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A Tale Retold

Sharon Dempsey

As a seventeen-year-old reading Wuthering Heights for the first time, I was struck by the appeal of the dark aesthetic, the passion, madness and supernatural elements. I recognised the “pleasing terror” I had experienced as being one of tension, fear of what was to be revealed, coupled with the compulsion to read on. Returning to the same novel years later, it had no less impact. So what is this allure of the “pleasing terror” and how do writers of the Gothic genre capture our imagination and force us to see the unthinkable and experience the sense that there is something beyond our rational understanding of the world?

The Gothic novel has been entertaining and thrilling readers for centuries and while many critics have rejected the genre as showy, populist and over-formulaic, readers have responded more positively, returning to and reworking it. It is this sense of delving into the darkest recesses of the mind, broaching that which is hidden and unacknowledged, that attracts both writers and readers. For the reader, the appeal of the Gothic novel lies in how it makes us feel, that sense of disquiet and uneasiness; the idea of something being just beyond our grasp but about to be revealed. Interestingly, times of social upheaval see renewed interest in the Gothic genre. It appeals to our need to explain the horrors lurking in our own disturbed psyche or that of the national consciousness and a fragile social order, and explores the contemporary, political and social concerns of the day. Perhaps we are about to see a reassurance of the genre.

In many ways the Gothic was a reaction to the suppression of emotions, reason, logic and scientific rationalism of the eighteenth century. In contrast to rationalism, it is concerned with emotion, passion, sexuality and terror, and invites the reader to enter its world, making the experience active rather than passive. The term Gothic originates from an ancient Germanic people who invaded the Roman empire. The term later became associated with a style of medieval architecture. Originally the form was seen as having been born out of a move away from neoclassical ideals and a revival of medieval notions of romanticism. The Victorian age saw the rise of modernity and industrialisation, and this created a sense of nostalgia for a more ornate style of the past, which was evident in the architectural features of arches, intricate stone craving, steep roofs and extreme decorative work featuring gargoyles, stained glass windows and statues. This medieval influence affected not only architecture but also art and literature.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, and considered to be the first Gothic novel, employs the tropes which have come to be associated with the genre: supernatural elements, a medieval setting, and hidden identities. Walpole subtitled the novel “A Gothic Story”, referencing its medieval influences. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) continued the Gothic theme and developed it. The novel took its title from the name of a fictional Italian castle where much of the story is set. Radcliffe developed the Gothic form to include the “explained supernatural”. The terror of supernatural elements, ghostly apparitions, and uneasy atmospheres are relieved for the reader by means of rational explanations.

Reading Wuthering Heights for the first time I was aware of Bronte’s ability to sway me, to lure me into the dark world of the run-down house, the vast hostile landscape and the characters. As important as the tropes and motifs in deciding what is Gothic literature, we must also recognise the effect it has on readers. This sense of suspense, heightened drama, terror and the uneasy growing awareness that comes creeping in all appear within the Gothic novel. Radcliffe made the important distinction between terror and horror, stating in her posthumous essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry”, published in 1826:

Terror and horror 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. I apprehend, that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?

The horror Gothic was a reference to MG Lewis’s The Monk, with Radcliffe’s work being designated as Gothic terror, ultimately morally uplifting or inspiring and redeeming. Radcliffe gave us imagined terrors, while Lewis gave us explicit physical horror. The Monk shocked many critics and readers with its depravity, violence and incest. It concerns the fall from grace of its character, Ambrosio, who is overcome with desire. The work has many of the Gothic motifs: the supernatural, with the Devil’s appearance, subversive sexual desire, forced actions, tormented conscience, pleasure and pain. It also employed the anti-Catholic theme that runs through many Gothic works.

The sublime, the grandeur and the terror found in the natural world is at the heart of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The destructive power of nature, coupled with Victor’s unnatural creation, draws us into the tale of horror. Frankenstein still appeals to our sense of unease about the power of science and the possibility of imminent apocalypse.

In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley embarked on a tour of Europe with Percy Shelley, hoping to escape the gossip and judgment of London. She was only sixteen when she fell in love with the already married Shelley, but eighteen by the time they eloped. It was while travelling that they met up with Lord Byron, who rented a house, the Villa Diodati, along with his personal physician, John Polidori, on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Shelleys and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, were staying at a smaller house nearby but frequently visited the Villa Diodati.

