Abigail Lee Six, Gothic Terrors: Incarceration, Duplication and Bloodlust in Spanish Narrative.

Posted by Enrique Ajuria Ibarra on February 11, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Abigail Lee Six, Gothic Terrors: Incarceration, Duplication and Bloodlust in Spanish Narrative. Bucknell University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9781611483406.

Reviewed by Enrique Ajuria Ibarra, Lancaster University

Abigail Lee Six’s Gothic Terrors brings the Gothic motif to attention in Spanish literature with much success.  Her analysis of particular trends that seem to roam in the literary texts she presents provide the groundwork for an original contribution not only for Hispanic Studies, but for Gothic Studies as well.  Lee Six works with the premise that the Gothic is often overlooked in the study of literature in Spain, constantly overshadowed by other movements that are considered to be more adequate and valuable for study of Spanish literature from the 19th Century onwards.  The book particularly intends to provide a ‘fuller appreciation of the Gothic presence in the shadows of Spanish” narrative (p. 19), and the selection of case studies provides an ideal springboard to explore the evolution of the Gothic in Spanish fiction, where it moves from an almost inconspicuous and tangential usage to a more full blown and widely evident presence in contemporary writing.  More importantly, Lee Six exposes the utilisation of the Gothic outside of the English speaking world in order to engage with and explore particular cultural issues that are of interest to other literary movements; the Gothic becomes a useful tool for cultural criticism.  Also, Lee Six notes that “particularly frequent – if apparently contradictory at first sight – is the use of the Gothic alongside other forms of popular narrative to enhance the realism of the main plot” (p. 15).  This way, she explores how dark motifs become an essential part of the structure of the text and, furthermore, their use serves to reinforce the value of the particular movement in question.  Thus, this study does not only trace the growing presence of the Gothic in Spain, but it also exposes the necessity to utilise elements of this literary form to consolidate other more respected ones.

Lee Six has chosen three specific Gothic traits that stand out in particular texts from well-known classic Spanish writers and other contemporary ones.  By dedicating a chapter to each of these motifs, she explores the instances of the incarceration of the madwoman, the theme of the double or duplication and bloodlust and horror.  Following a similar structure for each chapter, she elucidates a path for each  motif in Spanish literature, starting up with its hidden, tangential utilisation, followed by a debated or unconscious usage to a more popular and widely accepted expression in recent novels.  Lee Six gives Gothic an opportunity to wriggle out of the shadows to demonstrate how its marginality gives substantial support to Spanish realism and naturalism, finds a space to discuss its relevance in or unaware presence in the early 20th century and finally evidences that writers such as Adelaida García Morales, Espido Freire and Javier García Sánchez  have “utilized the Gothic openly” (p. 100) in their writing , as a clear example of the recent appeal and acceptance of more popular forms of fiction in literature.  Now that the Gothic is out of concealment, Lee Six motions to reconsider its instances hidden in earlier literary texts to acknowledge the suitability of the use of incarceration, the double and bloody horror to “shed light on both universal anxieties relating to the human condition itself and particular preoccupations of the times and of the authors concerned” (p. 147).  The Gothic for Lee Six becomes a valuable tool that is able to speak of universal human concerns that become an issue when facing local or national morality and cultural norms.

Lee Six proves that notable writers from the Spanish realist and naturalist periods such as Benito Pérez Galdós and Emilia Pardo Bazán have been truly influenced by works of Gothic fiction, but nevertheless decide to leave those influences as inconspicuous as they possibly can. The themes of the incarceration of the madwoman and of the double are rendered “unambiguous and of only peripheral interest” (p. 25) in the novels Doña Perfecta and La Sombra, both written by Benito Pérez Galdós.  Despite their marginalisation, they are nonetheless incisive in the exploration of issues of femininity, masculinity, patriarchy and sexuality in Spanish culture.  Likewise, Pardo Bazán’s novella, “Un Destripador de Antaño”, contains noticeable traits such as eerie countryside settings, references to lycanthropy, fairy-tale characters and bloodshed.  The novella engages with these themes in order to fascinate the reader, but in the end Pardo Bazán “simultaneously replaces the Gothic horror with the arguably more disturbing naturalist depiction of peasant ignorance and brutality” (p. 118).  The writer recurs to Gothic tropes that are later on dismissed or relegated to bring out a naturalist validity to the text: “thus, Gothic horror entertainment metamorphoses into harrowing naturalism” (p. 118).  Lee Six notes how Galdós and Pardo Bazán recur to the Gothic and how they nail it down in their works with the guise of realism or naturalism.  The presence of the Gothic in 19th century Spanish literature, although masked and left in the margins of the text, nevertheless proves to be an essential characteristic that enables the writer to engage with particular cultural issues that are subject to fruitful debate for contemporary criticism.

