Gothic Dreams

There’s something that compels a large number of people to consume material in the horror genre.  Whether it takes the form of movies, books, or music, it is a genre widely spread.  The gateway to adult likes seems to be in childhood.  As a young person I read about how many adults wanted to “re-live their childhood” and at the time I wondered why.  Now, as an adult of long standing, I think I can begin to see the answer.  In any case, my gateway into appreciating horror was the Gothic.  But what is gothic?  Like many abstract concepts I know it when I see it, but what exactly is it?  I’m not sure Nick Groom has fully answered that in The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction, but then the reason may well be in the “very short” part.  Nevertheless, this is a remarkably broad treatment of the subject in not so many pages.  It also helped me to understand my own fascination a bit better.

Groom begins with the historical Goths.  Like the Celts, they are a people without a prodigious written record, so the imagination takes over.  They valued freedom above all else, and that, it seems to me, is the beating heart of the Gothic.  Recognized through its architecture, especially in notable cathedrals, the incipient Romanticism in the style made its way into works of fiction.  In that realm it is remarkably widespread.  Shakespeare participates in it.  It becomes more fixed in later generations, but it still returns in popular format even today.  At several points in this brief treatment I found myself wondering at the connections.  Gothic is so huge and sprawling that it informs quite a lot of literature that isn’t even categorized with that title.

The story Groom sketches takes the Goths from their Germanic roots to their Anglo-Saxon influence in England.  For English readers, the genre really takes shape in Britain before spreading out into the many forms in which it exists today, including several species of American Gothic.  While the modern mind tends to turn toward the dark and melancholy aspects—and they are clearly there—the underlying theme of freedom comes through.  Thus the separation of ways between “Classical” culture with its rules and strictures and symmetry and the Gothic with its mystery, wonder, and romance.  By the end we’ve passed through Poe and on to modern horror.  And through it all I catch glimpses of what drew me to all this in a childhood of longing for freedom.

Gothic American

AmericanGothAmerican Gothic, the painting by Grant Wood, caused me trouble at Routledge. An author wanted to use the image on the cover of his book (we eventually managed it) but the choice was contested at every step. Along the way editors, editorial assistants, and marketers all told me what the painting represented and how it was inappropriate. I’ve learned, however, a few things from the post-modernist movement: nobody can say what an artwork means definitively. So when I read American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy, I was ready for a combination of po-mo and the macabre. Like post-modernism, Gothic is a difficult term to define. Indeed, the first set of essays in this collection struggle with definitions. Being literary criticism, the book points out that the novel and Gothic more or less developed together. When people read to be entertained, as early as the eighteenth century, they wanted to read Gothic tales.

Being a life-long fan of Poe, I was pleased to see that he made a good showing in the pieces contained in the book. What makes it appropriate to this blog—other than it being October, a comment that requires no explanation in the northern hemisphere—is a notion I found early in the book. People read horror literature for healing. Anthropologically, the wounded healer is a well-recognized figure. In a world where we expect opposites to go together health comes from disease and healing from being wounded. The gothic is a wounding of the mind to lend it healing. To be sure, many of us who read gothic literature do not relish scenes of violence or hurt. We do, however, find a kind of therapy within such darkness. In the darkness light is best appreciated. Who uses a flashlight outdoors on a sunny day?

As with most books from multiple authors, there’s some unevenness to the contributions here, yet more often than not, I found deep insight throughout its pages. Religion makes occasional appearances. Indeed, the figures of the monk and the debased church are stock images for early gothic literature. The sacred, if we’re honest, is a bit creepy. Having spent many nights in churches on retreats or for hospitality when youth groups couldn’t afford a hotel, I know that fewer places are scarier at night than an unlit, empty sanctuary. The gothic, following culture, has tended to move away from monasteries and churches into the more scientific spaces of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, ravens and haunted houses still evoke the age-old fears of a coming period of darkness, the Halloween of the soul. And for those who want to know how a post-modern crowd scans the darkness, this book will not disappoint.

Whatever Happened to Whimsy?

American Gothic is one of my favorite paintings. I’ve never seen the original, and I know of no other paintings that Grant Wood produced, although I’m sure there are some. The mood in what has been called “the most famous American painting” is unsettled. There’s something not quite right here. When one of my authors wanted to use the image on a book cover, it led to quite a bit of serious discussion. I was a bit surprised by the negative impressions—not of the painting, but of its use on a serious academic book. The discussion seemed to turn on money rather than on wit and whimsy. I confess to being a dreamer, and I admit that the aspects of life that truly inspire me are never financial. When I crave wealth it is so that I might free up some time for creativity. That’s not the way business works.

Sometimes I feel a stranger in my own country. The unquestioned triumph of unbridled capitalism means that you can go from city to city to city and not really be able to tell much of a difference. If you want to buy a bit of tubing or a piece of wood, it’s Home Depot or Lowe’s for you. Office supplies—Office Max or Staples are your only choices. If you want to buy intelligent books, well, you’re just plumb out of luck unless you go to Amazon. The big financial corporations have won. Just admit it. Every time I visit my hometown I come away depressed at all the vacant stores and lost hopes of the small businesses that offered something just a little different. Something to tickle my fancy. Something to tempt me to wonder. Something with a tinge of American Gothic.


The messages we receive from every angle echo Madonna’s hit song, “Material Girl.” Only this includes all genders. Reductionistic materialism tells us that we’re just proteins walking. Mind is an illusion. Soul is a myth. I work a job where the money I’m paid is transferred electronically and if I want to see some of it in paper form I face a robotic ATM rather than a human face. I went to the mall last night and wept. Call it a mid-life crisis if you will. Say nostalgia has no place in a forward-looking society. I just want a few more options besides the plastic, the smart-chipped, and the sterile. The world needs more whimsy. Maybe that’s why I insisted on American Gothic on the cover of the first book I put under contract.