The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction

The poem gives a sense of the few emotions that one feels first and foremost at delving into the world of Gothic. Fear. Horror. Tragedy. Solitary. Turmoil. But are they really enough to understand it? Gothic as a genre is far from simple interpretation. To that fact none are. The explanation for the word 'Gothic' is simpler though. UC DavisUniversity Writing Program teaches about Gothic novels by first and foremost establishing the origin of the word 'Gothic". Although now gothic is popularly associated with literature and architecture, this misconception has to be set right. Its origins lie with the tribals. The Goths were one of the many Germanic tribes who fought numerous battles with the Roman Empire for centuries. According to their own myths, as recounted by Jordanes, a Gothic historian from the mid 6th century, the Goths originated in what is now southern Sweden. They reached the height of their power around 5th century A.D., when they sacked Rome and captured Spain, but their history finally subsumed under that of the countries they conquered. The association with architecture can be owed to the period of Renaissance. During this time Europeans rediscovered Greco-Roman culture and began to regard a particular type of architecture, mainly those built during the Middle Ages, as "gothic" not because of any connection to the Goths, but because the 'Uomo Universale' (translates to universal man) considered these buildings barbaric and definitely not in that Classical style they so admired. The term "Gothic", when applied to architecture, has nothing to do with the historicalGoths. In a British context it was even considered to extend to the Reformation in the sixteenth century and the definitive break with the Catholic past. Gothic broke the norms and thus acquired the name. Another strand of thought says that Gothic literature earned the name because all the novels seemed to take place in Gothic-styled architecture mainly castles, mansions, and, abbeys. The word is now used to describe an architectural style and, as a derivation of that, a genre of literature based on dark deeds in crumbling "gothic" mansions and castles is an intriguing mix of the two theories proposed by UC Davis.

Defining the genre does not end there. Jerrold E.Hogle calls it an "unstable" genre. Gothic seduces, overpowers, confuses and blends not just the readers as well as other genres. Gothic as a genre comprises elements of mystery, horror, dark, tragedy things that disturb the normal and its perceptions. Romance is not what the mind grasps for while thinking of gothic. But that is what one needs to be aiming at even after preliminary studying. Be it your simple Wikipedia search that tells you "Gothic fictionis a genre of literature that combines elements of bothhorrorand romance" or a scholarly article which states "Gothic fictions oscillate between the earthly laws of conventional reality and the possibilities of the supernatural" emphasizing the difference between horror and romance as genres while reflecting on the common ground that has been christened Gothic.

Horror predominantly is associated with Gothic genre eclipsing romance but that is not really the whole picture. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives the primary definition of horror as "a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay." A genre of literature intended to thrill readers by provoking fear or revulsion through the portrayal of grotesque, violent, or supernatural events is Horror. Blood curling yes but it becomes heart wrenching as romance is dashed into the story line. Romance writers of America state that the two basic elements that comprise every romance novel are a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.On the other hand, Janice Radway who popularized Romance beyond the usual feels the genre is assisted by "the use of clichs, uncomplicated syntax, and signifiers which utilize familiar cultural elements." This further strengthens the different poles of studying horror and romance but gothic brings with itself amalgamation of the peaks and lows of the other styles. Gothic can be termed a mixed or hybrid genre. In the contemporary world no genre can be strictly defined. Each genre transcends its boundary to join hands with another to prove more entertaining. Action meets tragedy, comedy with romance and so on and so forth. This is the case with gothic.

Kelly Hurley in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction resists calling the genre gothic horror and defines it as a genre comprised of texts that have been deemed "popular"; that deploy sensationalist and suspenseful plotting; that practice narrative innovation despite the frequent use of certain repetitive plot elements; that depict supernatural or seemingly supernatural phenomena or otherwise demonstrate a more or less antagonistic relation to realist literary practice; that actively seek to arouse a strong affective response (nervousness, fear, revulsion, shock) in their readers; that are concerned with insanity, hysteria, delusion, and alternate mental states in general; and that offer highly charged and often graphically extreme representations of human identities, sexual, bodily and psychic. This definition itself displays the heavy dose of horror in gothic but romance is not far behind.

