“Gothic” – a genre for our times?

In a recent article, the BBC examined the genre of so-called “gothic” literature, and drew obvious parallels between it and “horror” books.  I simply won’t read horror – I’ve seen far too many real-world horrors to want any reminder of them, even in fantastical format – but I enjoy authors like Larry Correia, whose Monster Hunter series has (somewhat to my surprise) been classified as “horror” by some reviewers (I see it more as dark comedy).  So, I decided to read the BBC’s article and ponder on the distinction.

The BBC makes a number of interesting points.  Here’s a lengthy extract from a much longer article.

“We live in Gothic times,” declared Angela Carter back in 1974. It’s a theme Carlos Ruiz Zafón took up several decades later: “Ours is a time with a dark heart, ripe for the noir, the gothic and the baroque”, he wrote in 2010. Both authors had good reason. The Gothic has always been about far more than heroines in Victorian nightgowns, trapped in labyrinthine ancestral homes, and along with the supernatural, its imaginings probe power dynamics and boundaries, delving deep into disorder and duality.

If the 1970s (think the oil crisis, Watergate, a spike in “skyjackings”) primed readers to be receptive to such elements, it was a decade destined to be far outdone by the start of the 21st Century in terms of horror and upheaval (9/11, the global financial crisis, an intensified fear of climate apocalypse). The world seems to have grown only more uncertain in the years since, and it’s certainly tough to rival the age of Covid for gothic motifs made manifest. Claustrophobia? Try successive lockdowns spent working, learning, and socialising from home. Isolation? Ditto. Fear of a past that can’t be exorcised? Sounds a lot like “long Covid”.

. . .

In some respects, it’s simpler to define what gothic isn’t than what it is – it isn’t, for example, horror, which is visceral rather than psychological. At the same time, gothic’s very adaptability heightens its menace – just try to contain this beast. The Gothic is not a genre, insisted novelist Sarah Perry, writing in The Paris Review in 2018. “The gothic is, rather, a sensation, like hunger or desire; and, like hunger or desire, you may be hard-pressed to describe it, but you’ll know it when you feel it.” Most readers will agree with that last statement (and what a feeling it is, too – silliness and sublime terror blended with thrills and chills, seduction and revulsion), but whether or not it’s a genre, a mode or, indeed, a sensation, it does have a clear lineage. Trace that back through history, and you’ll find that some of the traits that seem the most contemporary are in fact constants, there from the beginning and still every bit as versatile.

As a stylistic descriptor, Gothic was first applied to architecture, and it was not a compliment. Coined by Italian artists during the Renaissance, it denoted a medieval aesthetic that they deemed barbaric (picture flying buttresses and pointy arches) and channelled, they felt, the spirit of the Goth tribes responsible for vandalising the Roman Empire’s classical art in the early centuries of the Christian era. Its literary application dates back to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, a short, daft novel in which the fabric of a castle comes malevolently to life.

. . .

While Gothic literature maintains a healthy sense of its own melodramatic excesses, it’s also giddy with potency: often, these narratives conjure up stories that cannot, for whatever reason, be laid to rest, exerting devastating power over reality, with the disquiet lingering even when rational explanations are found. Through haunted houses, the gothic invades the realm of the domestic. Through its use of the uncanny, it leaves us feeling as if we’re merely reacquainting ourselves with threats already known (in his noted 1919 essay on “The Uncanny“, Freud described “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”). And through dangers only half-glimpsed, it slyly bids us collaborate in creating customised terrors, all the better to keep us up at night.

. . .

The Gothic is an intensely psychological form. In the hands of the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, its crumbling architectural features become props in an exploration of fear and other intense mental states. It was the psychological aspects of the gothic that appealed to the writer Sarah Hilary as a student. “I never equated gothic with lace veils and old houses, or coffins and grave-robbers,” she recalls. “The books I studied were about the awful things human beings do to one another, and the terrible price we pay for vanity, or greed, or lust.”

. . .

… the Goth scene has emerged as one of youth culture’s most enduring tribes, filling cities and suburbs around the world with coal-eyed, jet-haired teens. Meanwhile, gothic literature has continued to evolve, tailoring its classic monster narratives to shape our 21st-Century imaginings of a posthuman future, for instance, or using tech to augment our reading experience … As the genre illustrates, the past has a way of foreshadowing the future. Today might feel like peak gothic, but it seems safe to say that we’ll still be needing its shivery delights and pernicious unease, its comfort and its provocations, to help us navigate tomorrow.

There’s much more at the link.  It’s interesting and informative reading.

