What does it mean to be truly Gothic? Does it mean purchasing all of your clothes at Hot Topic and writing bad poetry on the backs of your hands? Or perhaps your are a member of a Germanic tribe in the Dark Ages, and wish to pillage Rome and conquer large portions of Western Europe. Because that’s totally Goth.
If you’re somewhat lukewarm on either of the above, do not fear. There are still ways to nurture the inner Goth living in the basement of your heart. Gothic literature, the most dark and decadent literature imaginable (except for Decadent literature, of course,) is associated with the Romantic period, but actually precedes it. The first novel defined as ‘Gothic’ was The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764; interesting to note, because even though the first ‘official’ novel was written way back in the early 1600’s (and anyone is welcome to guess what book that was,) fiction as we know it didn’t really take off until the middle of the 18th Century. This means that Gothic lit is arguably the first example of genre fiction, and all subsequent genres were to some extent spawned from it.
Like Romanticism, the basic impulses behind the Gothic genre were a rejection of the Enlightenment rationalism and a deepening interest in intense irrational emotion. Though it would be incorrect to say the Romantics focused solely on positive aspects of human experience, Gothic literature attempted to give the reader a full and engrossing insight into the sublime aspects of terror, revulsion and madness. Themes in Gothic literature are fairly common; there are usually motifs of the supernatural, darkness, secrets, curses, death and fear thereof, decay, and especially doubles. The author of a Gothic tale will make every effort to draw the reader into an awful, fearful world filled with unpleasant extremes, usually with a strong attention to atmosphere and setting, and the effort is not intended to give the reader some purgative experience, but rather to deepen their respect for the power of the unknown, and to thrill them and excite their emotions in doing so.
As always, my lists are highly subjective and not only do I pass over obvious examples (Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, anyone?) for choices I find more obscure and interesting, I also use the term Gothic Literature to describe some works that are admittedly on the margin.
I offer you Part I:
by Guy de Maupassant
Guy de Maupassant is regarded as one of the best short story writers of all time, and is considered, along with Edgar Allen Poe, one of the founders of that format. His stories are known for spare, economic writing as well as for clever, careful plotting. His oeuvre is usually considered to fall in the camp of Naturalism, which, although sharing similarities with Gothic Literature, lacks the flights of fancy and lurid detail of that genre. The Horla, one of the last stories he wrote, features the characteristic economy of his writing style but includes a somewhat more fantastical element of supernatural horror and is permeated by an atmosphere of terror and insanity.
The story, which is rather short, is written in first person in the form of a journal. The narrator, a unmarried upper-class man, begins to experience physical and mental anguish after waving at a boat on the river one day, inviting, as it seems, the ghastly, invisible Horla in to his life. Over time, the presence of the Horla grows more oppressive as it begins to dominate him and control his thoughts. Eventually, he begins to suspect the Horla belonging to a species of invisible vampires who feed on and dominate humans like cattle.
The Horla was written during the final years of Maupassant’s life at the beginning of a period of declining health and increasing signs of dementia. Many of the elements of the story come from Maupassant’s own life and some would debate the story was drawn from his own journal. Maupassant’s mental state decayed quickly after writing this story, and five years after its publication he tried to slit his own throat, much as the unnamed narrator sets out to do at the end of the story. It didn’t quite do him in, but he spent the short remainder of his life in a mental asylum after that point. A sad end for one of the finest writers of all time, but at least there is a clear lesson to take away from all of it; that lesson being not to wave at any boats if you think an Horla might be on it.
The King in Yellow
by Robert W. Chambers
The King in Yellow, (as well as The Horla,) is a work that had a direct influence on H.P. Lovecraft and similar writers, so much so that the work is placed in the shared setting of Cthulhu Mythos literature. Despite this, Chambers wrote The King in Yellow when Lovecraft was five years old, so there is no real association between Chambers and the later writers besides them appropriating his themes and characters. The book is written as a collection of short stories centering mostly around artists and Bohemians in fin de siecle Paris, incorporating a variety of different genres among the stories such as fantasy, mystery, and romance, as well as a section devoted to poetry and short prose pieces. What connects the stories in the work to each other is the malevolent and otherworldly King in Yellow, as well as a play named after that entity and an eerie symbol known as the Yellow Sign. These elements come in to play, if only fleetingly, in each of the stories, but they contribute to an aura of supernatural dread and the macabre. The King himself, who is rarely glimpsed but undoubtedly active through the book, seems to want nothing more than to drive various characters insane. Besides paying personal visits to various characters to do so, there is also his play, which we get to read the first act of. From our perspective it is not a very interesting play, but it is made clear that anyone who reads the second act is guaranteed to fall into madness after being revealed ‘irresistible’ truths. Chambers did not write many other works worth mentioning, but The King in Yellow is a highly enjoyable and suitably Gothic work recommended for any fans of horror and weird fiction.
