The Death of Jane Lawrence Review & Author Interview

Cass reviews ‘The Death of Jane Lawrence’ and interviews the author, Caitlin Starling!

Is there anything scarier than seeing your whole world view change in a matter of seconds? 

Jane Shoringfield, a young practical woman, has proposed a business deal to Doctor Augustine Lawrence: they should get married, for purely practical reasons. The doctor agrees under one condition: she will never set foot in his family manor, Lindridge Hall. But things never really go according to plan, and after an accident on their wedding night, Jane has no other option than to stay in the mysterious house, where she quickly learns there is something horribly wrong there. 

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling is many things; a gothic novel, a haunted house story, a mind-bending journey, a tale of obsession and guilt, as well as a horrifying exploration of the darkest reaches of our minds. But above all, it is the story of a doomed marriage.

If someone would have told me this was written at the height of the romantic and gothic movement, I would have believed them, and I mean that in the best way possible. Starling manages to build the perfect atmosphere for a book of this kind, where you’re pulled into a dark, mysterious and frightening world of magic and occultism. As you follow Jane’s journey you find yourself trusting no one, not even Jane herself. Once readers enter the all-consuming hallways of Lindridge Hall, they’re met with things that will make their blood freeze. 

As I read this, I truly felt hunted, not only by the apparitions and ghosts, but also by the emotions of the characters and the nature of their actions. The characters in the story were well-developed and fully realized. Each of them (especially Jane and Augustine) feels like the center of their own world while not distracting from the other. Jane, who is our point of view character, works as the pragmatic foil to the world of the supernatural, balancing the possible and the impossible masterfully. 

All that being said, my favorite part of the book has to be the way scenes are constructed: the descriptions of events, the power of the emotions, the ways Starling’s words wove the story together. There were moments in this book where I felt utterly disgusted, where I was terribly afraid, and others (not too few) where I felt pure despair. The way this book is written truly entrapped me, even when I was busy, there were times I couldn’t let myself put it down. I would lie if I said I didn’t gasp at some moments… to be completely honest, I even dropped the book once – purely because of shock.

If you are a horror fan, you should read this book. If you like haunted houses, you should read this book. And if you are a fan of gothic novels you NEED to read this book. 

I truly believe that The Death of Jane Lawrence itself is haunted. Once you are done, it will follow you. It will hide in the deepest corners of your mind. The emotions within it will leave scars that you will not find until afterward. This is one of those books that possesses you, transforms you, and leaves you wondering who you were before you read it. 

The Death of Jane Lawrence is published by St. Martin’s Press and available for purchase today, October 5th, 2021 at your local independent bookstore or anywhere fine books are sold.

Interview With Caitlin Starling

Author Caitlin Starling, image curtesy of St. Martin’s Press

Cass: We have a tradition at GateCrashers where we like to ask you: what’s your favorite sandwich?

Caitlin: This is like asking me to choose which of my two cats is my favorite! On the one hand, you’ve got the pork banh mi at Luc Lac Kitchen in Portland, OR. Savory, a bit spicy, great pickled carrots and radish, lots of cilantro… On the other, you have the tuna meltdown from my college deli: tuna salad, red onions, thousand island dressing, swiss cheese, all on rye, toasted. Absolute stinky gut bomb of a sandwich.

If I have to choose, it’s the banh mi, but it’s a close thing.

Cass: One decision that I found really interesting was that of setting the book in a mirror version of Great Britain. What inspired you to make that choice? 

Caitlin: It’s a mix of factors. Because I knew I wanted to really play with some bonkers metaphysical stuff, I wanted to keep the setting relatively familiar. Readers have a base set of knowledge about Victorian England that I could rely on to do some of the heavy lifting for me, and to provide the aesthetics that readers would be expecting. 

But I also knew I wanted to skew timelines. I needed the tech level to be roughly congruent with the 1890s, give or take ten years – particularly in terms of medical knowledge. But I also wanted Jane to have survived something similar to the Blitz, with an added dash of horrific WWI chemical weapons. That wasn’t something I was willing to give up. And I didn’t want to have to belabor an explanation as to why there are women doctors in the book. Then you throw in wanting to make calculus a relatively new thing for Jane to grapple with, and needing a different origin point for clandestine occult societies, and you get a very remixed “Britain”.

Cass: One theme I saw all throughout the book is the discussion between the scientific and the esoteric, the possible and the impossible, the logical and the magical. What do you think makes this discussion so interesting and so important?

Caitlin: Magic and mathematics, in particular, are historically wildly intertwined. (Sir Isaac Newton was an alchemist!) And if you dig into more abstract math, like, say, what exactly is up with the number 0, or infinity, or both, or just what the hell is going on with calculus, there’s already this amazing framework for manipulating what appears to be impossible, and for proving it.

