Aesthetic Gothic Horror

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

The Gothic novel is simultaneously ridiculous and sublime, yet its critics persist in their conflicting claims that it is either trivial or profound. Those critics who affirm the former assessment traditionally catalogue the conventional stereotypes of this genre – spectres emerging from portraits, faded manuscripts tied with yellow ribbon, subterranean labyrinths, and so forth (see especially Edith Birkhead, The Tale of Terror, 1921; Clara F. McIntyre, "Were the 'Gothic Novels' Gothic:", PMLA, 26 (1921), 644–67; Eino Railo, The Haunted Castle, 1927; Michael Sadleir, The Northanger Novels: A Footnote to Jane Austen, English Association Pamphlet No. 68, 1927; Montague Summers, The Gothic Quest, 1938; Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame, 1957; J. M. S. Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England, 1961; and various surveys of the English novel such as that by Ernest Baker). Those who assert the latter judgment seek out its "essence" – be it literary mysticism, primordial instincts, the surreal quest for the marvelous, or another concept varying in insight and ingenuity (see especially the introductory and concluding comments by Birkhead, Summers, and Varma; Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, trans. Angus Davidson, 1967; André Breton, Les Manifestes du surreéalism, 1955, pp. 16–17; Russell Kirk, "A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale," The Surly Sullen Bell, 1964; J. H. Matthews, Surrealism and the Novel, 1966; Francis R. Hart, "The Experience of Character in the English Gothic Novel," Experience in the Novel, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce, 1968, pp. 83–105; Robert D. Hume, "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA, 84 (1969), 282–90; and Robert L. Platzner and Robert D. Hume, "'Gothic Versus Romantic': A Rejoinder," PMLA, 86 (1971), 266–74). These dichotomous views, neither of which is primarily aesthetic, perhaps mirror the Age of Sensibility itself, an age which retained artificial neoclassical conventions while at the same time emphasizing the sentimental and sensational. In order to recognize this genre's artistic fusion of form and content, it would be more fruitful to synthesize the morphological with the essentialist approach, and to recognize that the Gothic novel is an aesthetic union of the apex of rationality, or stereotypes, and the nadir of irrationality, or horror. I would like to stress the general interest of my essay as a genre study, a study in aesthetics, and a contribution to the psychology of literature. Non-English and non-American examples of this genre are relegated to a brief discussion of Continental authors in the last few paragraphs; it is, however, hoped that my genre-construct can be applied to all "Gothic" novels [p.31] sometime in the future. My present purpose is to suggest a method for interpretation and appreciation, and to analyze carefully the apparent validity of this method before applying it to a wider range of works. (A more thoroughgoing application of the method to a single work may be found in my "The Turn of the Screw: Coincidential Oppositorum," published in volume 28, no. 4, of American Imago.) The keynote ideas of this study are structure, genre, theme, archetype, and framework – in other words the whole aesthetic mechanism by which a Gothic novel achieves a Coleridgean organic union of opposites. The Gothic novel is a neat illustration of the thesis–antithesis–synthesis formula of most art: the archetype of this genre would be a mandala-like gestalt composed of terror, horror, and Edmund Burke's "the sublime" at its center to generate dynamo; formulaic conventions and Burke's "the beautiful" on its circumference to achieve harmonizing limitation; and "the picturesque" and "the grotesque" along its radii to mediate between these opposites and thus establish unity.

The Gothic novelists attepted to portray the sensibilities in an effort to elevate their readers' "taste" or to shock them by being sensationalistic, but the better authors were also confronted with the primary aesthetic problem – the dynamic balancing of opposites – which had to be solved by a rhetoric of topoi within this framework of sensibility. The picture of them sitting down to solve an aesthetic problem may be a caricature, but it is nevertheless certain that they were greatly concerned with such aesthetic problems as landscape gardening, poetry, and artistic appreciation – an education of the sensibilities which is more truly aesthetic than the éducation sentimentale. Horace Walpole, for example, in an essay on landscape gardening perceptively analyzes the picturesque, even though scenic description is relatively absent from his fictional work; Ann Radcliffe is the undisputed master of verbal landscape painting, and her characters repeatedly route their journeys in order to view a picturesque cliff and then discuss its aesthetic appeal, its angular proportions, its affecting contrasts. These authors are also well informed about the elements of harmony and antithetical balance which are so necessary to poetic and dramatic art: in his Preface to the Castle of Otranto Walpole explains that he uses "grotesque" servants as dramatic foils to his "noble" master. An increasingly refined sensitivity to various forms of art, especially music, frequently underlies the pattern of action of many Gothic novels, so much so that their characgers' growth and social status are often more correlative to their response to poetry and music than to their inculcation of the oral virtues: whereas Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa develop exclusively as a result of their strengthened morality, Radcliffe's ellena and Emily attain significant growth in their aesthetic perceptions as well. In fact, the Gothic novelists were the first English novelists to incorporate their characters' aesthetic interests as an integral part of the narrative.

