Friday, 19 October 2012

Gothic thoughts

On Wednesday I went up to Lancaster on the train and took part in a discussion about Gothic fiction for young people.  Celia Rees, Cliff McNish and I read extracts from our books and spoke a little bit about how we came to write them, and then, after a short interval, Dr Catherine Spooner led a discussion about Gothic fiction.

I saw Celia before the event and was very pleased to hear that her reaction was identical to mine, on hearing that we would be taking part in the discussion, in that we both felt a sudden urge to start swatting up on all things Gothic.

We also both quickly realised that this was hardly the point of the exercise.  We were not there as experts on the Gothic.  We were there to say what we understood by the term Gothic, to say how influencial Gothic works had been on our writings and to talk about to what degree the term could be applied to our own work.

My feelings of potential inadequacy were aroused by the fact that Catherine Spooner is a senior lecturer in English Literature at Lancaster University and something of an expert in Gothic literature.  I an art school graduate and certainly no academic.  But in a way, that's the point.  My interest in the Gothic began life, as much through film and the visual arts as it did through the written word.  As I have said many time before, I saw Poe adapted for the screen by Corman, before I ever read one of his stories just as I saw James Whales' Frankenstein before I read Mary Shelley's novel.

Frankenstein was much to the for in Lancaster, because I was talking about Mister Creecher and reading from it.  But there has been a Gothic strain to much of my published work for children and teens.

My 18th Century set Tom Marlowe adventures, such as Death and the Arrow for Random House are a kind of Gothic noir, with skull-headed highwaymen, unstoppable assassins and supernatural curses.  I have written the Poe and M R James-inspired Tales of Terror series and of course, more recently The Dead of Winter and Mister Creecher.

The Dead of Winter strikes me as the most Gothic of my Bloomsbury books.  My original pitch for the book was a 'Jane Eyre for boys' and though that is probably not as obvious in the finished book, some of that intention shines through I hope, in a story about a friendless boy finding himself in a lonely isolated house full of secrets and dark foreboding.  I read Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey as part of my research for Mister Creecher and was struck by the (purely coincidental) similarities between the P B Shelley-inspired Scythrop and my own Sir Stephen Clarendon.

But this brings me onto the discussion itself.  There was a lot of talk of the supernatural and the belief in ghosts (a belief not shared by any of the authors - or in fact any author of supernatural fiction I've ever met).  There was talk of witchcraft - due in part to our location and its association with the Pendle Witches.  There was a lot of talk about scary stories.  But is any of this necessarily 'Gothic'?  I'm not so sure.

We all agreed that Gothic was an elastic term that had developed and evolved over the years, but it still surely must have a meaning, otherwise it becomes redundant.  If it simply means 'scary' then why bother to use it at all?

So what do I think Gothic means?  Perhaps the easiest way to start to explain is to list some works I've read to which I think the term can definitely be applied:

In fiction

Christabel by S T Coleridge, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Dunwich Horror by H P Lovecraft, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death by Poe, The Ash Tree by M R James, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, The Inner Room by Robert Aickman.

In film:

Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte dir Robert Aldrich,  The Haunting dir Robert Wise, The Innocents dir Jack Clayton, The Masque of the Red Death dir Roger Corman, Great Expectations dir David Lean, Frankenstein by James Whale,  The Signalman and Lost Hearts by Lawrence Gordon Clark, Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, The Dark Knight dir Christopher Nolan, Night of the Hunter dir Charles Laughton, The Others dir Alejandro Amen√°bar, Rosemary's Baby dir Roman Polanski, The Picture of Dorian Gray dir Albert Lewin, The Trial dir Orson Welles.

Neither list is exhaustive of course.  For one thing there are none of the novels that sparked the term - The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho etc.  More thought would produce longer lists and there are a great many books, stories and movies that have elements of the Gothic in them, without necessarily being thought of as Gothic.  But I think there is a common thread in all the works above - and that is darkness.

By darkness I mean a darkness of mood - a psychological darkness - but also a literal darkness.  They are works that tend to be played out in black and white or at night or under glowering skies.  We are constantly being pulled towards the shadows and towards whatever horror lies hidden there.

