Rebirth of the Gothic in the Metropolitan Legends

Ertuğrul Koç

Ertuğrul Koç

Although the term Gothic has generally been understood as destructively alien and grotesque, still it bears the gist of a novelty for it that often creates a cynical perception concerning popular culture. Since the individual can evolve only through the creation of an antithesis of the culture he associates himself with, the need for Gothic will not come to an end: new and revolutionary forms and trends will be put forward to generate the difference for the purpose of evolving, and the new will always be labeled as Gothic. For an ever-changing society and individual, Gothic has become the means of questioning and revising the “established” ethics and morals through a deconstructive philosophical-ideological assertion.

From its very first emergence as a unique literary trend in the second half of the eighteenth-century, Gothic has always invoked contradictory feelings and perceptions in critics. Augustans condemned the genre. Unable to understand the reasons behind its emergent popularity, they saw it as a literary form “inexpressibly hideous and revolting [for] the Gothic genre offended public morality and violated accepted canons of an aesthetic and cultural order founded on common sense and reason” (Bhalla, 3). Modern critics are more appreciative of the term: “Since the late 1970s, the Gothic has become a popular field of academic study. Scores of books have been published, both on the Gothic in general, and on particular subgenres and authors” (Punter, xviii). After all, they have come to acknowledge it as a distinct and unique trend whose influential motifs still find a place in the popular graphic novels and Hollywood films. Moreover, in recent years, the popularity of gothic studies has drastically increased: a great number of scholars try to understand the rationale behind this influence for it still haunts the popular imagination. David Punter, Fred Botting, Sandra M. Gilbert, Maggie Kilgour, Robert Mighall, David Stevens, Jack Sullivan, Devandra Parma, Augustus Montague Summers, and Alok Bhalla are some of the well-known scholars whose works attempt to define the controversial nature of the genre and to explain the modern tendency towards the gothic phenomenon.

Although the early gothic examples have lost their influence of shock on the modern reader, the genre and its motifs have already permeated into postmodern literature: modern graphic novels are full of super gothic villains and heroes who help trigger the subconscious response of man against the chaotic web of relations and conflicts in the metropolis. The change in setting from the castles located in the countryside to the urban centres is the result of industrialization which brought about the concept of the metropolis. No longer feudal in economic relations and political structure, modern societies have carried their gothic castles, their villainous and virtuous heroes into the cities. Dennis J. O’Neil’s Batman and the fictional Gotham City that appears in DC Comics; the superhero of Marvel Comics Spider-Man created by Stan Lee and Stephen J. Ditko; Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster’s Superman are all heroes of the urban centres. What distinguishes these graphic figures from the eighteenth-century gothic characters is that the virtuous heroes, not the villains, are the more powerful central characters, suggesting that they address the lacunae of security and the lack of saviour in the modern world. When the essential pillars of civilization such as law, justice, and equality fail, the audiences, in reaction to lawlessness, injustice, and inequality come to appreciate the supra-human heroes who fight against the cruelty of all sorts. This is the response of the common man against the increasing threats in his environment.

Though essential, gothic villains are no more central: they change and vary because the threats people encounter in urban centres change and vary. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gothic focused more on the perverse psychology of the villains. In twentieth-century, however, this perversity has been a part of daily life as a result of the numerous threats to human existence like nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons together with terrorism and the possibility of a full scale war; and the industrial and technological cruelty which, in return, created the most heinous and unimaginable types of crime. Hence, there appeared a shift in emphasis from the villainous to the virtuous hero in the creation of character because of the high amount of threats and villainy in the “civilized” world. The dull, anodyne but virtuous heroes of the eighteenth-century gothic were replaced by engaging and colourful superhuman heroes of the twentieth-century graphic novels. The ability to act beyond human limits, which usually belonged to the gothic villains, was also bestowed on the metropolitan heroes to fight against evil powers.

This, in fact, is the reaction of common man against the collapse of the old, and the emergence of the new paradigms — for nowadays any society in the western world consists of conformists who hardly consciously try to change the system — and his desire at the same time to construct a “morally superior” paradigm in place of the present, deteriorating one. Since the Gothic very often signals the coming of the “new” and evolution (or revolution) itself, the increasing interest in the previous examples of this fiction together with the modern examples may prove to reveal the deconstructive pursuits of the present capitalist (and imperialist) societies in forming a new paradigm. After all, what man has created throughout history is just a chain reaction of cause-effect relations. As present is inseparable from the past, and as the Gothic reveals ample information about the past paradigm, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century examples of this genre are worth analyzing in order to see what the future paradigm will be like. It is, therefore, essential to focus on the origins and originators of the Gothic to understand the modern usage of the term, and to discern how the literary motifs used in the early gothic works have penetrated into the urban legends.

The purpose of this article is to offer a new perspective on why the Gothic emerged, and how it still affects the (popular) literature of the postmodern era. Through a metaphorical reading of the five gothic works by five gothicists — ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horatio Walpole, ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ by Ann Radcliffe, ‘The Monk: A Romance’ by Matthew Gregory Lewis, ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ by Charles Robert Maturin, and ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley — and through a comparison of these examples with the graphic novels such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, the disordered social structure together with the disrupted psychology of both the past and present paradigms, which have given rise and impetus to gothic literature, will be examined.

Eighteenth-century gothic includes both anachronistic and modern elements: the social and geographical settings, the characters and characterization techniques, the tone, the point of view and the works’ generic structure — a mixture of myth, epic, romance, tragedy, folktale — and the modern format (the novel form) that covers all these elements make these works appear strangely new, and outdated at the same time. The atmosphere of archaism is deceptive. The gothic metaphor of anachronism is built solely to lead to moral allegory by backdating eighteenth-century people and institutions to an earlier epoch. The socio-economic, socio-political structures and individual relations are described as feudal. The depiction of a faux medieval world and its economic and power relations should be read as metaphors for the burgeoning capitalist, empiricist, and positivist paradigms of the age. The cruelty which the new economic, political, and scientific systems of the Age of Enlightenment have created is the chief concern of the early gothic fiction. In short, though seemingly archaic, all the works are about the present eighteenth- and nineteenth-century societies: they reveal the tensions and conflicts in the new rational, “enlightened” age. The target of criticism is the new behaviour types and the new modi vivendi which lack the spiritual pedestal of the old paradigm. Although the age brought about a new consciousness, it also created conflicts.

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