‘Thrilled with Chilly Horror’: A Pattern in Gothic Fiction

Manuel Aguirre
Manuel Aguirre

This article is part of a body of research into the conventions which govern the composition of Gothic texts. One line of interest concerns the observed fact that Gothic fiction resorts to formulas or formula-like constructions; whereas in the work of writers such as Ann Radcliffe this practice is apt to be masked by stylistic devices, it enjoys a more naked display in those Gothics which our own times consider less “canonical”, and it is in these that we may profitably begin analysis. The novel selected was Peter Teuthold’s ‘The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest’ (1794). Though it presents itself as an English rendering of K. F. Kahlert’s ‘Der Geisterbanner’ (1792), the translator’s rhetoric differs considerably from that of his German original, and it is best to proceed on the assumption that we are dealing with an English book.

In the historical sense in which I will use the term, “Gothic” designates a circa-sixty-year period which “began” with the publication of Horatio Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ in 1764 and was superseded by other forms of horror fiction from around the 1820s onwards. The rise of the genre is a complex issue but it can usefully be attributed to, among other things, a reaction against facile Enlightenment positions; in many ways Gothic fiction may be viewed as the Romantic fiction which (with the occasional exceptions of Scott or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) is absent from so many anthologies of and critical works on Romantic literature. The genre (which, besides novels, includes drama, poetry and short fiction) capitalizes on strategies associated with the Graveyard School of Poetry, the sentimental novel, and generally the valorisation of the non-rational (feeling, the passions, the Burkean Sublime), but it also relates to a type of realism which, shunned by earlier fictions, dwelt on defeat or powerlessness in the face of forces greater than the enlightened will of the individual or of society. It is my contention that for a firm grasp of these issues a frank examination of the language and structure of Gothic is essential.

There is, so far as I know, no literature on the topic of Gothic formulaic language. For that matter, there is a precious little critical study of the formal aspects of the Gothic genre, possibly owing to the misconception that, in terms of artistic quality, the genre has little that will endear itself to us. For two-and-a-half centuries criticism has adhered to content-based definitions — motif, episode, plot, theme, setting, atmosphere, psychology, ideology — while none that I am aware of build on formal criteria — the lexicon, formulaic language, syntax, style, narrative structure, and so on. The approach provided here is weary of a priori definitions of Gothic which consistently ignore the very forms of the genre, and the rationale of this article hinges on a formal approach.

The major tools for the present research were the theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition and insights from corpus linguistics and lexicography. It was noted long ago that formulaic constructions in traditional epic poetry rely on combinatorial strategies built on “substitution systems”, It was noted long ago that formulaic constructions in traditional epic poetry rely on combinatorial strategies built on “substitution systems”, and research has shown that the work of Parry, Lord and others on formulaic diction has a genuine applicability to the Gothic genre, albeit a limited one inasmuch as their first, and defining, criterion is a metrical one; thus, for Parry (1930: 80) the formula is “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea”. Though some phonological features of the epic formula (notably alliteration and stress) will disclose an unexpected relevance to the present research (see below), the concept of formulaic composition seemed intuitively appropriate but difficult to apply to a piece of eighteenth-century prose fiction.

On the other hand, the tendency in ‘The Necromancer’ towards certain complex lexical groupings required some principle of correlation beyond (or before) syntactic structure for which the concept of collocation (see Firth 1957) initially offered sufficient precision. ‘Collocation’ identifies the frequent co-occurrence of two or more words in contiguity or proximity (in practice, most researchers handle word-pairs); the item selected as the focus for the analysis is called the node, the words the node tends to be accompanied by its collocates. It is often but by no means always the case that the words may be knit together by some syntactic arrangement (Sinclair 1991; Hoey 1991: 154). Soon, however, the limitations of this concept became clear. For one thing, lexicographers investigating formulaic language seem largely unaware of the Parry-Lord theory and over eighty years of critical research; for another, focus on the spoken language risks compromising the specificity of the written, literary text; furthermore, the tendency is to study hardened or lexicalized strings as the model for other types of string construction (e.g., Wray 2005), whereas the object of my investigation is a productive system for generating text.

For the purposes of this enquiry into Gothic procedures, the formula, understood as consisting of a set of words which appear in near-invariant collocation more than once, is to be distinguished from the formulaic pattern (the key term in this study). This latter is best defined as a polylexemic phenomenon (rather than as involving pairs of words) that binds lexical fields (rather than lexical items) around a node-field (rather than a node-word). No true constants are to be found in the formulaic pattern, which thus appears to be an open system (unlike the formula properly so called).

Over and above syntactic considerations, textual units co-occur in it with other textual units through proximity and combination. Provisionally we can define the formulaic pattern in Peter Teuthold’s novel as an open set of lexical fields regularly employed under certain conditions to convey an essential idea. In order to tighten up this definition, the article will isolate one single formulaic pattern, define its component elements and structure within the novel, and analyse its thematic importance.

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