Inspired by the Gothic writing session that produced “Frankenstein,” Washington state novelist Megan Chance in “A Drop of Ink” imagines different participants in the same spooky location.
For her newest novel, Washington state author Megan Chance (“The Visitant,” “Inamorata”) returns to the historical gothic milieu where dark secrets, doomed relationships and intrepid heroines have held sway in her earlier work. In “A Drop of Ink” (Lake Union Publishing, 420 pp., $14.95), the setting is the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva — the historical house once occupied by John Milton, and where Romantic-era writers Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and 18-year-old Mary Godwin Shelley famously gathered during the summer of 1816. Joining them were Mary’s teenage stepsister Claire Clairmont (ex-lover of both Byron and Shelley) and Byron’s physician, Dr. John Polidori.
In Chance’s new novel, this starry literary milieu has inspired another set of travelers to gather at the same villa, 60 years later. Bayard Sommier, a poet so famous that crowds follow him, rents the villa, where he lives with the local servant and aspiring writer Giovanni Calina.
Joining them there is a trio of impoverished and unlucky hangers-on. We meet the captivating but unstable Louisa Wentworth, Bayard’s former lover; Louisa’s reliable sister Adelaide (“the ballast in the shallow-keeled hull of my family”), who dreams of being more than just a muse; and Adelaide’s lover, the poet Julian Estes, who is addicted to laudanum (a liquid form of opium) and is no match for Bayard as either poet or charmer.
The author of “A Drop of Ink” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com). She will also read at 6 p.m. Jan. 24 at the University Book Store’s Bellevue location (425-462-4500 or ubookstore.com).
As this quintet sits in the villa telling stories one dark and stormy night, Bayard reflects on how the evening “mirrors that which inspired Frankenstein” — a company of two women and three men, to whom Byron proposed that they hold a contest to see who could write the best ghost story. (Mary Shelley’s famous “Frankenstein” and Polidori’s “The Vampyre” were the two stories to emerge.) The mercurial Louisa proposes a new contest, with the ghost stories due two months hence — thus ensuring two more rent-free months of this “ménage à cinq.”
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The contest precipitates a flurry of events: literary, amatory, monetary and minatory. Passions flare, tempers fray and lots of ink is spilled. As Giovanni and Adelaide take turns narrating Chance’s deftly written chapters, they become the novel’s moral compasses, but even they betray each other and make horrendous mistakes.
Historically minded readers will particularly enjoy this bumpy ride, and the parallels between Chance’s re-imagined literary quintet and the actual participants in that long-ago gothic writing session.