Notes Toward a Reading of the Comic-Gothic

Notes Toward a Reading of the Comic-Gothic
© Photograph by Karmen Poznic

The gothic is always with us. Certainly, it was always with the Victorians. All that black, all that crêpe. All that jet. All that swirling fog. If there is a transition in the nature of the gothic from the end of the eighteenth-century to the middle years of the nineteenth-century, it is marked by an inward turn perhaps.

There is an internalization to be considered not so much as a denial of the gothic as it is a form of intimacy. In writing of the nineteenth-century which manifests a gothic turn, there is an embrace of the uncanny within ourselves rather than a displacement or projection on to some foreign or distant other. In part, the turn inward and the interest in the otherness within is signalled in part during what is termed the high Victorian period by the intense fascination, obsession even, with English manners, with Englishness and all that is the most alien to the definition of Englishness, not in some foreign field, but in England, the heart of darkness itself. It is through what James B. Twitchell describes as the sober English concern with darkness, mesmerism and Satanism (1981, 33), that the gothic aspect of Englishness is revealed. Far from disappearing, it may be argued, the gothic, ingested and consumed, becomes appropriate, “a legitimate subject of literature”, to employ James B. Twitchell’s phrase (1981, 33). It is not so much that the vampire is sought out. Rather, vampiric feeding on otherness constitutes a significant aspect of English letters. In particular, that which is fed on are images of children and the idea(l) of the feminine.

The mid-nineteenth-century interest in children, adolescents and women represents a transitional moment in the gothic, for, as is well known, the gothic of the latter years of the eighteenth-century focused its terror of the other on foreigners, on Catholics, on distant lands and long-ago days, on creepy castles and even creepier foreigners, most of whom were explicitly Mediterranean “of a certain sort”, if not out-and-out “Oriental”, in the well-known sense given that word by Edward Wadie Said. After the moment to which I refer — a moment admittedly forty years or so in length — the Victorian gothic turned once again to the foreigner, to the outsider, to the otherness of colonized lands and imperial subjectivities, as essays at the close of this volume discuss. But for that double moment traced, as it were, parabolically, from the moment at which Victoria came to the throne to that other moment when many of the Victorian writers thought of specifically as Victorian were either dead, dying, or consigned to writing mostly poor poetry on the Isle of Wight, the gothic mode of representation was turned on the British by the British. If there is, as James Kincaid says in Chapter 1 of this volume, a turn from the castle to the nursery, there is also a turn from some foreign field that is most decidedly not forever England, to the playing fields and private gardens of the English, to domestic interiors and to the streets of England’s capital.

The gothic is thus found among the hedgerows, in the rose bushes, along with country lanes. It is to be found on the Yorkshire moors and throughout the exotic Babylonia of the Empire’s capital, London, particularly in the back passages of the metropolis. It is to be found equally in boarding houses and amongst the houses of quiet squares. This is true at least of the literary, between the years 1840 and 1870. Most especially and insistently, the gothic is always to be found in the texts of Charles John Huffam Dickens, from ‘The Pickwick Papers’ in 1836–37, to ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, in 1870. That escape from the uncanny is impossible, we acknowledge, at least since Sigmund Freud. That the return of the repressed is inescapable and inevitable, we acknowledge equally. These qualities are our own, they inhabit our being in its most intimate recesses, even, and especially, when we project them as though they were being projected from elsewhere, from some other place, other than the other within. But what if we seek to embrace this alterity? What if we revel in its haunting quality, as, I argue, did the Victorians? What if we play Oprah Winfrey, Sally Lowenthal, Montel Brian Anthony Williams or even — a nightmare of nightmares — Gerald Norman Springer, to that gothic aspect of ourselves, always already lurking in the moments of anxiety and the fearful perception of imminent terror which our daytime selves simultaneously deny, yet secretly anticipate? As all good, or even mediocre therapists will tell you, you will never get rid of the uncanny, the other. So give it a good hug, love your other as you loathe yourself. Perhaps even tickle it, solicit a little laughter. Like a visitor who has overstayed their welcome, the uncanny may not take the hint when you begin to clear the coffee table, but at least you can amuse yourself at its expense.

Also published on Medium.

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