The continuing appeal of Gothic Literature

The Gothic novel, as a literary art form, has haunted the popular imagination since it first took decisive form in the late 18th century. While it no longer dominates the fiction marketplace with thousands of publications as it did during its first forty years, it still holds remarkable power newly incarnated as dark romance, psychological novel, ghost story, detective or mystery novel, horror story, and dark fantasy. Much of its appeal may be linked to the atmospheric qualities of its setting which have made it just as popular in the cinema as on the printed page

Dream and Nightmare: Visions of the Gothic World

The gothic's appeal endures because it speaks directly to the subconscious. Plots, particularly those derived from nightmares and drug-induced hallucinations, embody deep-seated anxieties and primal fears of unforgivable transgression. The repressed reappears--as monster, distorted double, or undead revenant--newly exorcised in art. Gothic novels are noted for their psychological tension which builds to breaking point as deeply buried secrets are apprehensively unearthed, a process so fraught with guilt and fear on the part of the protagonists it appears there is a parallel exhumation of repressed neuroses. Instead of creating contemporary permutations on classical models in the accepted fashion, gothic writers sought authenticity and individuality, finding it in the spontaneous creativity of the unconscious mind. Writers as diverse as Walpole, Stoker, Shelley, and Stevenson, were all inspired by unusually vivid and unsettling nightmares. Others, perhaps less favoured by Morpheus, are known to have provoked the night rider artificially. Fuselli, the quintessential Romantic artist, ate raw beef and pork at bedtime; Ann Radcliffe, the celebrated gothic novelist, preferred the milder stimulus of toasted cheese. Byron, Shelley, Scott, Coleridge and Collins favoured opiates while Southey experimented with laughing gas. Disturbing or prophetic dreams are very frequently experienced by these writers' fictional characters as well.

The gothic paradigm: Paradise Lost

Typically the gothic world is a place of despair and degeneration, darkness and cruelty, pain and sado-erotic passion. Most frequently, we see it represented as a dungeon. From a place of idyllic happiness, a primordial Eden, the heroine falls on hard times and harder hearts. Bedchambers are locked from the outside, gardens are walled, and watchers are everywhere. For the hero, the once beloved wilderness becomes a prison in which he is doomed to wander alone, far from aid. Now through vast tracts of forest, now through foreign lands, the orphan of the storm meanders, lost to family and friends, lost beyond hope, yet winding his serpentine way intuitively homeward. Outside the locked gates of Eden, Death reigns supreme. The gothic genre has an almost medieval preoccupation with death's danse macabre, lovingly embracing mortality in all its forms: sudden and violent, long and lingering, undeserved or fitting, and it is equally obsessive with all its charnel accompaniments: maiming, pale corpses, dead babies, and a relish in the obscenities of putrefaction. The living stumble among the dead, hero and heroine alienated and estranged even from life itself, confined in a fearsome labyrinth which they must covertly navigate in a desperate search for the key which will unlock the mystery and allow their escape.

This labyrinth is most typically to be found underground, in the bowels of a gloomy and decaying castle or abbey. Following Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and the bitter civil war preceding the regicide of Charles I, derelict castles and abbeys were a not uncommon, though still uncanny, feature of the British landscape. The Protestant Reformation had a liberating effect on the national psyche. Freed from traditional, highly stylized forms of worship, each individual was responsible for his own destiny, and answerable to his own conscience. Freedom from the Inquisition's ever-present threat to heretics and freethinkers set the stage for the revolutionary individualism of the later Romantics who then mythologized the Catholic, medieval, feudal period into a fairy-tale world of naïve simplicity, and doted on the melancholy atmosphere of the neglected and overgrown architectural remains. These ancient ruins, mazed with confusing corridors, reflect the ruined fortunes of hero or heroine. Once these ancient piles were opulent homes full of warmth and life; now they are cold and dark, comfortless and shrouded in mystery. Restless ghosts pace the corridors disembodied reminders of a shallowly buried past and its intractable grasp on the present. In the gothic, financial ruin frequently leads to an entombment in literal ruins, and, for the heroine, the threat of a further "ruin" by physical violation.

The crumbling, malice-filled towers are places of deception and artifice where appearance and reality are ever at odds. This deceitful character seems entirely appropriate when we consider that the gothic genre was spawned by a spate of ersatz ruin building, Sir Francis Dashwood's renovations at Medmenham Abbey being one of the strangest. This was the home of a notorious secret society, the Friars of St. Francis of Medmenham, now known as the Hellfire Club. Composed of the richest and most influential men of Britain, including the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, this group retired to the privacy of a desecrated Abbey and its nearby caves for satanic orgies. Here sepulchre and labyrinth are places of underground erotic trysts where perverse and unholy couplings could be indulged far from the light of day.

Many dark secrets are similarily concealed in the labyrinths of the gothic novel-at the very heart of the oppressor's power. Like the fairy tale sorcerer who cunningly conceals his one weakness, his external soul, the gothic villain has a hidden secret, the revelation of which will destroy him. More often than not, this secret hinges upon the question of the hero or heroine's identity, an identity heretofore shrouded in doubt or shame. At the centre of the maze then, the nameless must, at last, discover themselves. This secret knowledge, once revealed, is a key which will unlock them from false appearances, and the threat of incarceration, return their lost or stolen identities and redress their wrongs. Or so it would seem. Some would claim there is no real resolution in the novels, that the nightmare is eternal, identity fragmented beyond repair. The hero is granted no absolution; the heroine, more fortunate, is permitted only an exchange of prisons.

In upcoming posts we will consider the very real contemporary anxiety about the rapidly changing social order mirrored in the protagonists' desperate search for identity as they attempt to free themselves from the corruption of the past, represented by crumbling castles and decadent aristocrats. We will also probe the concept of "family" and what this means, particularly from the heroine's perspective in her search for self. It is part of the female experience of this period that a woman exists at the disposal of a father or husband, bears their names, and inhabits their homes with little or no control of her own destiny. In similar fashion, the gothic heroine travels incessantly from one borrowed shelter to another, threatened by a forced marriage which would consume her by changing her name and merging her legal identity into that of her husband.

In exaggerated imitation of life, the social restrictions binding women are translated into a physically real imprisonment, frequently an unforeseen consequence of some ancient crime or curse which will be visited on the surviving descendants of the infected house. Will order truly triumph over chaos, or is there no abiding resolution? Some of this ambivalence is reflected in the attitudes to the aristocracy in the novels, both despised and sought. Oppressors turn out to be usurpers, worthy heroes turn out to have noble birth, penniless maidens become rich heiresses, and both join the very establishment the novelists have led us to despise.


The Literary Gothic,


Romantic Gothic deals with the tormented condition of a creature suspended between the extremes of faith and scepticism, beatitude and horror, being and nothingness, love and hate-and anguished by an indefinable guilt for some crime it cannot remember having committed. Thompson

For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration. Chris Baldick

Next, Romanticism and Revolution, the historical context of the gothic.



In which we identify the gothic formula and consider its origin.

from innocence to entrapment
in the labyrinth