If you’re curious, I’d start with Beyond Infinity by Eugenia Cheng and Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. Both are written for non-mathematicians (like myself), and the latter, in particular, is what spawned the idea of Jane’s country just catching up to calculus as a way to parallel her personally finding out about magic.

Remember doing proofs in math class? Weird how they’re almost like rituals…

Cass: One thing I loved about the book was the way you built up the atmosphere. What are your necessary building blocks for a scene?

Caitlin: I think I’m supposed to give an answer to do with focusing on the various senses, but honestly, I experience it as just… vibe. Certain words, certain sentence cadences, evoke certain feelings for me, and I just let myself marinate in it. (I do usually have to consciously go back in to add sensory details, for the record.) But there are certain things that I end up focusing on in a given book. For Jane, that was often architectural details and scents, as well as the silences between sentences.

Cass: What is it about gothic horror that attracted you to write in this genre?

Caitlin: I’m going to lay the blame for this squarely on a childhood spent loving Jane EyreBeauty and the Beast, and ThePhantom of the Opera, and a longtime obsession with villains. But for a long time, I didn’t have a strong interest in writing it myself. Some combination of feeling embarrassed at how operatic the emotions can get, distaste for the type of secret usually revealed, and frustration that, in most cases, our tortured heroine doesn’t get our brooding villainous love interest (for, it must be said, good reason).

And then I saw Crimson Peak in theaters, and it was so lush and sensual and confident in itself that something clicked. I think I had the first scene of Jane written by the next week.

Cass: What do you think differentiates your novel from other haunted house stories? 

Caitlin: Aside from throwing math and surgery and occultism into it, probably the particular way I have of obsessing over my characters and wallowing around in their psychology. People have told me it’s very intimate. I try not to pull any punches, but I still am inclined towards, if not happy endings, endings with potential. These characters are getting out of this house more or less intact, but it’s going to take a lot to get them there.

Cass: While doing research for this project what was the most interesting thing you found out?

Caitlin: Aside from Isaac Newton being an alchemist, you mean? Honestly, it’s a tie between the history of medical service pricing (and medical insurance) and the existence of the geyser in household plumbing. The latter is this device that was attached to the pipes near the tub that could superheat the water very quickly (instead of using a hot water heater tank). It was gas flame heated and, as you can imagine, wildly dangerous.

The former is very complicated, but essentially, medical pricing has always been torn between the fact that if you charge the same amount for a given service to everybody, it will be overpriced for a large swath or undervalued by the rich, but if you charge on a sliding scale, the people you charge more to may either hate you for it, or assume that means they can make demands on your time at the expense of those you charge less to. It would all be much easier if you didn’t charge at all, but supplies and living do require money. Many doctors, historically, have essentially been funded by the local rich folk to care for the community (for more or less philanthropic reasons), but wouldn’t single-payer health care not tied to a few people’s vanity and opinions be nice?

(A little of this gets into chapter 4 of Jane, because, unsurprisingly, an accountant and a surgeon have wildly different answers to this issue, and nobody feels good about any of them.)

Cass: I felt this book was one of the few cases in which the cover really encapsulates what the book felt like. How involved were you with the design? 

Caitlin: Very little! I might have screamed a little when the team brought Colin Verdi’s amazing art to me, with a few choices mostly regarding the placement of the red thread. In the end, we settled on having the wording in the center of it all – but eagle-eyed readers might notice Jane’s wearing one ring already…

Cass: When choosing the profession of Augustine, was the decision influenced by the similarities between medicine and magic? Can you tell us more about this choice?

Caitlin: The thoughtful answer: Surgery is viscerally transgressive, and one of the themes of the particular curse of Lindridge Hall is things growing out of place – it all hangs together very neatly.

The real answer: Honestly, it’s because I find fictional doctors wildly attractive. I’ve always been fascinated by medicine (and particularly surgery) since I was a little kid, too, and a maybe shockingly large portion of my yearly reading is medical memoirs. 

Cass: If you could choose any work of art (painting, song, movie, comic, etc.) to describe what readers can expect from The Death of Jane Lawrence, what would you choose?

Caitlin: This might be too self-referential, but honestly, this piece I did back in college (so, over ten years ago, and over five years before Jane was ever conceived of):

It was my final piece for my intro to drawing class, and when I found it again a few years ago, I couldn’t get it out of my head, or unattach it from Jane. It has exactly the same sort of haunting, visceral quality, a particular combination of power and vulnerability. I can’t remember why I decided to have the upper face obscured, but it being hidden and the way the sheets spread out from it feels almost… occult.

In other words, it’s perfect.

Image curtesy of Caitlin Starling

[Image description: a graphite drawing of a nude woman lying on her back, the upper half of her face obscured by a wrinkled sheet. Her chest is bisected by an autopsy-style y-incision, sutured closed. She is surrounded by a deep black background.]

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