Unsettling Dark Pleasures – Part Two

The conclusion of David Stuart Davies’ short history of Gothic fiction

Part Two: The Victorian Era & Beyond

During the Victorian era, the Gothic influence was at its most pervasive. In many ways, it was now entering its most creative phase in the sense that it grew more fanciful and horrific.  One of the great interpreters of the genre was Edgar Allan Poe (1809 -1849) who took the basic elements of the form and fashioned them in his own style. Poe focused less on the traditional ingredients of gothic stories and more on the psychology of his characters, who often descended into madness. There were still old decaying houses and barren landscapes, but it was the tortured souls who inhabited these environments that interested Poe. He believed that terror was a legitimate literary subject. His story The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) explores these ‘terrors of the soul’ while revisiting classic Gothic tropes of aristocratic decay, death, and madness. The legendary villainy of the Spanish Inquisition which was explored in The Pit and the Pendulum (1842) was based on a true account of a survivor. The influence of Ann Radcliffe can be detected in Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’ (1842), which also includes an honorary mention of her name in the text of the story.

The influence of Byronic Romanticism evident in Poe is also apparent in the work of the Brontë sisters. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) transports the Gothic to the bleak and alien Yorkshire Moors and features ghostly apparitions and a dark, cruel Byronic hero in the person of the demonic Heathcliff. The Brontës’ fiction is seen by some feminist critics as a prime example of Female Gothic, exploring woman’s entrapment within the domestic space along with the subjection to patriarchal authority and the desperate and dangerous attempts to escape from such restrictions. Emily’s Cathy and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are both examples of female protagonists in such a role.

The gloomy villain, forbidding mansion, and persecuted heroine of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864) shows the direct influence of both Walpole’s Otranto and Radcliffe’s Udolpho. Although it is not a supernatural tale it cleverly engages the trappings of such to weave a cunning narrative which features an early example of the locked room mystery. Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly (1872) includes the influential vampire tale Carmilla, which provided fresh blood for that particular strand of the Gothic and influenced Bram Stoker’s vampire tale Dracula (1897) which in turn was the progenitor of a rich sub-genre of vampiric fiction.  Stoker set up the rules, as it were, for the vampire genre which have been followed and sometimes dramatically broken by many writers since.

Stoker’s novel was also part of a new chapter in the Gothic story which placed emphasis on the supernatural and the unexplained.  Classic works in this late Victorian period included Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), Richard Marsh’s The Beetle: A Mystery (1897),  The Turn of the Screw (1898), and the stories of Arthur Machen. In America, at the end of the 19th century, two notable writers in the Gothic tradition emerged. These were, were Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers. Bierce’s short stories were in the horrific and pessimistic tradition of Poe, while Chambers trod the same decadent path as Wilde and Machen, to the extent of his inclusion of a character named ‘Wilde’ in his most famous and influential novel The King in Yellow (1895).

In the Twentieth Century, new writers came along altering the Gothic form somewhat in order to focus more on horror and the supernatural. Vengeful ghosts, vampires, werewolves and their unholy associates were the new Gothic stars. Important English twentieth-century writers in this Gothic tradition include Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, M. R. James, and Marjorie Bowen.

The cinema also involved itself in the genre creating such silent movie classics as Nosferatu (the first cinematic version of Dracula), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Cat and the Canary and other silent film fright fests in the 1920s.

In the 1930s Universal Studios carried on the tradition with superb Gothic talking picture versions of Dracula and Frankenstein (and their sequels), embellishing the originals with spooky visuals and added plot twists.  Dracula’s castle and the tower where Frankenstein experiments on creating life are wonderful pictorial realisations of the original spirit of the Gothic. Universal also brought some original material to the screen such as Edgar G. Ulmers’ The Black Cat (1934) which, with the use of shadows and implied horror, achieves a magnificent sense of Gothic menace in an ultra-modern setting.

Similarly in the 1950s & 60s, Hammer Studios in Britain brought colour to old texts in their various versions of the Gothic classics, Dracula, and Frankenstein as well as other offerings such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Gorgon and The Reptile.

Meanwhile, in the post-war period, Gothic literature took a back seat in favour of those stories which not so much chilled the blood as turned the stomach. In the 1970s visceral thrills and gore were in fashion and novels such as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, James Herbert’s The Rats and Stephen King’s Carrie became best sellers. The explicit descriptions of horror in these novels created an appetite for more of the same. Then in the 1980s, Susan Hill wrote a ghost story, The Woman in Black, which in a sense was a Gothic pastiche but it worked brilliantly. The novel was a great success and was turned into a play and later a movie, proving that there is still an audience for such dark thrills. Slowly other writers tried their hand at the dark and subtle. Now, the subtle Gothic chiller, such as those created by such authors as Jonathan Aycliffe, Neil Gaiman, John Harwood and Sarah Pinborough, sit on the bookshelf alongside the more gory, unrestrained works of modern horror fiction.