Fred Botting said that gothic is an exploration of mysterious supernatural energies, immense natural forces, and deep, dark human fears and desires that gothic texts apparently found their appeal. The appeal and identity of gothic relies on the dark according to him. This can be construed to be true to some extent. Gothic can be considered investigative literature as well of some puzzling entities. It can be as simple as a haunted house at the end of the road or a monster formed on legend that inhabits the marsh in the town forests. Gothic is often explained as a representation of the unsaid or hidden. Fears and anxieties that one may wonder about can be found in various gothic texts. This is the uniqueness of gothic. In general, the deep fears and longings in western readers that the gothic both symbolizes and disguises in "romantic" and exaggerated forms have been ones that contradict each other, and in such intermingled ways, that only extreme fictions of this kind can seem to resolve them or even confront them. This explanation strives to keep a bridge between horror and romance. It forms its basis on the bizarreness of some of the thoughts can simply not be explained by one genre and requires two. The polarity of thought can be made sense by reading the diametrically opposed genres as one i.e. Horror + Romance= Gothic.

Professor John Lye proposes that as the immediacy of the Holy threatened to disappear from the culture in the later 18th century the period was marked by literary expressions of the sublime, of the mysterious, and of the strange; by a return to the imagination of the mediaeval that marked pre-romantic period, so that the mediaeval was the place of historical reference and allusion. She says romance took two main forms in the English novel in the early part of the 19th century: Gothic Romance and Historical Romance.

Gothic romance specialized in symbolic exploration of the unconscious through the strange, the haunting, and irrational. Like many romances the Gothic tended to be set in distant lands or on barren, threatening countrysides. Gothic romance exposed and dealt with deep anxieties in persons and the culture. Gothic set out to expose and deal with the consciously ignored. Heathcliff inWuthering Heights, for instance, is a dark foreigner and hence culturally the Other, that against which we define and defend our humanity and civilized state, he a man with no parentage, a waif from the slums of Europe; and he is a figuring-forth of the force and terror of evil and of the irrational, a force of energy without civility. He is inexplicable but compelling because he sums the fears of his time and, to an extent, ours. Frankenstein's monster showed us the terrors that scientific interference in the holiness of the human held for us. Science has and always will be viewed as a necessary evil. Frankenstein in its very element embodies this statement with strokes of darkness.

Hawthorne of The Scarlet letter fame defined this breed of romance as a place of more mystery, less specific description of concrete reality, a place where, if you will, both elemental and spiritual forces could be put in play in a landscape that was full of symbolic, almost allegorical, potential. Today romance is generally associated with the strange and mysterious, the adventurous, with the lure of foreign lands, with something slightly magical, with a story which refuses to be tied to the realist tradition and explores phenomena which are unusual, allegorical, and symbolic.

Increasingly being stated is that Romance and horror form Gothic. They together have changed the perception of gothic from a horrifying sight of that which was most unbearable in a culture to recognition and embrace of the monster as the image, the inner, often denied aspects of us. Gothic follows the first law of genre according to Robert Miles which is to deviate and make it new. Horace Walpole followed the golden rule and identified gothic as a genre through his work. Hogle remarks on the pliability and malleability of this type of fiction making has proven to be stemming as it does from an uneasy conflation of genres, styles, and conflicted cultural concerns from its outset. The Castle of Otranto is looked at as the first gothic novel and its entry initiated a new literary genre namely gothic. It was first published in 1764 and simply changed the meaning of gothic. Before Walpole it was almost always a synonym for rudeness, barbarous, crudity, coarseness and lack of taste but due to Walpole the word assumed two new key meanings: first, vigorous, bold, heroic and ancient, and second, quaint, charming, romantic, sentimental and interesting. First the book was advocated as a "blend of the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern," the former all "imagination and improbability" and the latter governed by the "rules of probability" connected with "common life." He wished to bridge the gap between the romances of old which were according to him all marvel and wonder, and the realist romance of his own day. In this comparison he refers to his own cross between medieval chivalric romances and neoclassic tragedies oriented towards the old aristocracy, on the one hand, and the newly ascendant bourgeois novel directed in its comic elements and probabilities of common existence on the other hand. The second edition's preface constitutes a manifesto for a "new species of romance." With this edition he came forward as the author of Otranto. The year was 1765. The manifesto was a set of rules which if not for him would have in all probability been dismissed as a piece of eccentric whimsy. Castle of Otranto spearheaded a revolution in the world of medieval literature. It served as the direct model for an enormous quantity of novels written up through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Once a "successful" formula was established it was done to death.

