The first Gothic novels held to a very rigorous form: the setting was always a crumbling mansion, castle, or monastery; the main female character was always histrionic and prone to tears; the hero always had mysterious origins; and there were always plenty of supernatural elements, usually of the darker kind. This was a perfect recipe to satisfy both Romantic standards for entertaining horror and romance, and Enlightenment standards for anti-supernaturalism and intellectual comedy.
If these seem mutually exclusive, it's because they are. How can a book be both steeped in supernaturalism, and founded on the empirical and humanistic ideals of anti-supernaturalism? To answer this question, we need to understand the philosophical context of the 18th and 19th centuries, in which humanism was finally beginning to extricate itself from what its proponents saw as the limiting influence of religion and metaphysical realities.
Gothic literature was a proto-Romantic and Romantic invention. The Romantics were a group of poets and writers who embodied a strange mix of humanist empircism and mysticism. Humanist empiricism is just a fancy way of saying that man is the measure of all things, which in turn is just a fancy way of saying that if anything can be known, it can only be known through unaided human observation and reason. The mysticism they espoused, as a result, was inward-focused, and relied on finding the truth within themselves.
Christians know that the only thing humans can find in themselves is deceit and sin, but the Romantics were self-consciously distancing themselves from Christian truth, and as a result rejected whatever Christian doctrine had previously taught them. It's a bit unfair to put all Romantics in this category, but that was the overall tenor of the movement. So when the Romantics wrote about supernatural events, it's essential to remember what they actually thought about the supernatural realm.
Horace Walpole wasn't technically a Romantic, but he held many of their attitudes years before they were an actual group. He was skeptical concerning Christianity and its chief doctrines, and though he hated the monument to humanism known as the French Revolution, he implicitly put his faith in human reason above all else. He made this abundantly clear in his novel The Castle of Otrantro, in which he lampooned any belief in the supernatural, even while entertaining his readers with a story filled with ghosts, apparitions, and omens.
This was the first Gothic novel, and set the standard for all that would follow. There were writers who didn't quite understand the self-parodying element in Walpole's novel and thus took themselves way too seriously, but most of them understood that he was trying to mock belief in the supernatural, and threw in their two cents on the matter. Some of them were so good at it that it was almost impossible to tell whether they were writing a Gothic novel or a parody of a Gothic novel.
Most notable among this last group was Jane Austen, whose Northanger Abbey is either the most successful parody of all time, or the most thoroughly Gothic novel of all time. She included all the elements—crumbling abbey, uncertain heritage, superstition, and overall darkness—and covered everything over with an inscrutable patina of humor that leaves readers wondering whether she's having a good joke at the expense of the genre, or if she's the greatest Gothic artist of all time.
Then Gothic fiction took an abrupt turn. As humanism took firmer root in European and North American culture, writers had less interest in refuting supernaturalism as they began more and more to simply assume the empirical realm is all that exists. There was an increasing fascination with the demented, the arcane, and the bleak, as well as a preoccupation with "realism," which was defined in terms of grittiness, unwholesome details, and an overall sense of dread and nihilism.
In the 19th century, the Gothic novel largely retained its 18th century elements, but in the early half of the 20th century, authors like William Faulkner re-imagined the Gothic genre to exclude the supernaturalism while embracing the newfound horror of realism. His masterpiece As I Lay Dying remains one of the best examples of the Neo-Gothic movement: it tells the story of the Bundren family as they carry the family matriarch in a coffin to her final rest.
Of course, not all Neo-Gothic writers were humanists. Flannery O'Connor, one of the great Christian writers of the 20th century, was a thorough supernaturalist, and thus retained the original aspects of Gothic fiction while combining the new dark realism of her contemporaries. But instead of lampooning the supernatural, she used her stories to show readers how it in fact illuminates even the darkest corners of existence.
You'll find the whole range of Gothic fiction below. Humanistic Gothic writers (Mary Shelley, Horace Walpole, William Faulkner, etc.) tend to be sardonic and hopeless; those influenced by the Christian tradition (Flannery O'Connor, Jane Austen, Bram Stoker, and others) are notable for their use of humor, irony, and even sarcasm. Gothic literature, because it deals with the darker parts of the human soul and experience, isn't for the faint of heart, but it is a rich and valuable genre that more readers would do well to rediscover and celebrate.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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