Transcending the Gothic Canon

Gothic literature and I are pretty tight. What’s not to love? Isolated, looming mansions; floating, mysterious figures; sinister secrets. It speaks to the psychological thriller loving, mystery aficionado in me.

If you’re not familiar with this genre, a Gothic story will usually have these common identifiers:

  • an isolated, naive/idealistic/clueless protagonist (usually female);
  • who finds themselves in a large mansion (usually in the middle of nowhere);
  • the dark mansion will harbour a sinister secret of some sort;
  • that everyone else in the mansion is trying to keep from the protagonist;
  • this secret is a danger to the protagonist’s sense of identity, their physical well-being, and/or their emotional well-being (often it’s all three).
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A very recent & delicious addition to the Gothic canon

How the author chooses to present these can vary. Sometimes there are supernatural factors involved, and sometimes it can all be explained away by good old logic. Other times people are just plain crazy.

Gothic literature is labelled such for the Gothic style architecture of these great, looming mansions that these types of stories traditionally take place in. Over time, of course, the settings have changed. The great thing about Gothic literature is that it creates these parameters in which it can discuss the “unmentionables”. (And I don’t mean underwear.) It’s the place where the repressed comes out, and it does so with a vengeance. Everything that’s been swept under the rug no longer stays dutifully under the rug. The rug is now alive with all your worst thoughts, doubts, and everything bad that you ever wanted to do. Thus, the Gothic becomes a space in which social anxieties manifest, usually into a tangible monstrosity that can be pointed at, marveled at,and unpicked and discussed.

“Gothic monsters such as the vampire and the Frankenstein creature, for example, should not be read merely as nightmarish configurations of twisted fantasies, but important metaphors for understanding historically-specific socio-political crises. As Jeffrey Cohen posits, ‘the monster is born only at this metaphorical crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment – of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture.’”

Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

The first Gothic novel I read was Jane Eyre, though I didn’t realize at the time that it was a part of this genre. Jane Eyre, published in the Victorian century, examined such outrageous notions as female anger, female desire and sexuality, and most outlandish of all: the female’s right to choose. Needless to say, sixteen year old me loved it. I did not expect to find a self-sufficient hero of  badassery garbed in a corset and sleeves wide enough to take out entire crowds.

Over time I have picked out and devoured various Gothic stories: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankentein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (possibly the first lesbian vampire story ever), and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. These are all the Gothic Greats for me. But over time my reading tastes have also shifted dramatically to accommodate the marginalised authors: from continents other than North America and Europe, of varying degrees of sexuality and backgrounds, authors who push the boundaries of literature and dare to depict the world as it is. And I wanted Gothic stories from these authors, too.

And lo and behold, I stumbled upon some magic words: the Asian Gothic, and the Post-colonial Gothic. The Gothic after all is about transcending boundaries, between the rational and the irrational, the natural and the supernatural. Who’s to say it can’t transcend geographical boundaries?

“… the Gothic has spawned many sub-species of itself including the postmodern Gothic, and more recently, postcolonial Gothic. This attests to the malleable nature of the Gothic to transcend its own historical, cultural and geographical parameters (its “canon”). After all, transgressing taboos, complicity with evil, the dread of life, violence, the return of the repressed (just to name some familiar Gothic themes) are not specific to any culture or people, but are experienced by all throughout history, although of course, the complexities in which these concerns take may vary from culture to culture.”

–  Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

In Western literature, the Gothic, when talking about the repressed, and the taboo has also examined The Other. The Other can be the monstrous, the irreverent thing that’s supposed to be kept in the dark, but it can also (unsurprisingly) be the foreign(er). In Dracula, Count Dracula is from Transylvania, the mysterious land of superstition and irrationality, trying to insinuate himself into London, where his very presence threatens their structure of science and rational thinking. Not to mention he’s literally a leech on their society. In Jane Eyre Jane’s alter ego is represented by :::spoiler alert::: Bertha Mason, the Caribbean foreigner whose rampant sexuality and madness are supposed to counter the calm, collected, and always in control Jane. Generally speaking, the Gothic has not been kind to non-Westerners.

But the Gothic is exactly the type of genre to subvert the conventional, even itself. It even transcends its own canon, as pointed out in the above quote. How powerful is it when the The Othered take the very tool that has been used to oppress and Other them (the tool being the Gothic genre, and simultaneously the English language), and use it, in their turn, to throw off the oppressors? Post-colonial and Asian Gothic can redefine the old canon to make way for a different set of Gothic stories. Not only that, but they can shed light on a Gothic genre that is as old and as long-standing as the Western one.

