Sunday, 26 February 2012

Notes on the Suburban Gothic – Louis Greenburg

I’ve long been interested in the manifestations of the suburban Gothic in contemporary fiction, art and architecture. At first glance, there seems to be little to connect a grand Gothic cathedral and strip mall or a box house in any Western city’s suburban sprawl, but aesthetically they are on the same continuum.

Nineteenth-century Gothic fiction and the Gothic revival architecture of the same period – follies, faux ruins and mazes – is a reaction against the scientistic certainty of Enlightenment rationality. By setting their Gothic works in crumbling ruins of medieval cathedrals and in ancient castles, Coleridge, the Shelleys, Byron, Poe, the Brontës, Le Fanu and ultimately Stoker celebrate the invincibility of death and he inescapability of history. The bloody shadows of the Crusades cannot be expunged from Europe by Enlightenment politeness; the Gothic celebrates the rejection of scientific rationality and its neat polarities. In the gory darkness of the middle ages, life and death co-existed, good and evil, sex, love and hatred mingled in a heady, human soup that the clever scientists tried to strain. Enlightenment rationalists tried – and failed – to taxonomise the conflicts and contradictions out of human society. The nineteenth century Gothic delighted in showing how death and entropy would always emerge victorious.

Now instead of the impenetrable wisdom of scientists, we rely on governments and corporations, fashion magazines, websites and advertising agencies to classify us, to affirm the effervescence of life and keep death at bay. But just like a hundred years ago, the cracks always show: the ape – everywhere we look – emerges from beneath the human skin, apocalypse seeps from every crack in the thin pavement.

In the 1950s it seemed like it might work. Cars and unprecedented industrial affluence allowed the creation of suburban paradises where right-minded families could live in health and bliss. But soon those suburbs and the nuclear families they harboured behind their discreet walls became the festering-place of abuse and sexual violence. Once they were hidden from the gaze of the broader community, families could practice their evil power imbalances in seclusion.

This is where the suburban Gothic of recent years emerges. Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls is a definitive portrait of abuse and neglected children wandering lost in the suburban wasteland, just as the flawed Gothic heroes – broken, irredeemable and wandering the wasteland, forever in exile – did a century and two before. And who comes to the rescue? To whom do the lost souls run? To vampires, of course (when modern vampires still had teeth) – that ultimate symbol of sex, death, life, pleasure, torment and irresponsibility – they care nothing for human rules. 

Our crumbling cathedrals – the suburban Gothic settings where life and death, love and hate, sex, pain and redemption stew together – are now malls, hospitals and schools; those grandiose edifices where the cant of systemised order and death-defiance is preached. Take a close look at your surgeon, your headmaster, your corporate marketer: they hold your life – and death – in their hands.

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Louis Greenberg is a freelance editor and writer in Johannesburg and half of the horror writer S.L. Grey (@slgreyhorror). Their debut collaboration, The Mall, was released in 2011 from Corvus. The Ward comes out in 2012.

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