- “A Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space - be it a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey, a vast prison, a subterranean crypt, a graveyard, a primeval frontier or island, a large old house or theatre, an ageing city or urban underworld, a decaying storehouse, factory, laboratory, public building, or some new recreation of an older venue, such as an office with old filing cabinets, an overworked spaceship or a computer memory. Within this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story. These hauntings can take many forms, but they frequently assume the features of ghosts, spectres, or monsters (mixing features from different realms of being, often life and death).” (Hogle 2002, 2)
- Note how he leaves the possibility to describe science fiction as Gothic.
- “Gothic fictions generally play with and oscillate between the earthly laws of conventional reality and the possibilities of the supernatural.” (Hogle 2002, 2)
- “Gothic fictions ... have most often been about aspiring ... white people caught between the attractions or terrors of a past once controlled by overweening aristocrats or priests ... and forces of change that would reject such a past yet still remain held by aspects of it.” (Hogle 2002, 3)
- “The conflicted positions of central Gothic characters can reveal them as haunted by a second ‘unconscious’ of deep-seated social and historical dilemmas ... that become more fearsome the more characters and readers attempt to cover them up or reconcile them symbolically without resolving them fundamentally.” (Hogle 2002, 3)
- “Many of the lead characters in Gothic fictions ... deal with the tangled contradictions fundamental to their existence by throwing them off onto ghostly or monstrous counterparts that then seem ‘uncanny’ in their unfamiliar familiarity while also conveying overtones of the archaic and the alien in their grotesque mixture of elements viewed as incompatible buy established standards of normality.” (Hogle 2002, 7)
- “The Gothic has also come to deal ... with how the middle class dissociates from itself, and then fears, the extremes of what surrounds it: the very high or the decadently aristocratic and the very low or the animalistic, working class, underfinanced, sexually deviant, childish or carnivalesque.” (Hogle 2002, 9)
- “No other form of writing or theatre is as insistent as Gothic in juxtaposing potential revolution and possible reaction - about gender, sexuality, race, class, the colonizers versus the colonized, the physical versus the metaphysical, and abnormal vs normal psychology.” (Hogle 2002, 13)
In Chapter two E J Clery traces the genesis of Gothic fiction suggesting that, at least for some years, “After Otranto the only significant work in which ‘Gothic’ appears in a subtitle was Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron.” (Clery 2002, 21)
So what was special about Otranto?
- “Walpole wanted to combine the unnatural occurrences associated with romance and the naturalistic characterization and dialogue of the novel.” (Clery 2002, 24)
- “The credible emotions of the characters connect us to incredible phenomena and events and allow terror to circulate via processes of identification and projection.” (Clery 2002, 25)
- Walpole’s contemporaries suggested that fairy stories sublimated class conflict such that oppressive feudal Lords became Giants in their castles. (Clery 2002, 26)
What are the progenitors of Otranto?
- “Thomas Gray ... revised the Pindaric ode, the most irregular and thus ‘sublime’ of metrical forms. ... One of the poems, ‘The Bard’, contains several of the ingredients later to be found in Otranto: a tyrant, a prophecy, and ghosts demanding Vengeance.” (Clery 2002, 29)
- “Scratch the surface of any gothic fiction and the dips to Shakespeare will be there.” (Clery 2002, 30)
- “Walpole's second preface ... was a notable ... defence of one aspect of Shakespeare's practice that remains controversial even in Britain: the inclusion of comic scenes in the tragedies. Walpole adopted this practice in Otranto, and it was to remain a [page break] feature of Gothic romance.” (Clery 2002, 30 - 31)
And of the contemporary imitators?
