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An American Gothic, June 7, 1998 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: June 7, 1998
"An American Gothic" [permalink]
    keywords: gothic, literature
    soapbox #: 139
    written: June 7, 1998
    words: 3216

"An American Gothic", an Essay

Western civilization is deluged with the gothic genre in virtually every creative medium available, from film to television to music to attire. Can you dig it?

I figured it appropriate to explain my secret fetish with the gothic, since it's a topic which doesn't stray far from the Lestats and Frankensteins and goths that we've come to see ridiculed by more respectable genres. Granted, I am no expert in gothic literature, but I've done my fair share of reading and research into the area to deserve some amount of credibility for my views.

Besides, I love reading the stuff. What more excuse do I need?

Another note: although I am infatuated with gothic architecture as well as gothic literature, the two are not so closely related as you'd think. While both maintain a sort of rebellion against the classic style, their peak periods occurred hundreds of years apart. So this Soapbox will restrict its focus to the literary definition of gothicism, and will expand from there.

I took a course in gothic writing early on in my academics and in it we studied everything from the earliest fragment writings (which were unbelievably corny and cliched to a modern reader such as myself) to the most modern manifestations of the gothic influence, like William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily.

In the course, we were instructed to write an imitation of the Edgar Allen Poe style. Edgar Allen Poe was of course, arguably, the most famous gothic writer, crafting everything from The Fall of the House of Usher to The Black Cat. Unfortunately, poor Poe has lost some of his hip factor among most people since he's so frequently referenced by everyone, even from people who probably haven't read a single story of his. Personally, I think his works are amazing, in the most literal meaning of the word, and I learned a lot from analyzing his style and playing off it.

Comments on the story after its completion -- I just wanted to post a little something of mine to make up for the weeks of inactivity here at Soapbox Central, plus I figure the tale will get you in the right mindset for understanding the context of the rest of the essay.


The Physical Scar

It is often hypothesized by academics and those of positions only slightly more respectable that the Master of Sleep, who permeates his way into many different cultures as a sign of his omnipotence, sets upon a hapless soul and blurs the line between fantasy and reality for him. What they do not realize is that such edification of these experiences does not occur through books or research. Oh, what these miserable creatures have never to experience! How can they boast to know the supernatural like a child knows her mother?

However, some of what they say is surprisingly accurate, yet they lack the first-hand account of it: for one smitten by Sleep and drowsiness, he loses touch with reality and is overcome with a sort of perverseness, an unexplainable, yet subconscious unleashing of emotion and innermost desires. Not even the victim himself can explain why he does what he does when he is in such a state, but often he is caught up like an insect in an inescapable spider web, every strand containing a myriad trapping of hubris and sickness.

And such was the way it had become for me. One choleric, unforgiving night, I lay in such a state, half-awake, half-asleep, half-sane, half-insane. Fresh on my mind was the ghastly deed I had committed. I warred pugnaciously with feelings of utter Narcissism and, at the same time, remorse for becoming so monstrous.

I had earlier strangled my wife to death, myself being half-asleep then too, something I was compelled to do after her presence had failed to freely felicitate mine for many irritating months. Her body was easy to dispose of, there being a fast-moving river near our house which I hoped would be the river Lethe (in all but its speed), cleansing me of remorse. I did this by night, when rolling grey clouds were lit up by the omnipresent moon. The clouds' wispy tendrils reached down at me and tried to seize my flesh, while the solid puffs of air formed phantasmagoric images (including that of my wife's) which haunted my mind. I rid myself of the vile creature who unsettled me to no end, then hastened home to hide from the knowing night, a witness to my crime.

Days passed and my hubris was gradually defeating my humanity, dementia purging regret. Days spent thinking about the crime gave way to days spent looking at myself in the mirror admiringly and flattering myself with self-addressed sonnets of love and adoration.

One day, the seventh day, however, I noticed a horrible feature upon my body, a feature I had long since forgotten about. When my wife and I were young, new, fanciful lovers, we branded ourselves with tattoos, and in my youthful immature state, I yearned to receive a tattoo of my lover's countenance. Now this tattoo was nothing but a constant reminder, a permanent part of my body and of my soul. Acknowledging its presence brought back a world of pain and suffering which had teased me ever since evil thoughts had first entered my mind. I stared at the tattoo without break, knowing I could not rid myself of it through natural acts. The horror, the horror!

That tattoo began to talk, to deride me, to shame me. Its pigmented colors moved in such a way that I saw the face of my ex-wife screaming at me with the high-pitched insanity of a banshee. When she was not screaming loudly, a sound which burned my ears like a summer-dried forest ablaze, she told me of how I would suffer the rest of my life with her on my arm, around my arm, how she used to hold onto me when she was alive.

