Reading the Gothic in the 21st Century

Reading the GothicDarkness, mystery, eeriness, the supernatural, setting, isolation, and morality – a combination of these components forms the skeleton of the Gothic genre. Whilst its origins are often attributed to Horace Walpole’sThe Castle of Otranto, the genre evolved into famous classic novels such as Dracula and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde subsequently leading to modern works like The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and The Wasp Factory. With the advancement of technology in the 20thand 21stcenturies, the platform of cinema has embraced the Gothic by spinning existing tales into visual masterpieces and creating original stories inspired by the genre, increasing its accessibility. From reading classic and modern pieces to viewing cinema in the 21stcentury, the Gothic still retains its charm in serving as an escapism into a fantastical world, spooking and prompting questions of morality along the way.

The Allure

Suspense

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads

– The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Gothic captivates with suspense. Devoid of cheap jump scares, instead, the Gothic creeps and twists, luring us deeper into a new heterocosm. Suspense is intriguing and therefore a prominent strength of the genre, epitomised in Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper, which is 10,980 words of suspense, punctured with bursts of terror. In this tale, the narrator’s condition alarmingly progresses to such an extent that the sense of foreboding becomes almost suffocating. Her deterioration is so deeply complex that it emphasises the advantages of the first-person narrative, something that cinema struggles to capture. Sadly, the elements of suspense and shock are partly lost on the modern reader in the case of Jekyll & Hyde due to its fame. It was once a ‘shilling shocker’ – a Victorian novel of crime or violence costing one shilling, which could be likened with the so-called ‘airport thrillers’ that are created today. Despite the inevitable detachment that exists between the modern reader and classic novels, the grandeur of Stevenson’s prose hooked my attention on the first page. Though it may be inaccessible to some 21stcentury readers seeking a light read the eloquent and Victorian style of language is precisely what makes it intriguing – it all contributes in building an ambiance of the otherworldly.

 

Supernatural

At this moment a light gleamed on the wall. Was it, I asked myself, a ray from the moon penetrating some aperture in the blind? No…I thought the swift-darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world

– Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë

Often, suspense is achieved through the otherworldly; by hinting at the supernatural but obscuring the full truth from the reader to maintain mystery. The escapism permitted from a vampiric world piques our curiosity. It emerges in countless works of film and literature, with some lore carried across worlds to allow for some element of consistency, and writers still create original fantastical concepts. Yet the allure of the supernatural resides in its unfamiliarity, the unknown, the enigma. Although it plays an overt role in Dracula, the supernatural is subtly utilised in Jane Eyre to great effect. Dotted throughout the novel, Brontë uses apparitions to force death to the forefront of our minds, a motif that surfaces frequently in the story. The older narrator attempts to rationalise her childhood trauma, yet she is evidently deeply disturbed, emphasising the power of our overactive imaginations whilst still leaving us riddled in ambiguity as to the truth and existence of the supernatural.

Light and dark

In the agonised womb of consciousness, these polar twins could be continuously struggling’

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886) Robert Louis Stevenson

Dark subject matter is ubiquitous in the Gothic. Death looms over the Gothic, prompting us to ponder over the afterlife, as is human nature. Herein lies another way in which the genre holds relevance today; despite its otherworldly elements, the Gothic is innately human. Human problems are often centric in the genre, with questions of morality weighing heavily down upon Jekyll & Hyde in the inescapable dichotomy between light and dark, good and evil. This perpetual battle is essentially an exaggeration, or physical manifestation, of human error and the moral problems we are faced with – the beast within. There is certainly something oddly appealing in reading about the crimes and mistakes of others, regardless of truth. It reminds us we are not alone in acting erroneously, further highlighting the relatability of the Gothic to a 21stcentury reader.

Rebellion

The death of somebody close gives you a good excuse to go a bit crazy for a while and do things that would otherwise be inexcusable. What delight to behave really badly and still get loads of sympathy!

