Reading the History of Popular Literature part 1: The Gothics

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin, not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.


The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story by Horace Walpole (England - 1764) and an introduction to the Gothic

Rarely can a literary movement be traced so definitively to one book. So why is The Castle of Otranto subtitled "A Gothic Story"? The word "Gothic" referred originally to the Goths, a Germanic people famous for being the barbarians who sacked Rome during the fall of the Roman empire. For much of European history, then, the term "Gothic" was synonymous with "barbaric". In the Renaissance period, artists began to refer to earlier styles of Medieval art which they were rebelling against as ugly and Gothic. Eventually, the cultural period in which that art flourished, approximately the 12th to 16th centuries, became known to scholars simply as the Gothic period.

The subtitle of the Castle of Otranto, then, refers to the fact that it takes place at the beginning of that period, in the 12th century.

Horace Walpole's fiction was a reaction against a trend towards scientific materialism that began in the Enlightenment. He wanted to write a story that had the kind of wonder and atmosphere one found in earlier historical medieval stories, the kind popular in the 16th century like Orlando Furioso. In that epic, 8th century legendary hero Roland (Orlando) is involved in a tragic love triangle and is so distraught when he is romantically spurned that he goes mad and starts destroying and killing everything and everyone around him. In a desperate bid, his friend Astolfo then travels to the moon (!) where lost things are, finds Roland's sanity there and brings it back to him.

Walpole's novel then would be of this sort: Medieval, dramatic, magical and wondrous. (And this same vision of a Romantic and magical Medieval time that fuels Orlando and Otranto would later emerge in 20th century fantasy fiction.) But Walpole says in his introduction that he wants to "blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern", and so he brings with him an 18th century sensibility, one with a far greater emphasis on atmosphere, mood and evocation of setting.

The story begins when an enormous helmet flies from the sky and lands on the son of Manfred, Lord of Otranto, killing him. Manfred, far from being upset, is secretly delighted, and the bulk of the plot is about his schemes to capture his son's pretty bride-to-be and force her to marry him. As in Richard III, the villain here is the principle and most interesting character. The entirety of the story takes place in his Castle, and it is replete with ghosts, knights, sword fights, spookiness and a peasant who is secretly a prince.

Is it a good novel? By modern standards I'd say no. The plot is simplistic, the characters one-dimensional, and the prose plodding. One might chalk this up to the time period, except that there are plenty of 18th century novels I've enjoyed, such as Gulliver's Travels. The Castle of Otranto was, however, incredibly popular in its time, and spawned legions of imitators. First other novels emerged that took place in the Gothic period, but soon there were novels that simply mimicked its tone and sensibility, and these too came to be called "Gothic", which is how that term gradually gained its modern referent to things dark and spooky.


Vathek by William Beckford (England - written in French and first published in France - 1786)

Vathek is in the tradition of what would much later be called Orientalism. It is a tale inspired by and in the mode of the Arabian Nights, which were first translated into French in 1704 and English in 1706 and were very popular at the time.

Caliph Vathek is an Arabian ruler, living (as Westerners frequently imagined Arabians living) in the most decadent luxury imaginable. Then an evil demon appears and lures him on a quest to a magical city where he will find a key of incredible power. Throughout his journey he is repeated given opportunities to turn back and reform his behavior to one of piety in tune with Koranic teaching, and again and again he chooses to embrace debauchery, greed and immorality, going so far as to sacrifice the children of many of the nobles of his court at the demon's behest. In the end he finds the city, but turns out to be hell and he (along with his comically vile mother) suffer with their hearts literally aflame for all eternity.

As with, Otranto, the principle and most interesting character is the villain Vathek and the plot isn't very complicated; in fact, it's pretty predictable. What's interesting, and what separates it from the Arabian Nights it is derivative is, is its focus on mood, tone and description. It is an exotic, magical story and its graphic depictions of horror and suffering would influence the romantics Byron and Shelley as well as writers as distant chronologically as HP Lovecraft. Also, from a historical perspective, it's an interesting window on the European view of the Middle East at the time, the Orientalist romanticism, and we'll see this notion of the Arab world as a land of splendor and decadence come back many times in the course of this series.


Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams by William Godwin (England - 1794) (Previously read) *

William Godwin was the father of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and is considered one of the first Anarchist philosophers. Caleb Williams takes the Gothic tools of mood and setting and applies them to an Anarchist parable. Poor, young Caleb is framed for a crime he did not commit by a powerful murderer, escapes from prison and runs for his life bandits, betrayal and overall the power of the state under sway of the wealthy aristocracy to track him down and surveil him. Once again the most interesting character is not Caleb, but the villain Faulkland, whose murderous ways take up the first third of the book, and whose presence is felt as a malevolent force even when he is not physically in the story.

The book succeeds on many levels: it functions as a political parable in the way Godwin intended without becoming didactic or lecturing, it's evocation of paranoia and fear is a triumph of the Gothic movement, and its basic plot line of an innocent man on the run from the law is inherently suspenseful and feels contemporary. It's also a book whose themes of paranoia and pervasive power leant itself to rediscovery by 20th century philosophers of power like Michel Foucault.


Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (England - 1817)

I've already written about my disappointment with Frankenstein, chiefly with the character of Victor Frankenstein himself whose behavior in the book is ludicrously stupid. Looking at it now from the perspective of these other Gothic works, I see I shouldn't have been surprised that the villain—the monster—was the most interesting character. In Gothic novels the villain is always the most interesting character. Frankenstein is also often referred to as the first science fiction novel, and it is notable that the fantastic elements here aren't brought about by the supernatural, but by science.

With this book and the next, I should mention Lord Byron, whose figure looms so heavily over the nineteenth century that the phrase "Byronic Hero" was coined for a certain kind of tortured, egoistic and romantic figure, typified as much in Byron's narrative poetry as by the scandalous reputation of Byron himself (he was said, for instance, to have had a love affair with his own sister). Frankenstein's Monster is one such Byronic character, but that should hardly be surprising since Shelley was friends with the man and they may or may not have been lovers. The story of the book's writing, as described in Shelley's introduction, is the stuff of legend. During the cold summer of 1816, when a volcanic winter cooled the world, Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, his assistant John Polidori and lover Claire Clairemont all challenged each other to write a supernatural story. Percy and Byron both wrote abortive fragments, while Shelley began work on her story of human reanimation, inspired by news stories about the natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) and his experiments with dead flesh. If Clairemont made an attempt at a story, I haven't been able to discover it, but Polidori's effort brings us to…


The Vampyre by John Polidori (England - 1819)

In response to the challenge, John Polidori was inspired by a fragment from an unfinished novel by Byron. Polidori, however, wrote what is actually a parody of Byron and the Byronic hero, transforming him into a vampiric monster that seduces and then destroys the pretty daughters of the aristocracy. To add insult to injury, Polidori then published the book using Lord Byron's name, because he knew that would insure high sales figures, and in the introduction he describes it as the book Byron wrote as part of the challenge of that legendary summer. For the rest of Byron's career, the book would be attributed to him, even collected in anthologies of his work, a fact that aggravated him to no end. (The two, unsurprisingly, had a falling out.)

The Vampyre is important and interesting in a number of ways. It's one of the first instances of the vampire of Eastern European folklore being used in Western literature, and it takes what was originally a spooky creature of the night that prays on the unsuspecting and transforms it into an odd, foppish aristocrat with a devilish agenda, providing an early model for Dracula and all the vampire stories that came after. And unlike the previous works, in this one (spoiler alert) the villain wins in the end, an unusual twist that becomes a precedent for horror fiction in the twentieth century. The book was so popular that the vampire's name, Lord Ruthven, became shorthand in the 19th century (as we'll see) for any sufficiently creepy and predacious aristo.


The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allen Poe (America - 1838) *

And now we jump ahead to the time when the Gothic began to morph into other genres, and no writer better exemplifies this transition than Edgar Allen Poe, who said he started writing Gothic stories because they were popular. He codified the Gothic emphasis on mood and feeling into a highly influential theory that all fiction should be geared toward producing a single effect, which every aspect of the piece should work together toward that end. He then took gothic tendencies and with them created stories like "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado" which are less Gothic and more what we would now call horror. He also wrote stories like "The Purloined Letter" which are considered the first detective fiction.

It's hard not to see his only novel, Arthur Gordon Pym, as a failure, even on his own terms. The plot meanders and certain parts seem like they're from a very different kind of novel than others. Large portions of it are nakedly plagiarized from popular travel journals. There's a dog that the author seems to forget exists. And it ends on a cliffhanger with a note that essentially says that nothing more remains of this mysterious manuscript.

And yet.

And yet the book is fucking awesome. There's a famous scene where a ship of corpses sails past the characters as they're stranded on a capsized boat, a ship which has no bearing on the plot and never reappears, and is still chilling and beautiful and haunting, which about sums up the whole of the book. Even the bizarre and abrupt ending is one that lingers in the mind for days. Arthur Gordon Pym was pretty certainly a model for Moby Dick, which took its faults—the encyclopedic digressions, the abrupt changes in tone, the odd language—and turned them into features, did what Poe couldn't and made them part of the singular effect of the whole. It also was a clear inspiration to the writers of the scientific romance, the prototypal form of science fiction, so much so that Jules Verne wrote his own sequel to explain what happened after that maddening ending. And so, strangely, Arthur Gordon Pym may not actually be a good book, but it is a great one.

It's also interesting to note that, unlike the other books we've read, the villain here isn't the most interesting and primary character, and rather dies in the first third of the book.


Not read: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (England - 1794) and Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin (Ireland - first published in England - 1820)

I didn't read these two, which were on my list and both important to the Gothic movement, mostly because they were long and didn't seem as interesting to me as the other books. Radcliffe in particular was very pivotal, inspiring writers as different as Poe and Jane Austin, and is one of the writers most often associated with the Gothic movement. I mostly objected to her because apparently she was the master of having supernatural effects that turn out to be perfectly explainable— that is, the Hound of the Baskervilles or Scooby Doo ending, and I tend to like my supernatural to remain supernatural, or at least be ambiguous, as in The Turn of the Screw.

As for the Maturin, the book is about a man who sells his soul for an extra 150 years of life, a promising enough premise, but according to reviews I read it kind of meanders for most of its 700+ pages and I just couldn't bring myself to bother.

Comments

Gothic Novels

Let me recommend the Veiled Picture from Valancourt books, which is a redaction of Udolpho and a lot of fun. All the good parts without the slog. And yes, Melmoth is very very slow.