The perspective is intriguing.  Do we live in more “Gothic” times than our predecessors?  Is our literature reflecting (or should it be reflecting) that “Gothic” reality?  If we write for entertainment, and to escape the drudgery of our everyday existence, is “Gothic” as a genre really an escape, or a reminder?  Should it be either?

I ask these questions because I simply don’t know the answers.  I’ve never followed the “Horror” or “Gothic” literary genres at all, at least not consciously, so I’m not the person to answer them.  However, it occurs to me that many of our Mad Genius Club readers are bound to have had greater exposure to them:  so I thought I’d ask you.  What do you think?

Please let us have your feedback in Comments.  I think the BBC’s article raises questions that we might do well to answer.  Thanks.


37 thoughts on ““Gothic” – a genre for our times?

  1. *takes a drag off a clove cigarette and fluffs his ruffled collar*

    Maybe, just… i dunno… *sighs with ennui*

  2. Interesting thing about “horror”. As the resident goth, I like darker themed stories. What I don’t like is the nihilism that passes for it in so much modern stuff. Nor am I a big fan of “spatter” stories nor jump scares. Both just strike me as a cheap/lazy alternative to building mood. (As someone with a very strong startle reflex, I particularly detest most uses of jump scares.) This doesn’t mean that fiction can’t be…messy. The MHI books certainly are and I’ve had some bloody scenes in my own work but for the most part, what goes on behind the character’s eyes, not in front of them, is what interests me.

    That’s why I like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the book, not necessarily any movies that go by that name). The Castle of Otranto was a pleasant read. And, yes, I’ve read most of Poe’s work (thanks to a Project Gutenberg “complete works”). Other “Gothic” literature has been a mixed bag. Some I’ve liked, some not. Almost like it’s the individual stories that matter more than whatever genre they’re technically classed under.

    And that’s my ramble for the day. 😉

        1. Cruxshadows, VNV Nation, Covenant, I:Scintilla, Ayria, Assemblage 23, Ego Likeness… i can keep going, i dj in these genres… and this isi without going to gothic/symphonic metal of course…

          1. Cool. Thanks. (Note: I have had some tell me that Cruxshadows is not “goth” but “Darkwave” but I have no clue what the difference is. I’m not good at figuring “genre” so much as that I like what I like.)

            1. I have no idea either, tho generally I prefer stuff that’s not quite the mainstream of whatever genre it purports to be. And there are so many hybrids and offshoots and bands that do crossover (Covenant does near-classical stuff too, and then there’s Mike Batt) … bah. Do not care what it’s called, how about “off in that peculiar direction of weird stuff I like” ??

              And if you play Beethoven REALLY LOUD, it’s punk. 😛

              (And metal subgenres… how do they even TELL?)

            2. Oh, don’t worry about that. People can split fine hairs over goth, darkwave, futurepop, and EBM, but given that taste is in the ear of the beholder and any given band can wander anywhere on the spectrum from album to album, much less song to song (Quick: is Type O Negative more goth or more metal? Well, are you listening to October Rust or to World Coming Down? Did you believe the Cure when they said they weren’t goth? None of us fans did…)

              Just like what you like, and enjoy it. Wolfsheim, Covenant, Apoptygma Bezerk, Assemblage 23, Neuroticfish, VNV Nation… I’ve danced to them all on goth night, and I’ve heard them all split out by the music-theory people as not-goth. *shrugs* Still danced to them.

              Well, nobody ever doubted Faith & the Muse. But a good goth DJ’s remix of Velvet Acid Christ, Fiction 8, and God Module? Hand. Staple. Forehead. I don’t have enough energy for that debate; I’ll be over with the other old goths at the table wearing our earplugs to save what’s left of our hearing, and debating if the pain is worth dancing to the next song. (If Bruderschaft, the answer is “yes.”)

              1. Well, he said recent, so i assumed Wolfsheim was out. Also why i didn’t include Clan of Xymox, even tho they’re still recording. The last album i got from them was a good mix of their old and new sounds, and several of them would have fit right in with “Medusa” or “Jasmine and Rose”

            3. Technically? yes, its darkwave… but the sheer number of goths i have seen at their concerts…

              keep in mind, the term darkwave was coined for *depeche mode* as a portmanteau of dark new wave

              use of darkwave as a genre has kind of fallen out of favor recently.

          2. Oooh, nice starter kit. Me… pretty much anything played by Tormented Radio or Digital Gunfire (tho I still miss Mirrorshades)… most of the EBM-to-aggrotech spectrum, with a special fondness for Hocico. (My younger self would be appalled.) My DGF streamrip archive from a couple years ago has 3300 files by 363 different acts. Where do I start??

            An amused observation I made a while back:

            The difference between industrial music and electro-body music:
            Industrial acts show up wearing a mohawk and a gas mask.
            EBM acts perform in a three-piece suit.