Robert Miles talks about the "terrorist system of novel writing". This system was supposed to bombard the senses of the readers. It was deemed to be different form horror. Ann Radcliffe even said terror expands the "soul" and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life. She states further that terror is "pleasurable" because it is cloaked in obscurity and mystery while horror is "graphic" and unequivocal. Due to the success of Gothic fiction the literary world witnessed a shocking increase in the imitative works although this only indicated the high level of consumption it also ended up giving birth to the "terrorist novel writing". The time was after 1790 and this form of writing was a satirized form of the perceived "system" for writing Gothic Romances. Terror writing survived but sooner than later became eclipsed and "Gothic" emerged again.

Gothic never limited itself. The eighteenth century gave way to Victorian gothic which in turn opened doors to Modern gothic. Post modern gothic, female gothic, gothic science fiction, postcolonial gothic, urban gothic and queer gothic are just a few examples. The basic elements of gothic were incorporated in various plots and added to the multiplying strands of gothic. Many scholars have identified a few elements that are mandatory in any gothic text claiming or aiming to be gothic.

Elements of Gothic Novel by Robert Harris state the obvious rudiments of Gothic:

  1. Setting in a castle.The action takes place in and around an old castle, sometimes seemingly abandoned, sometimes occupied. The castle often contains secret passages, trap doors, secret rooms, dark or hidden staircases, and possibly ruined sections. The castle may be near or connected to caves, which lend their own haunting flavor with their branchings, claustrophobia, and mystery.
  2. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense.The work is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. Often the plot itself is built around a mystery, such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event.
  3. An ancient prophecyis connected with the castle or its inhabitants (either former or present). The prophecy is usually obscure, partial, or confusing. "What could it mean?" In more watered down modern examples, this may amount to merely a legend: "It's said that the ghost of old man Krebs still wanders these halls."
  4. Omens, portents, visions.A character may have a disturbing dream vision, or some phenomenon may be seen as a portent of coming events. For example, if the statue of the lord of the manor falls over, it may portend his death. In modern fiction, a character might see something (a shadowy figure stabbing another shadowy figure) and think that it was a dream. This might be thought of as an "imitation vision."
  5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events.Dramatic, amazing events occur, such as ghosts or giants walking, or inanimate objects (such as a suit of armor or painting) coming to life. In some works, the events are ultimately given a natural explanation, while in others the events are truly supernatural.
  6. High, even overwrought emotion.The narration may be highly sentimental, and the characters are often overcome by anger, sorrow, surprise, and especially, terror. Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common.
  7. Women in distress.As an appeal to the pathos and sympathy of the reader, the female characters often face events that leave them fainting, terrified, screaming, and/or sobbing. A lonely, pensive, and oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her sufferings are even more pronounced and the focus of attention. The women suffer all the more because they are often abandoned, left alone (either on purpose or by accident), and have no protector at times. Hogle elaborates by pointing out that women are the figures most fearfully trapped between contradictory pressures and impulses. It is Otranto's Isabella who first finds herself in what has become the most classic Gothic circumstance: caught in "a labyrinth of darkness" full of "cloisters" underground and anxiously hesitant about what course to take there.
  8. Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male.One or more male characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor, father, or guardian, to demand that one or more of the female characters do something intolerable. The woman may be commanded to marry someone she does not love (it may even be the powerful male himself), or commit a crime. Isabella in Otranto fears the pursuit of a domineering and lascivious patriarch who wants to use her womb as a repository for seed that may help him preserve his property and wealth, on the one hand, yet worried that, fleeing in an opposite direction, she is still "within reach of somebody [male], she knew not whom," on the other. Women were constantly reduced to objects of exchange or as tools of child bearing.
  9. The metonymy of gloom and horror.Metonymy is a subtype of metaphor, in which something (like rain) is used to stand for something else (like sorrow). Note that the following metonymies for "doom and gloom" all suggest some element of mystery, danger, or the supernatural such as wind howling, rain blowing, eerie sounds, sighs, clanking chains, barking of distant dogs, ruins of buildings and several others. One of the classics is footsteps approaching and characters trapped in a room. These elements are highly common and dramatic. They are played up more in the world of cinema with various effects.
  10. The vocabulary of the gothic.The constant use of the appropriate vocabulary set creates the atmosphere of the gothic. Here as an example are some of the words (in several categories) that help make up the vocabulary of the gothic inThe Castle of Otranto. What is interesting about this table is the guidance it provides to its readers about identifying gothic in a simpler way. It also denotes the words that are frequently used to create the ambiance of a particular word to make it fitting in the plot and effortlessly gothic.