The Wasp Factory (1984) Iain Banks

Whilst the fine lines between good and evil frequently manifest across the genre, it is villainy that takes centre-stage. Bram Stoker gives his novel’s title to the antagonist and Iain Banks bestows his narrative to the murderous Frank Cauldhame in The Wasp Factory. Rejection of the norm is enticing, and it is how the Gothic began. Horace Walpole – supposed godfather of the Gothic, or at least name-giver – falsely claimed that The Castle of Otranto was a medieval text and thereby birthed the concept of the uncovered manuscript and manipulating the mystery in history. Thus, the genre is rooted in deception and rebellion. Consequently, it can challenge social norms in instances like Jekyll & Hyde, which appears a direct attack upon the Victorian era’s fixation on progression. Hyde is troglodytic and therefore regressive, representing the degeneration of society. Social expectations are also contested, by side-lining the hero and bringing the villain under the spotlight. This device is employed by Banks in order to allow the reader a rare glimpse inside the mind of a sadistic adolescent. It feels wrong to sympathise with Frank when he horrifyingly boasts of his crimes, yet Banks still steers us towards this emotion. While Frank defies the law, the author defies our expectations.

Cinema

It feels apt to mention Gothic cinema in a literature article when it is a direct product of the genre. Gothic films are not synonymous with horror, but rather thrillers, some brilliant examples being two films from 2017: Lady Macbeth and The Shape of Water. Lady Macbeth is adapted from a Russian novella, set on a beautifully bleak landscape, evoking that of Wuthering Heights, which is utterly corrupted by the protagonist’s scandalous deeds. This seductively sinister period drama explores the detrimental effects of isolation and setting imposes on the psyche, similarly to Frank’s confinement to a Scottish island in The Wasp Factory. The Shape of Water is an Academy Award-winning film, often branded as a fantasy-drama yet it certainly possesses Gothic qualities. The fairy tale theme that runs through the piece is also explored by Angela Carter with her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories in which she distorts infamous tales into mature and disturbing content. More light-hearted in this respect, The Shape of Water has a more accessible tone whilst still dealing with issues such as fixation on loneliness through the principle characters who are a closeted homosexual and a mute. At its core, the Gothic is extremely visual; elaborate descriptions of imposing settings and conjuring original, mysterious material. Cinema can wonderfully convey this, from the vicious landscape in Lady Macbeth to the vivid animation of the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water.

 

 

Whilst cinema can offer an array of possibilities in exposing and conveying the genre, there will always be an element of authenticity in experiencing the Gothic through literature. The tone is not handed to us, as is the case with audible and cinematic pieces, but rather we project our own impression upon our literary experience. In all the Gothic works mentioned here, the tool of the first-person narrative is the most effective way of reflecting mental challenges or decline. This experience is certainly more immersive through reading, as opposed to viewing, as we follow the speaker’s thought process and are reminded of the human quality of the Gothic. It expresses human flaw overtly in The Wasp Factory with Frank’s casual attitude towards murder, whereas it is heavily polarised in Jekyll & Hyde, with the two characters representing different components of the psyche. The Gothic acknowledges the dark intricacies of our minds: human flaws and our desire to defy. In the end, the genre will always be most accessible through literature as our imagination is the best platform for the Gothic to thrive – where the ambiguity of the supernatural can plague our minds and we inevitably recognise our own flaws embedded within the narrative.

***

Harriet CoxHarriet Cox resides in Birmingham, England where she obtained her BA in English Literature. Currently juggling full-time work with gaining experience, Harriet aspires to become a Content Writer. Her literary interests range from the Gothic and Shakespeare to modern thrillers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. After exploring a large chunk of Europe by rail and car, Harriet’s heart lies in Italy where she hopes to migrate to one day.

 

 

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Reading in Spain: A Walk from Train Station Kiosks to Bookshops.

Courtesy of Ugur Akdemir

An assessment of the reading rates and the types of readers of any country could be metaphorically imagined as an itinerary from train-station kiosks to bookshops. From literature understood as a pastime to reading thought as something adding meaning to one’s life. Indeed, I think we should look at reading from this angle where it becomes something else rather than just the processing of information contained in some pages.