Beckford’s Vathek: “The eponymous villain and his equally loathsome mother Carathtis burst the bounds of moral instruction with their extravagant desires and grotesque cruelty ... Like Walpole, Beckford attempts a Shakespearean contrast of comedy and terror, but instead of interweaving the two, the black humour of the major part of the tale is finally overtaken by a scene of extraordinary tragic power. Vathek discovers that the reality of the ultimate Empire, for which he has committed so many crimes, is an eternity of aimless wandering among the multitude of lost souls in the vast domains of the devil Eblis.” (Clery 2002, 36)
Chapter 3 focuses on the 1790s. Its thesis seems to be that Gothic was inspired by the tensions, both in England and abroad, between the ancien regime and the demands of modernity. Thus the Marquis de Sade believed that ”the Gothic explosion was collateral damage from the French Revolution.” (Miles 2002, 42) Also:
- Contemporary “ reviewers knew full well that Gothic terror derived from the Burkean cult of the sublime ... for sublimity and terror were associated with tragedy and epic, the two most prestigious literary forms” (Miles 2002, 43)
- “By linking Burke’s terror with Robespierre’s in the limited cases of romances by women writers, critics stripped the Gothic of it high literary pretensions, implicitly accusing its authors of being social incendiaries, while figuring them as literary sans-culottes.” (Miles 2002, 44)
- “There was a widespread perception that all old structures were in a tottering condition such as, for instance, castles, or the constitution, with its feudal, Gothic foundations.” (Miles 2002, 44)
But there were other influences as well:
- Mrs Radcliffe developed the “explained supernatural, but her most significant innovation was ... the heroine in flight.” (Miles 2002, 46)
- “It was a common belief among Whigs and radicals alike that the English parliament traced its origins to an ancient, or Gothic, constitution brought to England by the Saxons.” (Miles 2002, 48)
- Schiller’s play The Robbers “ created an immense Fad for stories of Banditti.” (Miles 2002, 50)
- Schiller’s The Ghost-Seer
- “The Masonic charlatan, Count Cagliostro, was then headline news across Europe. Cagliostro was in fact of obscure birth from Palermo, Sicily. Styling himself be master of Egyptian mysteries and friend of mankind, Cagliostro cut a swathe through the capital cities of Europe. He foretold the future (using a crystal ball); dispensed nostrums freely to the poor; and held seances for the wealthy. It was also rumoured that he was a member of the Illuminati, a revolutionary band of Freemasons allegedly founded in Ingolstadt ( the future site of Dr Frankenstein's experiments).” (Miles 2002, 51)
- “For the British middle-class mind, English revolutionary violence was indelibly linked to ‘ enthusiasm’, or radical Protestantism. Mad George Gordon, who inspired the violence that bore his name, was a Protestant zealot; while the excesses of the English Civil War will laid at the feet of Levellers, antinomians, and now, retrospectively, the Illuminati through their diabolical influence on Cromwell.” (Miles 2002, 55)
- "German tales of illuminati ... did not feature revolution per se; rather, they represented plots and conspiracies and took place in a myriad of hidden places: in forest houses, gaslit caves, or secret gardens.” (Miles 2002, 56)
Gothic, like any genre, began to diversify:
- “Gothic follows the first law of genre: to deviate and make it new.” (Miles 2002, 58)
- “Like families, genres branch off into distinct lines as they incorporate new genetic material.” (Miles 2002, 44)
Chapter 5 considers the links between the Gothic and the Romantics. The Romantics simultaneously were attracted to and repulsed from Gothic.
There was a fascinating discussion of the “schism between text and footnote” (Gamer 2002, 94). For example, “Byron's notes systematically debunk as baseless ‘superstitions’ the very materials ... he indulges in most strongly in the text of his poem.” (Gamer 2002, 99) I have never before considered how footnotes could be used to establish a different narrative from the main text. I suppose it is another form of framing device.
“The fragmented structure of The Giaour, for example, becomes a metaphor for its title character’s state of mind, while the rapid cuts and multiple perspectives of its protocinematic technique put forward a phenomenological model of experience - one requiring interpretation to construct coherence from its pieces while simultaneously representing such interpretive acts as self-serving and doomed to failure. Frankenstein, in turn, deploys a narrative structure that buries its story under multiple layers of hearsay testimony.” (Gamer 2002, 101)
Chapter 8, about the effects of Gothic on Victorian novels, was perhaps the most fascinating, in part because it showed how novels I had read were influenced and, in some cases, sourced.
For example, in The Mysteries of London by novelist GWM Reynolds “one spectacular facade penetrated for future burglary is that of Buckingham Palace” penetrated by “the potboy Holford” who eavesdrops on Victoria and discovers that “immured in the luxury of her palace and surrounded by courtiers, she is unaware of the reality outside and the plight of the poor.” (Milbank 2002, 148) Sounds remarkably like episodes from the second series of the recent ITV production of Victoria. Could it be that they sourced some of their plot from fiction rather than history? Dramatic adaptations of Gothic novels still apparently exist.
The magazine Blackwoods had a significant effect on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. In chapter 34 Jane states “My iron shroud contracted round me”; this may refer to a Blackwoods story called ‘The Iron Shroud’ in which a prisoner is to be crushed to death by the inward moving iron walls of his cell. Other Gothic themes in Jane Eyre include that of a woman fleeing from a man and the “mad wife in the attic of Thornfield Hall owes something both to the blending of house and asylum in Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer and to a short story by Sheridan Le Fanu ‘A chapter in the history of a Tyrone family’ ... from which she draws the imprisoned foreign first wife, as well as the veil and the mirror.” (Milbank 2002, 151). One has to remember that JE was written in six weeks. Borrowing from other texts does not diminish an author in my eyes. It does the opposite. Just as one appreciates the craft that Shakespeare shows when he tailors his plays for the actors in the company he works with or the circumstances of the theatre in which they are staged one admires Bronte for using the materials she has at hand. Writing, like any other art, is not a matter of genius but of skill.