Melmoth the Wanderer
by Charles Robert Maturin
Melmoth the Wanderer is considered to be the last of the ‘High Gothic’ novels. The story is fairly simple; the protagonist, Melmoth, sells his soul to the Devil for 150 years of extra life, and going backwards from the then-present, we hear the story of Melmoth’s wanderings in a nested book-within-a-book form. Besides containing stock characteristics of the Gothic novel, the story also ventures into the territory of social commentary. Like in much of early English Gothic literature, there is an undercurrent of Anglo-Saxon superiority that runs through the novel — championing English Protestant life and depicting the rest of European culture as flawed, decadent, and somewhat sinister. Notably, this was a characteristic of English and American writers, who often associated foreign cultures with evil and depravity in general. The ‘Continental’ tradition of Gothic Literature lacked some of this antipathy, which is not to say they weren’t just as prone to unappealing and ignorant attititudes on a variety of subjects.
House of Leaves
by Mark Danielewski
Taking our Gothic time machine forward a century or two, we come to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Taking a cursory glance through the text, a reader will notice the book’s unusual layout: narrative strands visibly spilling over in to each other on the page, footnotes within footnotes within footnotes, and lines of text arranged in bizarre fashions. The main story involves a photographer and his family living in a house that is found to be slightly bigger on the inside than the outside. Trying to uncover why (and how) this is, the characters are drawn into a Borges-like nightmare of recursive infinite passageways. On top of that story, we learn about the book’s two editors, the first who went predictably insane and the second who is wasting no time going down that route as well. Although it can be a little tough-going, the book’s unusual format can also be entertaining and more, than that, it serves as a device to increase tension and contributes to the all-important sense of atmosphere in this work.
As much as I believe House of Leaves stands as an example of a Gothic novel, it is also undeniably a work heavily influenced by Postmodernism. Now wait, Gothic Postmoderism? Is that possible? I would not only argue that is it, but I say that Gothic literature in and of itself possesses most of the attributes of Postmodernism. Gothic literature is transgressive — it addresses the terror and incomprehensibility of life and nature — it is constantly experimental (as evinced by practically every story on this list), it is capable of self-parody, and it often acts as a pastiche of current literary trends. All these are tell-tale traits of PoMo, but it seems Gothic literature beat it to the punch on every count.
by Matthew Gregory Lewis
One of the earlier examples of the genre, The Monk is perhaps one of the most lurid and unappealingly transgressive works ever written in English. Fans of authors such as Brett Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk might wish to take a look. This book is a Grand Guignol examination of every imaginable act of depravity, degradation, cruelty, and wantonness, perhaps only eclipsed by de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom. Not surprisingly, it was a bona fide best-seller in its time.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa
by Jan Potocki
If not for the later additions of Gravity’s Rainbow and The Illuminatus Trilogy, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa would be the reigning contender for the title of the longest shaggy dog story in literature. The story, which claims to come from a manuscript found sealed in a casket in the Spanish city of Saragossa, follows the story of a young officer as he travels through the Sierra Morena Mountains in Southern Spain. This is only a framing device, for it seems the young officer cannot go more than three steps without hearing the life story of some newly-arrived character passing on the same road. Inevitably, the stories these wanderers tell frame stories within them, and sometimes those stories have stories within them. Each story reflects some element of a greater narrative, which seems to center around an unseen Islamic secret society that the piously Christian main character might be being groomed to lead. The entire novel is packed with Gothic lit stock elements: ghosts and spirits, thieves, immortal wanderers, magicians and alchemists, lusty exotic women, and secret societies.
For all of its exhaustive segues, which, I’ll admit, do get old, The Manuscript Found in Sargossa is a highly enjoyable and exciting book. Moreso, it possesses some of the most entertaining and lively characters of any book I can think of, and the writing style is fresh and experimental even two centuries later. What I like most about this book is that, unlike other works of Gothic literature that seem horribly dissonant in their values by modern standards, Potocki’s work had an endlessly egalitarian, tolerant, and curious attitude about it. Ideas, philosophies, beliefs, and ways of life are all examined and compared against each other, and Potocki broaches no conclusion but that life is best when all elements of humanity are able to come together in heartfelt examination and raucous merrymaking.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
by Patrick Suskind
A notable example of modern Gothic Fiction, as well as of the genre lacking any discernible elements of the supernatural. Perfume is the story of a young French orphan who lacks his own personal scent but possesses an extraordinary sense of smell. Somewhat unusually, the descriptions in the book almost all concern scents and odors, and words cannot describe the atmosphere of horror and revulsion that results from the exhaustive litany of smells that Suskind describes in the course of depicting life in 18th Century Paris. Many other elements of Gothic literature are present in this work, but more prominent than anything else are the horrific, oppressive odors. I can honestly say that few books can actually genuinely disturb me, and without a doubt this is one of them.
Do stay tuned for the second installment…