The Theory of the Gothic
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
It is remarkable how quickly writers and critics began to theorise about the nature, scope, direction, and purpose of Gothic fiction, and specifically (what is our prime concern here) the role of the supernatural in fiction. I have already cited passages from prefaces to some of the major novels—including the earliest, those by Walpole and Reeve—that not only provide glimpses of the author’s aesthetic goals but also shed light on their understanding of the role of supernaturalism as an element of literature. A number of reviews of these works indirectly raise the same points, but as they were not primarily designed to be theoretical, they shall not be studied here.
Some theorising occurred even before the Gothic period got underway. I refer, chiefly, to Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), which I have already suggested was an influence on the work of Ann Radcliffe. As far as what he refers to in several chapters as “terror,” Burke’s conclusions are perhaps overly schematic; in any event, his reflections largely pertain to the emotions of fear and terror in real life, and their application to literature must be inferred only by implication. But what is significant is Burke’s linkage of these emotions to the sublime (“Whatever … is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too” )—indeed, he goes on to say that “terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime” (58). Perhaps the most significant feature of Burke’s treatise, from our perspective, is his mere inclusion of the emotions of fear and terror within the scope of a treatise on aesthetics, suggesting thereby that these emotions are indeed amenable to literary treatment.
Then there is Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s essay “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror” (1773), which preceded her fragment, “Sir Bertrand.” It would be interesting to know if the essay was written first and the story afterward, as an instantiation of the essay’s chief points, or if the story was written first and the essay written later as a kind of abstraction of its essence. I suspect the former. In any case, Barbauld makes some striking points. While the overall tenor of her short essay clearly owes a debt to Burke’s theories of the sublime, she advances the argument a bit further—especially in regard to the critical issue (one that remains unresolved today) of why readers would willingly subject themselves to the (presumably unpleasant) experience of being frightened. In real life, after all, fear is an emotion that we seek to avoid. What is it about the fear induced by literature that renders it pleasurable (if, indeed, it does so)?
Barbauld’s answer is twofold. She first declares that one phase of the problem can be accounted for by pointing to “the irresistible desire of satisfying curiosity” (82): once we have enmeshed ourselves in a narrative, even one that involves putatively unpleasant or frightening elements as ghosts or villains, we are so driven by curiosity to see how the issue is resolved that we willingly endure the “pain” of the emotions raised. This might be considered a truism; what is more, the notion of satisfying curiosity is not restricted to weird literature, since there is a certain “pain” (or, at any rate, irritation) felt by the failure to satisfy curiosity on any subject, whether weird or not. Barbauld in fact goes on to say: “This solution, however, does not satisfy me with respect to the well-wrought scenes of artificial terror which are formed by a sublime and vigorous imagination” (83). In these cases, she states, “the pleasure constantly attached to the excitement of surprise from new and wonderful objects” (83) triumphs over the pain induced by fear. In other words, the weird work (at its best, presumably) stimulates the exercise of the imagination and becomes, indeed, a venue for imaginative liberation—a point that Walpole himself had come close to making in his prefaces to The Castle of Otranto and that many later theoreticians, including Lovecraft, would endorse.
Barbauld does not quite come out and say so, but her essay clearly awards the palm to supernatural as opposed to non-supernatural horror. As instances of “new and wonderful objects” placed before the reader, she cites the Arabian Nights and Otranto, countering these with the scene of “mere natural horror” (83) found in Smollett’s Count Fathom. That “mere” is the giveaway, and the fact that her fragment, “Sir Bertrand,” is emphatically supernatural (even though she states that it works in “both these manners” [i.e., supernatural and non-supernatural]) clearly betrays her preference.
