‘But what is Beltane?’A Bride for Beltane by Vicki Page
‘One of the most important anniversary dates in the witchcraft and black magic calendar, Kim. We call it May Day.’
Between the mid-1960s and late 1970s, one of the most popular reading genres was the Gothic Romance. These cheap paperbacks featured beautifully illustrated covers, typically depicting a gorgeous woman wearing a gossamer gown running away from a large house or castle. A single window in one of these enormous structures may appear lit by the warm glow from a burning candle, and mysterious male figures that look more like specters than actual men can be spotted lurking in the shadows.
The books were marketed to female readers and sold in drugstores, grocery shops, and department stores where female customers could easily find them. Most Gothic Romances were written by women, but many men, including famous authors such as Dean Koontz and Peter O’Donnell, also wrote them using a female pseudonym. The plotting tended to be formulaic and featured a young heroine arriving at an unfamiliar location where she suddenly finds herself plunged into a puzzling mystery or struggling to unravel some family drama while being pursued (or pursuing) romance with an attractive stranger. Despite the familiar tropes, occasionally, writers strayed into strange territories, and plots would take an especially eerie or esoteric turn. These books are some of my favorites, and I’ve managed to amass a small collection of occult-infused Gothic Romances over the years that I hope to share with visitors to the AstroMagick Lounge.
My first selection for Gothic Romance show and tell is Vicki Page’s A Bride for Beltane, which coincides with May Day and Walpurgis Night (aka Walpurgisnacht). A Bride for Beltane was originally published in 1976 by the now-defunct Robert Hale Limited press in London. In the first chapter of this slim volume, we are introduced to Kim Bradley, a twenty-three-year-old British secretary who has just left a job in New York to return home to England following an illicit romance with her married boss. Desperate for a change of scenery, Kim hastily took a secretarial position at a health resort in the wilds of Cornwall, but she wasn’t prepared for how isolated the place would be. On the treacherous drive to the resort across a dark, snow-covered moorland, Kim runs out of gas but is saved by a local veterinarian. He’s handsome, of course, but their conversation is curt. It becomes clear that he and the other townsfolk don’t care for the owners of the health resort or their upper-class guests. Feeling alone and a bit befuddled by the day’s events, Kim finally arrives at her destination, a grand house known as Treggarron, only to discover that the gates surrounding the property are padlocked. When she eventually meets the health resort’s attractive owner and his sickly wife, Kim’s defenses begin to go down. She feels welcome at Treggarron, but why are the windows sealed shut? Where are all the guests? And what is that eerie organ music she hears at night?
As the snow begins to melt and winter gives way to spring, the situation at Treggarron becomes more difficult and strange. Kim finds herself torn between feelings for her new boss, a charming, worldly gentleman who treats her like family, and the coarse but down-to-earth veterinarian that rescued her on the moorland. Both men have secrets, and both promise her a very different kind of future. As May Day approaches, Kim discovers an abandoned church on the Treggarron property and becomes determined to restore it to its original splendor, but before she can, strange rites and unspoken Beltane traditions will put an end to her plans.
A Bride for Beltane is a brisk read at just 213 pages, and the story moves along at a quick pace that makes you wish it was a bit longer. Vicki Page has the ability to build suspense, and her story takes some surprisingly dark turns while evoking provocative imagery borrowed from Wicca traditions that is often associated with black magic and satanism in fiction. Fire, a symbol of May Day festivities, is central to the book’s overriding themes that hint at renewal and rebirth. The story also has a nice underlying message about the evils of unchecked capitalism running amok in a small town. I don’t want to completely spoil the story for potential readers, but if you enjoy occult tales in the tradition of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby or Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, you should find A Bride for Beltane an enjoyable read.
I attempted to find out some information about the book’s author but didn’t have any luck. According to some quick searches and the fine folks who run the Fantastic Fiction website, Vicki Page did write quite a few books. Most interestingly was another Romance titled The Night of Lammas. Like A Bride for Beltane, it seems to have been inspired by Pagan holidays. If the cover art is any clue, it’s probably a much more lighthearted affair, but I won’t know until I actually read it because, as we all know, book covers can be deceiving. I suspect the author had plans for a Gothic Romance series based on the Pagan Wheel of the Year, but I don’t know if she ever completed it. I hope to find myself a copy of The Night of Lammas sooner or later, and if I do, I’ll be sharing it here. In the meantime, I hope readers have a wonderful Beltane, but you might want to stay clear of small towns with peculiar health resorts and abandoned churches.