might make the parallel to African people and slavery.
In “White Terror, Black Dreams: Gothic Constructions of Race in the Nineteenth Century” Eugenia Delamotte argues that the study of race has been ignored in traditional Gothic literature. Delamotte references Toni Morrison’s concept of the “Africanist persona,” which refers to the symbolic figurations of blackness (Delamotte 17). Delamotte says that Morrison’s goal was to call attention to the way black characters ignite critical moments of discovery or change in literature not written by black authors. I would argue that in her portrayal of Nicholas, Jill Gregory, a white author, creates an “Africanist persona” in order to call attention to the racial stereotypes in traditional romance literature and to support the idea that a black man can be the romantic hero in a Gothic novel.
In Castle Doom Gregory uses words such as “dark,” “black,” “strong,” “built,” “dangerous,” and “angry” to set up the stereotypes the modern American reader may have regarding African Americans in modern culture. She does not stop there though. Gregory uses the word “dark” to make reference to positive things, such as the setting of the forest, which Gregory describes as having a “black heart” (98). In Castle Doom, the forest is a good place. It is the place of safety and solace, where Arianne and Nicholas can escape Julian’s knights and rest comfortably. The black heart of the forest is also where Nicholas and Arianne fall in love and have sex for the first time.
Even more important to my argument is the way that Gregory represents Nicholas’ darkness. Nicholas, a man of color, is initially represented as angry and dangerous, but he turns out to be the hero of the story. By having a hero of color, Gregory is making a statement that people of color are not always the “bad guy” but can be heroes in a romantic novel. Gregory speaks to contemporary readers about racial stereotypes in her representation of Nicholas as the “dark knight.” The stereotypes modern Americans have about dark men are exactly that, just stereotypes. Gregory is reclaiming the dark hero. A man of color can be an honorable, trustworthy, honest man. A man of color can essentially save the day and be a hero.
Delamotte, Eugenia. “White Terror, Black Dreams: Gothic
Constructions of Race in the Nineteenth Century.” In The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Construction in the Library Imagination. Ed. Beinstoock Anolik and Douglass L. Howard. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004. 17-31. Print.
Gregory, Jill. Castle Doom. In Once Upon a Castle. New York: Jove, 1998. Print.
Putney, Mary Jo. “Welcome to the Dark Side.” In Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance. Ed Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia:U of Pennsylvania, P 1992: 99-105. Print.
Malek, Dorren Owens. “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as a Challenge.” In Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jaune Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, P 1992: 73-80. Print.