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The Gothic Australianness History and Fertile Soil for Ghosts

The Gothic Australianness History and Fertile Soil for Ghosts
© Photograph by Ellen Wilson

The ghost story is not a simple thing to pin down, like its subject it can seem insubstantial and marginal: out of synch with society and mainstream literature. The first task then, in undertaking an analysis of the ghost and haunting in Australia is to stake out the grounds, conceptual and literary, in which it is earthed. In Australia, the ghost story’s seeming irrelevance is compounded by its imported nature and the foreignness of the form’s exemplars. Despite this, Australia, as the article at large will continue to show, is fertile ground both for ghostwriting and the particular fears it best expresses.

The absence of a substantial body of scholarship on the ghost story seems less because of an absence of texts, or even the absence of culturally distinctive texts, but that whatever strange fruit the form’s transplantation has borne has been occluded by the quick, and verdant growth of another Australian form: the Australian Gothic. While this genre is often paired with the ghost story, the two should not be confused. In order to clear space for the ghost story, this chapter maps the thematic qualities of the Australian Gothic with particular reference to its thematic “Australianess”. Once these qualities are understood, both in their generic and culturally specific forms, the sympathy or enmity between these qualities and the ghost story will be discussed. In order to undertake this discussion, however, it is first important to consider how the ghost story operates.

A ghost story, in the most basic terms, features the emergence or influence of the immaterial into or on the mundane, material world. No particular effect or plot structure is claimed as essential to the portrayal of this emergence or influence in this thesis. The workings in and of themselves will be discussed in more depth in future articles: ‘Fractured Bodies and Fracturing Narratives’, but this basic formation is sufficient to show the supernatural elements of the ghost story in terms of material relevance and action. The role of the immaterial is pictured in terms of the material world as a function of language — specifically ‘Spectral Language’. Within the philosophical framework of this article, “language” as a descriptor of the symbols, tropes and logic of ghostly appearance and encounter demonstrates both the insubstantiality of spectral agencies and the failure of a ghost’s presence to define a genre.

“Language” in this article follows from Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin’s 1917 ‘On Language as Such and the Languages of Man’, where he contends that “there is no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not partake of language for it is in the nature of all to communicate their mental meanings” (Benjamin 1979a, p. 107). Translated into the context of the ghost story, the ghost or haunting presence has the same status as “mental meaning”: the otherwise immaterial and non-objectively present. The immaterial becomes spectral when it is communicated via the material and sensory signs of the text’s mimetic reality. The essential materiality of spectral language means that despite the transcendent terms that Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin framed his discussion within spectral language is not intended to model or analyse metaphysical constructions. The potential of Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin’s “language” as a literary tool comes into greater clarity when read through Martin Heidegger’s lens. In ‘A Letter on Humanism’ (1949) Martin Heidegger writes that: “In its essence language is not the utterance of an organism; nor is it the expression of a living thing. Nor can it ever be thought in an essentially correct way in terms of its symbolic character, perhaps not even in terms of the character of signification. Language is the lighting-concealing advent of Being itself.” (Heidegger 1977a, p. 206)

In this way, spectral language’s independence of human speakers is supported by Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin and Martin Heidegger and their assertion that non-human and nonliving things speak or communicate without utterance or words. Spectral language, as with Martin Heidegger and Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin’s language generally can, therefore, be described as “wild”. In ‘The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and Environment’ (2010), Timothy Clark discusses “wild language” in the work of Gary Snyder. Timothy Clark writes: “language — oral or written — is ‘wild’ in the sense of being a self-regulating system or entity, with properties still opaque to human understanding and certainly not a matter of instrumental control” (Clark 2010, p. 53). Spectral language is, despite its cultural coding, not a human property or instrument within the ghost texts. While it is only rarefied into meaning when it is understood its markers and meanings may pre-exist, or exist outside of human understanding in both folkloric and fictional realities. In the philosophical terms of the underlying theorists, spectral language is a worldly rather than human property. The “worldliness” of spectrality allows haunting and ghost narratives which lack either an autonomous spectre or any personified threat at all to be considered alongside ghost stories with recognisable and communicative spirits. If language constitutes a communication by objects that are present of those qualities which are not material, then when writing of a spectral language the spectral is only a particularly potent kind of immaterial quality: one that is both “active” and with an agency.

