Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Gothicism and its Discontents

History is repeating itself in the literary world. In the 1790's the Gothic novel was the craze in the Anglophone world, the doyenne of which was the famous Ann Radcliffe. (I think our equivalent would be Anne Rice, though both use different modes). She wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho (parodied in Northanger Abbey) and The Italian. Matthew Lewis wrote only one novel at the age of 19 - The Monk, which became popular, so much that his nickname was Monk Lewis. William Beckford wrote Vathek. Mary Shelley wrote not only Frankenstein but numerous other things, among which is The Last Man (which I haven't read, but it's dystopian, according to the summary on the back). Check Oxford World's Classics, which seems to be making a trade in old Gothic novels nowadays. You didn't see all these un-literary old Gothic novels for years - not in the 90's, not in the early part of this decade. Now you see them in Waterstone's, which means they're mainstream. Well as far as classics can become mainstream. Even a latecomer in the Gothic era (well past its heyday) was Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (published in 1820), now available in Penguin Classics.

But before we go deeply into novels, let's talk about poetry. Why is it that Gothic novels of the Romantic era are considered un-literary, whereas Gothic poetry is transcendent, visionary, intellectual and an emblem of the Romantic era? This is being unfair. OK, I know Ann Radcliffe isn't deep or realistic, but then you could argue the same for Coleridge's Christabel. And the heroine is a kind of innocent Mary Sue. Not that I dislike Christabel: I am just pointing out a discrepancy. There's a vampire lesbian, which is something out of the ordinary, and there isn't any deep philosophy (well, Coleridge did feel he wasn't as good as Wordsworth. But the man was a genius, more intellectual than Wordsworth). The villains in Gothic novels are unrealistic and too heinous, but so are lesbian vampires who prey on a girl's life. Frankenstein is an exception (and is less thrilling though it is deeper) because it discusses the possibility of resurrecting corpses, and owes its existence to lectures attended by the young Mary Shelley. The hero also develops in his own twisted way, though he is the only convincing character - and  I think over-sentimentalised.  Lamia is definitely literary because it analyses people's feelings so well and has great power. But you could argue the same for Matthew Lewis' The Monk - it is more powerful than Mrs Radcliffe. But ghostly nuns, bandits, scary priests and demons in disguise aren't realistic. Neither are lesbian vampires. Therefore in Gothic literature realism isn't the point. Perhaps the point is power. A long novel with irrelevant passages loses its power, whereas a shorter poem with a nice rhyme has more power. I think we unconsciously discriminate against each genre. Novels are more biased to realism, poetry to power.  Still there's something missing. As for Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it is possibly a tale of ingratitude and suffering, but the haunting part predominates over everything else. It is terror - but then one could argue terror is a human experience. Yes, but you get terror in old Gothic novels. So novels deserve some credit as well. My other idea is, poetry may possibly immortalise the beast within us, whereas novels seek thrills in unconvincing old monasteries and castles with a nice scary plot to entertain the reader.  Because poetry is shorter, it doesn't go on into the details of how characters speak and move the way novels do - solving the problem of discrepancies in real life. We are just awed at the immortal passion or whatever. What do you think?

As I said our modern Gothic novelist equivalent is the vampiric Anne Rice, who has defined the modern vampire for us, at least the non-Dracula version. Anne Rice isn't strictly literary, but she has entertained many readers and created enthralling plots we must take off our hats to her. There is a difference, however, between the 18th-19th century Gothic and the modern Gothic. The old version will have someone selling his soul to the devil quite often, someone deep and passionate who either lusts for power, knowledge or just plain good old-fashioned lust. It's a nod to Goethe and Marlowe and the neglected Germans. Quite often it takes place in the South or in an Arab state, because that's supposed to be exotic. Other important elements are a Mediaeval monastery, a castle, abbey, always abandoned or secretive, demons, ghosts, legends, vampires, even The Wandering Jew (this appears in The Monk, a really enjoyable novel. And I'm not a Gothic fan).   The hero is a lone wanderer, the heroine overly virtuous, the villain really creepy. Modern Gothic fiction (I'm no expert, so do correct me if I'm wrong) is quite varied, but the vampire genre seems to be the most popular. How the two periods differ is, there are no rules in old Gothicism. A vampire or whatever appears out of nowhere to threaten the hero, but little is known about them. You may get some details about vampires but that's about it. It's some mysterious folklore. The real terror lies in the mystery of the villain/creature. Whereas we modernists tend to have well-defined creatures and rules. Gothicism in an age of science. Even our fantasy has to be reasonable, though we set our own laws. But it removes the mystique, because you can expect something, you know something about whatever threat it is. I know that magical beings have different powers revealed in the course of the story but the fact is, we're bombarded with information. There is no particular power assigned to the old creatures of lore. Though I must admit I do like knowing about the creatures' backgrounds; it's more vivid that way.

With this return of the old Gothic novels, perhaps it is safe to guess that this is caused by the sudden vampire influx. Yes, I know Anne Rice was here decades ago, but with that teenage fluffy series, Twilight, it's bringing vampires full front into the media. You have to like fantasy and suspense to read Anne Rice, but you don't have to have a brain to read Twilight. It's more mainstream because it's romance, and everyone knows romance requires the least intelligence to appreciate it. Brontë works are not counted and how dare you insult the classics.

