What is Gothic Literature?
Image: by Lady Dhariyah
Many people think of the Gothic genre in literature as death obsessed. But I feel that impression is based on our death obsessed culture where the mysterious is removed leaving only the corpse without its animating light.
Gothic stories are dark, often exploring the boundary between good and evil. They are often religious, for faith is the battleground where these forces vie with each other at the highest levels. But death is never final in the Gothic tale. In fact, it is the Afterlife that is most frequently explored, even if it is that of the Damned: the vampire, werewolf, fallen angel, and the black magician who, because of his evil, wages war against God’s Creation and the natural cycles of life and death. He who knows the supernatural, knows that death is of the body only, that the soul/ spirit goes on.
As far back as Shakespeare, Gothic tales involved the lives of the European aristocracy and their issues with power, therefore the settings are luxurious, noble and remote. Lord Ruthven in John Polidori’s novel The Vampyre (1819) is rich, arrogant, selfish and gets away with it. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1898) is a great bloodthirsty warlord. Though poor, Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1845) is something of a monster in human form who rises from the ashes to wreak vengeance on his childhood tormentors. E.A.Poe introduced the decaying, inbred, anti-hero to the Gothic genre. Roderick Usher from The Fall of the House of Usher is an excellent example. There is a bit of the fairy tale in these kind of stories.
I heard a lecture once in London about how Ireland is the mother of the Gothic tale. Examples were os course, Bram Stoker, Sheridan le Fanu. When I mentioned how much of Gothic imagery reminds me of the Catholic church, I was told, no, it was an Irish Protestant movement. The wealth of the Irish Protestant elites began to decay in the late 18th century giving rise to a longing for the past.
A Literature of Loss
“The death of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” — Edgar Allan Poe
The loss of beauty, loss of nature, the loss of creative power, of transcendent art, history, culture, and ultimately the loss of meaning are what I see as the fuel behind Gothic art and literature. Death is the symbol of that loss, melancholy atmospheres express the emotional pain of those who value the deeper consciousness of the past. The impulse to favor the various immortals such as ghosts, faeries, fallen angels and vampires on the one hand represent the feelings of the outcast who cannot embrace or find meaning in what replaces that which he or she mourns. The need to believe that nothing ever really dies and perhaps still exists in some other reality leads one to recreate the lost world through imagination. Of course that other reality may only exist in art and literature which then become a way to preserve the threatened beauties by leaving a record for future generations.
The violence and fear in the Gothic tradition, sometimes verging on horror, sometimes going straight into it, often reveals the traumatic nature of loss. Some characters, the vampire, the werewolf, may desire revenge against the destroyers, or may have been the destroyers themselves who continue to prey on their victims. The modern Vampire may seek to maintain his wealth and power by selling his soul for eternal life, the Werewolf a man or woman who seeks to maintain contact with the wild. Either of these can be reduced to mere creatures of appetite or rage.
There so many ways to explore these issues that the genre continually recreates itself and, like many of its monsters, seems to gain new life with each generation.
Gothic Tales are Life Affirming
We come full circle. The imagery of death that implies rebirth suggests the potential for a Renaissance. The human imagination is fertile and endless. That which once was can be again if we have the will to recreate beauty and deep quality, the courage and self esteem to face the darkness and the light within. Therefor the Gothic tale can be a work of Alchemy, an attempt to transform the intentional vacuousness of Post-Moderism into a new golden age of Art and beauty rooted in transcendence and radical meaningfulness.
The was once a Gothic style that was deeply Romantic. These were not just love stories, but stories of passionate lovers, inspired artists, adventurers who go beyond the boundaries of the status quo. High drama, melodrama, the Sensation Story, were all Gothic.
Yes, the Gothic impulse is full of death, but it is never dead. Immortality, rebirth, loss and preservation, and renewal, the belief in a afterlife and therefore God are all present in this literature. Most of all beauty, even in what to many may seem strange and untoward.