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.

 

 

Advertisements

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

Why I Read Poetry

Courtesy of John-Mark Smith

In Arabic, the word for poem شعر comes from the word “felt”. This simple fact encapsulates why I read poetry.

Back in time immemorial, the first poems were read aloud. Their regular patterns helped memorization of oral history, genealogy, and law. The performance aspect of poetry never disappeared; Robert Frost toured the country and earned a living mainly through poetry readings. In 2012, there were 7,427 poetry readings in April, National Poetry Month in the US. Some would even say poetry is meant to be read aloud only.

This poetic tradition can further be related to orators, who craft messages to be delivered aloud to an audience. Like the earliest poets, the best of political speeches live on in collective memories. It is of no coincidence that the speeches of JFK and Martin Luther King use common poetic techniques. Read More

How I Write Poetry

Courtesy of Mohammad Bahmanyar

Dawn has just broken in New Zealand—and here, the tui song is what greets you, though here is just one place out of the many we have lived in in the last twelve months. If life were normal at the moment, it would be dawn in New Hampshire that would have woken us.

I’m always the first to wake up. My wife, the prolific sleeper, dozes until eight (though she likes to think that seven thirty is more accurate). The morning routine is the same, really, no matter where in the world we are. Wash first and coffee second. Breakfast table conversation is non-existent until the hot coffee has done its job. Back home, I would be the breakfast chef, and have lunch packed and ready before watching my wife depart for work and settling myself into a day at home.

At some point in the last two years I became a full time writer. It was more by accident—a by-product of falling in love, you could say—rather than a purposeful fruition; a temporary luxury, perhaps, as the life of being a full time writer is a rare one, but one that has shaped the way in which I compose my art.

I’ve written poetry since I was young. Initially it was the not-so-good kind of poetry that hormonally charged teenagers scratch out between panging bouts of broken-heartedness or love. I would write about whatever I believed was important to me, scribbling in journals or on the back of books, or whatever came to hand. As I matured artistically, the number of times I wrote diminished. After finishing my education, I headed out into the world. But always, there was this longing to be a poet that travelled with me wherever I went. Read More

My Greatest Challenges Writing Creatively

I have been there many times – staring at the empty virtual page as I question my own existence and ability to write. It is usually referred to as a writer’s block – although some say it is a disease that only creative workers succumb to. Some say it is a curse. Others argue that it does not exist at all. But I have experienced sitting in front of a blank screen, fingers itching to create a masterpiece, yet nothing happens. It is as if my mind is overwhelmed with ideas, scenarios, characters, plot, but I fail to write anything down as the words are somehow eluding me.

At times like this, I usually take a break. Most often it occurs by re-reading some books on writing such as On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King or The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk. One cannot produce without consuming. Quite often, reading books inspires me and gives me the needed level of confidence to start writing again. Read More

Reaching for the Characters

by Josh Marshall

In all the years I’ve been writing – learning, honing, experimenting – the biggest challenge I’ve faced is to stick to writing a novel. There have been many failed attempts for sure. From it’s birth, the ‘aha’ moment where I believe I’ve got a brilliant idea, to the outline. And even to the revision of the first few chapters! But then… empty space.

These experiences have stifled me to the point that I’m apprehensive of attempting a novel, and I just stick to flash fiction, short stories and occasionally, poetry. The all-consuming task of the novel, the culmination and the proof of consistent hard work, sweat and sleepless nights lost in thought or flow eludes me. I want it bad. Yet I can’t go beyond a few pages before I tell myself: Who am I kidding? I won’t finish this and even if I do, who the hell will want to read it? Read More