Since these novelists were equally concerned with the presentation of horror, we might almost automatically conclude that they were influenced by the eighteenth-century theoreticians of the sublime who endeavored to define terror as an aesthetic experience, particularly by Edmund Burke's systematic Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756–57). Malcolm Ware has carefully documented Burke's influence upon Radcliffe (Sublimity in the Novels of Ann Radcliffe, Essays and Studies on English Language and Literature, Second Series, 25, 1963), and critics will probably someday document Burke's pervasive influence even upon the very minor novelists. Samuel H. Monk, in his comprehensive treatment of The Sublime (1960), claims that the aesthetic of the Gothic novel is directly founded upon a concept of the sublime, but his broad purpose leaves little room for close reference to the novels themselves. Close reference, I believe, would indicate that these novelists significantly modified this theory, that they adapted rather than adopted it.

Critics who designate the years between 1760 and 1798 as the pre-romantic age rather than the age of sensibility too often define the sublime as [p.32] simply an "enthusiastic passion" and equate it with "romantic enthusiasm," whereas the eighteenth-century aesthetic sensibility required that the sublime be defined as an "enthusiastick passion" governed by "polite taste." William Smith, in his commentary to his translation of Longinus in 1739, for example, felt that the storm scenes in King Lear were subilme, not simply because they were awesome and terrifying, but because they were depicted with "judicious horror," "add[ed] solemnity to terror," and activated "an inborn sedateness in the mind, which renders images of terror grateful and engaging." Images which activated horror, terror, even dread, were "grateful and engaging" (and produced "dreadful pleasure") not only because they affected one's emotions or imagination or sense of the supernature, but also because they somehow appealed to a sense of calmness and control which delimited the power of otherwise uncontrollable fright. This important distinction is never mentioned by Patricia Meyer Spacks in her nearly-definitive Insistence of Horror: Aspects of the Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Poetry (1962). Yet even Burke, whose essay is unsurpassed in its exhaustive list of differentiae such as "massiveness" and "obscurity," defines the sublime (in the standard genus-plus-differentia manner) as "tranquility tinged with terror." In spite of the artificiality of its alliteration, Burke's definition adequately indicates that the sublime is an aestheic union of the oppositews of romantic agony and classical repose.

This sense of dynamic opposition, which may paradoxically achieve a Joycean "aesthetic stasus" if the opposites are truly opposite and therefore co-equal, rather than terror per se, is the primary aesthetic characteristic of the sublime. For Burke the highest state of sublimity is created by the juxtaposition of opposite extremes: "Black and white may soften, may blend; but they are not therefore the same. Nor, when they are so softened and blended with each other, or with different colours, is the power of black as black, or of white as white, so strong as when each stands uniform and distinguished" (III, xxvii). The stereotypical virtuous heroine persecuted by a wicked villain is the unfortunate melodramatic aspect of this strong contrast, but the black and white characters of Walpole's Castl of Otranto (1764) eventually were superseded by the more fully rounded characters of Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), and became convincing personalities as Ambrosio and Matilda in Lewis's The Monk (1795 or 1796). Nevertheless, harsh and sharp contrast is still the very theme of The Monk: Antonia's innocence and virtue are foils to Matilda's experience and evil; Ambrosio's saintliness and fasting are contrasted with, and therefore intensify, his demonic lust and satiation – "his long fast had only given a keener edge to his appetite" (ed. Louis F. Peck, 1952, p. 227); Antonia in all her loveliness sleeps "by the side of three putrid half-corru0pted bodies" (p. 313). When Lewis discusses the methods by which the Inquisition instills reverential horror, he offers an authorial aside upon his own method of terrifying his readers: "He was ordered to prepare himself to perish in the Auto da Fé, which was to be solemnized at twelve o'clock that night. This hour was chosen from the idea that, the horror of the flames being heightened by the gloom of midnight, the execution would have a greater effect upon the mind of the people" (p. 411). Radcliffe may be echoing Burke's comments on black versus white when she states that Schedoni's "cowl, too, as it threw a shade over the livid paleness of hius face, increased its severe character, and gave an effect to his large melancholy eye, which approached to horror" (The Italian, or The Confessional of the Black Penitents, ed. Frederick Garber, 1968, p. 35).