            1. or cargo pants and a leather jacket. (shows actual footage of Front 242 in L.A. in that exact outfit)

                1. *played*?

                  I worked for the company on a different game , and ran games for several friends including using the Highlander WoD fan-made

  3. That raised a distinction I’d never consciously realized. Psychological vs emotional manipulation of the reader. And in the real real world, of the populous, the potential voters, rioter or purchasers.

    Much of the response to “Climate Change” and Covid 19 is emotional, helped along by HomoSap’s innate need to belong to a group, with a thin facade of science, so we feel smart.

      1. The distinction between Psychological vs Emotional? Same as these: thinking vs feeling, brain vs heart, science vs art, mind vs body, etc. Kinda hard to break down; the two are not necessarily distinct, overlap, and the emotional always has the advantage.

        Back when I had to raise my own salary I talked to groups of potential donors about the “reasons” people should give me their money. Very poor response. The Carnegie course on “modular speaking” changed everything! Decisions are often prompted by emotion. I replaced reasonable persuasion with a collection of short stories designed to evoke feeling. My audience was mesmerized, happy and generous. Of course this is obvious to folks who earn a living telling stories!

  4. Always been a great fan of film noir, which seems a gothic cousin. But I never got the “zombie” thing — other than the original films that were Romero’s “social commentary.” Explain?

    1. Zombie moved into physical horror, as best I can tell. Instead of social commentary (and some of the novels still lean that way), it is “the creeping, gory horror you cannot escape without a 10 gauge and dynamite.” Not a fan, would not recommend.

      1. I wonder sometimes why the ‘murderous killer horde’ zombie story became a vehicle for hamfisted ranting about society when you already HAD tat in the older zombie story. I.e., the wicked houngan making you into a slave for eternity, a mindless and soulless thing that is worked like an animal without even the hope of death for release. Why has that been so completely forgotten?

        1. I suspect because that’s a harder story to twist to fit modern worries. And today, if you tried to use Vodoun or one of the other Afro-Caribbean religions in a movie, you’d get read out of Hollywood for cultural appropriation. Mainstream publishers, too. (Me personally? I’ve brushed an edge of that tradition and I prefer to stay well away from it, thanks.)

        2. IIRC, GURPS Technomancer had a bit of flavor text about Louisiana sentencing felons to “life plus 10 years” at hard labor. After the convict died, his corpse was reanimated for an additional 10 years of hard labor. That seems to tie in with your point.

          1. I have that book and I’m a big fan, but I’d forgotten about ‘Life plus 10 years undeath’. Thanks for reminding me. In retrospect I’m wondering how even a state as corrupt as Louisiana was able to swing /that/ by the voters.

  5. Ooh, an excuse to talk about recent personal obsession.

    I can’t speak to music (my tastes are boring), goth culture, or gothic literature.

    I’ve been reading Rith’s Memories of the Fall over on Royal Road recently. This is a multigenre work that does spend a fair amount of time establishing mood, and sense of peril.

    It is xianxia, epic fantasy, and mythos horror, plus maybe a couple others.

    Xianxia is a genre you probably haven’t read heavily, and I’ve recently spent a fair amount of time theory crafting, trying to explain it. Both the what, and the why.

    The why is pretty simple. The PRC is one of those societies that fit Trump’s description of ‘sh!th0le’. Jinping Xi is a sociopathic mass murderer, the regime’s hierarchies are suck up, p!ss down bullies, and organized crime appears to be rampant. The reincarnation isekai flavor of xianxia provides the wish fulfillment of a) getting away from one’s current society (isekai) b) being able to through a lucky break, get away from an extremely unpleasant personal situation. The things that bother the more critical American readers of Xianxia, i) one or several dues ex machina driving the MC’s power growth ii) starting from a position of being nearly lethally bullied, are reader cookies for the original readers of the genre living in the PRC. Yes, an ABC writer addressing these makes a xianxia that are more attractive for American readers, but it is a little like complaining about HEA for romance, or a mystery that ties up things at the end neatly with a bow.

