In his 1853 essay, ‘The Stones of Venice’ philosopher John Ruskin analyses the characteristics of Gothic architecture and some of the terms are relevant to fantasy specifically “savageness”, “changefulness” and “grotesqueness”. Ruskin celebrated the wild imagination of Gothic artists, which is “full of wolfish life, fierce as the winds” and “changeful as the clouds”. Then he goes further, stating, “but it is not true that for this reason we are to condemn it, or despise. Far otherwise: I believe it is in this very character that it deserves our profoundest reverence”.
Recurring themes in fantastic writing include transformations, hallucinations, insanity, as well as the taboo subjects of violence, sexuality and death, and nowhere are these explored with more vitality than in the great Gothic texts. Gothic romance is studied on degree courses and accepted as an important ‘movement’ in Western literature and much of the best horror and fantasy writing today is accepted if the book is tagged as a ‘modern gothic’ novel.
The best books on the subject are both volumes of David Punter’s The Literature of Terror (1980, then expanded in 1996) and Fred Botting’s Gothic (1996). Botting describes Gothic literature as celebrating ‘excess’ and ‘transgressions’, highlighting key tropes such as decadence, desire, alienation and duplicity. Gothic writing is subversive and often ambiguous, and these concepts are extremely important when considering fantasy in general. Being subversive is precisely why fantasy is marginalized to a cult status and many readers are happy for it to remain as part of a subculture, rather than being subsumed into the mainstream: being part of a subculture is far more cool.
Ambiguity is often a negative criticism in literary studies as if ambivalence is a sign of bad writing or lack of control. Quite the contrary – novels that remain open and challenge the reader are often more poetic and philosophical and, certainly, these texts deserve a more creative reader. Jorge Luis Borges implores us to realise that “ambiguity is richness”.
The concept of the ‘sublime’ is a key concept when analysing Gothic romance and can be defined in terms of feelings of awe and terror at the power of nature and of the supernatural. Contradictions and opposites also occur in many Gothic texts; namely life and death, good and evil, order and chaos, reason and magic, agony and ecstasy. The best Gothic novels uncover that realm of the irrational: in spiritual terms, the supernatural and in psychological terms, the id. Gothic is subversive and unsettling because it exposes the fears and dangers that lie beneath the surface of civilisation and logic.
The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is recognised as the first Gothic novel and whilst it is artistically flawed, it stands as a good melodrama with ghosts, gloomy dungeons and violence in a medieval setting. It is a chilling tale with stereotypically feudal characters who exist in a world of pagan superstition. The overt use of supernatural paraphernalia and unexplained noises in the dark appear now to be clichéd, and Walpole admits in his preface his debt to Shakespeare. The narrative races along and events are described with great economy: “At that instant the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast”.
Eventually, aristocratic order is restored and if Walpole had any didactic intentions then it seems he was keen to clearly delineate between the preferred Age of Enlightenment, warning us not to recede back into a barbaric past (in direct contrast to Walter Scott’s later romantic preference).
A far superior early Gothic text is William Beckford’s Vathek (1782), which is a shockingly stark and violent oriental indulgence that concludes with a rather gratuitous punishment of the eponymous villain. Possibly even more outrageous for its time was Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), a vicious tale of evil corrupting and destroying innocence. Like Beckford, he never attempts to moralise, preferring to exhilarate and scandalise the reader. Here is a short sample: “Myriads of insects … drank the blood which trickled from Ambrosio’s wounds; … and they fastened upon his sores, darting their stings into his body, covered him with their multitudes, and inflicted on him tortures the most exquisite and insupportable”. The Monk has a narrative that involves rape, incest and murder and these two Gothic books are often considered the first true horror novels.
In the 1790s Anne Radcliffe found success with her long, labyrinthine novels with their simplistic notion of the duality of good versus evil. She tended to rationalise and demystify all sources of evil, showing how it emanated from institutions such as the Spanish Inquisition.
By the turn of the century the triumvirate of romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Keats were thrilling the world with their Gothic verse, and their exploits at Villa Diodati inspired the young Mary Shelley to write what Brian Aldiss considers to be the first sf novel, Frankenstein (1818). Shelley’s great novel of isolation can be seen as a critique of science, the family and the justice and political systems of the day. Shelley’s mother was an early feminist and her father was an anarchist. The most disturbing element of the novel is the way the author makes the monster the sympathetic and tragic character, whilst Frankenstein himself becomes more of a monster than the ‘daemon’ he created; another victim of hubris. The structure of the novel is also fragmented, told in letters and as stories within stories, until the reader is lost in the complex narrative, as if we too are becoming anxious and losing our minds. The ending is consciously ambiguous, resisting resolution. It is a modern and timeless myth that still starkly retains its relevance into the 21st century.
