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”.
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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… 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.