The latest account developed in Spain on reading habits points towards this direction by saying that ‘reading might be understood as a wide set of cultural practices or as an activity reduced to something much more specific’ (FGEE: 2017, 81)—I agree with this conception of reading as something that might be lived in other ways beyond paper. Actually, I believe most part of the reading we do daily doesn’t happen through books.

The approaches to literature that don’t share this base used to favour the awkward reputation that surrounds reading sometimes. Let’s think of those who believe with pride or complexity that books aren’t about them; or, on the opposite extreme, people considering themselves part of an intellectuality that nonetheless refuses certain forms of culture appearing under a fixed level. Both factions are accepting an unsolvable distance between reading and the essence of human life, but literature is about multiplying the experience of life further than the limits of our persons. Thus, reading is about being able to live in situations that otherwise, we wouldn’t have come across probably.

So, as we begin walking from the best-seller counters at train kiosks towards bookshops, we see that the historical novel is the undisputed dominant genre. The high demand meets requires a correspondingly huge supply. I would say that historical fiction is the most democratic genre in terms of authorship since lots of people with previous knowledge in the field like university professors or scholars, dare to shape it often into a novel format. But as the most democratized and spread out of genres, it will certainly be the one that will require more filtering in the future. Indeed, the danger of such a practiced literature is that sometimes half of the pages don’t manage to impart something significant other than historical data—in the best of cases. Most of the best-selling writers in the sector are simply entertaining but there is little else in literary terms. If in the international scene, Dan Brown and Ken Follet are the best-known names, then the usual national hits come from authors such as Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Ildefonso Falcones, and Julia Navarro. However, the historical novel has also given us during the 20thcentury some of the finest examples of literature in the works of, for instance, Robert Graves or Marguerite Yourcenar. The Spanish scene has found lately a similar talent in the work by Santiago Posteguillo on the history of the Roman Empire. Posteguillo makes of history something autobiographically relatable for readers today.

After the historical novel, the second best-selling genre in Spain is the thriller. Together with the already classic Scandinavian authors: Henning Mankell and Camilla Läckberg, we find this year two Spanish thrillers that have been best-selling in all categories. They are penned by two women, Dolores Redondo’s All This I Will Give You and Eva García Saenz’s The Silence of the White City. Both stories are set in northern Spanish regions, Galicia and the Basque Country respectively. Both are also set within the context of traditionalist societies full of secrets and superstitions that play a key role in the stories. Similarly, the series of Lorenzo Silva has a legion of followers that especially praise the easily relatable atmosphere of the plot, set within the institution of the Civil Guard, with the agents Bevilacqua and Chamorro in the leading roles.

Despite the occasional enjoyment of historical fiction, I can’t help finding the thriller genre more appealing. I think the reason is that while historical literature borrows situations from the past which, when not treated well, can end up building a detached and boring narrative, the thriller instead is born from a much closer premise: a psychological vocation. Its spirit links more directly with the feelings and concerns of the reader today.

Moving from train stations to bookshops, there is the occasional oddity among the best-sellers. Books that without a best-selling profile gain circumstantial fame. Such is the case of Homeland, by Fernando Aramburu, which has been a sales-leader since 2016. Patria, in Spanish, is a story on the coexistence between victims and executioners after the stand-down of the terrorist formation of ETA in Basque Country. The book has the merit of having gained an almost unanimous opinion among readers. It manages to tell a hard episode of Spanish history through a story thread, characters, and events, rather than through lecture-like dialogue and information dumps. It’s an interesting phenomenon considering that having been set in the context of another conflict it may not have raised the interest that it has had. Surely Spanish literature was missing a well-written and aseptic work on this chapter of its recent history.

Stepping into the readings of a more critical or trained public, in the past months the works by Yuval Harari, Homo Sapiens andHomo Deus, have been probably the best-sold titles within this group. Nonetheless, as readings within this sector become dimmer, I prefer to focus on a general behaviour shared by different publishing sectors, which is how feminist literature gradually occupies the foreground. This approach is happening through disclosure works, republished classics, or circumstantial hits. An example of the latter is the international success of the HBO series The Handmaid’s Tale and the consequent upturn that Margaret Atwood’s novel is experiencing everywhere.