Mystery diabolical, enchantment, ghost, goblins, haunted, infernal, magic, magician, miracle, necromancer, omens, ominous, portent, preternatural, prodigy, prophecy, secret, sorcerer, spectre, spirits, strangeness, talisman, vision Fear, Terror, or Sorrow afflicted, affliction, agony, anguish, apprehensions, apprehensive, commiseration, concern, despair, dismal, dismay, dread, dreaded, dreading, fearing, frantic, fright, frightened, grief, hopeless, horrid, horror, lamentable, melancholy, miserable, mournfully, panic, sadly, scared, shrieks, sorrow, sympathy, tears, terrible, terrified, terror, unhappy, wretched Surprise alarm, amazement, astonished, astonishment, shocking, staring, surprise, surprised, thunderstruck, wonder Haste anxious, breathless, flight, frantic, hastened, hastily, impatience, impatient, impatiently, impetuosity, precipitately, running, sudden, suddenly Anger anger, angrily, choler, enraged, furious, fury, incense, incensed, provoked, rage, raving, resentment, temper, wrath, wrathful, wrathfully

Harris has also listed the Elements of Romance. In addition to the standard gothic machinery above, many gothic novels contain elements of romance as well. As observations denote romance and gothic have become synonymous to a great extent. A study of these elements shows similarities with elements of gothic and uniqueness of romance. Elements of romance include these:

  1. Powerful love.Heart stirring, often sudden, emotions create a life or death commitment. Many times this love is the first the character has felt with this overwhelming power.
  2. Uncertainty of reciprocation.What is the beloved thinking? Is the lover's love returned or not?
  3. Unreturned love.Someone loves in vain (at least temporarily). Later, the love may be returned.
  4. Tension between true love and father's control, disapproval, or choice. Most often, the father of the woman disapproves of the man she loves.
  5. Lovers parted.Some obstacle arises and separates the lovers, geographically or in some other way. One of the lovers is banished, arrested, forced to flee, locked in a dungeon, or sometimes, disappears without explanation. Or, an explanation may be given (by the person opposing the lovers' being together) that later turns out to be false.
  6. Illicit love or lust threatens the virtuous one.The young woman becomes a target of some evil man's desires and schemes.
  7. Rival lovers or multiple suitors.One of the lovers (or even both) can have more than one person vying for affection.

The elements of romance create the required drama that increases the entertainment quotient and connects with a wider span of readers. This results in a wider appeal for gothic.

Kelly Hurley states that the period of 1760- 1820 showed some identifiable characteristics. Gothic has been defined in terms of plot which features:

