Precisely one eternity after Part I, (which you should read before wading in here,) we bring you the second installment of Kevin’s most excellent list, in time for…
well, just in time.
Debuting at what may be considered the beginning of the now slightly moribund vampire craze, The Historian is a novel that had a fairly good run on the bestseller list and gained some fairly favorable reviews. Written in a self-consciously literary style, with chapters split into alternating timelines and much of the story told in epistolary form, the novel has a similar vibe to it as occult-academic thrillers such as Foucault’s Pendulum and The Club Dumas. Taking place in three different periods of the 20th Century, the novel follows an academic, and later his daughter, as they try to unravel the legacy of Vlad Tepes, the real-life character Dracula was based on. Never coming quite fully into the story, Tepes is imagined by Kostova as combining the qualities of the historical Vlad the Impaler with those of the literary Dracula, as imagined by Bram Stoker. Painstakingly researched, the novel analyzes the folkloric roots of the vampire legend in Eastern Europe, as well as offers an in-depth look at Eastern Europe’s significance as a transitional region between the Islamic East and Christian West during the Middle Ages and between Capitalist and Communist societies in the Modern Era.
Suffused with an atmosphere of eeriness and subtle terror, The Historian is not filled with grue and blood like other Gothic tales; rather, Kostova obsesses on another stock feature of Gothic literature: books. This book is filled with lavish, evocative, and slightly obsessive descriptions of maps, documents, mysterious tomes, old letters, and the decaying structures that house them. [Ed. Yum!]
One of horror’s forgotten classics and a significantly influential book to many later writers, The Great God Pan explored the theme of the rational mind’s inability to deal with the monsterousness and perversity of nature. Starting out as something of a science fiction story, the novel soon turns into a story of supernatural horror, as the narrative follows a woman who appears to be the offspring of the pagan god, Pan.
Machen has some flaws as a writer, but he has a singular ability to write stories that are bizarrely imaginative and still shocking by today’s standards. The Great God Pan, like The Horla, (see Part I) had a significant influence on later Weird Horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and others, inspiring the concept of the ‘Eldritch Abomination’: a creature of godlike capabilities and malignant indifference towards mankind, who can drive a person insane simply by its presence. Later writers would usually cast their abominations as extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional beings, but Machen’s Pan is stated explicitly to be the well-known pastoral deity known from Greek mythology, who, according to ancient standards, was far more dangerous and terrifying than we would ever imagine.
Despite achieving some popularity in her lifetime and having a fairly interesting circle of Lost Generation friends, Carson McCullers’ life was not an easy one. Suffering several strokes before the age of twenty and constant physical impairment afterward, watching a promising career as a young musical prodigy peter out before it started, and enduring an endlessly repetitive cycle of bad relationships throughout her life, it is no wonder her stories are almost without exception about misfits and outcasts living in some degree of isolation or deprivation. Told in the relatively realistic tradition of Southern Gothic literature, her stories usually forgo horror for horror’s sake and instead offer startlingly sympathetic and often heartbreaking looks at the lives of her characters. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, one of her more fantastic and fable-like novellas, is the story of two strange outcasts: the extremely masculine Miss Amelia, and the hunchbacked, childish Cousin Lymon. The two meet each other and a Platonic love blossoms between them as they run the increasingly popular Sad Cafe, which offers them both acceptance and a sense of purpose within their community. Into the mix comes Miss Amelia’s ex-husband, and a very strange, somewhat tragic love triangle develops. Unlike any other work on this list, McCullers’ fixation on deformity, deprivation and suffering is not intended to horrify, but to give the reader a sense of the universality and inescapability of these conditions, and to posit as to the manner one may find dignity and hope within them.
by Daphne du Maurier
Sharing much in common with Jane Eyre, Rebecca is a sort-of Gothic crime novel chronicling a young woman’s journey into adulthood as she finds herself living under the shadow of her husband’s former wife, the seemingly perfect and beatific Rebecca. Although there is not a hint of the supernatural, this story is as Gothic as they come. Dark secrets, sadistic villains, labyrinthine mind-games, dangerous attractions, decaying country homes, and poignant descriptions of bad weather, Rebecca self-consciously appropriates the tropes of Gothic literature but does so rather effortlessly. A rare and celebrated case of high literature that reads like a guilty pleasure.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
by Yukio Mishima
It is debatable whether Yukio Mishima falls in to the realm of the Gothic tradition or if his personal perspective was just so weird and unpleasant that he appropriated the features of the genre in his work without knowing it. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea is a good example of just how effective a writer he is in any case. Set in a Japanese village by the sea, the story follows a sailor, a young mother, and her son, as their relationships constrict around each other. Dreamlike, with spare, tense passages and a sense of menace that descends slowly, we float along as the anger and isolation surrounding the young son Noboro give way to a suggestion of horrific, senseless violence. What I like about this book, besides its serious weirdness, is its ambiguity. Characters in the story seem supernatural at times, but little is explained, and a great deal is left to the reader’s imagination in terms of what actually happens. [Ed. If you insist on watching the film first, (which happens not to be terrible,) be sure to pick up the book at some point after and marvel, mouth agape, at how much more satisfying your own imagination can be for your various forms of hunger.]
Like with most works by Poppy Z. Brite, either you will enjoy this book or you will read it and want to immediately wash your brain out with bleach. Brite is the master of two things: Baudelairean, bruise-purple prose and incredibly detailed and explicit acts of depravity, murder, torture and etcetera. Exquisite Corpse is one of her non-supernatural stories– essentially the novel is the story of two serial killers in New Orleans as they indulge themselves in their favorite pastime. Though gore and torture are not my cup of tea in literature, I have to admit a lot of respect for Brite’s absolute mastery of the genre and his ability to go to the darkest and most horrific places imaginable while rising above the cheap-shocking and sensationalistic.
As a final thought on the subject, I’d like to broach a topic that has been debated furiously over the last few years. Is the Twilight Saga Gothic Literature? It does, on the surface, have some resemblance to the Gothic genre; primarily the inclusion of supernatural elements and the theme of a young woman’s journey into a terrifying world where she confuses the fearful for the alluring. The reason Twilight does not quite make the grade is because the alluring is too alluring, and the terrifying not terrifying enough. Elements of terror and the grotesque surface, but mostly fleetingly. Instead of the main character (who, being a somewhat dim-witted innocent, is undeniably a Gothic heroine in the high style,) being confronted with the hideous and malevolent as she falls deeper into a dangerous attraction, the primary drive of the Twilight Saga is her love for the angelic Edward. Making evil attractive is a feature of Gothic literature, but it is debatable if Twipires are in fact evil (their feeding habits are somewhat similar to those of Bunnicula). Where Twilight succeeds is as a supernatural romance, but as I have stated the supernatural is not a guaranteed element of Gothic literature, and the intense focus on beauty and love as major themes run counter to the traditional Gothic formula. Other young adult books like Harry Potter, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and especially Lemony Snickett, fulfill the requirements of Gothic literature at least somewhat notably.
If anyone would like to comment on this dilemma please feel free to do so. The question of if the Saga qualfies as good literature is beside the point. Since it is consciously modeled on the formula of Gothic literature and currently sets some standard for that genre, it is a question I think is worth asking in good faith.
[Ed. Wait. So. Do you mean to say, Kevin, that you read Twilight? I’m confused. Apologies for tactlessly butting in, Aida.]