Friday, May 01, 2009

On Gothic Literature

The word goth has come to mean many things in our Post Industrial complex world: the Modernists have painted its name with black; the Post Modernists have draped it in the strange scrim of subculture anthropology and music; and the everyday scoffs at the word as if it holds little more meaning. The Goths were a tribe of Germany who hollered at the Romans, shaking spears and shields—they were the barbarians. And so the modern usage of the word goth still retains some of its old meaning: the gothic is that which is barbaric, viscerally atmospheric—truthful of the sublime but horrible depths of the unkempt mind.

When I say Goth, most people will have fluttering thoughts of bands such as The Cr├╝xshadows, Marilyn Manson, and Type O Negative; of black clad individuals wearing dark eye shadow over bleak and pale faces; of vampires, werewolves, and all manner of horrible monsters from the night—but all of these things owe the origins of the atmosphere they so vainly stretch for from the annals of gothic literature.

Often gothic literature will pedestal things such as mystery, ghost stories, strange and archaic architecture, sleepy villages, family secrets, and castles. The striking prose of these novels often follows a hero who is of rarified constitution and often flawed beyond repair being swept up into circumstances designed of his own curiosity. Gothic literature has run a great gamut of authors from Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley – and have grown through that great tradition to the modern times through the work of H.P. Lovecraft and other weird horror writers.

A great deal of the focus of gothic literature is less on the fleeting inequities of life, human drama, or anything so trite; but usually rests in the subconscious fear and revulsion of things outside of perception and steeped in superstition and mystery. The unexplained, weird behaviors and customs of local townsfolk of quiet, pastoral towns, the fading memories of ancient and near-forgotten lore—all of these things make the delirious draw of gothic literature what it is.

The term gothic has taken a great deal of abuse over the years, mostly from the ignorant and wanting who think they are lashing out at juvenile subcultures; but it has a vaster, deeper, and more magnificently unfathomable history to it than all those modern-day pretenders. To any writer who wants to join into this grand tradition I say: go back to the roots first. Even a tremendous tree must be grown from a seed and a great deal of cultural unconscious exists in every writer and piece from Walpole to Lovecraft. The essence of things that have scared people have existed in the same nascent jots since the origins of the mind.

Know your literary grandparents and do not fear their influence; as much as they knew what they were doing for the eras in which they wrote their knowledge and craft may give you the buoy needed to place your own writing within the reach of all those would-be fans who are trembling somewhere in the darkness, a flashlight in one hand, a book in the other—and waiting for the next terrible truth to raise the hairs on the back of their neck.

Bram Stoker revitalized ancient mythologies and strange architectures with Dracula, keying into the latent worries of surrounding British peoples about the risen dead, returned to feast on the blood of the living. Frakenstein reflected terrific dreams brought on about electrical galvanism bringing dead flesh back to life, and the horrible ostracism and mistreatment of parents and children. Edgar Allen Poe walked the treacherous and twisted hallways of the disintegrating mind and the murderous impulse; flaying them out and shining that brutal attentive light through them.

The desire and want to be scared and terrified makes up the best bookworm’s adrenaline draw, and there are few things more terrifying than the truly weird—elements such as ancient and decrepit castles from bygone gothick eras, decaying over strange aeons under their weight of their own mold-cracked stones, and housing deep, lost-recollected secrets. They are all there, somewhere in the low rumble of the prose of many the classic gothic novel author and twinkling in the eyes of the new. Every family has a dark past somewhere, every white-picket fence and stately house has a ghost story in their neighborhood—and for each one, there is a reader: waiting, ready, and willing to be chilled to the bone by the bizarre truth of it.

A suggested bibliography:

· The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole (Full text at Project Gutenberg)

· Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley (Full text at Wikisource)

· The Vampyre; a Tale (1819) by John William Polidori (Full text at Project Gutenberg)

· The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe (Full text at Wikisource)

· Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker (Full text at Wikisource)

· The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (1997)

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