Review: The Pierced Heart: A Novel by Lynn Shepherd

Posted by Sara Lea Bennett on November 07, 2014 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , ,

Lynn Shepherd’s The Pierced Heart: A Novel is billed as a “homage to a literary classic, in a chilling tale of superstition, dangerous science, and shocking secrets.” The literary classic in question is Dracula and Shepherd’s plot’s trajectory mirrors Stoker’s in someways: a clerk strikes out from London into the depths of Europe to conduct some business; he encounters mysterious and suspect behaviour from his host, the Baron Von Reisenberg; he eventually returns to London to file his report and return to his daily life.

However, nothing is ever so simple. The aforementioned clerk is Charles Maddox, actually a policeman-come-private investigator, and he’s drawn into a case of missing and dead prostitutes upon his return to London. Eventually, Lucy, daughter of a travelling showman who runs a phantasmagoria, is abducted and the clues for all the crimes point to the suspicious foreigner, Baron Von Reisenberg. What could be more Gothic than an English heroine in the grasp of a continental aristocrat with a hint of mad scientist about him?

Shepherd introduces some great gothic motifs throughout the text, and works to subvert and update them to some degree as well. The description of the Baron, his castle and laboratory is vivid and full of gothic tropes “as the swing of [a] lantern throws shadows like blackened branches spiking across the walls” and these tropes stand in stark contrast to the rational, scientific light that Charles tries to shine into every corner of his investigation. The dichotomy is particularly noted in the description of Charles’ London investigation. It features the Great Exhibition and the scientific advances of the 19th century on display in the heart of London all while something horrible is encroaching from the shadows.


The bright and airy Exhibition Hall stands in stark contrast to the morbid wax works hidden in the Baron's laboratory.

The bright and airy Exhibition Hall stands in stark contrast to the morbid wax works hidden in the Baron’s laboratory.

Shepherd also references Fuseli’s The Nightmare and it is recreated several times to great effect – in wax and in the flesh. The Pierced Heart is full of great gothic images and a Victorian desire to rationalize and classify. In this, Shepherd is clearly following in the tradition of gothic and detective literature.

Although Charles is the major protagonist of The Pierced Heart¸ he’s not the best part.  That honour rests with Lucy. The passages from Lucy’s journal were a delight. Not only do we get her reflection on events (perhaps somewhat modern and particularly self-aware for a young woman) but it’s written in such a way that the suspension of disbelief is a given, not a question. It is in Lucy’s account the novel takes a gothic turn away from pastiche towards the homage the publicity material promises. Lucy’s account is not dissimilar to the epistolary nature of Dracula and it is has a good dash of “The Yellow Wallpaper” mixed in.  And It Works!

In Lucy’s journal, the tale begins to unfold naturally, showing, not telling, what is occurring to the characters. Too much of the present tense narration of Charles is spent telling the reader what they’re seeing and explaining it. Shepherd has made great effort to paint Charles as a rational man of science who is anachronistic in his very modern cynicism. However, every time something is pointed out and explained, I do not feel that I’m discovering clues with Charles or that I’m delving into peak Victorian industrial activity and investigating with discovery and delight, which is my expectation from a novel that is categorized as a detective novel. Perhaps I’m revealing a conservative bias towards the conventional but I just wasn’t sold on the narration during Charles’ sections. I feel as though Shepherd is experimenting with an unusual style here that will appeal to some but, for me, detracts from her excellent use of setting and epistolary form.

Several things that were introduced in The Pierced Heart, which I would have liked more of, include: a sojourn in an asylum, the Baron’s laboratory and wax works which reminded me of Richard Corman’s Poe-period, and Charles’ mundane but ‘secret’ past. The first two things in particular were horrible teases to a horror/gothic reader. However, it is in keeping with Charles’ rational mind to not dwell on, or indulge in, the melodramatic and the gruesome.

The Pierced Heart is melodramatic and generally this is a positive, given the characters, setting, and genre. Lucy’s tale – which I suspect will continue in future Maddox novels – has all the elements of a gothic romance: a seductive and threatening hero, abduction, assault, psychological terror and actualized horror, and ultimate rescue. It’s just a shame she’s generally the object, not the subject, of this tale.

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