I could not take it anymore. Opiates flowed through my blood, relieving my misery, but not even the strongest chemicals can overcome this sort of pain. I endeavored to remove the tattoo by the only means I could think of, and before I knew better, I had sawn my left arm off, that sinister appendage and its tattoo, and ended the whole ordeal in an hour-long session of hacking, cutting, and tearing.

The arm was disposed of in a blazing fashion and my pain went away even as I bled. I became numb to it in time and my self-adoration returned. This is how I live now, free but without a limb, perfect and happy, yet physically scarred. But still I consider that tattoo and the physical presence of that abhorrent woman to be even more physically scarring.

This, I think, is the power of perverseness, to live and rationalize with the blunt facts of what you have done in your life. Might I always exist half-asleep and half-awake, justifying my evil with good, I shall always be strangely content.


So there you have it. And, please, it doesn't act out some bizarre fantasy I have running through my mind, okay? I already went through that when I wrote a metaphorical story about removing someone's skin and finding they're just a hollow shell. I'm just experimenting with different styles and tones, that's all. I'm young -- I need to test my limits.

I know this because I know who reads my site, but the story above will probably be regarded as juvenile tripe. Well, I loved it. I found it when I was on the plane with Anna, flying to Stockholm. I really can't believe I managed to write some parts of that story, because certain passages really captured the Poe style. I impressed myself. I had to post it.

The story I wrote is by no means original, but gothic literature rarely is. Most all stories written in the gothic style incorporate the same few motifs. Most notably, the relationship between house and owner.

The juxtaposition of the two is inescapable when reading about gothicism. See, gothic literature is consumed with its past. Characters like Sceloni in Isaac Crookenden's The Vindictive Monk and Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher cannot break away from their family lines, their last names passing onto them at birth decades of indulgence, curses, and decay. This shows the mindset of the times -- in aristocratic societies, inevitably there will be the withering away of even the most successful and prominent families, the final descendants having to cope with the expectations of forefathers. The last of the family must endure dying penniless, shamed, and alone. How can you go on when you must constantly look behind you to the past, seeing better times brought on by more deserving ancestors?

Further emphasizing the decay of the master and mistress of the family is the house they live in. Extravagant and from well-to-do families, the tragic characters of gothic literature usually own large mansions or converted abbeys which have long since begun to fall apart as the family loses its prominence. The mansion, the physical symbol of a family's power, decays with its inhabitants. It's hard to come up with a good example without going back to The Fall of the House of Usher, since the house develops a large crack in its foundation, symbolizing the collapse of the Ushers. In the end, the house crumbles and disappears into the Earth, ridding the world of the last remnant of the Usher line.

The connection between owner and house fascinates me because we live in a day now where it's common to move around the globe or country and live in different houses. Gone are the days when the literate members of society are only the people who are of the upper class and who live in houses passed from descendent to descendent. What would it be like to own a dark, dank house filled with linens and portraits and furniture created 100 years earlier in the glory days of the family line? What would it be like to not be able to go anywhere in your house without being reminded of family tradition and happier days?

More about the family comes into play in gothic literature. Why is blood so common? Blood is the life and blood carries the family genes. "Blood disease" is a common term in the gothic, because becoming ill or diseased also signifies a sickness of the family's health. Vampires suck the blood, robbing men of the patriarchal life they need to survive. Ever since the earliest days of the genre, the gothic has embraced topics taboo to other styles like the similar romantic movement. With the strong loyalty to the family comes an isolation from the rest of the world. Parricide and incest are wholly acceptable in a gothic work. My interest in this? Not the acts themselves, of course, but the perversity which Poe explains in depth in his writings. We're not talking about perversity like squeezing underneath the toilet in the outhouse to look at women when they sit down (believe me, people do this) or whatever other sick things we hear about day to day. I'm talking about perversity as in the rebellion against reason and logic. Or, as the story put it, rationalizing the horrific.

I enjoy novels which have a sick, corrupted side to them. And I'm not alone. Why do you think Bram Stoker's Dracula was so popular? Sure, the thought of endless life and extreme indulgence are enticing, but so is the fantasy of sexually evocative sucking of blood through biting the neck. So is becoming a bat, becoming a creature, becoming a creature of the night. Bestial instincts instilled in man. As for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, one of my favorites, but alas turned into a champion of intelligence for some and a book only twits enjoy (in the minds of intellectuals), the scientist Dr. Frankenstein explored his perversity through creating life from the dead, or as one of Frankenstein's early professors described similar scientists, "[penetrating] into the recesses of nature, and [showing] how she works in her hiding places." Yes, kids, this is no subtle sexual reference.