Most of these examples illustrate Burke's injunctin that the opposites being contrasted should both be sublime in themselves, but one of them illustrates a contrast which Burke never explicitly recognizes: Antonia near the putrid bodies is a contrast of the beautiful with the sublime. In spite of the macabreness of this particular example, this type of contrast significantly differs from melodrama and opens the way for more subtle aesthetic effects. Radcliffe sometimes pictures a sublime summit overlooking a sublime [p.33] abyss, but most of her landscape painting depicts the contrast of the sublime with the beautiful: the sublime Apennines versus beautiful valleys, sublimely rugged gorges versus beautiful undulating streams, sublime jagged pines versus beautiful waving meadows. And she is consciously aware of this type of contrast: "The landscape, wtih the surrounding Alps, did indeed present a perfect picture of the lovely and the sublime – of 'beauty sleeping in the lap of horror'" (The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonamy Dobreé, 1966, p. 55). She sometimes almost literally applies Burke's "tranguility tinged with terror": "As they passed with silent steps along the winding rocks, the tranquility of the landscape below afforded an affecting contrast with the tumult and alarm of their minds" (The Italian, p. 144). Because the Gothic novel emphasizes architectural form and the sense of place, it is inevitable that the austere sublimity of the tupical Gothic castle be contrasted with the pastoral beauty of a valley seen from its ramparts or the memory of one's eimple childhood estate, or that the sublimely severe cell of a conven be contrasted with the beautiful meditative simplicity of the convent garden. For example, Ellena in Radcliffe's The Italian, discovers a "consolatory turret" connected to her cell in San Stephano, from which she can see the pastoral plains of the Tavogliere di Puglia, and for several pages her movement from cell to turret intensifies their respective qualities, though this characteristic see-saw technique can be dulled from overuse.

Sublime images may often inspire terror, but horror achieves its virulence by the contrast of the sublime with the beautiful; although this effect is cumulative throughout a Gothic novel and therefore difficult to convey in a critical essay, two examples which capture the essence of this effect are worth analyzing briefly. In the first chapter of Thomas Prest's Varney the Vampire (1847), we can catalogue the following sublime images: the suddenness of a storm, a flash of lightning, a vampire, his gaunt fingers, a maiden choking in terror, the blood feast. Equally important, however, is the counter-catalogue of beautiful images: the slowness of his approach, a dimly-lit room, the lovely maiden, her pitiful whisper, her sensuous hair, her dainty foot, the soft bed and pillows, a small pane of glass. The sexual implications of the vampire's sinewy finger breaking a small pane of glass to reach a maiden's bed, and the blood feast, are sensationalistic, but sexual union is also correlative to the clear attempt actually to bring about a union of opposites; in fact the maiden's hair is the concrete referrent to this union insofar as it acquires ambiguously evil connotations by seemingly holding her back as it streams over the bed, and is the mediator between the beautiful soft pillows and the sublime gaunt hand. The other example, from Lewis's The Monk, gracefully, and almost flawlessly, achieves a union of opposites:

"Suddenly he was sensible of a violent shock. An earthquake rocked the ground, the columns which supported the roof under which he stood, were so strongly shaken, that every moment menaced him with its fall, and at the same moment he heard a long and tremendous burst of thunder; it ceased, and his eyes being fixed upon the satir-case, he saw a bright column of light flash along the caverns beneath. It was seen but for an instant. No sooner did it disappear, than all was once more quiet and obscure. profound darknkess againt surrounded him, and the silence of night was only broken by the whirring bat as she flitted slowly by him." (pp. 234–5)

In this powerful (and therefore sublime) passage, with its sense of perfect harmony, the bat in itself is a union of sudden and slow, loud and silent, sharp and soft, agitation and peace; Lewis has accomplished the tension and resolution which all great art possesses, and to see the bat as a mere Gothic trapping is to underestimate the genuine aesthetic possibilities of such conventions.

