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Punter Notes on Gothic Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1996.

Gothic Assumptions: When thinking of the Gothic novel, a set of characteristics springs readily to mind: an emphasis on portraying the terrifying, a common insistence on archaic settings, a prominent use of the supernatural, the presence of highly stereotyped characters and the attempt to deploy and perfect techniques of literary suspense are the most significant. Used in this sense, `Gothic' fiction is the fiction of the haunted castle, of heroines preyed on by unspeakable terrors, of the blackly lowering villain, of ghosts, vampires, monsters, and werewolves. [1] *** Gothic Fiction [...] appears, at first glance, to be a relatively homogenous body of writing, linked stylistically, thematically, and ideologically, but on closer inspection the illusion falls away, revealing a very disparate collection of works. [7] *** In dealing with terror, Gothic deals with unadmitted, and it is not possible to do that in modes that have already been appropriated (such as in classical/traditional styles, forms, and motifs) for other purposes. [18, parenthetical commentary is Prof. Bishop's] Fear is not merely a theme or an attitude, it also has consequences in terms of form, style, and the social relations of the texts; and exploring Gothic is also exploring fear and seeing the various ways in which terror breaks through the surfaces of literature, differently in every case, but also establishing for itself certain distinct continuities of language and symbol. [18]

On the traditional English Gothic novel: The elements which seem most universal in the genre are the apparent presence of a ghost, often finally explained away by non-supernatural means; the very real presence of one or more members of the aristocracy, with castles and other props to match; and a dominant love-plot, generally set in the past but with very little attempt at real historical distancing beyond, perhaps, occasional vocabulary and sometimes the interpolation of references to actual historical events. [2]

On the American Gothic Heritage: What the critics seem to have in mind (by referencing the diverse chorus of writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, among others) is a literature of psychic grotesqueries. This `New American Gothic' is said to deal in landscapes of the mind, settings which are distorted by the pressure of the principal characters' psychological obsessions. We are given little or no access to an `objective' world; instead we are immersed in the psyche of protagonist, often through sophisticated use of firstperson narrative. It may or may not be coincidence that writers and setting alike have connections with the American South; in one way or another, feelings of degeneracy [ 2] abound. The worlds portrayed are

ones infested with psychic and social decay, and coloured with the heightened hues of putrescence. Violence, rape and breakdown are the key motifs; the crucial tone is one of desensitized acquiescence in the horror of obsession and prevalent insanity. [3]

On Modern and Contemporary Gothic writing: And `Gothic' is also used in a less tendentious sense to refer to horror fiction itself, in the common form of the ghost story. Here there is a clear historical element in the usage: many of best-known masters of supernatural fiction--Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft--derive their techniques of suspense and their sense of the archaic directly from the original Gothic fiction, and many of their crucial symbols of the supernatural were previously the property of these older writers. This is not, of course, to say that all twentieth-century horror fiction has its roots in the Gothic: but it remarkable how much of it does, how much of it relies on themes and styles which, by rights, would seem to be more than a century out of date. [3]

*** Another type of interpretation of Gothic is suggested by Angela Carter in the Afterword to her collection of tales, Fireworks (1974), where she discusses her own debt to the `Gothic tradition' as represented by Edgar Allan Poe:

The Gothic tradition in which Poe writes grandly ignores the value systems of our institutions; it deals entirely with the profane. Its great themes are incest and cannibalism. Character and events are exaggerated beyond reality, to become symbols, ideas, passions. Its style will tend to be ornate, unnatural--and thus operate against the perennial human desire to believe the word as fact. Its only humour is black humour. It retains a singular moral function--that of provoking unease.

A particular attitude towards the recapture of history; a particular kind of literary style; a version of selfconscious un-realism; a mode of revealing the unconscious; connections with the primitive, the barbaric, the tabooed--all of these meanings have attached themselves in one way or another to the idea of Gothic fiction, and our present apprehension of the term is usually an uneasy concatenation of them, in which there is a complicated interplay of direct historical connections and ever variable metaphor. [4]

The historical roots of the term: The original meaning, not unnaturally, was literally `to do with the Goths', or with the barbarian northern tribes who played [...] a part in the collapse of the Roman empire, although even this apparently literal meaning was less simple than it appears, because the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century writers who used the term in this sense had very little idea of who the Goths were or what they were like. One thing that was known was that they came from northern Europe, and thus [4] the term has a tendency to broaden out, to become virtually a synonym for `Teutonic' or `Germanic', while retaining its connotations of barbarity. [5] [For eighteenth-century English writers] `Gothic' become descriptive of things medieval [...] that is in opposition to `classical' [having to do with Rome, the Romans, Athens, or the Greeks]. [...] Where the classical was well-ordered, Gothic was chaotic; where simple and pure, Gothic was ornate and convoluted; where the classics offered a set of cultural models to be followed, Gothic represented excess and exaggeration, the product of the wild and the uncivilized.