It would seem that Nathan Drake’s two essays, one on supernatural and the other on non-supernatural horror, found in the first volume of his Literary Hours (1798) are a direct response to Barbauld, especially given that the latter, “On Objects of Terror,” not only echoes the title of Barbauld’s essay but is followed by a (rather dull) fragment called “Montmorenci.” Neither essay is of much interest, and the essay on supernaturalism, “On Gothic Superstition,” maintains that supernaturalism is justified because of the “common feelings of humanity” (145)—i.e., the fact that a majority of readers might actually accept the literal existence of ghosts, spectres, and other supernatural manifestations, so that such literature as involves them would in fact be a species of realism. I have already stated that I believe this point of view is erroneous—that supernatural literature becomes a distinct genre only when both readers and writers acknowledge, by and large, the very impossibility of the supernatural phenomena being displayed—except insofar as a vestigial belief in ghosts and such can be utilised by writers to induce the “willing suspension of disbelief.” Drake’s essay gains interest only in his observation that supernatural literature must draw upon phenomena distinct from the standard mythologies of the world. The essay “On Objects of Terror,” although chiefly concerned with non-supernaturalism, makes one interesting point of technique:
Terror thus produced requires no small degree of skill and arrangement to prevent its operating more pain than pleasure. Unaccompanied by those mysterious incidents which indicate the ministration of beings mightier far than we, and which induce that thrilling sensation of mingled astonishment, apprehension and delight so irresistably [sic] captivating to the generality of mankind, it will be apt to create rather horror and disgust than the grateful emotion intended. (354)
It is, perhaps, difficult to deny that liberal doses of “horror and disgust” enter into the very fabric of even the greatest of supernatural literature, and that even the most elevated writers have occasionally sought to employ mere physical revulsion as one tool among many to inspire the emotion of horror or terror; and Drake’s sensible words could apply just as well to such debased forms of the weird as slasher films and splatterpunk as to the actual examples (Walpole’s Mysterious Mother and Shakesperare’s Titus Andronicus) he actually cites.
Ann Radcliffe’s celebrated essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry”—posthumously published in the New Monthly Magazine in 1826 and also as the preface to her final, purely historical novel Gaston de Blondeville (1826)—is similarly disappointing. It is, indeed, curious that Radcliffe, the pioneer of the explained supernatural, would even trouble herself to write an essay on the supernatural, since she never employed it; and its meandering inconclusiveness (partially the result of its construction as a philosophical dialogue) suggests that she herself had no clearly formed ideas on the subject. Its only point of interest, indeed, is its landmark distinction between terror and horror:
Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither Shakspeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil? (149—50)
Radcliffe’s distinction seems sound, although it becomes unclear how it could be applied to her own work: if her goal was to inspire terror, the mere “obscurity” of the source of fear, if it is known to be non-supernatural (i.e., the equivalent of an axe-murderer), would seem insufficient to the purpose. Radcliffe might respond that her fake supernaturalism might be productive of terror, but its subsequent non-supernatural resolution would have the effect of a deflation that would threaten to condemn the entire work to the level of a cheap trick.
As it is, Sir Walter Scott remains the most insightful and penetrating analyst of the weird during this period, even though some of his writings might, from a chronological standpoint, be considered post-Gothic. In such things as his review of Maturin’s Fatal Revenge, his introduction to an 1811 reprint of The Castle of Otranto, the biographies of Walpole, Reeve, and Radcliffe in Lives of the Novelists (1825), and his long essay “On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition” (1829) a wealth of interesting matter can be found. (His review of Frankenstein is disappointingly devoted largely to plot summary.) I have already cited Scott’s pungent criticism of Radcliffe’s explained supernatural. The “Fictitious Composition” essay, written as a lengthy review of Hoffmann’s tales, has much sage advice regarding the technique of writing supernatural tales. He also makes a valuable and still valid distinction between supernaturalism and “the fantastic mode of writing”—
in which the most wild and unbounded license is given to an irregular fancy, and all species of combination, however ludicrous, or however shocking, are attempted and executed without scruple. In the other modes of treating the supernatural, even that mystic region is subjected to some laws, however slight; and fancy, in wandering through it, is regulated by some probabilities in the wildest flight. Not so in the fantastic style of composition, which has no restraint save that which it may ultimately find in the exhausted imagination of the author. (281—82)
If theorising about the Gothic occurred at a surprisingly early stage, then so did parodies of it—which, in a sense, can count as criticisms (in several senses of the word) in their own right. The first such work appears to have been John O’Keefe’s comic opera The Banditti; or, Love in a Labyrinth (1781), followed some years later by James Cobb’s play The Haunted Tower (1789), later made into an opera. The focus of both works is not the supernatural as such but what the authors evidently regarded as the already hackneyed use of a haunted or otherwise sinister castle, replete with secret passageways, strange lights, and peculiar noises. Eaton Stannard Barrett’s novel The Heroine; or, The Adventures of a Fair Romance Reader (1813) is a somewhat broader satire and much more vicious than the two operatic works, and its focus (as its subtitle suggests) is on the poor taste and naiveté of the (generally female) sentimental reader who is so easily taken in by tales of heroines in peril and villainous villains.
