Fleeting Genius: Rory McEwen
April 18, 2019
Reading in the Modern World
May 2, 2019

Gothic

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

Definition: Gothic Adjective. 3. of or relating to a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents –Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Eye of the Moon is a Gothic mystery; a category I was unaware of at the time I wrote it. When I learned that reviewers placed the novel in that genre, I was dumbfounded. Considering the mental trauma that I experienced from Gothic’s stepchild, the horror film, how could I have written such a thing?

Growing up, I was sent to camp in Maine during the summer, and every Saturday night, horror movies would play on the big screen in the main hall. Invariably, Dracula, the Werewolf, even Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, would have me shielding my eyes, screaming in terror, and cowering in a corner. These characters were not old friends, not at all. They were fiends that inhabited my imagination and stalked my sleep. I never understood why those in charge chose those films exclusively, but such is life as a child.

Even today, I cannot embrace a delight in horror movies, and yet they contain themes that I find fascinating nonetheless.

Horror has its roots in Gothic literature, which could be defined as a genre that combines fiction, horror, death, and occasionally romance. At its roots is a kind of pleasing terror. Gothic fiction began when Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto, subtitled A Gothic Story, published in 1764. The term ‘Gothic’ referred to the Goths who originated in Eastern Germany during Roman times. The term eventually referred to the Gothic architecture of the places the Gothic novel took place.

It was Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) who developed the technique of ‘explained supernaturalism’* that allowed Gothic fiction to gain popularity. She also introduced the brooding gothic villain in her novel, A Sicilian Romance (1790). Her works were characterized by vivid descriptions of the experiences of terror and wonder.

At the heart of Gothic literature was the growing movement of Romanticism**, a reaction to the oppressive Industrial Revolution, the austere science of the Enlightenment, and the growing pressures and constraints of an expanding Middle Class society that emphasized the formality of human interaction. The lands of that time were becoming known, and the shaded areas that had been left unmarked on the world’s maps were being filled in. Mystery was replaced with dry facts and an equally dry temperament that left no room for emotions. The Romantics believed that a life without emotion was no life at all. To feel was to live, and to be alive meant feeling emotions.

All movements come and go.

The Gothic literary movement waxed and waned along with the Romantics, but it was Edgar Allan Poe who gave Gothic fiction a lift by substituting the supernatural with the psychological. When critics complained about his Germanic tales (Germany was the originator of what was called ‘shudder novels’) Poe replied that terror was not of Germany but of the soul.

History is replete with the unending cycles of certainty followed by unpredictability, tightening social mores followed by moral looseness, governmental control followed by weakness. This is no less true in the sciences, where the pervasive thinking that there is little left to explore is followed by moments when the very bedrock of the universe seems to turn upside down and throw all that we know on its head. Quantum Physics, General Relativity, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem were disruptive elements that completely overturned classical physics.

As we move into a future marked by incessant digital hyper-interconnectivity, where all is known that can be known about the individual, every facet of life is stored electronically, and every action is open to surveillance and interpretation by anonymous dystopian algorithms, where is the mystery?

Hope shapes us, but it is fear that drives us more. When I think of things to write about that fascinate and tantalize, I resort inevitably to the dim shapes of those dark phantoms that lurched through my dreams and nightmares as I grew up.

Like the stare of the serpent, they transfix me even now, and yet through their very existence, there is the spice of the unknown, the possibility of new worlds, and the chance, slim as it may be, of dreams coming true with life resplendent.

Such supernatural elements are alive within us all. Try as we might to eradicate them, they’re never wholly gone – just close your eyes. Remember… we all must sleep eventually… and then what?

With hindsight, It’s no wonder that I wrote a Gothic mystery.

 

*Explained supernaturalism: exemplified in Ann Radcliffe’s Romance in the Forest, in which fearful things happen, but are less horrific once they are explained.

**Also known as the Romantic era: an artistic, literary, musical as well as intellectual movement that was European in origin and lasted primarily from 1800-1850. It was characterized by an emphasis on emotion, individualism, glorification of the past, and the beauty of nature with a preferment of the Medieval rather than the Classical (Greek). It embraced sensibility, the acute response to the emotions and feelings of others; hence, Jane Austen’s title, Sense and Sensibility.

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