Understanding Gothic Studies, Genre, and Academic Subculture

Alex de Borba

Alex de Borba

What are Gothic Studies? Appropriately for a genre that so often revels in ambiguity, even the word has always held an approximate, mutable, contested meaning.

This editorial attempts to answer that question, providing a critique of the specialised critical approaches to the genre that have developed over the last thirty-five years, and offering a theoretical response to them.

Following articles will explore the genre in the context of the United Kingdom in the nineteen-sixties, the United States of America in the mid-nineteen-eighties, and finally, in New Zealand in the nineteen-thirties through until the nineteen-nineties.

Each of these historical “moments” provides a venue to examine the genre’s performativity, its relationship to criticism, literature and national identity, all of which are issues raised as consequences of the theorisation of the genre suggested in this editorial.

The argument of this editorial and the case studies that follow hope to address the concerns about Gothic studies raised by Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall, that it often abandons genuine historicity and that “the assumption of Gothic Criticism [is] that the ‘Gothic’ is to be defined not according to observable features of theme and setting but according to the realms of psychological depth from which it is supposed to originate (dream, fantasy) or the psychological responses it is believed to provoke (fear, terror, horror). Gothic Criticism is frequently unable and unwilling to distinguish its supposed object from the generality of fearful or horrible narratives.”

Gothic studies have been reluctant to define the object of its investigation. It is emblematic of this problem that the Oxford English Dictionary has only very recently, in March 2008, introduced a draft addition describing the sense of the word “Gothic” in which it is critically used, denoting a genre of fiction, not limited by historical origin, that involves the suspenseful, the sensational, the supernatural or macabre.

In a sense that exceeds that given by the Oxford English Dictionary addition, it could mean a cultural production in one of a number of different media that involves these qualities. This is the primary sense in which this thesis uses the word, encompassing genre labels such as horror, weird stories, dark fantasy, and the literature of the macabre.

The word is expansive, and the Oxford English Dictionary includes earlier relevant senses that do not entirely separate themselves as unique. It notes Walpole’s use of the word as a subtitle to ‘The Castle of Otranto’, but this is rightly ascribed to his medievalism rather than to the supernatural and sinister inclinations that might encourage us to label a text as Gothic in a twenty-first-century context.

However, it is easy to see how, in our present use of the term which does not distinguish between Walpole’s wilful anachronism and his brightly haunted imagination, these two separate senses collapse into one another.

That the meanings attached to the word are changeable is hardly a new observation; Alfred E. Longueuil noted in 1923 that “Critical terms, like other speculations, have their ups and downs. So it has been with the adjective ‘gothic’”.

In a literary context, the term denoted barbarism and a lack of decorum in the early eighteenth-century; however, Longueuil attributes what he calls the “re-neutralising” of the word to Bishop Richard Hurd in his 1762 ‘Letters on Chivalry and Romance’, where he argued for the value of the “Gothic romance”. When Walpole and Reeve used the term, it was already in a recuperated sense; as we will see, Gothic studies have emphasised the need for the recovery of the term.

As more Gothic texts were written and consumed, the present meaning of the word began to emerge, denoting the supernaturalism, orientalism, morbidity and spectral obsessions present within the texts.

Longueuil believes that this sense had displaced earlier meanings to a significant degree by the end of the eighteenth-century. Michael Gamer suggests that it is not until the early nineteenth-century that “Gothic” denoted a genre; thus the sense of the term discussed here was not really present when what we think of as the “original” eighteenth-century Gothic was forming.

Longueuil notes an instance of the phrase “Gothic imagination” used in 1804 to describe a wild or ghostly imagination, a usage not dissimilar to how we might talk about the Gothic today. In this construction, the Gothic escapes the confines of text and describes a quality of vision and thought.

Further complications emerge when we note that Gothic and Romantic have been closely related. Wordsworth famously railed against frantic novels and sickly and stupid German tragedies in the ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ (1800), a polemic intended to differentiate its contents from the contemporary vogue for the Gothic; nevertheless, the collection still included the macabre ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and nearly included ‘Christabel’ as well.

‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ and ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’ both embrace the Gothic; Shelley published two Gothic novels while he was at Eton, and apparently avidly devoured the semi-literary Gothic bluebooks which were popular at the time. Both Frankenstein and John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ emerged directly from the Romantic field. Byron himself as much as his writing has become the stuff of Gothic stories; hence the Byronic hero.

Associations abound. The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that the word might connote the supposed savagery of vanished Northern European tribes, or the sophisticated fakery of Gothic Revival architecture. These associations are not central to an understanding of the literary Gothic; yet they contribute to our sense of its meanings.

There is no shortage of atavistic barbarism in the texts, and the architectural movement exhibits the medievalism that delighted Walpole and his followers. It is no coincidence that buildings in Gothic Revival style might make ideal settings for Gothic narratives; indeed, Robert Aickman’s story, ‘My Poor Friend’ posits Westminster as haunted by strange, bat-like children.

Another addition to the Oxford English Dictionary entry notes gothic subculture, a phenomenon distinct from the literary productions of Walpole, Beckford and Radcliffe, that nevertheless shares a preference for theatricality, bizarrerie and melancholia. Writers like Poppy Z Brite and Caitlín R Kiernan make the connection explicit, locating Gothic tales inside gothic subcultural milieu.

Through these different usages, the Gothic gathers a context for itself, a diffuse canon that includes cultural productions exceeding the literary. These associations add to the potential meaning of the term, but complicate it at the same time.

The word sometimes makes it seem as if Ruskinian architecture somehow naturally relates to subcultural fashion. For as long as it has been a term that describes a literature, the Gothic has been unstable and has never held the “critical incisiveness” that some have felt that it ought.

While this “fuzziness” is perhaps inherent in any theorisation of the Gothic, it has had a substantial, negative impact on recent critical discussions of the genre.

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