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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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What is Gothic Fiction?

Gothic fiction. What is it? Why did it begin? Where is it heading?

First off, let's have a definition:

"The Gothic novel, or in an alternate term, 'Gothic romance' . . . made plentiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences; their principal aim was to evoke chilling terror by exploiting mystery, cruelty, and a variety of horrors. The term "gothic" has also been extended to denote a type of fiction which lacks the medieval setting but develops a brooding atmosphere of gloom or terror, represents events which are uncanny, or macabre, or melodramatically violent, and often deals with aberrant psychological states (M. H. Abrams's A Glossary of Literary Terms. Eighth Edition, pp. 117-118).

So there it is. Gothic fiction is about an atmosphere of unease and foreboding accented by violence, horror, or mystery. Gothic fiction can be seen in movies like Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, The Others, No Country for Old Men, and even Twilight. It was born in 1764 when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto. Cheap pamphlets detailing murder trials, popular murder ballads, ghost folklore, monster legends, fairy tales, star-crossed-lovers folk songs, witch accounts, and apocalyptic literature predates Walpole's novel and still contain the DNA of the Gothic: they are brooding, sinister, gory, dark, mysterious, and often supernatural. But 1764 saw a shift from the present (or, as in fairy tales, indefinable time), to medieval Europe, where the tropes of Gothic literature were fostered and developed: the innocent young woman in peril, the mysterious stranger, the paranormal scholar, the seductive monster, the horrible family secret, the haunted house, the vengeful sorcerer, the deadly castle, and the melodramatic ghost.

By the time M.G. Lewis and Ann Radcliffe had created The Monk, The Italian, and The Mysterious of Udolpho, the movement was groping its way out of medieval Spain and Italy and into the cities and countrysides of Great Britain and Ireland. Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron was the tipping point that released Gothic horror onto eighteenth century England in 1778. German, Russian, and French writers began amassing a canon of Gothic literature which found its way to Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. The works of Schiller and Hoffmann and de Sade fueled the English-speaking imagination. Even as poets like Blake, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth were ruminating on the haunted landscapes, ruined abbeys, threatened lovers, and lands of ice and mist, the sublimity of the supernatural was leaking into prose as well as verse, and from their very own midst. Shelley's young wife wrote Frankenstein and Byron's personal physician created the modern vampire with his Gothic horror, The Vampyre. Both works exploded in popularity (though Byron was credited with his doctor's work), and a wave of ghost stories, monster tales, supernatural anecdotes, and Gothic novels sprang from British presses.

Across the Atlantic the Gothic had made in impact through the pen of a young attorney who was vaccationing with Sir Walter Scott and reading his German literature. Washington Irving based "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" on German folktales by Karl Musaus and other Gothic folklorists, and his transportation of European supernatural horror to the woolly hill lands of New York State inspired similar transportations by other writers. Hawthorne and Poe especially dug deeply into the Gothic traditions of Germany and Old England when constructing their dismal atmospheres. In turn they inspired a new wave of writers after the Civil War who admired their cynical misanthropy and dire symbolism. Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, and H.P. Lovecraft set out to found the American branch of Weird fiction (the British branch began with the tales of Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany) which saw horrors outside rather than of the world. They minimalized humanity and frightened through a manipulation of the cosmic unknown rather than the standard tool of the Gothic writer: the past forgotten. This is to say that the apex of human terror had yet to come - that it lurked without us - rather than to say that it was soon to come back from our own pasts in our own world.

The ghost story and the supernatural tale reached a pinnacle of excellence in the Long Edwardian Era (1895-1922) where M.R. James mastered the classic ghost story alongside Oliver Onions, E.F. Benson, and William Hope Hodgson, while Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, W.W. Jacobs, and H.G. Wells excelled at horror. It is at this point that - not long after World War I - Gothic fiction began to grow less concerned with the beast without (in spite of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos have only just begun circa 1926), than it was with the beast within. World War II galvanized this sense of inner rather than outer horror with the expose of the Holocaust. Robert Bloch's Psycho epitomizes this shift from the supernatural to the abnormal. Stephen King, too, despite his strong reliance upon the supernatural, found more to terrify within the human soul than in the distant aeons of space. Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Ghost-Face became the new terror: human brutality, sometimes spiced with the supernatural, but just as horrifying without. This trend only lurched forward with the Saw and Hostel series, where gore and sadomasochism supply cheap and tawdry chills at the expense of complex terror.

Although the Hostel, Final Destination, and Parnormal Activity franchises are nowhere near the profound psychological horrors of Lovecraft, Poe, James, and Machen, the themes are the same as those once printed in London during the eighteenth century: innocent young women stalked by lustful maniacs; dark reclusive buildings stuffed with hidden horrors, families hiding decades-long secrets from the light of day, corrupt or helpless officials daunted by unholy villains, and horror manifested in blood, darkness, monstrosities, deformities, mutilations, grisly deaths, pagan rites, and sadistic tortures.

The Gothic is not a genre that jolted to life with Walpole in the 1760s and flickered out in the 1840s with Poe. It is older than time and will live longer than any of us. The Gothic is the human fascination with the Beyond and the Unkown. It is the paradoxical pessimism of progress and fear of decay which motivates us to question impulse and to challenge stagnation. It was born from the flickering fires of our ancient ancestors who warded off the night and huddled in the bowels of caves, yet slept with one eye open, uncertain if they, notwithstanding, were guests in another beast's lair. It is an impulse to fear, conquer, and respect the forces that challenge our lives. It is the sound of a closing door at three in the morning, or the flick of a shadow in our peripheral vision when we get out of the shower: that jolt of fear that reminds us that we are alive, and that we will fight to stay so.

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