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Evolution of the Gothic in Contemporary Popular Culture

Evolution of the Gothic in Contemporary Popular Culture
© Photograph by Cliff Kapatais

Linda Hutcheon, in her conclusion to ‘A Theory of Adaptation’, completed her fascinating excursus on adaptation both as a process and as a product by resorting to a parasitical metaphor, distinctly Gothic in its overtones, which denies the degenerative status that adapted works are often encumbered with. “An adaptation is not vampiric” (‘A Theory of Adaptation’, page 176), she states. And yet adaptations and appropriations inevitably bring about a storm of criticism related to their greater or lesser degree of adherence and fidelity to their original source(s). As derivative forms, they often tend to be considered as minor, flawed works, a tendency which raises interesting questions in terms of authorship, intertextuality and creative processes at work. The vampiric association is even more eloquent if one considers that some of the most prolific literary texts that have been constantly readapted and repurposed across various media and throughout the centuries are precisely the Gothic classics from the long nineteenth-century, embracing a periodic arch that goes from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) to Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897).

As the primary objective of this article is to delineate and interpret the reappearance and transformation of the Gothic in serialised media, in this first chapter I will establish a relationship between the Gothic literary genre and the contemporary media under consideration through an examination of nineteenth-century Gothic strategies of popular consumption and twenty-first-century serial aesthetics. Before delving into a detailed analysis of ‘The League’ and ‘Penny Dreadful’, the manifold facets of the Gothic as a literary genre and as a liminal mode of artistic expression and cultural production will be contextualised from its literary origins to its contemporary offspring. Finally, in the third and fourth sections of this chapter, the generic features of these neo-Victorian products and the historical and cultural returns of the Gothic will be explored, paving the way for the second chapter of this article, which will examine the role played by intertextuality and intermediality in Gothic narratives.

At the end of the eighteenth-century, while the supremacy of reason was being questioned and the “enlightened” repression of feelings and emotions was becoming more and more ineffective, an unusual literary interest towards haunted castles and gloomy abbeys, damsels in distress and melancholic villains, inexplicable noises and supernatural events led to the growth of the Gothic genre. A new popular interest towards medieval legends, art and architecture triggered this literary trend, which re-evaluated the Middle Ages as an era of fascinating mysteries and overwhelming irrationality, as opposed to one of barbarism and savagery.

Yet the Gothic cannot be restrained within a set of pre-established recurring elements: as Robert Miles puts it, “’Gothic’ is a more ambiguous, shifting term” (4) which reflects the ambiguity of the “textual phenomena” (4) it displays. The birth of the Gothic is traditionally acknowledged as being in the year 1764, when the anonymous publication of Horatio Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story’ was greeted with great favour by readers and critics alike. The paratextual insertion of the term “gothic” in the title stood for a reference to the medieval setting of the story, a purposely blurred pseudo-historical dimension that allowed the readers’ imagination to fly into outlandish places. The merit of this work was, according to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “to create a novel type of scene, puppet-characters, and incidents [that] is by no means extinct even today, though subtler techniques now forces it to assume a less naive and obvious form” (25-26).

The Gothic’s preoccupation with the reader’s expectations becomes evident from its inception as a genre. Indeed, in his preface to the first edition of ‘The Castle of Otranto’, with reference to the fictitious author of his own work, Horatio Walpole wrote: “Whatever [the author’s] views were, or whatever effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment” (6). Horatio Walpole explicitly emphasises the function of Gothic fiction as a means to entertain the audience, whilst implicitly recognising the self-awareness embedded in the writing of this genre, which corresponds to mindful choices aimed at achieving precise effects on the readers.

As the nineteenth-century dawns, a significant transition in the history of Gothic fiction takes place. Nineteenth-century Gothic classics follow and build on the irrational path traced by the first Gothic romances of terror and horror, enriching it with new subtleties derived from the scientific experimentations, evolutionary theories and technological developments of the Victorian era while simultaneously giving voice to an insatiable curiosity towards fin-de-siècle psychoanalytical theories, criminology, occultism and supernatural phenomena.

In her computational analysis of the evolution of the Gothic genre, based on a scientific approach that hinges on digital humanities to carry out a quantitative study of all the novels that fall under this category, Federica Perazzini concisely sums up the multiplicities of Gothic criticism. According to her interpretation, whether the approach adopted is aesthetical, poetical, psychoanalytical, symbolical or narratological, the point of convergence between all these valuable readings is: “[…] the manner in which each of these critical stances conceives the Gothic as a code of contradiction and transformation; a composite and unstable genre arising from time to time to account for the intangible space of tension between fear and desire, and more specifically, between the anxiety of chaos derived from the destruction of the old order and the enlivening drive of change.” (Perazzini 38)

Building on Michael Gamer’s conception of the Gothic as a complex reaction to “economic, historical, and technological changes” (28), Federica Perazzini emphasises the transformative nature of the Gothic, its paradoxical elusiveness and capability to reappear in times of crisis. Although her “distant reading” (Moretti) methodology prevents a deeper interpretation of the nuances of every single artistic work in order to privilege an analysis of Gothic literature as a system, her view ultimately confirms the conception of the Gothic as a bearer of an undeniable cultural force.

