It's guest post time and this week, we've got the proper clever Mari Biella writing all about the Gothic genre. So crack open your copy of Dracula and be prepared to be educated! Mari has just released a new anthology of stories called Loving Imogen and her ghost story The Quickening is really good.
I was quite surprised when my friend LK Jay described my recently-published collection Loving Imogen as “Gothic”. After all, the novella that makes up the bulk of the collection isn't Gothic in any conventional sense – it’s set in more or less the present day, in a normal house in a normal town; there are no cackling villains or supernatural horrors, and the innocent heroine turns out not to be so innocent after all. There isn’t a cobweb or dungeon in sight, let alone a vampire or monster. Gothic? Surely not!
And yet there is a sense in which I wasn't really so surprised by the description after all. Two other stories in the collection – The Song of the Sea and Summer – certainly do contain elements of Gothic-ness (for want of a better word). And, truth be told, I've always been a bit of a Goth at heart – minus the Goth clothes and deathly make-up, obviously. Gothicism is, after all, not so much a genre as a sensibility. If you share that sensibility, it will probably seep through into your writing, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not.
It’s difficult to trace the genesis of my interests in all things weird, creepy and Gothic. Perhaps it is innate, written into my genetic programming like my blue eyes or right-handedness. Or did it originate in my childhood? I certainly remember curling up in bed one night when I was about ten and leafing excitedly through an abridged version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – not an outstandingly good book in terms of its literary merit, but a strangely irresistible one. The opening section in particular has always stayed with me, and has never quite lost its imaginative grip: the stuffy British solicitor travelling deeper into a land where his cherished framework of beliefs – progress, reason, industry, moral earnestness, and a kind of middle-of-the-road Anglicanism – mean nothing. Oh no – Transylvania doesn’t march to that particular beat, Harker! This is a land where wolves roam the mountain passes, where blue flames flicker above buried treasure, and where certain places are so feared, so reviled, that people refuse even to speak of them. And then there is the Count himself: a creature who should not be but nevertheless is, an abomination to God and Man alike, whose occasional odd charm does little to disguise the fact that he’s actually a centuries-old monster possessed of fangs, an uncertain temper, and an unfortunate taste for human blood.
The Count has no place in Jonathan Harker’s world of Victorian capitalism and reason, nor in his reassuring philosophy, in which moderate religion melds effortlessly with social and scientific progress. The Count, instead, is representative of the past: of feudalism, of Europe’s bloodstained history, and of supra-rational forces that, to an English Victorian gentleman, should not even exist. And this, it seems to me, cuts right to the heart of the Gothic genre: the common theme of a threat from the past that lingers, and continues to intrude on the present.
For British writers, this peril was often equated with Catholicism (a particularly bizarre and lurid example is Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk); Catholic-baiting has, after all, been a popular sport in Britain since the Reformation. But the nature of the threat may vary considerably – it may be supernatural in nature (as in Dracula), or entirely natural (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre), or a queasy mix of the two (The Turn of the Screw). There are other stock elements, too: a pure young heroine, a dashing hero, a dastardly villain, and a setting which is almost a character in its own right: a ruined castle or abbey, a lonely manor house, or a forest.
Dark secrets, lingering danger, terrible deeds, simmering sexuality ... Gothic literature was, and is, a potent brew. Interestingly, it was born in a Europe that was shedding superstition and adopting instead an increasingly scientific and secular worldview. Did the Gothic movement represent something of a rebellion? Certainly it catered to the human yearning for mystery and danger, and for a past that continued to attract even as it repelled. And perhaps that was why it appealed to me as a child and adolescent. I grew up in a normal little town, and my life was for the most part uniform and predictable; what better way to escape grey reality than in an imaginative world of witches, brigands, vampires, villains, and ghosts?
None of which need imply that Gothic literature is lacking in sophistication and subtlety. True, it often veers dangerously close to self-parody, and sometimes gleefully embraces it (my friend Lucinda Elliot exchanges many a knowing wink with her readers in her Gothic parodies). But the Gothic genre has also spawned such classics as Wuthering Heights, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Grey. Edgar Allan Poe undeniably wrote in the Gothic vein, as did his later compatriots Eudora Welty and Harper Lee, who were significant in the development of the “Southern Gothic” subgenre.
So, am I a Gothic writer? Not straightforwardly or exclusively so, no. Some of my works are perceptibly Gothic, and others are not – or at least not conventionally so. And yet my love for all things Gothic runs deep; my initiation into the Gothic genre occurred at an early age, and continues to influence me to this day. And so I am absolutely, unashamedly, a bit of a Goth.