Gothic Tropes and Forms in Dark Literary Modernity

Gothic Tropes and Forms in Dark Literary Modernity
© Photograph by Flex Dreams

The eclectic topics produce eclectic versions of what “the Gothic” is and does, and taken together with the essays usefully undermine the misleadingly definite article in that designation. For John-Paul Riquelme, the Gothic inheres in doublings and boundary crossings; for Patrick O’Malley it is a category that both contains and exceeds a historically definite literary genre; for many of the other contributors, it is a more general concern with supernatural phenomena, ghosts, and haunting. It may be true that none of these definitions in themselves deeply challenge received views about the Gothic, but when juxtaposed they produce instructive tensions. These are noted by Paul K. Saint-Amour, who contrasts his version of the Gothic (a readerly affect) with that of the other contributors: ‘“As my essay configures it, the Gothic differs from its treatment elsewhere in this volume in being neither a repertoire of figures, conventions, and topoi nor an irruption of unreason, deviance, or the supernatural. The Gothic at issue here […] traces the drift of discreteness toward pervasiveness, the drift of bounded suspense-events toward a condition of perpetual suspense.” The strongest essays in the volume go beyond checking off requisite Gothic conventions in this or that text, to ask both what the Gothic does in the twentieth-century and what the twentieth-century does to the Gothic.

The collection begins with a trio of essays on late Victorian texts that raise questions about the literary-historical and political stakes of the Gothic. John-Paul Riquelme’s essay on Walter Horatio Pater and Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde claims that the Gothic mode of aestheticism inheres in the latter’s conceptual and structural doublings. Doubles, he argues, not only appear within individual works such as ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890) (represented most prominently, of course, by Dorian Gray and his portrait) but also reappear symptomatically as literary history (Dorian Gray itself as a distorted repetition of Paterian aestheticism). John-Paul Riquelme explores a range of figures for this doubling — mirroring, echoing, narcissism, chiaroscuro — that illustrate various ways in which a horrifying otherness haunts beauty at the fin de siècle. Joseph Valente is similarly concerned with doublings in his essay, which uses a little-known Abraham Stoker story, ‘The Dualitists’ (1887), to theorise what Joseph Valente dubs “metrocolonial” subjectivity, inhabited by the Anglo-Protestant minority in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Joseph Valente links the kind of individuation pursued by the violent twins in Abraham Stoker’s story to the paradoxical position of Anglo-Protestant Irish, who simultaneously identify and disidentify with the colonial power. Patrick O’Malley’s compelling essay on ‘Jude the Obscure’ (1895) makes a strong case that Thomas Hardy reveals modernity to be fundamentally incompatible with the Gothic tradition. Patrick O’Malley views Sue’s sexual deviance through the dual lenses of the Oxford movement and the novel’s Gothic elements in order to argue that Jude offers an “epitaph” for the Gothic novel of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. The harsh demystifications of modernity leave no room for the tantalizing mysteries of the Gothic: “If the Gothic novel and its descendants have, throughout the later eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, flourished on the mixture of fascination and repulsion, horror and desire that the mystery of both Catholicism and sexual deviance produces, then the explicit — and relentlessly modern — tragedy of Jude makes that mystery impossible.”

If Patrick O’Malley is correct that the British Gothic died in 1897, then the rest of the collection reveals that an undead Gothic nonetheless haunts literary modernism and postmodernism. The next set of essays examines how, within twentieth-century American favourite literary forms, Gothic tropes can affect political critique. Susan Kollin’s essay discusses Emily Dorothy Scarborough’s “anti-Western” novel ‘The Wind’ (1925). Here, classic elements of Gothic horror — terrifying nature, supernatural events, ghosts — acquire political meaning. According to Susan Kollin, these figures offer Emily Dorothy Scarborough a toolkit for constructing a surprisingly far-reaching critique of Western myths of white innocence, romanticised adventure, triumphant expansionism, and feminine domesticity. Charles J. Rzepka’s essay turns to noir fiction, developing the notion that Gothic conventions can work against social conventions. Writing against those who dismiss Raymond Thornton Chandler’s portrayal of sex and violence as misogynistic, Charles J. Rzepka reads ‘The Big Sleep’ (1939) as a critique of the capitalist reification of human relationships. This critique, Charles J. Rzepka writes, is effected by proxy through the novel’s ambiguous treatment of the language and ideals of medieval chivalry. Ruth Helyer offers an account of Bret Easton Ellis ‘American Psycho’ (1991) as a novel that adheres to Gothic conventions but offers an imperfect critique of late twentieth-century consumerism.

The third set of essays concerns the imbrication of Gothic tropes and postmodern (mostly Derridean) theories of literary language. More centrally concerned with questions of modernity per se than most of the other contributors, Penny Fielding offers a patient and incisive close reading of two illustrations that present effective alternatives for the late nineteenth-century library. These are the cloistered repose of the personal collection, on the one hand, and the public unruliness of the lending library, on the other. These two models provide the coordinates for Penny Fielding’s reading of the haunted collections in Montague Rhodes James ghost stories as speaking to a specifically modern fear of the intrinsic incompleteness of systems of signification and classification. Graham Fraser’s essay on Samuel Barclay Beckett takes figures of ghosts and spectrality in ‘Ill Seen Ill Said’ (1981) as the basis for his claim that Samuel Barclay Beckett’s late work can be productively read as a “high modernist pastiche of the Gothic novel.” Taking a cue from Jacques Derrida, Graham Fraser sees the resonances evident across Beckett’s late works as evidence of a linguistic “haunting.”

The volume’s final two essays theorise the Gothic in light of the other contributors’ insights. John-Paul Riquelme and Theodora Goss, in “From Superhuman to Posthuman: The Gothic Technological Imaginary in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Octavia Butler’s ‘Xenogenesis’,” take the broadest possible temporal view of the Gothic in order to ask how it has transformed over more than two centuries. John-Paul Riquelme and Theodora Goss identify shifts in the effective and political significance of Gothic destabilisations of boundaries and binaries. Eighteenth-century fear of organic hybridity becomes a twenty-first-century celebration of the alternatives it unfolds — alternatives that are postcolonial, postgender, and even posthuman. Affect is also central in the volume’s strong concluding essay by Paul K. Saint-Amour, who investigates how the readerly suspense that characterises mid-Victorian sensation fiction becomes a very different sort of thing in an early twentieth-century Europe on the verge of war. Reading Adeline Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Mark on the Wall’ (1921), Paul K. Saint-Amour argues that the modernist Gothic is nothing so manageable as an alternate reality of ghosts and horror. War, by turning all places and things into potential targets, lands the early twentieth-century British squarely in the world of suspense that was previously confined to the pages of William Wilkie Collins. This indistinction between Gothic literature and modern life is an appropriate note on which to conclude the collection because it makes the lack of bright boundaries around the Gothic do important critical work. If Gothic and Modernism does not produce particularly coherent versions of either the Gothic or modernism, it is probably because, as its contributors reveal, twentieth-century Gothic forms are marked by productively incoherent proliferations and transformations, rather than by familiar, recycled conventions and formulas.

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