Another aspect of gothic literature I enjoy is the sense of frustrating isolation the characters feel. They are, as I've said earlier, trapped inside their family lines, trapped inside their family mansion, trapped inside their minds with fear of the end of their worlds. Writers of the genre showed how much people were terrified of the days of oppressive aristocracy and confining imaginative possibilities. Everywhere decay was creeping into the lives of the people around the writers. They were afraid it would get to them eventually. Dracula used old, abandoned houses as his ports of entries into London, his resting places boxes of dirt carried from the ancient, outdated Transylvania. Even the most civilized scientists were afraid of the old civilization ruled by H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu. Dr. Rappaccini in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter kept all foreign objects out of his pristine garden, wanting to avoid the blighted world surrounding him. All the villagers were afraid of the house of Emily, for it was a relic of days long past. In Charles Dickens's Great Expectations Mrs. Havisham was undeniably a gothic figure, surrounded in a London definitely no longer influenced by gothicism. And people were afraid of her. You get the point.

The characters in gothic works realize that they're doomed -- there's no fooling oneself about reality, and that's what I enjoy. I often feel when I'm reading fanciful novels that I'm just kidding myself, cheating myself. Only with the cheesy early gothic like Raymond: A Fragment do I feel like I'm not confronting the struggles of men. Early gothic can sometimes read more like heroic fiction than anything else. ;) Anyway, it's interesting for me to see how different characters deal with impending doom. But they all bear the weight of their large stone mansions with frustration. The best gothic writers had this air of frustration which permeated the pages of their books. You could feel it, and there's nothing you could do about it. You watch these people accept their demise. They are placed in situations that oftentimes they had no control over because their families willed them (from beyond the grave or not) to serve the family line.

From this comes haunting that brings the supernatural element to the gothic. Now, I'm not a religious man, and, although I am loathe to admit it, I do think there's a strong possibility this whole world could have no grander structure in it than just how the laws of physics decided the universe would develop. If nothing divine catalyzed the universe so it could begin to grow, however, that would be tremendously sad. The more imaginative side of me craves a greater meaning to life. I'd like to think that the tie between owner and house is not just something the human mind develops. I'd like to think that certain men are fated to provide justice to the villain and rescue their maidens. Gothic literature certainly captures the fantastic side in me.

In other words...if it weren't written in a gothic style, would you ever give any time to thinking about guys who aren't really dead or alive and who really hate God and who suck blood out of people just to get by, and sometimes they turn into bats and mist and so on? I don't think so. Maybe Dr. Seuss could manage it, but I don't know for sure. =)

The gothic style puts anti-Christs and chimeras and vampires and shunned ghosts into a context which gives them credibility. It presents us with the possibility that all these abnormal creatures exist because there is a greater struggle going on -- a struggle for control, whether it's between Satan and God, or for the livelihood of a clan. The world, even though in gothic literature it's usually confined into one location, limiting the number of characters and the scope of their knowledge, takes on a greater importance.

Later gothic literature like Poe and Shelley redefined the genre. Shelley's Frankenstein, especially, showed the effects of science. Another reason why gothic literature is so appealing is because it doesn't insult the reader -- the characters are usually quite intelligent, like Dr. Frankenstein. (unfortunately, he was given bad judgment instead of ignorance for science)

Although trapped inside their xenophobic little worlds in gothic novels, they have had their fair share of worldly travel and enlightenment in their earlier days. And along with extensive travels come exotic animals, people, and objects. Perhaps this is a replacement for writing about stories which envelope the world -- instead of taking the story global, taking the globe into the story. A good example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Speckled Band, regarded as a gothic story by many. Dr. Roylott has traveled around the world, particularly to India, and brought back with him exotic animals like fatal snakes and tigers. If you don't know, it's the stupid snake with a speckled band (ha ha) which Sherlock discovers is Roylott's murder weapon. Again, it's the outside world which kills.

Dracula was certainly intelligent: he knew everything about everything (one tends to acquire a lot of knowledge in a few hundred years). He hadn't traveled much given his occupation, but through his keen research, he probably knew more about other places in the world than the people who lived there. Dr. Rappaccini most likely was well-traveled, his garden consisting of all sorts of rare flowers. He was a scientist, along with Dr. Frankenstein and Lovecraft's narrator. These men, so knowledgeable and understanding of the natural world, are completely unequipped to handle the supernatural worlds they collide with. Scientific probability is considered and thrown out the window as it's found it doesn't applies, and I think that's what makes the unbelievable events in gothic novella more credible and less cheesy.

Now we have plenty of spin-offs, mostly bad, but the true period of gothic literature supposedly died in the 1800's. But you can see why works of our day, like the X-Files, Millennium, the Crow, se7en, etc. etc. are so successful. They spin off our paranoia and present us with worlds which admit life is fucked up a lot of time, and which tell us that internal conflict isn't as evil as our support group society says it is. The gothic gives us encouragement that there IS a supernatural element to our lives, that maybe right and wrong DO matter, and that the ghosts of our past ARE watching us to make sure the way it was meant to be remains that way.


 
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