At THE DARK SIRE we are incredible fans of the Gothic genre. Our go to author is Edgar Allan Poe. Who can deny the dark, eerie settings in stories like The Fall of the House of Usher or The Pit and the Pendulum? His critics at the time accused him of being too heavily influenced by German authors. But if that were the case, who influenced the German writers? Now, for me, all of this begs the question: Where did the Gothic genre come from? Someone had to write the first story, and succeeding authors had to build on that. So, I did the research (just in case there were other fans of the genre like me out there) and, with the sources of John Mullan, the Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and the other researchers at the British Library, I discovered:
Gothic fiction began as a sophisticated joke. Horace Walpole first applied the word Gothic in The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, published in 1764. When he used the word, it meant something like barbarous, having devolved from a word used in the Middle Ages. Walpole pretended that the story itself was an antique relic – complete with a preface that claims a translator discovered the tale – and was published in Italian in 1529. According to this origin story, the book was discovered “in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England.” The story itself, “founded on truth,” was written three or four centuries earlier still. Some readers were duly deceived by this fiction and aggrieved when it was revealed to be a modern fake.
The novel itself tells a supernatural tale in which Manfred, the gloomy Prince of Otranto, develops an irresistible passion for the beautiful young woman who was to have married his son and heir. The novel opens memorably with this son being crushed to death by the huge helmet from a statue of a previous Prince of Otranto, and throughout the novel the very fabric of the castle comes to supernatural life until villainy is defeated. Walpole, who made his own house at Strawberry Hill into a mock-Gothic building, had discovered a fictional territory that has been exploited ever since. According to Professor Mullan, Gothic involves the supernatural (or the promise of the supernatural), and it often involves the discovery of mysterious elements of antiquity, and it usually takes its protagonists into strange or frightening old buildings. With this imagery in mind, Walpole was trying to recreate the visual and physicality of the Gothic in real life.
In the 1790s, novelists rediscovered the world that Walpole had imagined. The queen of Gothic novelists at that time was Ann Radcliffe. Her most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) took its title from the name of a fictional Italian castle where much of the action is set. Like Walpole, she created a brooding aristocratic villain, Montoni, to threaten her resourceful virgin heroine, Emily, with an unspeakable fate. All of Radcliffe’s other novels are set in foreign lands, often with lengthy descriptions of sublime scenery. Udolpho is set amongst the dark and looming Apennine Mountains. Radcliffe was known to derive her settings from travel books. While other authors of the time chose Gothic for their subtitle, Radcliffe chose a different word to accompany the title on the front cover: Romance. Around this time, Minerva Press was providing reading material to the eager public who was hungry for this new kind of fiction.
Gothic then soon leaned toward natural, if complicated, explanations. Gothic truly came alive in the thoughts and anxieties of the characters. Gothic showcased the fear of the supernatural rather than the supernatural itself. And some authors, like Matthew Lewis, strove to go to the extreme – experimenting the outrageous of the Gothic tale. In his The Monk (1796), Lewis wrote a plethora of supernatural occurrences, including ghosts, demons, and Satan himself.
A second wave of Gothic novels in the 2nd and 3rd decades of the 19th-Century established new conventions. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) gave a scientific form to the supernatural formula. Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) featured a Byronic anti-hero who had sold his soul for a prolonged life. And James Hogg’s elaborately titled The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is the story of a man pursued by his own double. A character’s sense of encountering a double of him- or herself, also essential to Frankenstein, was established as a powerful new Gothic motif. Doubles crop up throughout Gothic fiction, the most famous example being the late 19th-Century Gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
This motif is one of the reasons why Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny (or unheimlich, as it is in German) is often applied to Gothic fiction. In his 1919 paper “The Uncanny,” Freud drew his examples from the Gothic tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann in order to account for the special feeling of disquiet – the sense of the uncanny – that they aroused. He argued that the making strange of what should be familiar is essential to this, and that it is disturbing and fascinating because it recalls us to our original infantile separation from our origin in the womb.
And this brings us to our favorite author Edgar Allan Poe. He used many of the standard properties of Gothic (medieval settings, castles and ancient houses, aristocratic corruption) but turned these into an exploration of extreme psychological states. He was attracted to the genre because he was fascinated by fear. In his hands Gothic was becoming horror, a term properly applied to the most famous late-Victorian example of Gothic, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The opening section of Dracula uses some familiar Gothic properties: the castle whose chambers contain the mystery that the protagonist must solve; the sublime scenery that emphasizes his isolation. Stoker learned from the vampire stories that had appeared earlier in the 19th century (notably Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu, who was his friend and collaborator) and exploited the narrative methods of Wilkie Collins’s sensation fiction. Dracula is written in the form of journal entries and letters by various characters, caught up in the horror of events. The fear and uncertainty on which Gothic had always relied is enacted in the narration.
Meanwhile, Gothic had become so influential that we can detect its elements in much mainstream Victorian fiction. Both Emily and Charlotte Bronte included intimations of the supernatural within narratives that were otherwise attentive to the realities of time, place and material constraint. In the opening episode of Wuthering Heights, the narrator, Lockwood, has to stay the night at Heathcliff’s house because of heavy snow. He finds Cathy’s diary, written as a child, and nods off while reading it. There follows a powerfully narrated nightmare in which an icy hand reaches to him through the window, and the voice of Catherine Linton calls to be let in. The vision seems to prefigure what he will later discover about the history of Cathy and Heathcliff. Half in jest, Lockwood tells Heathcliff that Wuthering Heights is haunted; the novel, centered as it is on a house, seems to exploit in a new way the Gothic idea that entering an old building means entering the stories of those who have lived in it before.
Two of Charlotte Brontë’s novels, Jane Eyre and Villette, feature old buildings that appear to be haunted. As in the Gothic fiction of Ann Radliffe, the apparition seen by Jane Eyre in Thornfield Hall, where she is a governess, and the ghostly nun glimpsed by Lucy Snowe in the attic of the old Pensionnat where she teaches, have rational explanations. But Charlotte Brontë likes to raise the fears of her protagonists as to the presence of the supernatural, as if they were Gothic heroines. Gothic still provides the vocabulary of apprehensiveness. Similarly, Wilkie Collins may have introduced into fiction, as Henry James said, “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors,” but he liked his reminders of traditional Gothic plots. In The Woman in White, all events turn out to be humanly contrived, yet the sudden appearance to the night-time walker of the figure of “a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments” haunts the reader as it does the narrator. The Moonstone is a detective story with a scientific explanation, but we never forget the legend that surrounds the diamond of the title, and the curse on those who steal it – a curse that seems to come true. The final triumph of Gothic is to become, as in these examples, a vital thread within novels that otherwise take pains to convince us of what is probable and rational.
As I pointed out earlier, one really useful term for thinking about Gothic writing is uncanny. Gothic fiction often strives to reach those uncanny moments in which the reader suddenly recognized somebody who seems unfamiliar and strange or has an identity that the reader already knows but is not quite human.
Now, this whole concept of the uncanny leads me to examine how American Exceptionalism took the Gothic genre and turned it into something truly unique. In another blog, I will examine the rise of American Southern Gothic stories.
THE DARK SIRE is always looking for Gothic fiction, art, and screenplays to add to our issues. If you have something that delves into psyche, traverses the dark and twisted, and has the eeriness of Poe, we’re waiting for you to submit to us.