On the 90thanniversary of Generation of ’27 – a group of writers and poets that include the likes of García Lorca, Aleixandre, Dalí, Alberti, Cerunda and so forth – the work of their spouses or lovers, a group known as ‘Las Sinsombrero’ was published. These women were named after an incident where one dared walk around in Puerta del Sol (main square in Madrid) without a hat on. Most of these women were also the co-authors or editors of their partners, as well as writers in their own right. Nevertheless, when Dámaso Alonso had to write an anthology of his generation, he didn’t count on the works of their female mates. However, the much-anticipated anthology on the female side of Generation of ’27 has been finally edited.

We exploration of reading patterns could be deepened further into the different subgroups of trained public where we would find a much higher number of essays and specialized reading. But ultimately, as an overview, I think the situation of reading today in Spain shares some main features with the international panorama such as a clear division of the public – among pastime or trained readers – and the paramount of the historical and thriller novel (in Spain for sure). I wonder whether they aren’t precisely the defining genres of our time.

***

Gabriela Giménez (1992) is a Spanish Art Historian currently living in Spain.  She is Master in Contemporary Art History and Art Criticism.  After having been working within some main Contemporary Art institutions in Venice, Berlin, and Madrid, she is currently working in private book collections, and writing as a freelancer.


Source

Federación de Gremios de Editores de España (FGEE), Informe sobre la lectura en España, 2017. Ministerio de Educación Cultura y Deporte, Madrid, 2017.

 

 

The Unsparing Confessions of an Outsider: James Baldwin & Istanbul

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique.

All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story;

 to vomit the anguish up.

—James Baldwin

Courtesy of Fatih Yürür

When my lit professor asked: “Who has heard of Yaşar Kemal?” – the room immediately filled up with raised hands. And “Engin Cezzar?” – she asked over the excited buzz in the room. As an exchange student in Turkey, those names didn’t evoke any emotions in me. Nor did the next name: James Baldwin. Upon mentioning Baldwin’s name, the class fell silent. We didn’t know who he was.

His name would remain with us over the next two weeks as we studied the novel Giovanni’s Room. The story centres on David—an American in France. Separated from his girlfriend Hella, who has gone to Spain to find herself, he meets an Italian, Giovanni. The two men begin an affair and they spend their time together in a room that Giovanni rents from a maid. When Hella returns, David decides to marry her and submit himself to mid-century American norms and expectations. In turn, the already penniless Giovanni succumbs to poverty and desperation, [spoiler alert] until he commits a murder and is then sentenced to death.

The novel offers an internal portrait of David’s sexual awakening, and the frustrations that prevent him from achieving a stable romantic and sexual relationship with another man. It’s in David’s homosexuality—his identity and internal struggle as an ‘outsider’—that Baldwin empathised with. As an African-American living in Paris and as a gay man himself, Baldwin knew what it was like to be the ‘other.’ Read More

What Do Writers Read?

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

—James Baldwin

Courtesy of Suzy Hazelwood

Reading a good book is like spending time with a good friend. When you leave, feeling warmhearted and thankful, you look forward to coming back to them as soon as possible. To me, they are both a privilege and a treasure. Reading, like friendship, is essential to our quality of life—helping us relax or sleep, enhancing empathy or reducing stress by sharing new realities—but it also stimulates memory, critical thinking, and intelligence. In addition, and especially if you are a writer, you might have heard that the best advice for good writing is good reading.

So, what do writers read? What can we call a good book? Of course, the options are innumerable, as vast as people and tastes are on Earth, but I have narrowed a list of writers and books that have talked to me in the past, or hopefully will touch my life soon. I am quoting below the reading preferences of the following extraordinary authors: Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, J.K. Rowling, Maya Angelou, Henry Miller, Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Barak Obama. Read More

Culture Shock: A Literary Passage from New Zealand to Poland

Courtesy of Jerzy Gorecki

In New Zealand, the only borders are where land stops and water begins. There we speak of going overseas. For that is the only possibility to travel, one must literally go overseas to get to another country, be it on boat or aeroplane. But what do Europeans mean by ‘going abroad?’ Is it to go where the language is different, where they live under different rules and regulations, where they have something else for breakfast, where they behave differently? All while sharing the same piece of land?

