What with the popularity of vampires on television, Dark Shadows and The Raven in movie theaters, and a new paranormal romance paperback coming out every day, you might think that Gothic was more popular than ever.
But is it really? What is Gothic, anyway? It’s one of those terms that you think you know until you have to define it. Is True Blood part of the Gothic tradition?
Though it’s sometimes looked down on as a mixture of horror and romance, Gothic literature has been and continues to be a tremendously influential and popular genre. For instance, think of Dracula and the enormous influence that book has had on culture. How many single books can claim to have had the same impact on the minds of so many people—many of whom have never read it?
If horror isn’t a genre but a feeling (as horror writers assert), Gothic includes the element of horror but has other earmarks that would qualify it as a sub-genre, at the least. And, as I’m about to argue, a lot of the novels written today with the trappings of Gothic—vampires or werewolves, castles, dark and stormy nights and an abundance of black bunting decorating the stairwells—are not part of the Gothic tradition.
What makes a book Gothic? Generally speaking, at its core Gothic fiction has these characteristics: (1) the main character is being asked to reject the rational world in order to embrace the primitive world of our emotions; (2) this is usually done through a supernatural element that invokes a feeling of dread or terror; (3) the supernatural world is represented by a character who has completely rejected the rational world for this primitive world; and (4) the story serves to warn the reader of the danger of giving oneself over to the seductive but dangerous world of the inner psyche.
In most Gothic stories, the main character starts out as part of the adult world of logic and reason, but gradually surrenders to a growing sense of dread that something is not right. The terror she feels is from the supernatural—the supernatural world representing the world of emotion and feeling, the world from which we become estranged when we become part of the rational world.
Another characteristic of Gothic literature is the presence of a character that is already in touch with this primitive side, the one who is part of the supernatural world. This character, usually male, represents the “sublime power of the irresistible force” of the primitive, to quote Valdine Clemens in The Return of the Repressed, a great analysis of Gothic literature. Today’s fiction teems with these characters: easily forty percent of today’s bad boys of fiction are vampires, werewolves, fallen angels or even zombies. Clearly, they’re paranormal—but does that make them Gothic?
It’s the fourth characteristic of Gothic literature—that it serves as a cautionary tale—that divides Gothic from much of the paranormal and horror novels written today. Because if there’s one theme that runs through most of these books, it’s not that we fear or dread the supernatural creature, but that we want to BE the supernatural creature. There’s sometimes a token resistance to the supernatural creature akin to the argument that goes on in a virgin’s head before the moment of surrender: charming but completely disingenuous. The tension in these stories comes from something else—searching for a holy relic, pursuing a supernatural criminal or trying to save your friends from annihilation—but not from a mortal fear that your soul or your sanity is going to be swallowed up by the dark incubus lying in wait.
So, using these criteria, which books (or movies and television shows) written in the past few decades would you say follows the Gothic tradition? Obviously, everything written by Anne Rice. John Harwood (The Ghostwriter, The Séance), Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours. Or would you argue that the definition of Gothic should be expanded?
Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster), a Gothic novel about obsessive love and a very dangerous man of the supernatural persuasion. The Taker was selected by Booklist as one of the top ten debut novels of 2011. The Reckoning, the second book in the trilogy, is out on June 19.