The Literary Gothic
A frighteningly brief introduction to the Gothic in fiction, music, T.V. and film
From its awkward beginnings in the late 18th century with Horace Walpole's pseudo-medieval novel, The Castle of Otranto, the literary style known as "Gothic" has grown to become very popular. While there are pure Gothic stories, often elements of the Gothic exist in other styles of tales. While the Gothic style nearly died out in the twentieth century, it is now alive and well. Authors of Gothic tales, or authors who use Gothic elements in their works, include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Russell Kirk, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Robert Louis Stevenson, Victor Hugo, H.P. Lovecraft, Sheridan Le Fanu, Sir Walter Scott, Edith Wharton, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Ann Radcliffe, and Charles Dickens.
Modern and post-modern music, television, and movies are filled with Gothic creativity that draws directly and indirectly from Gothic literature. The Doors, The Cure, The Damned, and Alice Cooper are just four of a plethora of musical acts drawing on Gothic themes and styles. "The Twilight Zone" was, perhaps, America's first television experience of the Gothic, and it began a broader public fascination with the genre that has never waned, leading to such programs as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "The Addams Family," "The Munsters," "Dark Shadows," "Twin Peaks," "The X-Files," "American Gothic," "American Horror Story," "Supernatural," and "Hannibal," all of which, if not purely Gothic, are heavily imbued with Gothic elements, as is M. Night Shyamalan's recent series, "Wayward Pines." Also, Shyamalan's cinematic triumphs, "The Sixth Sense," and "Signs" are solidly Gothic films. Other marvelous Gothic films include Tod Browning's version of "Dracula," with the incomparable Bela Lugosi in the title role, James Whale's adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" starring the talented Boris Karloff, who never spoke a word in this talkie, Anglo-Catholic director Terence Fisher's tale of good triumphing over evil, "The Devil Rides Out," and Alejandro Amenábar’s purgatorial and complicated "The Others," where Nicole Kidman gives a solid lead performance supported by a brilliant cast. I would be remiss to close without mentioning that Gothic "living movie" which blends hyperreality, nostalgia, the comic, and the Gothic to terrorize and enchant: Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. In this dark ride, you actually participate in the movie as you ride through the Mansion on your "Doom Buggy." This ride is both symbol and enactment of the triumph of the Gothic in our culture.
Though the Gothic style of literature originated in Europe, it quickly crossed the Atlantic. The greatest practioner of the style in America was Southern writer Edgar Allan Poe. Historian Clyde N. Wilson writes that Poe was "...the greatest and certainly the most creative American poet of the 19th century. As fiction writer and critic he ranks among the highest." Poe wrote both Gothic short stories and Gothic poetry.
Check the EvCC Library for its Poe holdings. Here is a sampling of Poe's work:
"The Gothic tale, characterized by its setting and atmosphere--the former tending toward ill-storied mansions located in remote, rustic areas, the latter toward gloom and impending disaster--flourished for many years: from the age of Horace Walpole and Anne Radcliffe into the early twentieth century, when it died with Edith Wharton. The genre also typically featured an unlikely, melancholy hero who confronts a half-remembered legend concerning a dark presence who once terrorized the region in life and is still rumored to haunt the land in death, or an innocent who was tortured to death sometime in the distant past and who is said to still walk the land after nightfall."
With his novels and short stories, particularly Old House of Fear, Russell Kirk helped revive the dying genre of the Gothic in American and British belles-lettres.
A Gothic Castle
Medieval Gothic structures like this castle served as both inspiration and setting for many Gothic tales.
Southern Gothic Tales
One of the greatest pleasures of literature is having stories read to you. One of the greatest pleasures of the Southern Gothic is to be scared out of your wits: to be afraid to walk alone after dark, to see, dimly, a black figure standing just outside of the reach of a dim street lamp. The Moonlit Road podcast website (named for the American Gothic short story by Ambrose Bierce) contains dozens of podcasts of Southern Gothic ghostly and weird tales, best listened to in the dark. Check out their companion print website, too.
Your Ghost Host
Your ghost editor for this EvCC Reads! 2015 Hallowe'en edition is Ghost Story Society member Jeffrey D. Pearce, who is Director of Logistics Operations, and a member of the history faculty, at the College. He also founded, and edits, Ghostly Kirk, a web page dedicated to the ghostly tales of Russell Kirk.