Dickens is, if you think about it, extraordinarily Gothic. Oliver Twist: “is set in all his pristine Innocence as a contrast and a judge of the people and institutions that attempt to corrupt or enclose him: the workhouse and its greedy administrators, the undertaker's shop, the thieves’ kitchen, and so on.Yet he only reveals what is already the moral character of those he meets: he affects no change.” (Milbank 2002, 155 - 156) “In The Old Curiosity Shop ... Dickens follows the same procedure of contrasting the child with a range of grotesque companions, but by placing a young girl in the setting of an embalmed past he imports expectations that equate escape with movement forward in time and the possibility of social change accompanying her rescue and maturation. In a novel that combines fairy-tale, comedy, melodrama, religious allegory and social comment, the Gothic is the motor that truly drives the action ... Although the child sleeps peacefully among objects that would terrorize most children, this is in itself disquieting, since it allows no possibility of escape ... Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of The Old Curiosity Shop is its utter inability to imagine anyway in which its angelic heroine may be released from the tentacles of a deathly embalmed past.” (Milbank 2002, 156) “Neil is the shortened form of Eleanor, and her journey across the Midlands is analogous to the route taken by the body of Edward I’s Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, from Northampton to London, each resting place marked by the erection of a stone cross.” (Milbank 2002, 156) “Esther Summerson, the illegitimate narrator of much of Bleak House, is named after the Jewish Queen who saved her people from death.” (Milbank 2002, 157) “Bleak House is a world without energy, erotic drives, or the possibility of future children.” (Milbank 2002, 157) In Great Expectations “Mouldering Satis House, with its time-locked mistress and youthful Estella, offers a false Gothic promise that Pip is the hero come to bring change and new life by rescuing the Heroine.” (Milbank 2002, 159)
Chapter 11 switches from the literary to the cinematic and is as brilliant about ceinematic techniques as other chapters have been about literary techniques.
Gothic visual tropes include: “The ruined castle or abandoned house on a hill made hazy by fog; the dark cemetery dotted with crosses and gnarled, bare branches; the heavily-built wooden doors that close without human aid; the high, arched or leaded windows that cost imprisoning shadows; the close-ups of mad, staring eyes ... the passing of a black cloud across a full moon.” (Kavka 2002, 210)
How can film achieve fear? By manipulating what we feel to be normal about the space around us.
- “The effect of fear is produced through the transformations, extensions, and misalignments of size and distance that are possible only in a three-dimensional space. Gothic film thus reveals and reconstitutes an underlying link between fear and the manipulation of space around a human body.” (Kavka 2002, 210)
- “Casting shadows is one way of manipulating space” (Kavka 2002, 214)
- “The stylistic techniques of German expressionism involve chiaroscuro lighting effects ... distorted backdrops, claustrophobic spaces, extreme camera angles, and shadows disproportionate to the objects that cast them.” (Kavka 2002, 215)
“A range of feminist and queer criticism has suggested that the Gothic must also be understood as a blurring of boundaries between the masculine and the feminine, where monstrosity is associated with the copying, mirroring, or incursion of one gender form onto or into the other. In Frankenstein, for instance, men undertake the female role of human reproduction.” (Kavka 2002, 211)
What is the difference between Gothic film and horror film? It's whether you see it or not:
- “There is ... a world of difference between not being able to see something that remains shadowed or off screen (the Gothic) ... and being able to see something terrifyingly placed before our very eyes but from which we want to avert our gaze (horror).” (Kavka 2002, 227)
- In the first Gothic set in Jamaica “the terrors of the heroine’s situation are exacerbated by her atavistic fears of Jamaica's African-derived magicoreligious practice of Obeah and the possibility of sexual attack by black males.” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 229)
- “Zombification conjures up the Haitian experience of slavery, of the dissociation of man from his will, his reduction to a beast of burden at the will of a master.” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 239)
- “The depiction of the Haitian people as zombies negates any possibility of their transcending a history of colonialism, slavery, postcolonial poverty, and political repression since, as zombies, they are incapable of rebellion.” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 243)
- “The hyperbolized, quasi-Rabelaisian grotesque images of the Haitian collective body are primarily olfactory: unbathed bodies smelling like ram goats, the abominable stench of rotting flesh, the nauseous smell of plague-ridden corpses, the stink of piss and decay, the smell of sweat, blood, and bruises. These images blend with Gothic, frightful images of the body as a mutilated, rotting corpse. The text abounds with images spawned from political terror: crushed hands, burnt bodies, cut-off penises, roasted testicles, sores, the blood that soaks and fertilizes the scorched earth. Death haunts the text” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 243)
This was a fascinating text full of brilliant insights into a genre that I had never really considered but now recognize as one with deep set roots and far-flung influences.
November 2017; 300 pages