Gothic keeps coming back in new forms
by Rob Neufeld
The shadowy style became the vogue in the first gothic novels, in which demons emerged from Old Europe in decline.
The term, “gothic” recently came up in a discussion group’s reading of Ron Rash’s novel, “The World Made Straight,” because his style has been called Southern Gothic.
Should we be giving Gothic a good look?
The field is broad these days, including tales of terror, vampire lit, Southern Gothic, apocalyptic science fiction, psycho crime series, and industrial punk.
To Rash, Gothic means the presentation of characters in the stark light of soul-testing crises. His take traces back to the works of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’ Connor.
A new book, “Terror and Wonder,” just published by the British Museum, provides a comprehensive appreciation of the Gothic vein, over centuries.
For now, let’s follow the book discussion group’s selection of Isak Dinesen’s “Seven Gothic Tales,” published in 1934.
Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, the Danish author of “Out of Africa,” spent ten years fashioning the dark fantasies that comprise “Seven Gothic Tales.” The stories exploit the Gothic mode while mocking it, and they create an original universe.
In one story, “The Monkey,” a young man goes to his aunt, the prioress of a convent, and accepts her outrageous choice of wife for him, namely, the neighboring Count’s imperious daughter, Athena.
“What kind of a man would ask for an arranged marriage?” one discussion member asked.
Early in that story, you get the sense that people have shifting personalities. Boris, the manly soldier, might be a man with no morals. He is, in any case, entertaining.
When the Prioress asks him “Who...could indeed make you a better wife than that great friend of yours and mine, little Athena Hopballehus,” Boris found her description absurd.
“He had never heard Athena described as little,” Dinesen writes, “and he remembered her as being half an inch taller than himself. But that the Prioress should speak of her as a great friend showed a complete change of spirit.”
After all, his mother and aunt had spent their lives keeping Boris and Athena apart.
Two more scenes
Here’s another scene. The Prioress gives Boris a potion to have him seal the deal with Athena, who’s staying in one of the Prioress’ guest rooms. Boris bursts into the chamber, which has a matador color scheme, and, “before he knew where he was, (he’d) taken hold of one of her wrists and drawn her toward him.”
Their breaths met. He begged to be her lover. She straightened like a snake, and “her powerful, swift and direct fist hit him in the mouth and knocked out two of his teeth.”
He grappled with her, his heart bursting into song. It was an epic battle. She got her hands on his throat. At the last moment, Boris “forced her head forward with the hand that he had at the back of her neck, and pressed his mouth to hers.”
Athena does not melt. Next morning, she’s headed out, except that the Prioress has one more trick up her sleeve.
Casting her characters as princely and witchlike, Dinesen mixes native fairy tale elements into her Gothic settings; and, as the shocking conclusion of “The Monkey” reveals, she’s also influenced by having been in Africa while writing.
A third scene. The Prioress, Boris, and Athena have sat down to dinner at the convent—the first gambit in the Prioress’ plan. Athena is commenting about the unusual spice in the pudding. Cloves from Zanzibar, the Prioress informs her.
“Boris, in the meantime, had been looking at Athena, and had let a fantasy take hold of his mind. He thought that she must have a lovely, an exquisitely beautiful, skeleton,” and then he fantasized about her skeleton in various contexts.
This is great stuff. When a writer with things to say about human nature parodies popular authors and beats them at their own game, you’ve got a classic.
Deathless like Dracula
“Dinesen was writing her stories during the decade following World War I,” one discusser noted.
You get this feeling that Gothic is a spell that visits different time periods, like Dracula, but taking different forms. What was the form that Gothic had taken in world culture when Dinesen had been in Africa? The movie, “Nosferatu.” Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Berlin!
The 1920s were powerfully haunted by the late Victorian period, we learn from “Terror and Wonder,” including by Jack the Ripper, who became the favorite boogeyman in 1920s movie theaters, pulp magazines, and whispered conversations.
By the 1880s, with “Sweeney Todd,” “Oliver Twist,” and penny dreadfuls, the gothic spotlight had turned to the urban underclass, with fantasy romances getting voyeuristic kicks out of wickedness.
According to Ratcliffe, there were two kinds of Gothic.
“Terror and horror,” she explained, “are so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”
Wait a minute, Ms. Radcliffe, are you calling us horror-lovers brain-dead?
“Terror and Wonder” also takes us to the 1830s and 40s, a golden era of geographical discovery.
In 1830, Charles Lyell published “The Principles of Geology,” opening up the subject of deep time. Having become familiar with ruined civilizations and eons-old bones, he wondered, how “many edifices of human workmanship, and the skeletons of men, and casts of the human form, will continue to exist” when the “mountains have disappeared.”
Can a person be so affected by the spirit of the times that, like Boris, he’ll begin to see beauty in bones?
“The first condition for anything having real charm was this: that it must not really exist,” Dinesen writes about the thinking of two aristocratic old maids who worship their late, infidel brother, Morten.
“It was,” Dinesen notes, “a curious thing about the two sisters, who had been so unhappy as young women, that they should take so much pleasure in dwelling upon the past. They could talk for hours of the most insignificant trifles of their young days, and these made them laugh and cry more heartily than any event of the present day.”
The sisters are perfectly suited as ghost-seers. When they get the call that Morten has been showing up at the old Elsinore homestead, they go there, hold a kind of séance—just a sit-down with settings at the old dinner table—and when Morten arrives, they have a great conversation.
With this story, Dinesen carved a seat for herself in the inventor-of-ghost-story-prototypes gallery.
One of the things I like to look for when picking and discussing a book discussion book is: What has the author done that is distinctive? It can be any kind of thing: subject, story, setting, style.
Here are some upcoming book discussions in the area.
SOUTHERN GOTHIC EVENT
City Lights Bookstore in Sylva hosts a panel discussion on Southern literature, featuring authors David Joy, Mark Powell, Charles Dodd White and Jon Sealy, 6:30 p.m., Fri., Aug. 7. The event also celebrates the release of the anthology, “Appalachia Now,” which features short stories from each of these authors. Call 586-9499.