Gothic genre and its derivations, despite being often dismissed as escapist and therefore minor literature, wield a timeless charm on past and present readers for their capability to reflect the deepest anxieties of their age as well as for the sense of mystery and suspense that pervades their narratives. Legions of writers and scholars have attempted to distinguish the Gothic novel from the horror novel and other supernatural genres, revealing one of the distinctive traits of this literary production: “its obsessive self-reflexive concern with generic categorisations and literary status” (C. Bloom 155-166; Schneider 36-37). However, it would be perhaps more fruitful to regard the Gothic as a subtle fictional mode which has been adapted into different strands — including horror, science fiction and weird fiction — rather than as a fixed generic thread. Such approach is purported by Jerrold E. Hogle’s conception of the Gothic as an “unstable genre” (Hogle ‘The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction 1’) and “highly mixed mode” (Hogle The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic 3’), and by Fred Botting’s definition of the Gothic “as a mode that exceeds genre and categories” (‘Gothic’ 14).

Throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, the Gothic mode resurfaced not just in literature and cinema but also in graphic novels and television, under countless, shimmering masks. The latest examples of this proliferation on television are the series — frequently based on previous literary or graphic works which engaged, in turn, with the Gothic genre ‒ ‘Jekyll’ (2007), ‘True Blood’ (2008-2014), ‘The Vampire Diaries’ (2009-), ‘The Walking Dead’ (2010-), ‘Ripper Street’ (2012-), among many others, and the even more recent adaptation for the big screen ‘Victor Frankenstein’ (2015), the last of a conspicuous sequence which started in 1910 with the first 16-minute-long motion picture of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ realised by Edison Studios. As for the realm of the graphic novels, suffice it to mention Neil Richard MacKinnon Gaiman’s masterpiece ‘The Sandman’ (1989-1996), replete with Gothic tropes, and the entire production of Alan Moore, whose visual aesthetic and thematic concerns show numerous affinities with the so-called “Gothic tradition” (Green). While acknowledging the pervasiveness of Gothic incessant displacements and the potential for a wider research into the plentiful transformations of this literary genre, this thesis will focus specifically on ‘The League’ and ‘Penny Dreadful’ as these two works are symptomatic of the postmodern malleability of the Gothic both as a genre and as a mode. Moreover, they exemplify the sense of continuity that can be traced from the dawn of the Gothic to its current popular ubiquity, not just from a thematic point of view but also from a diegetic and structural perspective of analysis.

As the title suggests, ‘The League’, set in Victorian London in 1898, is composed of quite a curious assemblage of literary characters whose mission is to save the British Empire from a chemical threat, a Martian invasion and other terrifying dangers: Mina Murray, ex-wife of Jonathan Harker from Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897), a truly independent and strong-willed woman, who always mysteriously wears a red scarf around her neck; the emotionally unstable Dr Jekyll from the eponymous masterpiece by Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson; the mischievous Hawley Griffin, from Herbert George Wells’ ‘The Invisible Man’ (1897); the anti-imperialist Captain Nemo now at the service of the British Empire, from Jules Gabriel Verne’s ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ (1870); Allan Quatermain, embodiment of the imperialist hero from Henry Rider Haggard’s ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (1885), now turned into an opium addict.

Similarly and yet differently, ‘Penny Dreadful’ joins Gothic canonical works, namely Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ and Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, in an all-encompassing plotline. Its multiple narratives revolve around the story of Doctor Frankenstein’s scientific experiments and consequent monstrous creations; Dorian Gray’s attempts to rediscover the pleasures of a life so full of excesses; Ethan Talbot, a lonely American man who is fleeing from a mysterious past and engages in a relationship with the prostitute Brona; the black servant Sembene; Sir Malcolm Murray, who plays concurrently the archetypal figure of the British explorer and the father of Mina Murray; and Vanessa Ives, the seductive leading figure of the series, who will be closely examined in the last chapter of this article.

Admittedly, approaching non-literary works such as a comic and a television series by looking back at their literary origins is not a straightforward task, especially because both media configure themselves as hybrid forms, a derivative of their higher literary and cinematic matrixes. As such, they traditionally occupy a lower status in the hierarchy of cultural expressions, as they are usually “designed to gratify an audience lacking in what Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’, an audience which prefers the cotton candy of entertainment to the gourmet delights of literature” (Stam 7). Starting from this awareness, this thesis aims at embracing, rather than fighting, the persistent tendency to disregard any manifestation of popular culture as consumable mass entertainment.

Catherine Spooner’s recent study on the Gothic’s contemporary commodification, from the teens’ passion for esoteric tattoos to the recurrence of Gothic iconography in art, cinema and photography, allows for a reflection on the renewed convergence between the Gothic and globalised consumerist culture, devoted to the exploitation of this genre’s transgressions and excesses for commercial ends. In Catherine Spooner’s view, the Gothic emerges as “a perfect product, readily available and simply adapted to the needs and purposes of a wide variety of consumers” (‘Contemporary Gothic’ 156). However, recognising the consumerist facet of the Gothic does not provide an exhaustive answer to the reasons behind this cyclically recurring appeal. As Linda Hutcheon puts it, “the appeal of adaptation cannot simply be explained or explained away by economic gain” (‘A Theory of Adaptation’ 175).

In his reflections on mass culture gathered in ‘Mythologies’, Roland Gérard Barthes demonstrated back in 1957 that even the most ordinary mass media products such as advertisements, magazines, children’s toys, soap-powders are charged with deep layers of meaning and therefore deserve critical attention. As Gothic monsters threaten to swallow the contemporary pop-cultural world, it seems necessary to interpret this tendency and make sense of it, by looking back at what can be defined as a distinctly Gothic typology of popular consumption, that dates back to the mid-nineteenth-century.


Also published on Medium.




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