The term Gothic derives from the “Goths”, the Germanic peoples who lived north of the Roman Empire. From the mid-1600s, the word connoted the art and architecture of Northern Europe. In the 19th century, scholars extended its use to include literature about horror and mystery.
Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is considered the first gothic novel in English (coincidentally, about a royal family in Puglia). Scottish historian Sir Walter Scott wrote that the book, and gothic in general, appeals “to that secret and reserved feeling of love for the marvellous and supernatural, which occupies a hidden corner in almost everyone.”
The Castle of Otranto’s narrative features would become hallmarks of the genre - a heightened sense of place, the supernatural, power dynamics and examination of gender roles. Today’s post focuses on place.
A heightened (and frightening) sense of place:
Gothic tales often centre around a stranger in a strange place. Large estates and dilapidated mansions all work well, preferably located nearby dense forests, unstable cliffs, rushing violent rivers or unfamiliar mountain terrain, treacherous to traverse.
In the Gothic, nature is untamed, outside of human control, threatening individual existence. When European settlers arrived in America, they encountered a vastness beyond their comprehension. The forests were dense; the winters were cold, cruel and unrelenting. In her introduction to American Gothic Tales, Joyce Carol Oates imagines how those settlers must’ve felt:
How uncanny, how mysterious, how unknowable and infinitely beyond their control must have seemed the vast wilderness of the New World, to the seventeenth-century Puritan settlers! The inscrutable silence of Nature, the muteness that, not heralding God, must be a dominion of Satan’s; the tragic ambiguity of human nature with its predilection for what Christians call “original sin,” inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. When Nature is so vast, man’s need for control—for “settling” the wilderness—becomes obsessive. And how powerful the temptation to project mankind’s divided self onto the very silence of Nature.
Not all settings need to be rural, nor concern themselves only with nature. Urban gothic is its own sub-genre, with The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Dr. Jerkyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)and Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (1976-2018)as key examples.
The concept of the house in the Gothic is as important as the surroundings. Sylvia Morena-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic (2020) takes place in an old, crumbling mansion at the top of the hill, inhabited (and haunted by) generations of owners. Some 170 years earlier, in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), the narrator describes seeing Heathcliff’s house for the first time: “I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door; above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffin.”
The images recall the Gothic churches of Northern Europe. In their A World History of Art (2009), art historians Hugh Honour and John Flemming write the following about gothic cathedrals:
They seem to reflect, as comprehensively and accurately as in a mirror the beliefs and lives of the people by whom and for whom they were created. Angels and saints and devils, kings and queens, noblemen and their ladies, merchants and peasants all figure in their numerous carvings and stained glass windows.
In the Gothic, home is not just a sanctuary but also a source of terror and often horror. In Mexican Gothic, the family mansion is full of fungi that slowly poison many residents. Though fiction, the impacts of poorly maintained housing stock happen far too often in reality, especially amongst those in social or council housing, as in Grenfell Tower in London. The terrors are not confined to the wealthy.
Next time, we’ll look at how Gothic addresses the supernatural.
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