The Gothic Aesthetics In Literature, From Horror And Terror

Julia Round

Julia Round

The British author Gina Wisker argues that “not everything that is Gothic is horror.” The terminology blurs and contradicts, and particular meanings can be hard to separate. Scholarship struggles with content-based definitions and often subsumes horror within Gothic (or vice versa), depending on the writer’s critical perspective or the medium being discussed.

Gina Wisker identifies Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s (born August 20th, 1890 – died March 15th, 1937) ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (published in 1927) as the first major text that locates and defines supernatural horror. Howard Phillips Lovecraft opens by claiming “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” He then goes on to point out that the “spectral macabre” demands “imagination,” mobilising our fears of the world around us into a “literature of cosmic fear.” Howard Phillips Lovecraft looks back to the folkloric incarnations of the horror tale and the early British Gothic novels from Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole (born March 13th, 1884 – died June 1st, 1941) et al, noting their quick establishment of “dramatic paraphernalia” (stock characters and settings). He seemingly finds little value in these novels except as settling the Gothic as a “literary form” and acting as inspiration for “the real weavers of cosmic terror — the line of actual artists beginning with [Edgar Allan] Poe.” Howard Phillips Lovecraft uses the terms horror and terror interchangeably as responses to a larger cosmic fear that finds one incarnation in Gothic literature.

However, Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work is prefigured by a number of writers and philosophers who have tried to define and distinguish between different types of fear and its literature. American novelist Ann Beattie first distinguishes horror by its physical effects, as it “make[s] the blood seem to run cold.” English author Ann Radcliffe (born July 9th, 1764 – died February 7th, 1823) then further defines the affective qualities of both horror and terror in her landmark essay; ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’, which was published in 1826. This is written as a fictional dialogue debating the use of the supernatural in the works of William Shakespeare (born 1564 – died April 23rd, 1616), pointing out that its value lies in its “secret effect upon the imagination,” which works in two different ways. Ann Radcliffe claims that “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” Because of this, terror is a source of the sublime, and horror is not. However, Ann Radcliffe goes beyond effect in defining the two, and for her, the great difference lies in the “uncertainty and obscurity” that accompany the first. Terror “is seen in glimpses through obscuring shades” and excites the imagination to provide the rest. Somewhat ironically, English poet John Milton’s (born December 9th, 1608 – died November 8th, 1674) use of the phrase “horror plumed” therefore “imparts more of terror than of horror,” as his lack of description creates the sublime. Ann Radcliffe’s speakers go on to debate obscurity and confusion, which are also terms that have been used interchangeably, but are not the same, as “obscurity leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate; confusion […] leaves only a chaos.”

Ann Radcliffe’s famous distinction between terror (the obscure, unseen) and horror (the shown atrocity) has been explored by numerous later critics and creators, from Varma (1957) to King (1981). In general, there is agreement: Gina Wisker points out that “While using elements of the literary Gothic, horror is more likely to be or to threaten to be violent and evoke disgust and/or terror.” Townshend (2016) also concurs that “Terror is the writing of sublimity, horror the literature of sensation.” Both critics also point out that the two categories cross and blur at points. Gina Wisker claims that “horror uses many [Gothic] formulae,” and Townshend also notes that both “horror and terror are subsumed under the broader category of the ‘Gothic’” in Horace Walpole’s (born September 24th, 1717 – died March 2nd, 1797) ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) through hyperbole and excess.

David Punter defines Gothic at the widest level: as a mode of writing that responds to cultural trauma, and which thus gives rise to various historical genres at different points in time. David Punter’s approach reconciles the different qualities of the American and English Gothics, as well as sub genres such as body horror, psychological horror, and so forth. Other critics also seek to distinguish between different types of Gothic and horror writing, although their positions vary according to the medium and historical perspective that they use. For example, Gina Wisker argues that horror is “A branch of Gothic writing,” but by contrast, English author Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes defines Gothic literature as “the beginnings of a wider crystallisation of horror fiction.” Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes’ argument in particular seeks to divide the two terms, as he points out that as the meaning of “Gothic” “becomes more intrinsically connected to aesthetics in the contemporary period — being used, for example, to describe art and fashion — it is even more crucial that a distinction be drawn between the Gothic, an artistic mode, and horror, an affective marker.”

Linda Holland-Toll accords with the efficiency standpoint, defining “Horror fiction […] as any text which has extreme or supernatural elements, induces (as its primary intention and/or affect) strong feelings of terror, horror or revulsion in the reader, and generates a significant degree of unresolved disease within society.” English author Fred Botting names horror as “the limit of reason […] the very emotion in which the human reaches its limit.” By focusing on efficiency, these definitions do not offer much in the way of textual markers, and critics such as Gina Wisker add to horror’s indefinability by pointing out that it may come from both realism and supernatural sources. Horror is mobile and fluid, taking on different forms: “Horror is in everyday reality, but it is also a genre, a construction, and a representation of what terrifies and disgusts, what we fear and secretly desire.” Further, and as established above, it is, of course, also an effect and a response to these images.

