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A Beginner’s Guide To… Gothic Literature

Jake Basford explains that Gothic Literature is not about horror and make-up, but about self-revelation and pre-horror.

‘The Gothic’, as my English Literature teachers used to say, is an institution that has been around since the early 1800s. Coming off the back of Romanticism, it represented the philosophical achievements of man as they realised that they are self-actualised and did not know precisely where they came from, and so posed interesting theories and debates. It has nothing to do with make-up or wearing black. The Gothic period was not just a period for Literature, but affected art in general, as well as architectural design – in buildings you can spot a ‘gothic arch’ from a regular one, as it comes to a point at the top.

Gothic Literature is what later became horror, and boils down to several key tropes: powerful female characters, parody, homoerotic subtext, gender confusion and trans characters, leaps of scientific knowledge, non-Christian religious material, and supernatural occurrences. Not all of them are present, but a good majority are in a number of instances.

Examples of these texts are current and varied, but the best are The Monk, Dracula and Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. And no, that is not a typo – Mary Shelley’s original title is correct, and if you think that’s weird, you should hear some of those her Romantic-poet husband came up with.

Before people start jumping up and down pointing out that they’re all from the early 19th Century, there has been a revival in the last thirty years or so, and more modern examples can be seen in the work of Anne Rice and Iain Banks. Particularly, The Wasp Factory has been used as an example as ‘Modern Gothic’ due to the subversion of gender throughout the novel, the idolisation of ritual and sacrifice, and the downright strangeness of the main character. Readers should pay attention to Frank’s experience of gender and sexuality, as it is particularly distressing and highlights the significant issue of parental influence over a child’s gender-identity – something that will be discussed in greater detail as it is Trans Awareness month at So So Gay.

When covering this for A Level, kids should be told not to think of ‘The Gothic’ as a fixed identity, but more as a fluid entity that can be brought into arguments. There is no such thing as a Gothic genre, because it occurred between various sociological movements, and was refined to England and Germany in the breath before Victorianism. You can easily say that something has Gothic traits in it, but stating that something is Gothic is very difficult. Whilst studying this at school, the argument was made that The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin should be classed as a Gothic novel because of the weakness of the male protagonist and how his girlfriend always overpowered him, the influence of folk-lore throughout the novel, and the fact that the entire book is a parody of a nursery rhyme. The teacher agreed, and swiftly moved on.

In short, Gothic Literature is not necessarily about vampires, witches and werewolves, and similarly, not every vampire novel is Gothic Literature (and by this of course we mean ‘That Which Shall Not Be Named’ – perversion of Literature and Film that it is). You need to dig deeper and find out what the novel is really about. If you are reading just for something light and cheery, abandon hope and go back to Jane Austin – although if you call that ‘light and cheery’ then we may need to discuss your medication further…



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