Possibly the definitive Gothic novel is Charles Maturin’s masterpiece, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). The whole text exudes an atmosphere of foreboding, claustrophobia, torture, alienation and paranoia. As an Irish Protestant, Maturin was keen to attack the tyranny of Catholicism and exposes the methods of the Spanish Inquisition and other arcane religious brotherhoods. Melmoth is at times a difficult read, with its complex intertwining narratives, but is at best a haunting and powerful portrait of suffering and guilt. One part of the book is set in a monastery, which slowly exposes the cruel conspiracy of a clandestine order who prepare to torture a young cenobite whose only crime has been hearing voices at night. “ I rose from my chair – then gasping, I leant on it for support. I said, ‘My God! What is all this terrible preparation for? Of what am I guilty? … Why am I not told my offence?’” The protagonist, the Wandering Jew, suffers madness, terror, pity, jealousy, hatred, madness and loss of love.
Meanwhile the gothic sensibilities were influencing American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Wilkie Collins to produce ghostly tales, but more extreme were the grotesque and psychological fantasies of Edgar Allan Poe. In Britain, Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters were using gothic elements in their now classic novels, such as Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights. Then in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson produced the great work of duplicity, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Stevenson’s short novel depicts how an “apelike” murderer turns out to be the evil alter-ego or doppelganger of a respectable, professional gentleman. Questions are asked about identity and the ‘self’, but more shockingly, Dr Jekyll begins to understand the delights of a hedonistic and chaotic lifestyle. The reader is repulsed by the image of “the animal within me licking the chops of memory”; Darwin’s seminal and, then, heretical, theories had finally found a voice in artistic terms. Hyde represents that regressive throwback in evolution to show that humans too are merely beasts with brutal instincts. Freud warned the public that latent repression of the libido creates neurosis and violent frustration and now here was a book that seemed to be giving expression to these new claims. Henry Jekyll learns that “all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil”. This is a theme explored further by later writers such as Joseph Conrad and William Golding.
The iconography of evil found its greatest symbol in the vampire, and most prominently in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), a stylish and macabre work that has provided us with an awe-inspiring archetype that has fed into the collective unconscious and become a contemporary myth as powerful as anything from the classics. Modern critics have explored the novel’s xenophobia and the metaphor of biting as sexual penetration.
Neuroses and paranoia have always interested fantasy writers and Henry James added a new dimension to the ghost story with his much cited novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898) which creates complete ambiguity derived from the unreliable narrator who may be lying or deluding herself. Paranoia and claustrophobia were taken to extremes by Franz Kafka in the 1920s whose political conspiracies create existential nightmares for individuals who are subjected to psychological torture.
In the twentieth century, the authors who probably employed gothic techniques most effectively were Mervyn Peake, who added humour and baroque language to his masterful Gormenghast trilogy; Angela Carter, whose postmodern take on fairy tales challenges preconceptions and terrifies as much as any other modern horror; and Anne Rice whose vampire novels are epic in their scale and richly flamboyant in their execution. Of course, Gothic has inspired all the horror fiction that exists and its elements are still apparent, for example in the American urban gothic of Stephen King. David Punter, in The Literature of Terror Vol 2, also refers to graphic novels by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.
In the world of film, the Gothic novels have inspired countless interpretations and created some of the most familiar clichés in cinematic techniques. Nosferatu (1922), Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1971), Bladerunner (1982) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) are all distinguished works of art that have employed gothic tropes, themes, imagery and atmosphere. In music, heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath and many post-punk bands, such as Bauhaus, developed songs, lyrics and images based on gothic horror, influencing the more obviously Goth bands such as Sisters of Mercy.
Gothic Romance will continue to influence contemporary culture because people will always seek to be terrified, amazed and challenged. There will always exist a desire for artists to be subversive and we should continually push the boundaries and break down conventions. Philosophers and theologians will continue to discuss the origins of evil and psychologists will always explore the workings of the inner mind. Gothic literature offers further debate on huge issues that affect the individual and society. The role of religion was always to explain the supernatural world, but now the religion of the Western world, or at least its language, comes from psychoanalysis in which we are taught to confront our fears and desires. This is the function of Gothic fantasy.