Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Gothic in Teen Fiction – Esther Saxey

There's a Gothic boom in teen fiction. Black covers. One word titles - Shiver, Linger, Fallen, Silence - like the results of a morbid game of Boggle.

I love the genre – but can you write Gothic fiction today with a clean conscience? It's rooted in fears of the outsider who challenges our identity, and this fear is expressed in deeply dodgy ways: often, it's innocent women being threatened by sinister sexual foreigners. Dracula is a perfect example. (Vampires are also dangerously dual-gendered and queer, having a mouth that both sucks and pokes.) The foundational teen Gothic – Stephenie Meyer's Twilight – uses this age-old tradition, of the appealing menace of sex. It's thrilling! But wrong! The vampire hero struggles with his desires to kiss the heroine and/or rip her head off.

So how can you rethink teen Gothic, so that it doesn't demonise sex, or insult everyone south of Calais?

You could change one of the Gothic's traditions. For example, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray ditches the swooning girl of the Gothics for a brilliant fierce heroine. But writers who change one negative tradition often end up leaning heavily on the others. Bray's novel, set in Victorian England, uses India as a sinister, snake-eating counterpoint continent. So the sexual politics of the Gothic get tidied up, but race-based desire and revulsion still prop up the plot - not an ideal solution.

Another strategy is adopting a villain of whom you actually disapprove. But the Gothic often makes its villains highly glamorous. Without that tug of fascination and identification, combined with repulsion, it wouldn't be half as dangerous, and it wouldn't be Gothic – it would be simple horror. So Dracula is powerful and magnetically attractive, before he gets the chop. 

Some Teen Noir gets round the problem by using only the props of the genre: vampires are everywhere, but they behave like mortal moody dudes or cool kids (see Alex Duval's Vampire Beach series, set in Malibu). Plots are often simple romances or detective stories.

There's another strategy I find more interesting: showing the horrors of normality. The excellent Pretties by Scott Westerfeld and Delirium by Lauren Oliver are both set in conformist societies. The heroines intend to take a pill, or have an operation, that will make them a full and happy citizen. But more and more flaws appear in the plan, and in the society. The heroine begins to think heretical thoughts, of avoiding the pill or the op. But it's their route to adulthood, and they've longed for it for years.

The novels thus explore the tango between attraction and repulsion without using supernatural trappings – they're less obviously Gothic, but they rely on an old Gothic dynamic.

This approach has its own tradition: David Lynch's Blue Velvet with a white picket fence and a severed ear. Jeanette Winterson's short story “Newton”, where a town with freakishly neat routines tries to recruit the protagonist. Or Stepford Wives, in which suburban housewives are so happy that something must be wrong.

Kid's fiction also deals with conformist societies, but in a less conflicted way; the child protagonists hate the rules, fight the system or escape it, and save their society (see The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau or The Wind Singer by William Nicholson). But teen fiction, by contrast, gives more attention to the seductions of conformity, and that's what makes it Gothic. 

I think it's a particularly appealing plot for adolescents. Teens don't want to feel completely alone, but they're also struggling to create themselves as individuals.

But the struggle to be oneself, and the temptation of becoming something else – something worse – doesn't vanish with age. I still find the Gothic thrilling. And recent Gothic fiction is a refreshingly long way away from beheading a contagious Transylvanian polygamist.


Esther Saxey's interests include the supernatural and the queer and how one gets confused with the other. Likes novels by Goths, novels about Goths and novels in the Gothic tradition.

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