Coleridge felt that in "a Gothic cathedral, as in a prospect from a mountain's top, there is, indeed, a unity, an awful [i.e., sublime] oneness" (Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Rayser, 1936, p. 149). It is difficult to achieve a union of opposites, but the Gothic novelists may have attempted to construct such verbal cathedrals. One indication of this is the frequent repetition of the phrases [p.34] "mingled emotions" or "mingled sensations": Radcliffe's heroines are always sorting out these mingled emotions, particularly hope and fear; Lewis, with his greater knowledge of the theatre and perhaps a greater practical understanding of Aristotelian pity and terror, dramatically portrays Ambrosio's frustrations at being unable to comprehend his mingled emotions of pity and terror towards Matilda and the Satanic realm, and pathetically portrays Antonia's terror–pity reaction towards her brother Ambrosio. The oft-repeated phrase "pleasing sadness" may very likely be a cliché of Miltonic melancholy, but the equally often repeated phrases "fearful joy," "dreadful plesure," "delightful horror," and "painful pleasure" approach true paradox, the union of Freud's pleasure and pain, Aristotle's pity and terror, Burke's sublime and beautiful.

On the more significant level of narrative action, the theme of incest, which appears in Walpole's Mysterious Mother, Radcliffe's The Italian, and Lewis's The Monk, as well as in many other Gothic romances and dramas, may recur not only because it was a stock motif of Jacobean tragedy, from which these novelists borrowed much material, but also because it appealed to their desire to unite opposites. This nearly Jungian coincidentia oppositorum is definitely achieved in Lewis's The Monk, where the Bible is simultaneously the Good Book and the "annals of a brothel" (p. 258), Ambrosio is simultaneously sinner and saint, and Matilda is simultaneousl the archetypes of Harlot and Madonna. Analysis of the sexual ambiguity of this novel may even lead us to the conclusion that, insofar as Matilda dresses in the habit of a brother onk and is loved by Ambrosio as "another myself" in the Renaissance friendship tradition, Ambrosio and Matilda may be symbolically identical, a hermaphroditic union of male and female. In the resolution of Radcliffe's The Italian, Ellena's past sorrow and future joy are united by her new home in Naples, from which she can see both beautiful undulating lawns and sublime precipitous valleys – which significantly merge at the horizon – and her final union with Vivaldi is so intensely meaningful that "joy was exalted almost to agony" (p. 408).

In a much more complex manner – which demonstrates the Gothic novelists' psychological insight – horror is in itself more of an aethetic experience of the union of opposites than a psychological reaction of intense fear. Here it would be useful to set up a psychological difference between horror and terror. Although critics often quote Radcliffe's and Burke's comments to the effect that terror is a subloimely elevating intense fear while horror is the combination of terror with repugnance or loathing, or that horror is lurid and macabre while terror is obscure and chilling, in actual fictional pracctice all Gothic novelists, including Radcliffe herself, either use "terror" and "horror" interchangeably or use "horror" as an intensive form of "terror." A statistical survey of the pertinent diction in Gothic novels would indicate that "horror" is indeed often associated with physicality, but it would also indicate that there is nevertheless a definite difference between horror and disgust. Edgar Allan Poe, who canot be overlooked in any discussion of horror fiction, indicates in The Masque of the Red Death the cumulative series-relationship of such terms: at the appearence of the mummer "there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise – then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust." "Horror" almost always follows "terror" and precedes "disgust" and, most importantly, is brought about by a succession of structured enclosures similar to Prince Prospero's color-coded chambers. Terror is a psychological reaction which exists when the terror-inspiring object is still at some distance from oneself and there is the possibility of fleeting it; horror is an aesthetic experience which exists when the horror-inspiring object is in very close proximity to oneself and there is no possibiillity of escaping it. One is terrified by the mysterious sounds outside the bedroom door, but horrified by the vampire within the chamber. The structure which brings about this forced confrontation of the viewer and the terror-inspiring object – a structure which Müller Fraureuth termed the Burgverliess, or "forgotten room" [p.35] (Railo, p. 139) similar to the niches in which fictional nuns were immured alive, the wine cellar in Poe's Cask of Amontillado, and even the room in Sartre's No Exit – and thereby provides the dynamic tension for aesthetic and sublime reactions, especially insofar as it unites the opposites of inward and outward movement, is illustrated by the subterranean labyrinths benath a castle or convent, the castle or convent themselves, and the cells of the dreaded Inquisition; this structure finds its epitome in Ira Levin's modern Gothic novel Rosemary's Baby, in which Rosemary's own womb contains a taloned demon.