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Manichitrathazhu, a South Asian film with strong Gothic undertones

I’ve only just stumbled onto this concept of Post-colonial and Asian Gothic myself. Having read scraps of articles around this new canon, I would say I’ve only read two novels in this genre:

  • Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (which also fits into Caribbean Gothic, and is, incidentally, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the view point of Bertha Mason – talk about subversion) AND
  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which falls into Post-colonial Gothic, and details the horrors of colonization of the body and the mind)

This convoluted post is also a way of asking you, dear reader, for any suggestions for stories that might fall into this category of Post-colonial and/or Asian Gothic. I will be publishing another post on South Asian Gothic myself sometime in the near future. As I said, though, it’s a genre that I’ve only just dipped into and I would very much like to dive further into it, so I welcome any and all suggestions.

A Dark and Stormy Read

Rosemary Summers has writer’s block. Her thesis on Victorian Gothic Lit has come to a standstill. To rejuvenate her ideas, and salvage any remains of her once close bond with her recently deceased grandfather in the process, she decides to visit his grand, but crumbling home, Magpie Hall. Like all proper Gothic houses, Magpie Hall has a few dirty secrets, one of them being Rosemary’s great-great-grandfather, Henry Summers’ dubious dealings in his first wife’s death.

This book’s most striking aspect is the setting; Magpie Hall with its windswept plains and creaking foundations was a suitably Gothic backdrop for the story. The house is overflowing with ghosts, be they symbolic or literal ones.

Rosemary’s story alternates with that of her great-great-grandfather’s as a young man newly arrived from London, trying to make a life in New Zealand. I found Henry’s, and his soon-to-be-wife, Dora’s storyline more intriguing than Rosemary’s. I was just as curious as Rosemary to solve the great mystery surrounding her great-great-grandfather’s relationship with his first wife.

Henry Summers is a collector of curiosities, acquiring animals and objects unique to each of the cultures he encounters. Even more intriguingly, he is also a collector of tattoos, a physical art form that was apparently all the rage in Victorian England after some members of the Royal family brought them into fashion. His famous taxidermy collection, along with his skills and passion for the process is passed down to his great grandson, and from him to Rosemary.

Magpie Hall is a treasure trove of Gothic references and any fan of this particular genre will be delighted to recognise all the nods to the Gothic greats. It ticks all the boxes for a creepy, Gothic tale : a lone, young woman in an isolated house creaking with ghosts from its past, surrounded by questionable characters who might be out to do her more harm than good. And yet. Now we come to the knot in the thread. And yet, the story falls flat. Despite all these ghostly trappings of her past, Rosemary’s story failed to deliver a satisfying revolution.

 [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]

The revelation of Rosemary’s past, and her part in her sister’s death, which adds an extra layer of unease to the tale and boosts Magpie Hall’s creepiness factors happens near the end of the book. This detracts from the story considerably. I think it could have been mended by revealing the secret earlier, or simply by giving it the stronger conclusion that it deserved.

Instead, Rosemary continues to be quite churlish in the way she handles the situation. Her lack of maturity, as well as her inability to accept any responsibility was disappointing to read. I can’t help envisioning how much more effective Rosemary’s narrative would have been had she been allowed to reach a point of contention regarding her role in her sister’s death. As it is, it’s simply left hanging, and Rosemary continues to turn a blind eye to it, right till the very end of the story.

She connects more strongly with her idea of her great-great-grandfather’s wife, Dora. In fact, the book’s ending, of Rosemary adding the same tattoo of a bird that she believes Dora Summers may have also had, only further emphasizes her lack of growth. When Rosemary arrives at Magpie Hall, it is with her head full of ghost stories, and her heart ready to cast herself as a player in them; by the time she leaves, things are in the same state of affairs. Rosemary’s head is still in the clouds, and she is still as narrow-sighted as when we first meet her.

The lack of a strong ending was doubly disappointing considering all that the novel had to offer, and considering the preceding Gothic novels that it persisted taking a page out of. There is neither redemption nor learning from past mistakes. In Northanger Abbey Catherine Moralnd learns that there is a line between reality and fiction; in Wuthering Heights, Cathy and Hareton’s blossoming relationship promises a bright future to counter the havoc caused by Catherine and Heathcliff; in Jane Eyre a love that was obstructed by lies is made to overcome those lies. Magpie Hall, though full of potential, does not achieve anything of this kind. Despite this unfortunate lack of a conclusion, it is still a good ghost story, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a chilling story for a rainy day.