Dennis Lawler’s play The Earls of Hammersmith; or, The Cellar Spectre (1814) is in fact supernatural, and it could be said that its focus is the convenient use of the supernatural to point a moral or to advance the plot. Here the triteness of the sainted hero (Sir Walter Wisehead) and the scheming villain (Lord Bluster) is evident in their very names. Sir Walter, accepting the challenge to spend a night in a haunted chamber (à la The Old English Baron), is warned by a spectre not to marry his beloved, Lady Margaret Marrowbones, because (so the spectre declares) she is his grandmother. Later, Sir Walter’s father is discovered imprisoned in a dungeon (à la The Castle Spectre). It is all good fun, and quite on the mark.
The best-known of Gothic parodies, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1819), was written as early as 1803; it famously cites seven novels (which have come to be called the “Northanger novels”) that were all published between 1793 and 1798. But it is noteworthy that none of these novels are supernatural; for of course Austen’s main target is the “heroine in peril” topos, which even Mother Radcliffe was unable to present in other than a ludicrously hackneyed manner. There is, in fact, only the barest hint of a suggestion that Northanger Abbey (which is somewhere in Gloucestershire) is haunted: Mr. Allen, transparently playing up Catherine Morland’s fears of being imprisoned in the place, emphasises its gloominess rather than any supernatural manifestations she will experience:
“But you must be aware that when a young lady is (by whatever means) introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy the ancient housekeeper up a different staircase. And along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this? Will not your mind misgive you, when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber—too lofty and extensive for you, with only the feeble rays of a single lamp to take in its size—its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed, of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance. Will not your heart sink within you?” (164—65)
And so on and so forth. Only when Allen mentions that the housekeeper “gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted” (165) do we have any hint of a parody of supernaturalism; for of course the whole point of the joke is that Northanger Abbey is a clean, modern, well-lit facility where such things can exist only in a mind, like Catherine’s, overwrought by excessive reading of Gothic novels.
Northanger Abbey is, in fact, a kind of one-trick pony; its fundamental device is simply that of comic deflation, as every instance where Catherine thinks something sinister is occuring proves to be something quite ordinary. And Austen’s insufferable decorum never allows the humour to rise above that of polite laughter. Her overall point—that Catherine, her mind full of imaginary horrors, is unable to deal with real tragedy or misfortune (the misfortune, to wit, that her friend Isabella Thorpe has broken off her engagement with her brother James and decided to marry another)—is hammered home a bit too obviously at the end:
That room, in which her disturbed imagination had tormented her on her first arrival, was again the scene of agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers. Yet how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been—how mournfully superior in reality and substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability; and with a mind so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil, the solitude of her situation, the darkness of her chamber, the antiquity of the building were felt and considered without the smallest emotion; and though the wind was high, and often produced strange and sudden noises throughout the house, she heard it all as she lay awake, hour after hour, without curiosity or terror. (225)
Of Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818) something more, but not much, may be said. The thrust of the satire in this mildly engaging novel is the gloom-and-melancholy school of poets of Peacock’s own acquaintance—Shelley, Coleridge, Thomas Moore, and their lesser imitators. In only a single passage do we have any discussion of the Gothic novel or of supernaturalism; but it is moderately interesting:
It is very certain, and much to be rejoiced at, that our literature is hag-ridden… . That part of the reading public which shuns the solid food of reason for the light diet of fiction, requires a perpetual adhibition of sauce piquante to the palate of its depraved imagination. It lived upon ghosts, goblins, and skeletons …, till even the devil himself, though magnified to the size of Mount Athos, became too base, common, and popular, for its surfeited appetite. The ghosts have therefore been laid, and the devil has been cast into outer darkness … (50—51)
The most pertinent aspect of this passage is that it is written in the past tense; for Peacock rightly saw that Gothicism had, through the sheer surfeit of mediocre and hackneyed contributions, played itself out even among those readers who, in the heyday of Walpole, Radcliffe, and Lewis, could not seem to get enough of the stuff. Melmoth the Wanderer was the greatest of the Gothics and virtually the last, even though such dogged professionals as Francis Lathom and Sarah Wilkinson dutifully ground out novels for some years thereafter.
In this sense, the rise and fall of the Gothic novel strikingly parallels the horror “boom” of, approximately, 1971 to 1990, when a motley crew of hacks and imitators attempted to seize upon the popularity (and profits) of such things as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and the successive blockbusters of Stephen King and ended up only driving the reading public away and forcing horror to return to where it has always belonged, the small press and a small coterie of devoted readers. As for the Gothic novel, it collapsed not only because of its own mediocrity but because of the superlative mastery of some of its successors: the historical phase of the Gothic novel (never a strong point except as a gesture to the remoteness of mediaevalism) was shattered by the authentic historicism of Sir Walter Scott, and the element of terror (whether supernatural or natural) was wholly eclipsed by Poe.