    The what is a little harder to explain, because there is a flavor that I find hard to explain. Xianxia is a fantasy with a magic system that includes a series of spells that are cast slowly, which cause at least a physical transformation into a more powerful being. This magic systems are inspired by real world Daoist superstitions, and sometimes the magic users (cultivators) are Daoists. The xian is the same ‘immortal’ as the Daoist eight immortals. The xia is the same chivalrous or knightly as in wuxia (martial chivalry). (Stone Monkey/Sun Wukong/Son Goku in Journey to the West, is someone who explicitly practices both Daoist magic/religion and Buddhist religion. His transformations are a power learned from a Daoist master. The cauldron in which he was refined was also, I think, made by a Taoist figure.) The other elements of Xianxia are social world building assumptions of the ‘world of cultivators’, and the plots, which involve personal feuds, and increasing in power by traveling through the power levels implied by the magic system. (i.e. casting in turn spells that could be simply described as ‘become level one’, ‘become level two’, etc. Part of the feel of the genre is that nobody ever labels them so simply. Levels have names like foundation building, nascent core, something immortal, great grand master spirit emperor, etc. Spells get called things like “X School’s foundation building spiritual cultivation manual” or “ultimate chaos imperial martial glaive-guisarme technique of DOOOM!!!”)

    Cultivator institutions in xianxia are often not trustworthy, and sometimes the organizations are all basically criminal conspiracies. It is common in both xianxia and wuxia for an orthodox school to be officially on the side of good, but only pretending to be good and actually up to fairly serious levels of evil. (Dividing line between heterodox and orthodox schools is in the magic they practice. Orthodox magics tend to drive cultivators insane less, and officially isn’t out right evil. Demonology, necromancy, rape magic, etc., that are considered black magic and that morally are outright evil are officially practiced only by heterodox sects.)

    Combining the mythos horror, and the epic fantasy, Memories of the Fall has a deep history explored through many viewpoints, slowly builds tension and anticipation, and has institutions that are deeply suspect.

    But the world, institutions, and remedies are very different from our own, so reading us lets us work through some of our concerns about these things, but at a safe distance.

    Anyway, someone, I think Misha Burnett, described Gothic as being related to the enlightenment, a statement of faith in a world that is rationally knowable.

    Memories of the Fall might then /not/ be Gothic. In that the magic system, and whatever it is that is going on, might be rationally knowable by the reader, but is not rationally knowable in universe except by the characters at the highest level of magical power.

  6. I don’t analyze the world that way. As far as I’m concerned, humans are black-boxes. I don’t know what’s going on inside and I see point in speculating. In first person (or tight third, I suppose), I could handle something “gothic”, but knowing the psychology and internal thoughts of all/many of the characters is just not the way the world works. We might like to think we know why people are doing things, but we do not and their expressed reasons should be treated with skepticism – we’re _rationalizing_, not _rational_ creatures.
    And why is “run away” never the option people in these stories take?
    I tend to view the genre as populated by narcissistic idiots, so I don’t read it. I’m sure I’ve missed some great stories, but I’m confident that I wouldn’t like most of it.

    exerting devastating power over reality
    IT’S A STORY! If a story, no matter how good, exerts devastating power over your reality (“real” reality doesn’t care about a pile of paper, or electrons), there’s something deeply wrong with you, imho. Although, I suppose realizing that there is something deeply wrong with you from reading a story would be a good thing.

    This may have something to do with the idea that feelings/reactions are caused by external reality; they’re not. They may be triggered by it, but they are entirely internal and have nothing to do with reality. I had to remind myself of this yesterday when someone “made me” angry. No. He did not. I made myself angry; it was my choice – albeit not a conscious one.

    1. Just to be clear, (I feel) there is a difference between “interesting perspective, let me reexamine things in that light” or “brilliant idea, I’m going to try that” and “exerting devastating power” – especially without qualifications, in particular “can occasionally”.
      I’ve been influenced by this blog, but I seem to be immune to your devastating power.

  7. I was reminded of Stuart Schneiderman’s post about a women who does not want to emerge from the Covid lockdowns and who says her conversational preference run along the lines of:

    “I tend to dwell on dark, heavy subjects. I want to know what you think makes for a good death, and what you feel like the losses in your life add up to, and which social norms are slowly killing you as we speak.”


  8. I don’t think we live in gothic times, I think we live in times where a lot of people are desperate for drama– satisfyingly meaty, soap opera level, dramatic drama.

    Which “gothic” supplies.

    1. Agree. I’m not worried about the Cossacks barrelling over the hill, looting, raping, and burning in Hershey. The scent of chocolate in the air will subdue them.

      1. Now, if I were a barbarian, I would at least loot the loading docks of their black gold…

        As to classifying MH – those who put it into “horror” could do much the same with Lord of the Rings, or even The Odyssey, for goodness’ sake. Meh. I call it “military fantasy,” which I do not abbreviate as “mil-f” for a reason that should be obvious to most readers.

        1. Barbarian hordes are not known for self-control. They’d never make it out of Chocolate World; tens of thousands of square feet crammed with every chocolate product known to mankind. Why, there are fourteen flavors of Hershey’s Kisses alone.

    2. I agree, also — consumers are mad for drama, soap-opera level good-against-evil drama, even if they have to manufacture it out of whole cloth.

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