The victim of terror, for whom the terror-inspiring object is usually outside of this structure and therefore obscure, concentrates primarily upon himself; the victim of horror, for whom the horror-inspiring object is usually within this structure and therefore clearly visible, concentrates primarily upon the object itself, just as one concentrates on a work of art: one of Radcliffe's character's "whole heart was chilled, not with fear, for at the moment he did not remember himself, but with horror" (The Italian, p. 310). Most victims of horror become the frozen statues paralyzed by the Medusa, whose pagan beauty of fascinatio unites the opposites of attraction and repulsion; they experience the extreme manifestation of Burke's "tranquility." The power of a vampire's eyes is that of fascination, and these demoniacal-like possession is an aesthetic experience insofar as it has characteristics similar to the absorbing power of great art, the negative capability of a great artist, and the empathetic ability of a great reader. The primordial aesthetic experience mayhave been the initiate's holy terror in the presence of a chthonic deity.

Gothic horror, with its emphasis on the mechanisms of structure and process, is more aesthetic than has generally been recognized, but it would nevertheless be valuable to suggest some aspects of a psychoanalytic approach to such horror. If we examined the psychic content of horror, we would discover unsublimated Eror and the death instinct: repressed genitality is manifested in incest; the oral phase of pregenitatlity in ravenous werewolves and blood-sucking vampires; the anal phase in scatalogy, organic decay, and loathsome vermin; the narcissistic phase in egomaniacal villains and mad scientists; polymorphous perversity in shadowy undifferentiation, the grotesque (literally composed of polymorphs), and constantly-moving arabesque tapestries; the death instinct by murder; and the mixture of Eros and the death instinct by the sadomasochism of the Inquisition. If we examined the psychic mechanism of horror, we might define horror as the ambivalence of a psyche ruled by the Reality Principle (superego) being slowly dominated by the Pleasure Principle (id). the freezing paralysis of horror is correlative to the helplessness experienced in dreams which have mutated into nightmares; this helplessness, according to Freud, is always an indication of ambivalence, of the ego being simulataneously and equally attracted to and repelled by a desire of the id which the superego finds particularly abhorrent. In normal waking life this ambivalence is resolved – but not without an accompanying anxiety which may produce neurosis – by repressing hate, for example, to the latent and unconscious level and by sublimating love to the manifest and conscious level. But in nightmares – and in the Gothic novel – these transformations of repression–displacement–sublimation simply do not occur: the attraction–repulsion reaction remains as untransformed ambivalanence, with the result that the Gothic victim experiences "fearful joy," fascination, and horror – an aesthetic union of opposites.

Thus far we have considered the sublime as the opposite of the beautiful, but it is also traditionally considered as the opposite of the ridiculous. Although Edmund Burke off-handedly rejected the aesthetic possibilities of the grotesque (and hence of the ridiculous), Kenneth Burke in our own time wishes to retain this traditional dichotomy, and attempted to clarify the ambiguity of the sublime having two opposites by positing a dialectical aesthetics parallel to a monistic aesthetics (The Philosophy of Literary Form, 1957, pp. 51–4.). This view is implicit in Edmund Burke's conflicting claims that the sublime sometimes manifests itself as a single power such as [p.36] vastness and at other times as a dialectical power of opposite extremes such as satiation and deprivation. On the monistic level the picturesque mediates between the sublime and the beautiful; for example, a barren dead tree covered with hanging moss would be picturesque insofar as the moss softens and therefore beautifies what would otherwise be sublimely hard, stark, and abrupt. On the dialectical level the grotesque mediates between the sublime and the ridiculous; for example, a macabre graveyard ballad would treat sublime death in a ridiculous manner. Radcliffe is the master of the picturesque, and her scenes, although sometimes intense, tend to be monistic and statis; Lewis excels in his use of the grotesque and the macabre, and his scenes, almost always dynamic, tend to be dialectical and dramatic. The usual distinction – that Radcliffe writes "terror-Gothic" while Lewis writes "horror-Gothic" – too often deprecates and underestimates Lewis's contribution.