  • Stock characters like the virtuous, imperiled young heroine.
  • Stock events like her imprisonment by and flight from the demonic yet compelling villain.
  • Setting: the gloomy castle and complicated underground spaces are a must. Hogle says that the tale usually takes place in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space such as a vast prison, a graveyard, an aging city or a large old house.
  • Theme: the genre's preoccupation with taboo topics such as incest, sexual perversion, insanity and violence; its depictions of extreme emotional states, like rage, terror and vengefulness.
  • Style is defined by its hyperbolic language. The need to exaggerate. Hogle states all gothic novels were satirized for their excesses. He believes that the Gothic exaggerates its own fictionality and does so through long lasting and creatively changing techniques. The language is one of the most important ones. The pattern of hyperbolically verbalizing contradictory fears and desires over a possible "base" of chaos and death, and in a blatantly fictional style, remains a consistent element in gothic.
  • Atmosphere: Its elaborate attempts to create a brooding, suspenseful atmosphere. The vocabulary table is testament to this point. Those words are employed generously to create a certain aura.
  • Narrative strategies are confusion of the story by means of narrative frames and narrative disjunction. The author aims to make the story jump in time and from character to character. A reading of Dracula will show the jump in narratives from Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker and Van Helsing. Since the narratives are in diary entry or letter formats it ends up keeping the reader engaged as well.
  • Plotting: The use of densely packed and sensationalist, rather than realist plotting. Hogle states that within the antiquated spaces where the tales take place are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically or otherwise at the main time of the story.
  • Impact on readers: Its affective relations to its readership whom it attempts to render anxious, fearful or paranoid.

Fred Botting in his summation of Candyman explains standard horror and gothic themes: ghost stories, urban gothic gloom, romance plots and visual and verbal references to staple fictions alongside a persecuted (or insane heroine), the villain is a slasher figure ever ready to disembowel his victims with a hook, a Faustian temper, a vampiric blood letter feeding off social fears. Although the film was made in 1992, the story line was inspired by Clive Barker's book The Forbidden which came approximately two decades before the movie. The similarities can still be spotted though. Botting in his observations mentions the few elements that have proven to be elementary in this genre.

Leslie Fielder in Invention of the American Gothic discusses the deep lingering fear for readers of the gothic that Fielder recognizes: the terror or possible horror that the ruination of older powers will haunt us all, not just with our desires for them, but with the fact that what "grounds" them, and now their usurpers, is really a deathly chaos. As mentioned earlier gothic does disturb the normal. Plaguing its readers with nightmares and deep rooted worries about possible tragedies is actually one of its aims. Gothic became the forum to say the unsaid and to represent the unspoken. A premise which led to wide spread popularity.

Gothic has been under scrutiny by various fronts. It has been used as a point of reference in economic statements by the founder of Marxism. Karl Marx used one of the most common Gothic monsters, the vampire to simply drive his statement home. "Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks." This quote is from Capital, Volume I, and Chapter 10. He has deftly pointed towards capitalism as a blood sucking monster i.e. a vampire.

Antonis Balaspoulos an eminent personality used similar references.

  • "labor value extracted from living bodies and congealed in the parasitically animated body of capital"
  • "the abstraction of value which, in a bloodless movement, vampirizes all of the worker's labor and, transforming itself into surplus-value, becomes capital"

The idea behind mentioning these statements is to catch a glimpse of gothic outside the literary world. An observation also has to be made of the replacement of gothic with vampires and of the stereotypical delegation of roles i.e. capital as the monster and the Labor as the victim.

Psychoanalytic Gothic is an intriguing concept devised due to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. In the psychoanalytic gothic, we intensely desire the object that has been lost, or another object, person, or practice that might take its place, but we are aware at some level that this object carries with it the threat of punishment: the anger of the father, the breaking of the law, castration. This strand of gothic has been articulated by Steven Bruhm in the Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. The want of something that does not belong to oneself. In both theory and clinical practice, psychoanalysis is primarily attributed to the work of Sigmund Freud, for whom the gothic was a rich source of imagery and through whom the Gothic continues to be analyzed today. Psychoanalysis provides us with a language for understanding conflicted psyche of the patient whose life story or "history" is characterized by neurotic disturbances and epistemological blank spots. More often than not, such psychoanalytical accounts are intensely gothic: "The Uncanny" (1919) and "A Seventeenth Century Demonological Neurosis" (1922) along with a number of Freud's case studies, make the figure of the tyrannical father central to the protagonists' Gothic experiences as Stoker's Dracula (1897). The Gothic provides the best known examples of those strange and ghostly figures that Freud saw as examples of "The Uncanny". For him what is quintessentially "uncanny" is the deeply and internally familiar as it appears to us in seemingly external, repellant, and unfamiliar forms. Most familiar to Freud are strictly psychological or visceral drives from our earliest existence, such as sheer repetition- compulsions. But perhaps what is most central to the Gothic be it classical or contemporary is the very process of psychic life that for Freud defines the human condition. Now, what makes the contemporary Gothic contemporary is that the Freudian machinery is more than a tool for discussing narrative; it is in large part the subject matter of the narrative itself. To the degree that the contemporary Gothic subject is the psychoanalytic subject (and vice versa), she/ he becomes a/the field on which national, racial, and gender anxieties configured like Freudian drives get played out and symbolized over and over again. Gothic becomes particularly contemporary in both its themes and reception; however, is that these unconscious desires center on the problem of a lost subject, the most overriding basis of our need for the gothic and almost everything else.

