As it’s Halloween, The London Magazine team have been discussing the nature of horror in fiction, and why we are so attracted to reading it. With it’s desolate and wild settings, supernatural mysteries, and erotic fantasies, Gothic literature is a richly subversive genre which encapsulates the deeply-rooted fears of the human condition. Arising from a time of profound social change, Gothic fiction sublimely links the superstitions of the medieval era, with the modern world of science and rationality. Though, ultimately, we do not definitively know why we like it so much, – perhaps we just simply do. Nevertheless, we thought it was a good excuse for us to compile just a select few of our favourite Gothic narratives:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
During the summer of 1816, at the villa of Lord Byron in Geneva, Mary Shelley came up with the story of Frankenstein while telling ghost stories with her lover Percy Byssch Shelley and their esteemed guests. She later expanded the story into a full novel that was published two years later in 1818, casually managing to perfectly encapsulate early Victorian gothic fiction. Simultaneously, her novel invented science-fiction as her protagonist Dr Frankenstein creates a replication of a human, who turns out to live a tortured and lonely existence after being shunned by his creator.
Wuthering Heights by Emile Brontё
“A violent, purple and gloriously febrile novel.” – Steven O’Brien
First published in 1847, Wuthering Heights is a novel about the chaos and destruction of a forbidden love. It illustrates stark depictions of both mental and physical cruelty as a wilful and erratic Catherine Earnshaw has to decide between a passionately violent love, and a socially sanctioned marriage. We witness her decision plague future generations, and lead to a tremendous amount of suffering for our narrators, and us as readers. A novel rich with death, destruction, neglect and debatably one of the first depictions of ghosts, Wuthering Heights is a perfectly bleak late autumn read.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert L. Stevenson
The Gothic genre exhausts the motif of dual identities through forms such as doppelgangers, werewolves, vampires, demonic possession, and witches. At surface level, we embrace the supernatural double as a literal being which exists only in a fictions realm, frightfully testing the bounds of reason and science. However, since the nineteenth century saw the emergence of psychoanalysis, we have come to a deeper understanding of the dual self as a symbolic trope of mankinds battle between our innate primitive desires and the dominant social, political and moral structures that subdue them. Published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a prime example of this trope, as Mr. Edward Hyde presents himself as the physical embodiment of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s split psyche. Where Jekyll is a social, sensible and respected doctor (representing the rational, accepted and conscious part of our psyche), Hyde is a violent and impulsive animalistic creature (resembling the irrational, suppressed and subconscious part of the human psyche). Jekyll and Hyde has been widely interpreted since its original publication, with critics analysing its imbedded discussion on class, sexuality and ethnicity. At the core of every interpretation, it is a cautionary tale which presents us with monsters, not as external beings which reside on the precipice of society waiting to entrap and dominate us, but rather internal beings that exist within the depths of human unconsciousness, feeding off its repression.
~ “My devil had been long caged, he came out roaring”
Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
A town of young women preyed upon by a female vampire, Carmilla was in fact the first of her kind with Sheridan Le Fanu piloting vampire fiction in 1872. Le Fanu revolutionises heteronormative definitions of love, by creating the vampire trope to explore homoerotic love. The greatest fear of Carmilla, particularly for his Victorian readers, lies with her power to spread sexual liberation within her young female victims – suddenly we are made aware of the infectiousness of the independent woman among a society of repressed women. A final comment from Le Fanu’s protagonist shows patriarchy’s inability to control a woman’s burning desire once it has been realised. Readers find themselves enticed by the idea of Carmilla and this new rebellious powerful woman, and thus Carmilla has remained a powerful symbol for feminist ideology.
~ “To this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations – sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruin church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door”
Dracula by Bram Stoker
“Of course. Darkly sexy and claustrophobic.” – Steven O’Brien
Though Stoker may not have invented Vampire, his 1897 novel has left a significant mark on Vampire fiction – the very name stirring visions in all our minds. A template for vampire fantasy, Dracula lives his life in complete opposition to humans, a cold-blooded immortal sleeping during the day, and consuming blood in order to survive. In the modern day, our imagination has been, somewhat, contaminated with the quintessential novel, but nevertheless, the style was unique in its time, presented through letters and found footage. We can identify several themes in the novel, including gender, colonialism, and a rebellion against conservative sexuality. A creepy and sensual narrative which perfectly encapsulates the very heart of the Gothic.
The Turn of The Screw by Henry James
The Turn of The Screw, first serialised in Collier’s Weekly Magazine in 1898, is one of the cornerstones of Victorian gothic fiction. Its subtext could not be more Victorian if it tried – a governess in care of two children has visions of a ghost couple trying to attack them, who nobody else can see – are the ghosts real, or part her imagination? The debate has raged since the story’s initial publication, becoming a focal story in psycho-analytical studies. Whatever your opinion – and surely the ambiguity that James presents is with intention of making both interpretations valid – the story perfectly captures the creepiness of the late Victorian gothic revival, as well as the era’s repressive class system and didactic gender roles.
Words by The London Magazine team.
Compiled and edited by Briony Willis
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