Thursday, 23 February 2012

Introducing The Gothic – Jared Shurin

For the next two weeks on Charing Cross Read a series of authors and bloggers will help explain the contemporary significance of the Gothic - all culminating in a darkly fantastic live event at Blackwell’s on 8 March. 

Given the genre’s ubiquity in books, art, film and comics, this seems like an easy task. This isn’t a niche sub-genre like Steampunk - the Gothic has a long shadow that touches every shelf in the bookshop. In fact, the main challenge with the Gothic is the reverse of our normal task. We know the Gothic is significant because it is everywhere, but we don’t know what it is. If we can see it in romance and fantasy, horror and young adult, where do those genres end, and the Gothic itself begin?

I would suggest that the Gothic is less a genre than a meta-genre: a wriggly overlay of themes that have been adapted by each generation to their contemporary situations. Gothic’s own origin stems more from market-savvy literary artifice than organic development, having sprung forth fully-formed from the head of Horace Walpole in 1764. For Walpole, the Gothic was an experiment in blending two forms of pre-existing literature: the chivalric romance and the modern novel. From the former, he nicked epic scale and intimate tragedy. From the latter, he pulled humour and the crowd-pleasing supernatural. Walpole wasn't aiming for the established aristocracy; he was targeting the aspirational middle class. This is even reflected in the title he selected: his work was dubbed "Gothic" in order to give it a sense of history, of cultural weight. 

It’s appropriate, then, that Gothic novels are frequently about the struggle for identity and for place (socially, geographically, emotionally) and the conflict between the old and the new (often represented in terms of class or generation). In the 19th and 20th century, Gothic novels began to discuss race as well, and overseas authors (predominantly in the American South) interpreted those larger themes in terms of their local context. Similarly, side by side with the Young Adult boom of recent years, authors have begun to use the Gothic to examine adolescence as well.

The Gothic is, in a sense, deliberately cheesy: transmogrifying what are ordinarily quiet discussions of class, gender and belonging into something with crumbling towers, angry ghosts and mad wives in attics. The mechanism, then, is to externalise and exaggerate its concerns in order to examine them at arm's length. Inner conflicts become outer ghosts; class issues become vampires, overbearing forebears become collapsing towers and puberty becomes a particularly nasty pack of werewolves.

Aesthetically, the tropes of the Gothic are almost immediately recognisable - cloaks and corsets, towers and vaults, eyeliner and wedding dresses. But the Gothic goes beyond these (slightly hackneyed) elements. In Jerrold E. Hogle's Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Hogle identifies three general parameters: "an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space", "hidden secrets from the past that haunt the characters" and elision (to a varying degree) between "the earthly laws of conventional reality and the possibilities of the supernatural".

All three are open to broad interpretation. As S.D. Crockett's After the Snow illustrates, for example, the past could be our present, and that our contemporary society can become antiquated history in a few short years. Christopher Fowler's Hell Train and Jon Courtenay Grimwood's The Fallen Blade are both crafted around dangerous secrets - protagonists struggling with their own repressed natures. Both novels depend on antiquated spaces and buried secrets. Fowler’s protagonists sprinting endlessly between the cars of a blasphemous train, confronting their own sins. Grimwood’s characters stalk the alleys and palaces of an alternate Venice, trying to overcome the nature demanded by both their bloodlines and their politics. 

Another modern approach to the Gothic is via supernatual incursion, as with novels by Tanith Lee and Suzanne McLeod. While Lee's body of short stories and novels is so extensive it is impossible to generalise, her work generally tends to include a subtle, deliberately poeticised touch of the supernatural. McLeod's Spellcrackers series also addresses supernatural elements in the real world, but does so more explicitly, with her books focused almost entirely on the integration of the impossible within a contemporary context.

Gothic elements have likewise found a modern expression in the visual arts. The Gothic has been adapted to modern artistic styles (for example, the art of Emma Vieceli or Darren Banks) yet have also stayed true to its original themes (for instance the supernatural glimpsed in the art of John Kaiine and the fading antiquity captured in the photography of Joel Meadows). The great boom of Gothic cinema was, of course, the golden age of Hammer Films in the 1960s and 70s, but the dramatic revival of the Hammer brand and today’s endless parade of vaguely historical and thoroughly supernatural television dramas are both evidence of a new dawn (or is that evening?) of the Gothic in media.

Walpole's experiment has proven to be an unstoppable and uncontrollable force. His literary invention, intended to be populist, has proven timeless as well. 

Over the next few weeks, guest bloggers and authors will go into more detail about what Gothic means to them, from Southern to suburban, teenagers to weather patterns. We hope you also have the opportunity to join us on the evening of 8 March, as we discuss even more interpretations of the Gothic in person at Blackwell's Charing Cross. The evening's guests include many of the authors and artists mentioned above, plus other great figures in horror, fantasy and romance.

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Jared Shurin is a director of The Kitschies, the prize for progressive, intelligent and entertaining genre fiction, presented by The Kraken Rum. More about the award can be learned at www.thekitschies.com. 

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