The grotesque and the macabre, which readers of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey mistakenly believe were used to parody the Gothic novel, are the artistic devices by which a Gothic novelist reestablishes a healthy balance for a mind too engrossed with the sublime and with terror. Exaggerated humor is the appropriate counter to deadly seriousness, particularly if one wishes to create a union of opposites. (For a much fuller and systematic analysis see Arthur Clayborough, The Grotesque in English Literature, 1965.) As previously mentioned, Walpole hoped to create "pathos" by contrasting the noble master with the grotesque servants; such characters (and caricatures) were used by most Gothic novelists to delay the swiftness of the narrative, to provide comic relief, and as foils to the primary characters. Lewis uses such devices in his Tales of Terror and Wonder for deliberate humor, and in The Monk, as a means of achieving balance. His understanding of the contept is ilustrated when Agnes shows Raymond her drawing of "a group of figures, placed in the most grotesque attitudes" around the subllime figure of the Bleeding Nun (p. 151), thus demonstrating a center–circumference structure such as the one I posit for the Gothic novel. His critical terms are "ridiculous," "burlesque," "exaggerated," and "irresistibly laughable" (p. 154). When we actually confront the Bleeding Nun in all her hideous (and sublime) reality, we recall this earlier ridiculous parody and may even shudder with the "fear ful joy" which delighted late eighteenth-century readers. The brutal and sadistic murder of Elvira is skillfully enclosed and countered by Theodore's ridiculous discussion of the "pea-green" people of Denmark and a grotesque landlady's ludicrous fear that ghosts on the premises will ruin the reputation of her inn. Unkind critics think that the technique of comic relief is itself ludicrous.

In our own age, when we are finally beginning to realize that pornography, obscenity, scatology, and sensationalism in general have been unjustly excluded from serious literary study (see The Perverse Imagination, ed. Irving Buchen, 1970), one wonders if a critic is being true to himself and to his time when he criticizes Lewis for his use of lurid and macabre details, and praises Radcliffe for her obscurity. For all our talk about the affecting imaginative appeal of obscurity, half-lights, and half-sounds, the horror at the center of the Gothic novel will still manifest itself as a physical, macabre entity. Burke himself established the empirical aspects of the sublime by maintaining that loud noises increase the tension of the eardrums, that vastness stretches the retina of the eye, that darkness strains the eye in its search for light, and that the sublime generally tightens all the muscles. The primary aesthetic flaw of Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho is her very failure to reveal to the reader the grisly corpses (later discovered to be wax mannikins) which Emily glimpses behind the veiled portrait, and the most horrifying – and sublimely terrifying – scene in the novel is Emily's discovery of the bloody corpse which she thinks is her aunt, after travelling through several darkened Poe-like corridors. Obscurity is an effective preparatory stage for horror, but clarity is needed to be truly horrifying. As Agnes says in the Monk, "a lamp glimmering with dull melancholy rays through my dungeon, permitted my distinguishing all its horrors" (p. 391). Curiosity, the basic motivation of Gothic [p.37] narrative development, is the attempt to clarify the obscure. Thus it is ironic that critics reject the inevitable discovery of the macabre, particularly when such scenes are presented within an aesthetic framework (what critic dares to condemn the macabre Satan at the center of Dante's Inferno?). The most loathsome, perhaps even the most disgusting, desdcription in Lewis's The Monk is simultaneously one of the most poetic:

"Sometimes I felt the bloated toad, hideous and pampered with the poisonous vapours of the dungeon, dragging his loathsome length along my bosom. Sometimes the quick cold lizard roused me, leaving his slimy track upon myface, and entangling itself in the tresses of my wild and matted hair. Often have I at waking found my fingers ringed with the long worms which bred in the corrupted flesh of my infant. At such times I shrieked with terror and disgust; and, while I shook off the reptile, trembled with all a woman's weakness." (pp. 395–6)

If we can force ourselves to focus on the style rather than the content of this passage, we shall discover that the rhetorical phrasing, rhythm, rime, alliteration, assonance, and other poetic devices significantly contribute to the effective presentation of horror in this prose-poem: note the augmentation or lengthening (felt–bloated), the arostic scramblng (bloated toad; reptile–trembled), the chiasmus (lizard roused; fingers ringed), the rime (pampered–vapours), and numerous alliterations (shrieked–shook; woman's weakness; dungeon–dragging; loathsome length along my bosom).