Gothic was the archaic, the pagan, that which was prior to, or was opposed to, or resisted the establishment of civilized values and a well-regulated society. And various writers, starting from [the eighteenth-century on], began to make out a case for the importance of these Gothic qualities and to claim, specifically, that the fruits of primitivism and barbarism possessed a fire, a vigour, a sense of grandeur which was sorely needed in English culture. [5]

On Bishop Hurd's views of the Gothic and genius, and the larger context: [Bishop Hurd (1762) asserts] `May there not be something in the Gothic Romance peculiarly suited to the views of a genius, and to the ends of poetry?' One can point to four principal areas of past literature which were brought back into cultural prominence under the aegis of the `revival of the Gothic'. First, there was the truly ancient British heritage, insofar as any of it was available in the eighteenth century. [These works helped to reacquaint readers with the history of northern Europe] Second, there were the ballads. [Thomas] Percy's crucial collection, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, was published in 1765, and it was the re-establishment of the credentials of this form of `folk-poetry' which led on, through poems like Blake's `Gwin, the King of Norway', written in the 1770s, to Coleridge's `Ancient Mariner' (1797-8) and Keats's `La Belle Dame sans Merci' and [Percy] Shelley's Mask of Anarchy, both written in 1819. Third, Gothic was taken to include English medieval poetry, preeminently the works of Chaucer, which were given a scholarly edition by Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1775-8. And fourthly, it included, as least [6] for some critics and writers, the major works of Spenser and the Elizabethans which, it now came to be thought, had been buried under the reputation of the achievements of the mid-seventeenth century. [7]

*** Characteristics of Gothic literature [and film!]: [Gothic literature] was an extremely copious and popular form of fiction; during the 1790s at least, it virtually dominated the novel market. [...] Many of the novels were set in the past, sometimes only nominally, sometimes with considerable effort. Many of them used castles, ruins, convents as settings. And many of them deliberately set out to portray precisely those manifestations of the wild and the barbaric which appeared to appeal to the taste of the day. [7] [...] many of them were more or less crudely sensationalist, in that they tended to derive their force from the portrayal of extreme situations, mostly situations of terror. It is partly for this reason that Gothic has not been well treated by literary critics; it has been said that it was crude, exploitative, even sadistic, and that it pandered to the worst in popular taste of its time. Wordsworth's second edition of Lyrical Ballads included a this commentary: The human mind is capable of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not know that one being is elevated about another in

proportion as h possesses this capability...The invaluable works of... Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. As can be seen from this, the public taste for Gothic was not restricted to the novel, but it was here that it was its most significant. For Wordsworth, literature should be morally and spiritually uplifting, and of course the revival of Shakespeare and Milton was admissible on these grounds; Gothic fiction frequently depicted, and sometimes appeared to revel in, vice and violence. For Wordsworth, the writer had a vital social role to play in elevating the minds and morals of his audience and returning them to communion with the natural bases of life; the Gothic writers appeared to give themselves no such tasks and to be quite content to pander to the minds and morals of their readers as they found them, and to portray unnaturalness in all its most lurid colours. Already, we can see the extent to which Gothic fiction was moving beyond the more general Gothic revival in its devotion to the barbaric and the violent. [8] The world of this lesser fiction [that is the Gothic world] was one which dealt in simple moral and social oppositions; one in which there was always a central heroine, abandoned by her parents and cast adrift on the mercies of a savage world; [...] one in which men were never called Richard because names of Italian or German extraction were the rule; one in which harsh treatment by fathers and the early death of mothers were to be expected as a matter of course; a world, in short, at a considerable distance from the contemporary world of the eighteenth-century realist novel and ruled over by simple, primitive laws and conventions. If the violent subject-matter and the simplified and exaggerated characterization of Gothic fiction earned it enemies, so did its prevalent style, which, again in the less important works, was much given to ornateness, hyperbole, violent exclamation--in fact, to most of the stylistic features which were later to appear on the stage in the form of melodrama. It strove above all, albeit with variable success, to eschew the contemporary world, the world of commerce and the middle class, and so it strove also to avoid the language of the everyday, although in most cases the writers signally unable to achieve any real simulation of linguistic archaism. [9]

Some Stock Characters: The shy, nervous, retiring heroine, who was nevertheless usually possessed of a remarkable ability to survive hideously dangerous situations The heavy-handed, tyrannical father The cast of comic extras and servants who, like many of the other characters, often seem to be lifted wholesale out of [other forms and traditions of writing] The villain was always the most complex and interesting character in Gothic fiction, even when drawn with a clumsy hand: awe-inspiring, endlessly resourceful in pursuit of his often opaquely evil ends, and possessed of a mysterious attractiveness, he stalks from the pages of one Gothic novel to another, manipulating the doom of others while the knowledge of his own eventual fate surrounds him like the monastic habit and cowl which he so often wore. {See the handout on the Byronic Type}

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