The most recent literary theme was an attempt to discover what it is about the Gothic that bridges works that so little resemble each other under the same heading of “Gothic.”
As always, I’ve made informal references in text, with full references listed at the end.
Aromatic Accompaniment: Midsummer’s Night by Yankee Candle.
It has always struck me that the descriptor “Gothic” is applied almost indiscriminately, yet always seems to be justified. What on earth links 18th century British works based on a philosophy articulated by John and Anna Aikin with a publication like Midwestern Gothic?
This meeting was structured to review some of the aesthetic principles of the first wave of Gothicism, along with some examples, then we looked at some modern American Gothic, so see what spirit of similarity we could discover in the two bodies of work. What ultimately stood out as the bridge to us, at least in the body of works we looked at, was despair.
We began with “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror,” by John Aikin and Anna Barbauld. This is a commonly cited essay from the period of the first wave of Gothic texts (published in 1773), and is thus a good overview of the contemporary tenets of a Gothic tale. The central argument of the essay is that our better natures are stimulated by the observation of pain and affliction in others, and that this moral stimulation brings pleasure (as well as social good). It is not hard to see how “tales of ghosts and goblins, of murders, earthquakes, fires, shipwrecks, and all the most terrible disasters attending human life” (11) feed into such an aesthetic as the raw material which will stimulate those “benevolent feelings.” It is a moral argument derived from the philosophy of the day, which held that sensibility—being susceptible toward and producing the appropriate emotional reaction to the emotional states, expressions, and plights of others—was the origin of social good. For Aikin and Barbauld, the more intense the sensations derived from a sensational tale, the greater the amplitude of the beneficent emotional response. (“Hence, the more wild, fanciful, and extraordinary are the circumstances of a scene of horror, the more pleasure we receive from it” .) Oft-appended to the essay is the fragmentary tale of Sir Bertrand, which seeks to exemplify the arguments of the essay in a literary demonstration. (The tale itself should be familiar to longtime members of the Society.)
Next we read a fun tale by Nathan Drake called “The Captive of the Banditti.” This tale is a good example of the medieval Gothic type, and includes knights, banditti, and has formed the basis of at least two adventures in my Dungeons and Dragons game. The real treat is that the editor of the collection we read from, David Blair, managed to find a rare pirated version of the tale, in which Drake’s fragment is “completed” by an anonymous hand.
Next we looked at an example of Gothic poetry in Ann Radcliffe’s “December’s Eve, Abroad” (1826), a somewhat enjoyable poem demonstrating Radcliffe’s trademark treatment of the forces of weather. We opted not to read the companion poem, “December’s Eve, at Home,” which has almost nothing at all to recommend itself.
We turned next to Mary Alcock’s “A Receipt for Writing a Novel,” (1799) a tongue-in-cheek poem testifying to the popularity of the novel in the late 18th century, while demonstrating that techniques common to Gothicism reigned supreme in popularity:
Would you a fav’rite novel make,
Try hard your reader’s heart to brea,
For who is ples’d, if not tormented?
(Novels for that were first invented).
With a solid grounding in first-wave British Gothic sensibilities, we turned to contemporary American material, which on the surface bears almost no resemblance to the earlier work. Instead, contemporary American Gothic seems to be characterized by a slide into or a pervading sense of hopelessness. Often there is no real terror, just despair.
First up was “Iowa Gothic,” by Dan Lewis, appearing in the first issue of Midwestern Gothic (2011). The bleakness of Lewis’ verse is well-captured in these exemplary lines:
In the blood-red dark it is impossible
to know who you are. Rattling
all night, the motel room ventilator will not
clear the smell of cheap disinfectant.
Present is the same uncertainty or despondency over self-identity, tinged with the crushing weight of unfulfilled promise, that is often associated with American Gothic.
In a similar vein are John McCarthy’s “-30 Degrees” and “I Wanted to Save Her But the Trailer Park Was a Chasm.” McCarthy’s two poems—contained in the appropriately-named Ghost County—are characterized by Midwestern stillness, punctuated by quiet yet explosive violence to the social contract, instantiated in personal betrayal. It’s in McCarthy’s work, I think, that the link between Old World Gothic and New World Gothic is strongest. What I see linking them is the same violation of trust by individuals in relational contexts that would normally command the greatest protection and loyalty. I see in the Gothic a litany of despicable tyranny perpetrated against those under the protection of those who terrorize. Being perpetually raped is horrible, but being perpetually raped by your father is Gothic. McCarthy’s contribution to the mode echoes like a shotgun blast.
Finally, we closed with a modern Gothic tale that brings back the terror and horror of earlier forms of Gothic, without sacrificing the pervasive sense of despair and hopelessness so characteristic of the new. Jesse Bullington and S. J. Chambers’ “Dive in Me” is quite possibly one of the most terrifying contemporary stories I’ve ever read. The two authors capture a listlessness resulting from systemic economic disaster, while still penning a vivid horror story that is entirely capable of giving one shivers. If there had ever been a part of me that would have been so-inclined, “Dive in Me” has forever ensured that if one of my friends were to approach me and ask if I’d like to go diving in a flooded sinkhole in an abandoned housing development, you—like I will—should just say no.
Content References from the October 2017 Literary Meeting
Aikin, John and Anna Laetitia Aikin Barbauld. “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror.” In The Evil Image: Two Centuries of Gothic Short Fiction and Poetry. Ed. by Patricia L. Skarda and Nora Crow Jaffe, pp. 10-16. New York: New American Library, 1981.
Alcott, Mary. “A Receipt for Writing a Novel.” In In The Evil Image: Two Centuries of Gothic Short Fiction and Poetry. Ed. by Patricia L. Skarda and Nora Crow Jaffe, 22-25. New York: New American Library, 1981.
Bullington, Jesse and S. J. Chambers. “Dive in Me.” In The New Gothic, Ed. Beth K. Lewis, 9-27. Stone Skin Press, 2013.
Drake, Nathan and An Anonymous Hand. “Captive of the Banditti.” In Gothic Short Stories, Ed. by David Blair, 7-15. Wordsworth Editions, 2002.
Lewis, Dan. “Iowa Gothic.” In Midwestern Gothic 1 (Spring 2011), 60-61. MG Press, 2011.
McCarthy, John. “-30 Degrees.” In Ghost County, 16. MG Press, 2016.
McCarthy, John. “I Wanted to Save Her But the Trailer Park Was a Chasm.” In Ghost County, 17. MG Press, 2016.
Radcliffe, Ann. “The Snow-Fiend.” In The Evil Image: Two Centuries of Gothic Short Fiction and Poetry. Ed. by Patricia L. Skarda and Nora Crow Jaffe, 20-21. New York: New American Library, 1981.
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