The Gothic novel is an equal balance, however, of such crudely horrifying images and of rationally pleasing images. In contrast to the ambivalent horror of the id we find the beauty and humor of the superego. The stereotyped conventions most often catalogued are primarily those Gothic trappings which characterize the desires of the id, but equally important are those conventions which characterize the commands of the superego: the formal architectural environment; the authoritarian attitudes of overbearing parents and the Roman Catholic church; the aristocratic themes of decorum, propriety, and lineage; and especially the unvarying rigidity of these very conventions. These highly stylized, almost formulaic, conventions have received so much attention in the past that it would be best only briefly to suggest some approaches to the concept of conventionality itself. Julien Gracq, the twentieth-century French writer who acknowledges his indebtedness to Walpole, Radcliffe, and Poe, and whose au Chateau d'Argol (1939) is an excellent fusion of the Gothic and the Surreal, says in his "Notice to the Reader" that he has deliberately utilized Gothic trappings because his purpose, like that of the Gothic novelists, is to inspire terror. He maintains that the formalized genre and stylized conventions are absolutely necessary for this effect: "The always alluring repertory of crumbling castles, noises, lights, spectres in the night, and dreams, enchants us particularly by its utter familiarity, giving as it does to the feeling of uneasiness its indispensable virulence by warning one in advance that one is going to shudder" (The Castle of Argol, tr. Louise Varese, 1951, p. 145). Instead of apologizing for Gothic conventions, we can more profitably view them as necessary topoi for the ritual expectancy which Francis Fergusson finds so valuable in Greek drama (The Idea of a Theater, 1949), or for the liturgical form of drama valued so highly by T. S. Eliot ("A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry," Selected Essays: 1917–1932, 1932). In fact it might be more accurate to view the Gothic novel as ritual dramatic conflict between pity and terror. The Gothic genre in the twentieth century is best exemplified by the horror film, and Gothic pulp fiction explicitly recognizes a definite audience more than any other type of fiction: the prefatory warnings that we are about to shudder help to achieve a state of comfort, security, and familiarity which will relax the critical faculty of the ego so that horror can come as close as possible to tranquility and enable us to experience dreadul pleasure in a realm of aesthetic wonder.

We should appreciate this as an intrinsic achievement of the Gothic novel, rather than take the hindsight view that it is "the forerunner of" or "contains the germs of" something else, be it [p.38] romanticism, surrealism, science fantasy, or anything else. Such views are suggestive in varying degrees, but too often they place the genre in a misleading context. It is possible, for example, to compare the Gothic format to Victor Hugo's – which contains a sublime monk, a beautiful maiden, a picturesque goat, a grotesque bell-ringer, and other Gothic motifs – yet the Gothic novel always suffers by such comparison unless we realize that Hugo's purpose is to create a broad universe of passion and pathos whereas the purpose of most Gothic novelists is to create a limited universe of theatrical drama which horrifies yet entertains. The tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann, particularly Die Elixiere des Teufels,the spate of vampire and werewolf talkes on the continent, Jules Janin's L'Ane mort et la femme guillotinée (1829), perhaps Frederick Soulié's Mémoires du Diable (1837), and especially Petrus Borel's Champavert, contest immoraux (1833) – which are indisputable Gothic – profit much more by such a comparison than any of the classics of European, British, or American romanticism; how often does one find the grotesque, the macabre, the ridiculous used as comic relief in the works of Baudelaire? Where are the clanking chains to make his spectres pleasurably dreadful? Where is the Shakespearean nurse to counter the femme fatale?