Critics do not even agree on the structural forms that horror and Gothic may take. Professor Mark Jancovich argues that the pleasure of horror comes from its resolving narrative structure. For Mark Jancovich, horror stories proceed from normality through a period of disorder, and ultimately reach “a point of closure and completion in which disruptive, monstrous elements are contained or destroyed and the original order is re-established.” However, Mark Jancovich’s model does not fit with the accepted syntagmatic narrative progression established by Bulgarian-French historian Tzvetan Todorov (born March 1st, 1939 – died February 7th, 2017) and Weinstein. This instead suggests that narrative moves from equilibrium, through disequilibrium, to a new equilibrium (emphasis mine). This notion of a changed equilibrium most strongly underpins genres such as the bildungsroman, where characters develop and change during the course of the tale. Mark Jancovich’s model also ignores the ways in which horror changes its characters and the new understandings that its narrative disruptions offer. By contrast, Gina Wisker argues that “the lingering pleasure of horror is its constant destabilising influence rather than its tendency for resolution.” Linda Holland-Toll’s definition also draws attention to the disaffirmative strength of horror, a genre that Gina Wisker stresses “is the most effective because it refuses to close down the terror at the end of the tale and restore an order.”

Many content-based definitions of horror are either so wide as to be useless or contain an inner tension that weakens their validity. Seeking a textual definition of horror, Clive Barker suggests that it is “Perhaps the body and its vulnerability. Perhaps the mind and its brittleness. Perhaps love and its absence.” Just as Fred Botting’s definition above combines reason and emotion, there is a paradoxical nature to Clive Barker’s pairings, where the corporeal is fragile, consciousness is tangible, and desire is also loss.

Critical models of Gothic also sustain contradiction and the term is difficult to define as it changes to suit its time and place. Fred Botting identifies a shift from early Gothic, where the object of terror is cast out, to later Gothic where the menace comes from within. Critics such as Spooner and Fred Botting stress the term’s mobility, arguing that it has moved from the marginal to the mainstream. “Gothic” is thus often used without definition, to refer to a historical canon of texts, and then this meaning is co-opted into an adjective that is applied back to more modern fare. For example, David Pirie’s pioneering history of cinematic horror is the first to describe Hammer Film Productions movies as Gothic but throughout his entire book (and despite opening with a chapter entitled ‘The Characteristics of English Gothic Literature’), David Pirie does not state concisely what this might mean in practice. Instead, he draws attention to the differences between early Gothic writers, noting qualities such as morbidity, Manichaeism, sadism, and poetic voice.

Textual and structural definitions of Gothic taken from the work of critics such as Vanessa Hogle and Carla Jodey Castricano cohere in their focus on paradox and secrecy. Vanessa Hogle’s “gothic matrix” suggests four tenets: an antiquated space, a hidden secret, a physical or psychological haunting, and an oscillation between reality and the supernatural. Carla Jodey Castricano’s model of “cryptomimesis” denies linearity and approaches narrative as an encrypting process. My own critical model uses the Gothic tropes of haunting, the crypt and excess to decipher the comics page, arguing that these concepts underpin the structure and aesthetic of the medium.

Definitions of Gothic, horror and terror all refer primarily to a fearful reaction, but to analyse these stories without surveying reader response requires textual criteria. Donna Heiland points out that fear goes beyond subjective response and we can be on the alert for signs of its textual presence, for example in the scenarios or characters offered. I take this as my main rationale for approaching these two “mystery” comics as texts that use both terror and horror and can thus be defined as Gothic. For the purposes of this article I will define these terms as follows:

I use the term Gothic at the widest level to refer to a mode of creation that is both disturbing and appealing. It is an affective and structural paradox: giving us both too much information (the supernatural) and too little (the obscured and unseen). It inverts, distorts, and obscures. It is transgressive and seductive. It is common tropes include temporal or spatial haunting, a reliance on hidden meaning (the crypt), and a sense of excess beyond control (both aesthetic and conceptual).

Within Gothic, I recognise the distinctions Ann Radcliffe draws between horror and terror. The terror-gothic awakens our faculties to areas we fear to venture (and yet must), enticing us with obscured imagery, and the promise (or threat) of something more. By contrast, horror-gothic shocks us with the grotesque or obscene, entrapping and overwhelming our senses, and disturbing our complacency.

Alongside these terms, I also recognise horror as a cinematic and literary genre that privileges this second type of fear. Horror is an affective representation and a response to the same. It is a reaction to complacency and a critique of normality. It shocks, upsets disturbs and appeals. It entraps and engulfs our senses, but does not seduce or obscure. Its images may linger, but its impact is instantaneous and engulfing. It is Radcliffe’s annihilation of our senses and recoil from fear.

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