by Charlotte Goodger.
Frankenstein’s monster is a vegetarian. Carol J. Adams’s fascinating reading of Mary Shelley’s 1819 novel exists as part of a large body of evidence for the continued relevance of gothic fiction.
The Gothic emerged as a way of processing fears and trauma caused by domestic spheres, but it is now firmly considered the reserve of a by-gone era. It is the genre of melodrama, remote castles and the petty problems of the aristocracy. Of irresponsible scientists unruled by modern ethical procedures. Of vampires and ghosts too nonsensical for a 21st century world.
Firstly, I argue that enjoying gothic fiction is simply fun. Its very ridiculousness is entertaining beyond words. The Gothic transports us out of a world of mundane, but equally terrifying, problems and into a world so inauthentic that we don’t fear experiencing these problems ourselves. Consider Dracula (1897). How hilarious is the idea of an intelligent man, a solicitor, never considering that this mysterious, pale strange—feared by locals and owner of a quintessentially spooky castle—might be dangerous. It isn’t said often enough, but the Gothic is funny. So oblivious is Johnathan Harker that readers are hardly aware of the real-world anxieties beneath the words. And here, we arrive at the second, and more meaningful, reason as to why the Gothic still has a claim to relevance.
Where the Gothic seems too ridiculous to be included in the canon of so-called serious literature is exactly where its persistent relevance exists. As gripping as the supernatural can be, and entertaining is the melodrama and familial angst, the Gothic’s importance is in the symbolism behind these elements. Gothic is a symbolism-rich genre, and these symbols can be readapted by today’s writers to reflect their own fears.
After all, this is what lies at the heart of the Gothic and why it is loved by its fans. It’s a safe place where we can experience our fears at a distance and work out our emotions in a simulated environment. Take Frankenstein as an example. Although Adams studied the work’s emerging fears about meat consumption and its environmental impact, Shelley also wrote on her fears over motherhood and biological creation. One text, over two hundred years old now, reflects two very different terrors with equal skill.
Society is scared. That is an unavoidable fact, and it is, I argue, why we are seeing a resurgence in gothic film, TV and novels. Now, perhaps more than ever, gothic art forms are a form of catharsis. Their very ridiculousness helps us to purge ourselves of our fears.
I am going to use Daisy Johnson’s Sisters (2020) as an example. Johnson is a master of making the eerie out of the mundane, and the dilapidated, watchful Settle House is no different. I use this as an example because of how successfully she translates the old, aristocratic haunted house trope to the modern day dwelling.
Johnson’s protagonists, September and July, are sisters joined at the hip. They share clothes, thoughts and a cramped living space and may as well be twins. They have arrived at the Settle House after fleeing a school incident that scarred their family. Unknown until the very end, this incident reveals relatable fears centering unstable family relationships. This is only a more complex version of the fears of Shelley in Frankenstein, combining not only the role of motherly creation but the act of raising a family and living together as a unit.
The horror of the home is a bedrock of gothic novels. What we are seeing in modern gothic works is a gothic invasion of the average home, and the penetration of boundaries by unwelcome intruders. Gothic writing is still the rawest exploration ofmost raw way that we have of exploring domestic horror through art, as it is both adaptable and consistent. The basic themes don’t change, but its motifs invite translation into any number of settings.
The Settle House is characterised by half-seen things, entities disappearing around corners. The ‘hide and seek’ scene involves July and September engaging in a psychological game of separation that characterises anxiety over familial failure and separation. This theme is nothing new, but it can be read from a very safe distance when set in a castle. One can argue that a house, in the present day, in Yorkshire is closer to home for any person and cannot be as easily dismissed as ridiculous. Still, existing as fiction, I suggest that gothic horror will always have an inherent distance from our psyche and that elements of ridiculousness are likewise inherent to the genre.
In the age of pandemic, the applications of gothic are there for all to see. Worldwide trauma resulted from two years of fear, grief and confinement to the home. Thusly, the home is now —for most—jointly the sole place of safety and the site of horror that gothic fiction has always held it to be. It is important, now, that we have some way of processing and expressing our horror at our homes while keeping it at some distance.
It being far from being an outdated genre in the modern age, the next decade or so could produce some of the most fascinating gothic work we have seen for a generation. The gothic has always been a genre of entrapment, but a castle or Victorian mansion no longer seems nearly as claustrophobic as does a townhouse or a flat. Society-wide confinement on this scale has not occured for a long time, and new family conflicts have arisen around subjects such as vaccinations, rule-following and whether or not to go on holiday.
I do not mean to sound like I am trivialising all of this suffering. Far from it. Gothic writing is a way of purging and processing genuine terror. Using it to write about the pandemic follows in the footsteps of writing on infant and maternal mortality, domestic violence and familial loss. Shelley, as I have said, wrote on maternal fears, having lost her own mother to childbirth at just days old. Susan Hill, too, a paragon of modern British gothic, used her writing to process the death of her child. Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House against the backdrop of her famously poor relationship with her mother.
It is an analyst’s downfall to lean too heavily on an author’s life, but in the case of gothic writers, that life can’t be ignored. Gothic relies on the expulsion of fear. It is, I argue, impossible to write truly gothic work if you have never experienced the fears about which you are writing.
As with Shelley, and Hill, and Jackson, and every other writer who writes about the horror of the home, future writers of the Gothic will undoubtedly draw on fears around the family and anxiety over childhood. This is the other key element of the Gothic that makes it as relevant as ever today; the fears it reflects are not just personal. An author may draw on their own unique experience—what will make their novel different from any other— but every reader understands these fears. These fears are human, and are therefore annoyingly persistent. In this respect, the Gothic may be the most enduring of genres. And now that we have figured out a formula for expressing these fears safely, we may never stop.
In short, the Gothic is not only relevant, but more relevant now than it was twenty years ago. As a genre that deals in playing out our worst fears on a distant stage, the Gothic is being reinvigorated in a world of unstable politics, rampant disease and climate disasters. Not only are genre classics being reinterpreted to reflect new fears, but we are seeing an upsurge in new gothic offerings that more directly tackle the things that cause us the most anxiety. The Gothic is very much here to stay.
Charlotte Goodger a keen reader and fiction writer alongside writing professionally. She is always experimenting with new recipes, fashion looks and hobbies that feed into her writing. Find her at charlottegoodgerfreelance.com.