When the spectral, and as such the ghost, is thought of as an embedded textual language its impossibility as the genre is exposed. The ghost narrative is parasitic in that it requires another text; a world of objects and characters, through which to speak. It may require physical and material objects, but the spectral remains only an expression mediated by those objects. It is important to recognize that as a language, spectrality is not “whole”. As a system of correspondence and meaning-making, it becomes inarticulate and insignificant when uncoupled from the broader frames of genre or a mimetically recognizable world. Ghosts require something non-ghostly to refer to and communicate with in order to be perceptible. A ghost alienated from the physical world and from material witnesses is not a ghost at all if ghostliness is dependent on spectrality. Spectrality is, as defined in the introduction to this thesis, not merely immaterial but immateriality present in, and acting on and amongst material reality. In a fundamental sense, the spectral is entwined with language: it is embedded in the correspondence between the physically present and the immaterially implied.

As the ghost story is parasitic and can seemingly couple with and pervade a wide range of genres without being contained by them it becomes important to understand why the genres of Horror and the Gothic go hand in hand with popular conceptions of ghosts, and represent a claim on the ghost not matched by its occasional host: the romance, comedy or melodrama. Of the two genres, the Gothic will be discussed in depth in this chapter as it boasts a distinct and accepted “Australian” variant, whereas Horror will be considered more broadly in the continued argument of the second chapter. While a discussion of Gothic in Australia requires some historical attention, it is clear that the spectral does not progress cleanly: it is by its nature anachronistic. For this reason, while spectral narratives undergo periods of innovation historical perspective is limited. The subject of this chapter is the thematic sympathies contemporary Australian texts have inherited from earlier Gothic texts, rather than a discussion of lineage or specific inspiration. Narratives in which the spectral manifests borrow, more or less freely, across the spectrum of ghostly traditions and tropes without regards to an era. However, what is meant by “Australian” does rely on a mappable national identity that does shift over time.

The relationship between the Gothic and the ghost is a peculiar one, as the ghost story both precedes and antecedes the Gothic form. While the Gothic is largely agreed to have begun with Horatio Walpole’s 1764 novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (aptly subtitled a gothic romance) there have been ghosts in oral accounts and epics since long before 1764. The restrained form of the short ghost story, however, did not mature as an independent form until the 1820s according to Michael Andrew Cox and R.A. Gilbert in their 2008 edited volume ‘The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories’.

Michael Andrew Cox and R.A. Gilbert argue that ‘The Castle of Otranto’, despite its painting that “quit[s] its panel, and descend[s] on the floor with a grave and melancholy air” (Walpole 1968, p. 60), a statue that bleeds “three drops of blood” (ibid p. 130) and a skeleton “wrapt in a hermit’s cowl” (ibid p. 138) is not a ghost story proper as “the ghost generally played a secondary role, serving a moral purpose by bringing retribution upon the villain, or fulfilling the more basic function of shocking the ladies” (Cox and Gilbert 2008, p. xii). They prefer to reserve it for works where “the ghostly protagonists […] act with a deliberate intent; their actions — or the consequences of their actions — rather than those of the living must be the central theme” (ibid p. ix). This, in turn, limits the number of Gothic fictions that can be considered ghost fictions. However, there is little argument to be made that stories that are not ghost stories deploy spectral languages and logic. Emily Jane Brontë’s 1847 ‘Wuthering Heights’ boasts spectres at the window and wandering the moors, but none that directly impact on the narrative.

By sharing the nineteenth-century as a period of ascendancy with the self-contained ghost story, the Gothic is unalterably tainted by the supernatural. While claiming descent from ‘The Castle of Otranto’; a novel so unapologetically excessive in its employment of the supernatural as to open with the sole sickly heir to the usurped castle being “dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being” (Walpole 1968 p. 53) later innovations in the genre, and particularly in its foreign variants of American and Australian Gothic, distanced the Gothic from such undeniable demonstrations in favour of malevolent atmospheres, and deniable but accurate fevers, curses and madnesses.

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