The first time I came to Europe I was excited. The thought I’d be breathing the same air that Kafka had, walking the same dog-shit Parisian streets Celine did, seeing the same night sky that Hamsun saw… but then I realised it wasn’t the same as I’d imagined; it was actually similar to what I already knew. I’d dreamed of Dostoevsky’s adventures across the continent. Instead, when I got off the train, having arrived in yet another European city, the kids were listening to Eminem and wearing T-shirts with cheap English phrases on them. My dream of Europe was a myth, a romantic notion, a ridiculous expectation, an idealisation. The reality was different: I certainly wasn’t drinking whiskey with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Read More

The Relevance of Science Fiction

Courtesy of NASA

Ever since I was young and watched my first episode of Star Trek: Enterprise I’ve been fascinated by science fiction and the stories that can be told in this genre. Since then, I have watched many other science fiction shows, and I have read a good amount of science fiction novels. I feel this genre is often misunderstood as a literary genre and not always taken seriously or fully appreciated. While I understand it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think the beauty of science fiction is that there are so many layers and ideas inside of these stories that can make us reflect on whatever issue or aspect of society we care about.

While by definition speculative, and often considered as futuristic, science fiction has a long and rich history. Arguably the first work can be dated all the way back to the 2ndcentury AD when Hellenized Syrian satirist Lucian wrote A True Story. This novel contained themes that are still explored today in the genre, such as travel to outer space and alien life forms. Some stories from The Arabian Nights also include elements that could be considered science fiction. However, science fiction really took off with the dawn of the Age of Reason and the emergence of modern science. Isaac Asimov, famous for his Three Laws of Robotics, considers Johannes Kepler’s novel Somniumto be the first real science fiction story. Read More

Joining the “Globals” and the “Locals” to Build a World Fit for Purpose

Project Neighbours

In England, I used to work in an office with thirty members of staff. Every day, we’d arrive at roughly the same time, and for about twenty minutes, we’d stand in the kitchen chatting about holiday plans and last night’s TV before migrating to our respective desks.

Throughout the day in an open-plan office, we progressed projects chatting about each other’s pets and occasionally revealing a neighbor’s deathbed confession. At eleven and three o’clock, someone made tea for everybody on the floor. By five in the afternoon, with many tasks ticked off, we said goodnight and turned off the lights.

Around ten o’clock on Fridays, I would go into the meeting room and wait for the green light on the phone to flash at the full hour. I’d pick up and say my name before the person on the other end said, hi, great to hear from you. Read More

Playwright of Refugee Life – George Tabori

 

Today or tomorrow, I shall be taken to the camp.

May God help me to overcome this too.

—Regina Kandt, Last Letters from the Holocaust: 1941

Courtesy of Getty Images

The theatre’s nature is one of bringing people together, which makes it an apt medium to fuel collective memories. The type of theatre that best depicts the Holocaust is one that can provoke mourning for the victims and, at the same time, force the spectator to look within himself and ask himself if there is in him something of an executioner or of his accomplice. This is what George Tabori beautifully accomplishes in his plays The Cannibals, Mein Kampf and My Mother’s Courage.

 

Hungarian by birth, a writer in English, and a director (with occasional spouts of acting in German), Tabori combined his experience of British and American life with the cultural traditions of central Europe. What makes him so exceptional is not his widely known work as a translator and adapter of Bertolt Brecht, nor is it his screenplays of several Hollywood films, including the ones directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it is his experience. Would-be writers are often advised to rely on their own experiences when looking for a fresh subject matter. But there are a few writers that have as much rich material to draw on as George Tabori. His father was a prominent journalist who was arrested by the Nazis and was later killed in Auschwitz. His mother, however, managed to talk her way out of deportation to Auschwitz. Her story is told in Tabori’s play My Mother’s Courage and in the fiction film with the same name, directed by Michael Verhoeven (in which Tabori appears on screen through much of the film). Read More