It was at the villa, while the party was confined indoors by rain, that Byron and Shelley had the long talks to which Mary Shelley remembered being “a devout and nearly silent listener”. Their topics of conversation concerned the “principle of life” and various philosophical doctrines. At Byron’s suggestion they were inspired to write ghost stories. Mary Shelley tried to think of a story, one which, in her own words, “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart”.

The stormy weather, sexual tensions, and discussions surrounding the science of the day all culminated in Mary Shelley having a nightmare. It was this dream that led to the creation of one of the most enduring of Gothic novels. The horror and the grotesque in the Gothic novel is a representation of the wrongs of society. Immorality, eschewed social norms and the dark side of human nature are all explored. In creating the monster, Frankenstein destroys the natural order. He has taken man’s desire for knowledge to the extreme, yet this is seen as being part of the human condition.

Works such as Susan Hill’s popular The Woman in Black and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger use the past to create stories with Gothic elements. Not surprisingly, when we think of Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson, modern day crime fiction also owes much to the Gothic tradition. John Connolly describes himself as a mystery writer, engaging with spiritual and supernatural elements. As Connolly puts it, “there has always been a tension in the mystery genre between the rational and the anti-rational”. His novels have been described as “detective Gothic”, yet another subgenre to add to the many. His Charlie Parker series, the latest being A Game of Ghosts, his novellas and short stories draw on the supernatural and use intrigue, while entwining the noir with Gothic elements.

The legacy of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker lives on in popular culture through modern novels like many of the works of Stephen King, in particular The Shining, and Angela Carter’s collection of stories The Bloody Chamber, among others. We all have our favourites and what one reader considers a Gothic masterpiece another may interpret it as pastiche. Other works such as The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase, Behind her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough and Lying In Wait by Liz Nugent also carry the torch.

We have seen a contemporary growth of Gothic-style narratives, the latest of which is the podcast S-Town. Produced by the makers of Serial and This American LifeS-Town is a documentary that is rich in narrative technique and has the Gothic appeal of a death, a mystery and buried treasure. On television, the revival of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the visual dark trademarks of Tim Burton’s films also seek to keep the Gothic tradition alive.

I recently read Amy Engel’s The Roanoke Girls and was immediately struck at the novel’s opening by its allusion to du Maurier’s Rebecca, alerting the reader to the Gothic heritage the novel aspires to belong to. The narrative, moving between past and present, concerns the generations of Roanoke girls who either die young or choose to run as far away as they can from the house of their childhood and the oil-rich patriarch Yates Roanoke. The novel’s extreme romanticism, its exploration of trauma and dark aesthetics, place it within the Gothic genre: we learn at an early stage that the Roanoke patriarch is a sexual predator and who preys on descendants, sisters and daughters. The mystery of the novel lies in the narrator, Lane’s, search for her missing “cousin” Allegra.

The motifs of the modern Gothic novel can be seen in the depiction of the dysfunctional family, the house as character, themes of the grotesque, female sexual desire and the gender hierarchy combined with trauma and the idea of extreme romanticism. Amy Engel places the story in Kansas, in the American Midwest, showing a place on the outskirts of the town, which is dependent on the oil-rich family’s money. The sultry heat and the sense of dislocation all help to create an atmosphere of oppression and imprisonment. The sense of the unknown, that which is on the cusp of knowing, is delivered with Lane’s growing awareness of her grandfather’s role in the departure or death of each of the Roanoke girls. The Roanoke house is a labyrinth of rooms, added-on extensions and corridors and staircases going off in all directions, alluding to the Gothic architecture from which the genre is said to have originated.

The idea of an interior, either castle or home, as being one of mysterious corridors, darkened rooms and secret passageways works as a figure for the unknown, the sense of not being able to quite grasp what is around the corner. This is as true for the reader as for the characters; they are working their way through the narrative trying to make sense out of that which is unknown and strange. The lasting appeal of the Gothic lies in its ability to tap into real-life concerns and anxieties, terrifying us while remaining plausible. The modern Gothic is not confined to the traditional mysterious, gloomy castle setting; rather it has the sense of being relevant and of its time yet speaking of the horrors that still lurk in our psyche.


Sharon Dempsey’s crime debut, Little Bird, will be published on July 31st by Bloodhound Books.



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