To become a classic you have to become a bestseller. This includes literary fiction as well as silly novels. Twilight is a bestseller, and has been followed by the un-Gothic Fifty Shades and now Gabriel's Inferno. Now the last 2 are not Gothic, but the first has vampires, a Byronic hero and a silly heroine - fits the formula. Arguably the old-fashioned Gothic novel has a formula. Because of this the demand of the market will cater for Gothic romance. (Though Twilight doesn't feel Gothic to me). Literary fiction in an attempt to boost sales may become more Gothic, and high time it was. Say what you like but dull realism is getting on my nerves. It's too photographic (something even the Victorians complained about).  So it makes sense that a formula based on the Twilight series will develop in literary general fiction.

"But it's not even intelligent!" I hear you protest. "Or even realistic." This is true, but remember that late Gothic fiction was of a higher intellect than the early novelists. Mrs Radcliffe was a sensational writer, even if she didn't condone (fictional) rape and incest. In the early 19th century, Mary Shelley attended lectures on chemistry and the life-force, and put the ideas she had heard in Frankenstein. Can man be resurrected from corpses? The characterisation is crude, the plot boring and meaningless, with a notable lack of excitement, apart from terror, but you can't deny it's intellectual. Pretty good for an 19-year-old (Gothic fiction seems to suit the young. I wonder why?) Charles Maturin's novel is about a man who sells his soul to the devil and is an anti-Catholic treatise (it's best you don't read it as one, or it might spoil your enjoyment). It's about the inner psychological torment in a person - something developed by the Gothic authors, not so much the 18th century novelists. Even Jane Austen enjoyed Gothic novels in her youth.

And I daresay this inner torment in the Gothics transmuted into Victorian psychological realism. The Brontë sisters are ample evidence for Gothic literary fiction and psychological realism in the Victorian era. Apart from the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre, you have the tormented villain-hero, Mr Rochester, even a cruel clergyman (St John is well-meaning but heartless). The solitary wanderer-heroine, the high emotions, the mystery - all these are Gothic elements. Wuthering Heights goes even further. Everyone in that community is isolated from the world, there is a villain-hero, a ghost and a rumbling old house.

Instead of fear of the supernatural or some rapist villain too evil to be true, it is fear of a person - fear of the unknown, in both cases. A brooding, domineering man can be a mystery to an innocent young woman - and this fed the Brontës. Look at Jane Eyre and Isabella Linton. As Cracked.com says, the villain mustn't be a monster in fact, but only a monster within. People like something familiar and realistic they can identify with. So I foresee more Gothic heroes. Edward Cullen is definitely un-vampiric that fans have complained, but it is this sort of hero (without the total unrealism and the atrocious writing) that can develop in literary fiction, the way a bona fide vampire can't, unless you're Emily Bronë. And no one will ever become the next Emily Brontë. Well, I do personally know someone who was a bit like her, but she isn't into writing fiction. The new nerd doesn't write novels, unlike those days.

Keats borrowed from Mrs Radcliffe and ended up becoming more famous than her - posthumously. Why shouldn't some clever git take a leaf out of a certain resident of Utah's book and become the next Currer Bell? Contemporary fiction has lost its gusto and power - why not borrow from genre fiction to boost it? I feel sad for Anne Rice because she is a better writer than SMeyer and yet it is SMeyer who will be the Trope Codifier for the new Gothicism.

Twilight will probably last longer than Anne Rice although it's stupider because firstly it caters to a general audience (read: stupid people, and if you're offended I assume you are one of those I intended to insult) and secondly, it's more versatile in a way. Outraged fantasy fans, do not picket on my lawn. The various fantasy authors who have built a wonderful regulated world will not last long because they have rules. Zombies are like this, vampires are like this. It loses its mystique. Magic works in certain ways. Many fantasy fans have complained that there's not enough magic in Twilight, the vampirism is ill-developed, the vampires don't act or look like vampires, there's no sense of fantasy or other-worldliness. This defect will promote Twilight's longevity, if not in print, then in influence. If you know how magic works, how the fantasy world works, it loses its mystery. The old Gothic novels had no proper rules, which enthralls and intrigues us the way a better-written Twilight would. Unexpected incidents happen. Twilight is not thrilling but parts of it serve as a model how it might have been had a more talented writer written it. There is perhaps more realism, less otherworldliness in Keats and Coleridge's fantasy poems (they are far less spooky) than an old Gothic novel, but this has promoted its classic status and given it its power. An enduring fantasy classic must never have too many rules and must have intellectual themes that pertain to the real world. Only with this realism do you get that sense of mystery, power and awe that wears out with the ordinary sensational Gothic novel. It's the author's mind that becomes the Gothic villain after all.

Gothicism is a Romantic tradition, and all this darkness about vampires and abbeys aren't the only fantasy thing in Romanticism. There's the Fairy-Tale Ballad, as opposed to the Dark Twisted Creatures. Though fairies can be just as eerie, if you've read Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies. And. on a more classic note, Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Lamia is more Gothic, because she's a snake-woman. I don't know how fairies are going to become mainstream, because I haven't heard of any blockbuster fairy-tale-influenced romance or saga. But we can agree that in romantic terms (I mean in the low vulgar sense of hearts and flowers), vampires are masculine (forget the femme fatale who suck men's souls, these won't sell as well). whereas fairies are feminine. Fairies have also been idealised traditionally in Victorian stories. Perhaps a human male-fairy romance? Classics always have love stories.

Pure fantasy doesn't become classic literary fiction: but realism with fantasy elements has that possibility. I will be posting on Gothicism in Villette later on, so stay tuned.

Thanks to Katherine of November's Autumn for her comment that inspired part of this discussion.

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