Houses of Death: Ruth Rendell's Domestic Gothic and the Emptying Out of Romance

Gina Wisker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A blackened, burned dress hangs limply in an upstairs wardrobe in a dusty, deserted house in the Fens in Ruth Rendell's The Brimstone Wedding (1996). This dress, like the airless, loveless, and love-lost houses in both The Brimstone Wedding and The Secret House of Death (1968) serves as a reminder of false romantic promises, the emptying out of desire into the mundane, the dangers and betrayals both of passion and of the everyday domestic. This is Rendell's domestic Gothic at its best. In both Rendell and her alias Barbara Vine's more psychological thrillers, the twin comforts of romance and a safe home and family give way to disturbance, discomfort, disease, and disruption. Romance is treacherous and betrayed. However passionate, stolen, turbulent, and filled with promise, it slips away at a single deceptive act or through the repetitive, mundane everyday. Its worst outcomes are cruelty following the end of love or the equally destructive, mind-numbingly banal winding down into lovelessness. Clandestine love nests are cleared out and shuttered up; suburban family life is devalued. Each is prone to absences, deceit, and death. Much of Rendell's domestic Gothic has echoes of Daphne du Maurier's earlier influential genre-shifting romantic crime Gothic Rebecca (1938), and this novel's haunting of our reading of Rendell's texts underpins the discussion of The Brimstone Wedding and The Secret House of Death. Both use strategies of women's crime entwined with romantic domestic Gothic to undermine thoroughly investment in romantic love, domestic bliss, and the security of the family home.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)66-84
Number of pages19
JournalContemporary Women's Writing
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 3 Oct 2016

Bibliographical note

This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced version of an article accepted for publication in Contemporary Women's Writing following peer review. The version of record Gina Wisker; Houses of Death: Ruth Rendell’s Domestic Gothic and the Emptying Out of Romance. Contemporary Women's Writing 2017; 11 (1): 66-84 is available online at:


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