The Essence of the Gothic: In Conversation with Audrey Chin

Extract of an interview on the ‘Essence of the Gothic’ with novelist Audrey Chin

What is Gothic literature? Is there a difference between the modern and Victorian variety? Or the Asian and European ones? And why is it considered part of the literature of subversion? I’m a neophyte to the genre. Indeed, I would not have known to even ask these questions until I submitted my MS for a review at the UK Literary Consultancy under the National Arts Council Manuscript Assessment Scheme managed by SingLit Station. They sent it to Gothic scholar and author Stephen Carver, who opened my eyes to my ignorance.  

AC: Thank you Stephen for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with dummy’s guide to the genre first – What is Gothic? Does it have a canon? If so, what would you consider the classics in that canon?

SC: Thank you for asking me. I love this question! Where to start…? In English literary history, the ‘gothic romance’ is a key part of the development of the modern novel. It grows out of the Jacobean Revenge Tragedy with some concurrent development with the French roman noir and the German Schauerroman or ‘shudder novel’. The first truly Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story byHorace Walpole (1764), a tale of intrigue and murder prefaced by an ominous prophecy. Walpole used ‘gothic’ to signal the novel’s medieval setting. (During the Renaissance, ‘gothic’ was a label for all things barbarous.) The next notable gothic novel was Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1782) by William Beckford, and a genre was born. The wild settings, sexual threat and supernatural violence were intended to evoke a sublime terror in readers, which suited the rebellious sensibility of Romanticism. The original form reaches its zenith with the novels of Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823) and Matthew Lewis (1775–1818), most notably Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), and Lewis’ The Monk (1896). Radcliffe was a mistress of suspense, and could twist it to almost metaphysical levels, while Lewis’ material was full-on horror, with occult and supernatural plots packed with sex and violence.

And, of course, the more respectable, proto-realist English novel is growing in stature at the same time. This is the era of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Gothic novels were nothing like this. There were a kind of ‘anti-novel’, a literary doppelgänger. With their preoccupation with violence and extreme emotional states, gothic novels allowed for the exploration of the dark side of human experience – all that was not said, could not be said, through Realism. This is why gothic fiction is fascinated by doubles and nightmares.

The ‘first wave’ of the Gothic rolled into the second generation of English Romantics and then finally broke. 1818 is the key year, which saw the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jane Austen’s satire, Northanger Abbey. The last of the ‘original’ English gothic novels was Charles Robert Maturin’s wacky gothic immortal story, Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820. We then move onto the Regency ‘Tale of Terror’, but that’s another story…

In the 19th century, the Gothic becomes much more psychological, with Poe’s work an obvious example. The high watermarks are, of course, Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897.

AC: What is the essence of that canon? And has that essence been retained as Gothic works have evolved into the 21st century?  

SC: I was just thinking about that with regard to Dracula, which seems to me to pull all the narrative codes together from the Romantics and the Victorians. There’s the ruined castle and the sexually threatening medieval European aristocrat, who is straight out of Radcliffe; the demonic associations, which is Lewis; and then the contemporary urban setting, which, like Steven’s Jekyll and Hyde, takes the horror out of medieval, Catholic Europe and drops it in the heart of the modern British Empire. It’s also important to distinguish between what we mean by ‘gothic’ and ‘horror’. Although the two forms certainly cross over, there is a difference. Though every gothic story is horror, not every horror story is gothic.

There’s certainly a recognizably ‘gothic’ mise-en-scène based around archetypal settings and characters, with familiar visual signifiers and narrative codes. These are a bit like the Joseph Campbell’s ‘17 Stages of the Monomyth’; the different features don’t all have to be present in the narrative, but there must be some. Otherwise, we’d be stuck with ‘period gothic’, unable to move beyond ruined castles and misty midnight graveyards. Not that I’m against all that phantasmagoria and Expressionism, but there’s more to it than that. I’d say it’s important that competing frames of explanation are offered to generate tension and unease, destabilizing any sense of narrative (and therefore, by extension, individual and societal) certainty. Gone is the reassurance of Realism. You see this a lot in ghost stories, when there’s always a suggestion that the haunted protagonist might be mentally ill, or simply intoxicated. It’s also the reason for all those nested narratives and multiple points of view in novels like Melmoth, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, and Dracula. (You do it too, with the movement between different point of view characters in The Ash House.) The unreal challenges the real, leading to a morally and epistemologically transgressive moment: a dark epiphany when an ancient universe of superstition and barbarity rushes into the vacuum left by modern, civilized rationality, creating an atmosphere of brooding terror. Good gothic should also be erotic and sadistic. ‘Horror’, on the other hand, is generally concerned with violence, though the best of it becomes gothic through emotional depth.

If you take this ‘essence’ on board, then you have a massive playing field. You can still use the traditional baroque trappings of gothic fiction, and go with lavish historical psychodrama, such as Lara Dietz’s In The Tenth House, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Or you can strip down and modernize, like Richard Matheson in I Am Legend, Stephen King in Salem’s Lot, and Hitchcock in Psycho. Or you can transpose and allegorise, like Park Chan-wook’s movie Stoker and Shena Mackay’s novel The Music Upstairs. And setting is also infinite. The derelict spacecraft of Ridley Scott’s original Alien, for example,is a gothic castle while Ripley is a Radcliffian girl under sexual threat from the absurdly phallic monster. As for the 21st century, it’s notable how utterly mainstream the Gothic has become. It’s no longer a ‘transgressive’ form of narrative, which for me has taken some of the fun out of it.

To read the full interview please click here

For details of Audrey’s books please click here

For more details of my writing please see my website

Information on Audrey’s forthcoming novel, THE ASH HOUSE (Penguin), can be found here

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