Although the influence of the Gothic novels upon the romantics is well-known, the Marquis de Sade's influence was greater, and literary historians would achieve greater insight by a closer examination of how the integrated wholeness of the sublime–pictursque–beautiful gestalt became fragmented into separate modes: the sublime becaue the Byronic, or mountains without valleys; the beautiful revertedto the Spenserian neopastoralism of the early eighteenth century;the picturesque became either merely picturesque in pulp journals, or Scott-like national folklore; the grotesque again reverted to satire of ridiculous people and institutions; dialectical horror became the monistic terror of what Mario Praz terms "Medusean beauty"; and although horror still somewhat retains its central feature of uniting opposites (in themes of incest, in numerous androgynous characters and homosexual themes, and in rhetorical phrases such as the antitheses in Baudelaire's Hymne à la Beauté), it seems relegated to the terror of intense moments of lyrical pain rather than the broader horror of prosaic dramatic conflict and resolution. The unabashed celebration of the perverse replaces Gothic ambivalence.

Similarly, creators and critics of surrealistic fiction and art claim an affinity to the Gothic mode, which the Gothic novelists, of course to their detriment, failed to perfect. There is some truth in this claim, priarily in both writers' use of grotesque, macabre, and more-than-realistic plastic forms, their use of dream-sequences (though Gothic heroines tend to be more contemplative than dreamy), and in their emphasis upon the horrible, the terrible, and the disquietingly mysterious. Yet the differences between these modes far outweigh the similarities. Surreal novels are solemn and serious, while Gothic novels are riddles with burlesque humor; we ponder over a surreal distortion but appropriately laugh at a Gothic grotesque; the writer of surrealist novels claims to offer us profundities, while the Gothic novelists entertains us. André Breton claims that the Gothic novelists, like the surrealists, rebelled against authority, yete Walpole's bsattlements, though in ruins, are meant to recall the glory of hius own yearned-for feudal aristocracy; and although wicked Inquisitors are memorable, most representatives of the Catholic church in most Gothic novels are rather benign helpers of the heroine. The two modes are most nearly aligned in their fascination with the demonic, yet the surrealists usually mount Satan upon god's throne, while the Gothic novelists maintain a strict Manichaeanism of dramatic ambivalence; the former leap into the abyss with joy, while the latter sink into the abyss with fearful joy. The former affirm the superiority of Freudian and Jungian irrationality, while the latter carefully balance the mutual temptations of reason and unreason, seldom offering a simplistic choice between the two. The former explicitly wish to transcend literature into political and metaphysical realms, while the latter explicitly wish to [p.39] entertain the refined reader; the former are philosophical and the latter are aesthetic.

Although I take more delight in the Gothic mode than in many others, I cannot claim that anything as large and ambiguously-defined as a literary genre is artistically superior to any other genre; only idividual writers can be evaluated in this manner. I admit that there are more "great" romantic and surrealist writers than "great" Gothic novelists, but this may be more a matter of coincidence than a matter of generic predilection. I tend to distrust any claims to a profound and correct world-view unless that view attempts to incorporate the rational–irrational syzygies of the Gothic mode, and continue to hope that an author of the stature of Thomas Mann will someday write the Gothic novel with a deeper understanding of its potential. That potential remains unfulfilled, for an aesthetics that attempts to unite opposites creates structures that are as precarious as Beckford's towere at Fonthill. If the opposites are too starkly contrasted and their juxtapositions clumsily handled, the novel will be read as light entertainment or dismissed as melodrama; if one of the opposites is conspicuously superior to the other, the novel will become a polemical tract or philosophical treatise: the line between psychological involvement and aesthetic involvement is indeed difficult to maintain. The continuum extending from the Castle of Otranto to Melmoth the Wanderer is certainly a development from the latent recognition of the unconscious, the irrational, and the demonic to the overt recognition of such powers (a celebration of the return of the repressed in Herbert Marcuse's view), with the hypothetical moment of transitional balance occurring somewhere between Radcliffe and Lewis. Yet insofar as virtually all novels which we term "Gothic" retain the conventions of the sublime and the beautiful and the ridiculous, the reader's possibility of greatest appreciation lies in recognizing where and when they succeed or fail in their aesthetic achievements. With the utmost grativy we may view Levin's Rosemary;s Baby as a truly prophetic announcement that the Age of the Antichrist is come, but as literary critics we may at the same time, and without any confusion in values, note the aesthetic components of the last scene of Levin's novel: the grotesque Son of Satan, rocked in his sublime black cradle by his beautiful mother, encircled by the leering faces of a picturesque coven of witches. [p.40]


SOURCE: Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, 21 (1972): 31–40; uploaded 28 April 2012.


See also Gothic Readings