The Gothic tradition has been with us for over two hundred years, and is most strongly identified with the works of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, which are full of heroes and heroines menaced by feudal villains amid crumbling ruins. While the repertoire of claustrophobic settings, gloomy themes, and threatening atmosphere established the Gothic genre, later writers from Poe onwards achieved an ever greater sophistication, and a shift in emphasis from cruelty to decadence. Modern Gothic is distinguished by its imaginative variety of voice, from the chilling depiction of a disordered mind to the sinister suggestion of vampirism. While writers such as Le Fanu, Hawthorne, Hardy, Faulkner and Borges are the earliest literary exponents of the form, the central role of female writers from Anna Laetitia Aikin to Isabel Allende and Angela Carter in its development should also be emphasised. While the Gothic tale shares some characteristics with the ghost story and tales of horror and fantasy, it also boasts a number of distinctive features that define this powerful and unsettling literary form.
In spite of their cosanguinity and their many mutual borrowings, there exist fundamental differences between the Gothic tradition and its close relative, the orthodox ghost story as characterised by the traditional Victorian parlour tale. There is a very familiar model followed by many ghost stories in English from the 19th and early 20th centuries. They often begin with an assembly of gentlemen gathered at a dinner table or in a London club, debating the existence of spirits. Then a nervous-looking member of the company pipes up with his first-hand account of the inexplicable occurrences at a country house he has rented for a weekend, where the spooky goings-on have reached a point at which the servants have given notice. At the close of the narrative any materialist doubters present are inevitably silenced. The purpose of this somewhat tongue in cheek summary is not to denigrate the Victorian ghost story, of which there are many fine exponents who diverge from this model in all sorts of interesting ways, but to emphasise that the ostensible point of such a tale is to convince the sceptical reader of the palpable existence of phantoms. The conservative tendency of such tales lies in their dedication to overcoming modern scepticism on behalf of an older belief which has been foolishly abandoned. Gothic fiction, on the other hand, usually shows no such respect for the wisdom of the past, and indeed tends to portray former ages as prisons of delusion.
The Gothic novel began its flamboyant career in England, under German influences, with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). The dawn of the 19th century then saw the publication of the classic Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeve and Mary Shelley. The trappings of such novels were antique castles, terrified maidens, evil villains and clanking, comic spectres. Indeed, the ghost tended to play a secondary role in the Gothic novel, serving a moral purpose by bringing retribution upon the villain when not fulfilling the more basic function of scaring the ladies. When Gothic fiction has employed the ghostly apparitions and omens of archaic lore, it has at the same time placed them under strong suspicion as part of a cruelly repressive and deluded past. The Castle of Otranto, for example, is a tale concerned with the brutality, cruelty and superstition of the Middle Ages. In the early days of Gothic writing, there was a strong anxiety among both critics and practitioners of Gothic fiction about the risks of dabbling in bygone superstition, and especially about the permissible use of supernatural incidents.
Taking their cue from Walpole, several other antiquarian hobbyists took to composing pseudo-medieval works. This process led to the invention of the transient genre of the ‘Gothic fragment’ – an incomplete narrative presented as if the result of an antiquarian discovery among partially destroyed manuscripts. Gothic fragment, which was the forerunner of the Gothic tale proper, ingeniously exploited the aesthetic principle behind the appeal of ruined buildings by suggesting a lost whole which the reader’s imagination is then invited to reconstruct. This device of the tantalisingly incomplete text – a crumbling parchment or fatally interrupted narrative – was to be incorporated into the far more substantial works of the greatest early Gothic novelist, Ann Radcliffe. Her full-length novels, The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, all combine more successfully the elements earlier assembled by Walpole. Again the endangered heroine is brought within the malevolent power of a sinister aristocrat in the gloomy chambers of an old castle or abbey. Radcliffe developed the leisurely construction of suspense and brooding atmosphere, apparently abandoning her heroes and heroines to the most frightful of fates for several chapters before returning to permit their escape through some damp subterranean passage. It was in this form that Gothic fiction dominated the circulating libraries for the next fifteen or twenty years.
Although many literary historians are content to regard Gothic as a closed episode after the appearance of C R Martin’s rambling Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820, the tradition in fact survived throughout the 19th century and beyond, following two intertwined courses of evolution. On the one hand it infiltrates and contributes powerfully to the mainstream of the Victorian novel, distinctly colouring the atmosphere of major works by Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, whose characters Miss Havisham and Bertha Mason are unmistakably and unforgettably Gothic figures. It resurfaces in the 1860s within the modern settings of ‘sensation novels’ by J S Le Fanu, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins and it appears once again towards the end of the century in the more overtly gothic works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker. On the other hand, it adapts itself to the emergent form of the magazine tale as the modern genre that we recognise as the ‘short story’ takes shape. In view of this there is a risk of inflexibly identifying the term ‘Gothic’ with medieval settings, as it is perfectly possible to have a Gothic story set in the author’s own time. For instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band was set at a time within the living memory of all its first readers, but within an ancestral mansion locked into an archaic form of domestic tyranny.
If there is one work that announces the true arrival of the Gothic tale from its somewhat crude beginnings, however, it is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher (click to read!). Poe’s deliberate dedication to economy and consistency of effect in his writings produced in this tale a remarkably crystallised pattern for the future evolution of Gothic fiction. His new formula involved not only the stripping down of a cumbersome conventional machinery to its essential elements but an accompanying clarification and highlighting of a theme long familiar to Gothic writing, although hitherto left hovering in the shadows: that of the decline and extinction of the old family line. Perfectly harmonising the terminal involution of the Usher family with the final crumbling of its mansion, Poe ensured that whereas before him the keynote of Gothic fiction had been cruelty, after him it would be decadence. Also among Poe’s achievements was the successful translation of Gothic into American literature. The full grounding of Gothic into particular American territories would later be accomplished by other writers, notably George Washington Cable. By the middle of the 20th century there even came to be talk of a ‘Southern Gothic’ movement – a group usually understood to include, among others, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.
Drawing together some of the characteristics of Gothic fiction already suggested in this brief account of its evolution, it is now possible to summarise what can said to be a Gothic tale. For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration. In more concrete terms, a typically Gothic tale will invoke the tyranny of the past (e.g. a family curse or the survival of archaic forms of despotism and superstition) with such weight as to stifle the hopes of the present (i.e. the liberty of the hero or heroine) within the dead-end of physical incarceration (e.g. the dungeon, the locked room or simply the confinement of a family home closing in upon itself). To put it even more concisely, Gothic fiction is characteristically obsessed with old buildings as sites of human decay. The Gothic castle or house is not just an old and sinister building; it is a house of degeneration, even of decomposition, its living-space darkening and contracting into the dying-space of the mortuary and the tomb. Doubling as both fictional setting and as dominant symbol, the house reverberates with associations which are simultaneously psychological and historical. It is also both an argument and an explanation for why the Gothic tradition is as relevant and compelling today as it has ever been.