Unlike Galdós’s and Pardo Bazán’s approach to the Gothic, Lee Six elucidates a more complex approach to her selected Gothic motifs in the works of Miguel de Unamuno and Camilo José Cela, both very notable Spanish writers.  Unamuno’s two examples show an interesting development of the use of Gothic elements: whilst in the story “Nada Menos que Todo un Hombre” Unamuno “felt the need to distance himself explicitly from the Gothic and other low-status fiction being published in his time, via the same media and in the same serialized form as he was using himself” (p. 41), his play El Otro “explores doubleness through a particularly Gothic premise” (p. 78) in which haunting, indeterminacy of the subject and gender issues are also developed. Lee Six demonstrates that the use of the Gothic begins to have a more accepted view through the progression of Spanish literature, particularly exposed in one of Spain’s most eclectic writers.  Unamuno’s texts move from an initial premise of exclusion and tangentiality more similar to those of Galdós and Pardo Bazán to an unavoidable utilisation of Gothic and horror motifs to appeal to an audience.  Lee Six notes that by “articulating […] real-life anxieties through a Gothic idiom”, Unamuno is able to “tap into readers and audience members’ own insecurities” (p. 80).  Thus, Unamuno recurs more openly to the use of the Gothic in his play in order to deliver a more harrowing and terrifying view of the themes of the loss of identity and the self.

Similarly, Lee Six explores the complex utilisation of the Gothic found in Camilo José Cela’s celebrated novel La Familia de Pascual Duarte.  Cela’s approach is cautious, yet unavoidably evident.  Lee Six claims that Cela still considers the Gothic “a low-prestige narrative mode” (p. 120), and that he constructs an elaborate series of metatextual levels to detach any responsibility of the Gothic branding to his name and let the text’s main character and fictional transcriber bear the burden of such denomination.  Still, she points out that the novel is full of Gothic motifs and elements, most notably those of repetition, bloodlust and horror, which culminate in a highly descriptive and gruesome murder scene.  Once again, the Gothic becomes a highly suitable tool with which to explore cultural and social issues that arise in a country that has just survived the struggles of a devastating civil war.  Cela uses “the lurid colors of Gothic horror to explore the questions that Spain was asking itself in 1942 concerning personal and collective responsibility for the events of the Civil War” (p. 124).  This way, the Gothic becomes an ideal fictional mode in which to discuss the issues and traumas that war has left on Spanish society.  In this case, Cela’s apparent detachment from the popular Gothic mode is shadowed by the very themes he explores, themes that are essentially and unavoidably Gothic.

Lee Six’s carefully structured chapters each end with an example from contemporary fiction that attests to a more confident and open use of the Gothic when compared with the previous classic writers.  Adelaida García Morales’s El Testamento de Regina and Espido Freire’s Diabulus in Musica each draw upon a widespread cultural knowledge of Gothic tropes to effectively speak of conflicting gender issues that still haunt Spanish society today.  Memory, incarceration, duplication and repetition, all play an important role in the development of both novels and their exploration of cultural and social impositions and haunting masculine persistences on each novel’s lead female character.  Finally, Javier García Sánchez’s historical fiction of vampiric Countess Báthory, Ella, Drácula, is the clearest and most evident example of contemporary Spanish Gothic.  García Sánchez “has actively and creatively fashioned [his novel] into Gothic contours” (p. 145), in which settings, characters, the obsession with blood and an ever permanent sense of horror frame the narrative into a more widely accepted look at the Gothic.  This way, Lee Six optimistically closes down her Spanish Gothic account by addressing a recent literary production that can be fully considered a “Gothic horror story” (p. 137).  Furthermore, García Sánchez’s story departs from the other writers’ Spanish settings, and pushes national narrative boundaries into a more global perspective.  The Gothic is not hidden anymore now, and these writers are able to play upon its premises to explore not just matters of national and cultural interest, but also to engage themselves with the worldwide fascination of the Gothic mode.

Lee Six’s investigation is a remarkable and impeccable research on the Gothic in Spanish literature from the 19th century onwards.  Nevertheless, it is not clear if the study is just meant for Hispanic scholars alone or if the aim is to attract Gothicists too.  The research gives clear and well referenced hints on how classic Gothic texts must have been picked up and have influenced the writers mentioned in this study.  Additionally, she demonstrates how the selected motifs are presented in other notable examples of Gothic literature to compare them with their particular use in the analysed Spanish texts.  Unfortunately, she gives little background to these texts’ plotlines and delves in an in-depth analysis that might be confusing to readers who are unfamiliar with the aforementioned writers and their works.  This is further enhanced by the presence of some quotes where Gothic intentions need to be further elucidated.  There is a latent assumption that the reader has engaged with the case studies before and that the quotes need no additional explanation then.  Still, this does not overshadow the main premise of Lee Six’s project, that is “to show that to identify specifically Gothic features in Spanish writing builds bridges not only between texts produced across the centuries and cultural spectrum of Spain, but reaches out to intertexts from beyond the Pyrenees too” (p. 149).  This way, she proposes that Gothic and Hispanic scholars have much to contribute to each other’s areas of study with the exploration of themes, the analysis of influences and the appropriation of particular modes of writing.  Lee Six successfully prompts an interdisciplinary approach that can greatly enrich both academic disciplines.

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