Botting does point out that psychoanalytic criticism one of the most common lenses through which the gothic is viewed, often misperceives its own 'scientific' knowledge of sexual instinct and Oedipal wished exemplified in the tales of terror and horror, all too visible in their characters and on the surface of their narratives. So much for the buried machinations of desire. Botting advocates that gothic has some stock elements but so does its criticism. He thinks the all too deep reading misconstrues certain elements and they get falsely portrayed.

Michel Foucault's transgression is applied on gothic as well. Transgression enables limits and values to be reaffirmed, terror and horror eliciting rejection and disgust; on the other hand, it draws eyes and imaginations, in fascination, to peep behind the curtain of limitation in the hope of glimpsing illicit excitements made all the more alluring for bearing the stamp of mystery and prohibition. Transgression means violating boundaries or committing offences. Gothic signifies a writing of excess with its hyperbolic language and drama. Gothic signified an over abundance of imaginative frenzy. Passion, excitement and sensation, transgress social properties and moral laws. Gothic excesses, nonetheless, the fascination with transgression and the anxiety over cultural limits and boundaries continues to produce hesitant emotions and meanings in their tales of darkness, desire and power. Gothic excesses are blamed of transgressing the proper limits of aesthetics as well as social order in the overflow of emotions. Gothic plots are criticized at times of celebrating criminal behaviour and carnal desires. As gothic came to represent the unsaid and the dark, it did transgress the beliefs and norms of the old world but due to the favourable rates of consumption, it remains an associated theory and nothing else.

Gothic as a genre has been avidly debated, reformed, criticized and adaptive to the changes around it.

Works Cited:

Various articles have been a part of The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge University Press. 2002.

  • Introduction: the Gothic in western culture by Jerrold E. Hogle
  • The genesis of "Gothic " fiction by E.J Clery
  • The 1790's: the effulgence of Gothic by Robert Miles
  • Gothic fictions and Romantic writing in Britain by Michael Gamer
  • British Gothic Fiction 1885-1930 by Kelly Hurley
  • The contemporary Gothic: why we need it by Steven Bruhm
  • Aftergothic: consumption, machines, and black holes by Fred Botting
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker. 1994. Penguin Books.
  • The Castel of Otranto by Horace Walpole. 1966. Dover Publications, Inc.
  • The Gothic edited by Fred Botting. 2001. D.S Brewer, Cambridge.
  • Gothic: Violence, Trauma and The Ethical by David Punter and Elisabeth Bronfen
  • Candygothic by Fred Botting
  • Gothic Excess and Transgression by Fred Botting
  • Language to Infinity by Michel Foucault
  • Marx, Capital, Chapter 10, Volume 1
  • The Gothic Novel by David De Vore, Anne Domenic, Alexandra Kwan and Nicole Reidy. UC Davis University Writing Program.
  • Romance Writers of America Inc.
  • Romance as a Genre: Some notes by Professor John Lye. Department of English Language and Literature, Brock University.
  • Invention of American Gothic by Leslie Fielder.
  • Elements of a Gothic Novel by Robert Harris on Virtual Salt.
  • The Valley of Unrest by Edgar Allan Poe. Published in 1845

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