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The ‘Semillas de Maldad’ Early Latin Gothic Inspirations

In their book ‘The Routledge Companion to Gothic’ (2007), Emma McEvoy and Catherine Spooner list what they consider to be the most important geographical areas for the development and diffusion of the Gothic genre: “from America, Scotland and Ireland to the postcolonial landscapes of Australia, Canada, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean.”

On their map, as well as in the work of a number of Gothic scholars such as David Punter, Robert Concina, Elizabeth MacAndrew and George Haggerty, the Americas are reduced to North America and the Caribbean while Latin America goes nearly unmentioned.

In addition to extending the Gothic genre only as far as the Caribbean, most scholarship presents these manifestations as postcolonial derivations rather than their own unique literary and cinematographic form.

In this article I state that it is indeed possible to talk about a Latin American Gothic, and will attempt to demonstrate how this is constructed through a process that relocates and transforms topics and characters borrowed from the European Gothic, creating distinctly regional and hybrid variations of these recognizable narratives.

Specifically I will focus on five early manifestations of the genre in Latin America that embody distinct Gothic themes and characters, thus providing an overview of the development of the Gothic mode in this region: ‘Gaspar Blondín’ (1858) by Juan María Montalvo; ‘Coincidencias’ (1867) by Juana Manuela Gorriti; ‘Horacio Kalibang o los Autómatas’ (1879) by Horacio Ladislao Holmberg; ‘El caso de la señorita Amelia’ (1894) by Félix Rubén García Sarmiento; and ‘El dictado del muerto’ (1901) by Rubén M. Campos.

Similar to — and often in parallel with — how the Gothic developed in Europe and the United States of America, South and Central American writers were aware of and interested in the genre since the first decades of the nineteenth-century.

Many Latin American writers and intellectuals were exposed to seminal narratives of the European Gothic and read them in their original languages (in English, German and French), in books acquired overseas or through instalments published in literary magazines. The act of translating these works that were published in previous years or decades only served to further foment their popularity and dissemination.

Such is the case of novels and short stories written by Ann Radcliffe, and Edgar Allan Poe. According to Helena Establier Pérez, “of the six novels that [Ann] Radcliffe wrote between 1789 and 1802, four were translated into Spanish, although they did not follow a strict chronological order. The first to be translated into Spanish, in 1819, was ‘Julia, o los subterráneos del castillo de Mazzini’ (translation of ‘A Sicilian Romance,’ 1790) […] The last to be published was ‘Los misterios de Udolfo’ (‘The mysteries of Udolpho,’ 1794) published in Paris, in 1832.

From Hoffmann, it is possible to find Spanish translations from as early as 1830 (as in the case of Cayetano Cortés’ ‘Cuentos fantásticos’ published in the Semanario Pintoresco Español in 1839), according to the research of Enriqueta Morillas Ventura.

The translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s work happened years later, and one of the first texts to be translated is the short story ‘A Tale of the Ragged Mountains’ (1844) which “appeared in El Correo de Ultramar in its first number of 1853.” Ultimately it is important to stress the fact that both the translations of Ann Radcliffe’s most notorious novel and the first of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story were published in Paris, a space far from the restriction of Spanish censorship and the preferred city of Latin American intellectuals and flâneurs, as well as other readers and disseminators of the genre.

From sporadic contributors such as Féliz Rubén Garcia Sarmiento and Amado Nervo, to avowed cultivators of the genre, such as Leopoldo Lugones Argüello and Carlos Fuentes Macías, several Latin American writers helped to create a particular form of the genre in the continent, whether through the publication of short stories or novels.

Together they (in) form the basis of a new corpus of writing, and although it failed to become a full-fledged literary movement, I argue that it has haunted and continues to haunt Latin American literature to the present day, through the use of a twist that hybridizes and, above all, tropicalised the Gothic movement.

This hybridization or tropicalization is a way of appropriating the images and values of a dominant culture (in this case, European) in order to generate autochthonous products, maintaining a bond with the “original” while discussing and questioning issues and images of the dominant culture.

This definition of tropicalization is related to the discussion enunciated by Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman, who see tropicalization “as a tool that foregrounds the cultural transformative cultural agency of the subaltern subject” (2). In this case, Latin American writers adapt and transform a genre that emerged in Europe and was further developed in the United States, generating playful and subversive texts that are structured in terms of agency and resistance, and creating a (re) production of imaginaries.

The tropicalization of the Gothic works in a similar manner as the process of transculturation as enunciated by Fernando Ortiz Fernández and Angel Rama, that is, as an intercultural and bidirectional dynamic, a two-way flow of information, knowledge, and cultural products.

The mechanism revives Gothic images and themes, while at the same time employing images and imaginaries that are related to the colonial and postcolonial relationship of Europe and the United States of America with Latin America (and vice versa), ideas that situate extreme otherness and monstrosity in the southern part of the continent.

The ways in which writers and film directors appropriate these issues, enabling the emergence of politicized ghosts and monsters, relate to the formulations of Tabish Khair on ‘Postcolonial Gothic:’ “Gothic fiction and fiction influenced by the Gothic tradition not only bring the colonial and racial Other back to the (imperial) center; they also depend on and examine the anxieties and complexities of such hauntings.”

Tropical, in this sense, is synonymous with Latin America as a whole — not only the humid Caribbean — taking into account that Latin American writers and directors deliberately tropicalize European and South American themes and characters, be it as a critique or as a way of auto-exotization.

Since the mid-nineteenth-century, it becomes possible to find in Latin American literature tales that emulate, nourish and complement their European and United States of America counterparts. A large production of short stories published in various Latin American countries reconstruct the Gothic in its different forms and begins to delineate idiosyncratic features of the genre.

Writers like Juana Manuela Gorriti, Horacio Ladislao Holmberg, Macedonio Fernández, Leopoldo Lugones Argüello in Argentina, Félix Rubén García Sarmiento in Nicaragua, Julio Calcaño, Luis Lopez Mendez, Nicanor Bolet Peraza, Eduardo Blanco in Venezuela, José Asunción Silva and José Joaquín Vargas Valdés in Colombia and Francisco Zárate Ruiz and Enrique Martínez Ocaranza in Mexico (among others) begin to build the corpus of the nineteenth-century Latin American Gothic.

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