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 Celts?

Two separate projects lately set me on the trail of preliterate Europe.  While this isn’t the best time to celebrate white cultures (timing has never been an especial strength of mine), I have been researching the Celts as part of a longterm project.  Not only are these people part of my ancestral mix, they are also mysterious.  Having arisen in central Europe, they were pushed to the margins of the continent by invading Huns from the east.  It’s from those fringes that I came to identify my heritage.  Not only do I have Irish ancestors, but Wiggins, it seems, is a Breton name.  The Bretons were a Celtic people on the northwest coast of France.  Since the ancient Celts didn’t leave a huge written archive, we rely on what others (such as the Romans) wrote, or what archaeology reveals.  Mysterious.  At the same time another project had me reading about the Goths.

The Goths are tricky to define, and again, didn’t leave literary archives.  Also politically incorrect, they were a Germanic people—another significant piece of my ancestry—and they must’ve lived quite close by the early Celts.  Although my parents wouldn’t be born for many centuries yet, their ancestral “tribes” may have known one another.  It’s fun to think about.  There’s quite a lot of interest in the movements of peoples in ancient times.  One thing that influenced both the Celts and the Goths were large, organized forces.  The Roman Empire, with what would come to be understood as Classical style, was one source of pressure.  Another was the aforementioned Huns.  The Romans considered all of them barbarians.  One of the results of these large pressures was the eventual establishment of nations in Europe, often with contested borders.

All of this splitting eventually led to nationalism, a dangerous force.  We’ve seen some of the end results in recent years.  A single nation thinking it is the best.  I’ve always felt that travel—difficult during a pandemic—is a great form of education.  Encountering the “other” on their own territory makes it hard to stereotype and boast.  Nationalism tends to lead to excessive pride, especially when a country is as isolated as the United States is.  And then it even tries to build a wall between one of only two neighboring nations because they speak a different language.  How different this is from the situation when Celts and Goths were moving somewhat freely across the European continent where, at the time, borders were fluid.  I realize I’m idealizing what was certainly not a perfect situation, but I also think Rome may not have been the best model to emulate either.