Many of the stories here have a period setting, but I don't think that is a deal-breaker.  I would not call all M R James stories Gothic.  I would not even say that I would describe all of Poe's stories Gothic, although I think The Fall of the House of Usher is almost the epitome of Gothic for me.

As well as the darkness there is a particular scale to the Gothic.  It is operatic.  Everything is full on.  There is often a dream-like, hysterical edge.  The original Gothic novels were so over the top, that Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock were already having fun with them even at the time of their publication.

That deranged aspect becomes a descent into madness in the work of Poe and one or more characters in a Gothic novel tend to have their sanity stretched to (or beyond) breaking point.  Vincent Price in Corman's Masque of the Red Death or in House of Usher exhibits this perfectly.  They teeter on the verge of hysteria.  But Deborah Kerr in The Innocents or Julie Harris in The Haunting, or Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby also exhibit the same kind of doubts about their own sanity.

The setting in a Gothic story is often some kind of manifestation of this madness.  The House of Usher stands next to a stagnant mere and has a crack running from foundations to rafters.  Hill House in The Haunting seems to be sentient and malevolent.  The setting is a mirror of the mental state of the character, of their fears or psychoses.  The setting is often extraordinary in some way.

Although Frankenstein has some stand out Gothic moments and settings, I'm not sure the novel as a whole is typically Gothic (although Frankenstein's creature is surely one of the great Gothic characters).  What seems to me more unquestionably Gothic, is the story of the novel's genesis.

The Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, rain pouring down from pewter skies, seems a perfect setting for the events that unfold there.  The cast is near perfect too.  The bitter, bitchy John Polidori, the gloomy, glamorous Lord Byron, the hypersensitive and highly strung Percy Bysshe Shelley, the charismatic but infuriating Claire Claremont, and the coolly intelligent Mary Godwin.   It lacks a hysterical female character, but Shelley did his best to fulfil that role, having a (probably opium-induced) fit after a reading of Coleridge's Christabel, imagining that he saw eyes on Mary's breasts and running from the room screaming.

Celia Rees made the point that Gothic stories have to be nightmarish in some way, and I agree - there is something about the Gothic that taps into our unconscious dreads and fears in an hallucinatory way.  There is something unreal and yet compelling about it.  Its dark and dangerous but a bit sexy.

I don't think it has to be period set - I think it would be possible to argue that Hideo Nakata's The Ring and Dark Water are Gothic (or even Ridley Scott's Alien) - but the house of many rooms (or the apartment block) has become a kind of modern Labyrinth and seems now to have taken its place beside the forest in Grimm's stories as a kind of stage set for our fears.

Step over the threshold of that big old house, whether it be the Bates Motel, Thornfield Hall, Hill House, or the Villa Diodati and anything - anything - might happen...


  1. Interesting that a style of architecture should often feature in the films and other visual media too. Indeed the use of quasi-medieval settings has become a staple of the genre - I wonder why?
    Interesting post.

  2. Loved the post! I'm doing a presentation on Gothic novels and the coming back of the genre, so this was a delight to read.

    I think Gothic is about extreme opposites (as in light and dark, love and loss) and also about approaching life in an almost philosofical way. Frankenstein Monters does this in a very beautiful way, questioning his condition. The coffins, cemeteries and ghost themes also fit this idea.

    Great read, as always :)

  3. I think the setting of ruined abbeys and isolated mansions is interesting. Why has that entered our collective imaginations in the way it has? Is there something just inherently spooky about the business of that architecture with its stone carving and hidden spaces? Lord Byron lived in just such a Gothic pile and used the top of a human skull as an ink well! I think that over the years there has been a tendency to hold on to the setting because the reader seems instinctively to understand that world. It is harder, I think, to have a Gothic novel that does not involve those clear pointers - but definitely not impossible.

    Thanks Frini. I agree that it is about opposites, but I also think that the boundary between is very often confused in Gothic literature. Bad people are sexy. Good people are often dull or silly or can be turned bad. Gothic fiction is full of anti-heroes and charismatic villains. It acknowledges that we are not in control of our fears or our desires. Gothic fiction is about Sex and Death!

    1. I agree with you there, Chris. And that is why it is so interesting and captivating and scary, all at the same time. We, deep down to our core, are all about sex and death. We just struggle away from it sometimes when Gothic fiction embraces it. :)