Review: Contemporary Women’s Gothic Fiction (Palgrave Gothic Series)

Posted by Donna Mitchell on February 05, 2017 in Blog, Donna Mitchell, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , , ,

Contemporary Women’s Gothic Fiction

Gina Wisker

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

ISBN: 978-1-137-30348-6

Reviewed by Donna Mitchell

In the introduction to her latest monograph, Gina Wisker defines contemporary women’s Gothic writing as the ‘subversive granddaughter of eighteenth-century Gothic fiction’ (Wisker 27) due to its ability to mix horror and fantasy, liberate forbidden desires, and expose repressed or hidden secrets from the past. Her study brings attention to the many essential links between feminist perspectives / critiques and contemporary women’s Gothic writing. During this process she marks the literature of noted authors Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Toni Morrison as the cornerstones of contemporary women’s writing. She also voices her intent to include a selection of their works in her discussion of how they have used the Gothic to explore the problematic relationship between gender and power, culture, society, and the self.

Beginning with Angela Carter’s revival of the Gothic during the 1970s, Wisker considers how the author simultaneously replayed and upset traditional forms and concerns of the genre. She uses a selection of Carter’s novels and short stories to demonstrate her preoccupation with the performative demands of femininity in relation to the narratives and myths supported by Western patriarchy. She emphasises the fact that Carter uses sexually aware heroines rather than the innocent victims of traditional tales, and explores how this revision subverts and rejects any warning for women to behave. Her analysis details the various ways in which Carter uses the literary Gothic to critique the performance of being human.

Chapter Three examines what Wisker defines as Margaret Atwood’s two dominating narratives of Canadian Gothic – one of adventurousness and another of entrapment. She notes Atwood’s tendency to parody the Gothic while using its formulae to problematize internalised self-deceiving myths and narratives. She pays particular attention to Atwood’s use of a Rapunzel figure by discussing its multifaceted function within the Gothic narrative. She also pays homage to the importance of Atwood’s best known work, The Handmaid’s Tale, which she defines as ‘a dysfunctional near future Gothic’ that remains just as relevant as it was in 1985 due to the fact that women’s rights are currently in ‘more danger than they have been for decades’ (Wisker 73).

Toni Morrison and Tananarive Due’s African American Women’s Gothic is the focus of Chapter Four, which according to Wisker, ‘recovers a doubly hidden set of histories and stories’ (Wisker 94). Concentrating on Morrison’s development of feminist forms of writing the body in a Gothic manner, she discusses her portrayal of issues relating to haunting and trauma within both the home and the female body. She also identifies Due’s ability to write  a version of modern day America from a female perspective that challenges gendered and racially inflected hierarchies in order to create a new narrative of living history. Wisker defines Due’s America as a more conscious one that is ideologically influenced by both its historical and contemporary cultural context.

Chapters Five and Six concentrate on Postcolonial Gothic women writers and their ability to use supernatural figures to expose silences and hidden histories of oppression in relation to both gender and race. Focusing on revisions of classic literature (E.g. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea), Wisker considers how these versions of oppressive narratives have the ability to create a new identity and agency for their previously disempowered heroines. Wisker also uses this discussion to emphasise the unstable nature of established narratives, reminding the reader of how they tend to change just as often as our perspectives and interpretations change over time.

Chapters Seven and Eight focus on the Gothic figure of the vampire and its function in contemporary women’s writing. Wisker explores how the traditional version of the invasive male vampire was re-appropriated in the late twentieth century to align this figure with a new feminist carnivalesque. Her detailed study analyses the various postfeminist issues portrayed in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, the portrayal of lesbian vampires as figures of abjection for conventional monstrosity, the sanitised and defanged vampires of Stephenie Meyers’ The Twilight Saga, as well as Moira Buffini’s predatory heroines and their challenge of women’s typical vulnerability.

Domestic Gothic is the topic of Chapter Nine as Wisker returns once again to ghost stories in contemporary women’s writing. Focusing specifically on twentieth century and twenty-first century ghost stories, including Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, she discusses the ghost’s multifaceted ability to transform the security of the family home into an oppressive nightmare and represent the haunting repercussions of social injustices against women. She also investigates the function of post war ghosts as representations of cultural hauntings as well as the popular trope of demon lovers who return home in the form of (dead) officers.

The concluding chapter considers how the various branches of contemporary women’s Gothic writing that have been discussed in this study allow their readers to recover, reinterpret, and in some cases, even rewrite the past. Sarah Waters’ Neo-Victorian Gothic, Hilary Mantel’s Feminist Gothic, and Elizabeth Kostova’s revival of Dracula are analysed in relation to the current trend of ‘Gothicising everything’ (Wisker 249). Contemporary concerns and social issues such as the horror of wars, the spread of contagious diseases, the unpredictable and deadly nature of natural disasters, and the frightening statistics of violence against women expose the unstable state of today’s world. The Gothic, according to Wisker, is therefore best used as a mirror with which we can examine the past and present state of things, as well as our own personal histories, in order to see the world (and ourselves in it) from an alternative perspective. An excellent addition to the Palgrave Gothic Series, this study offers an incredibly comprehensive and detailed analysis of contemporary women’s Gothic fiction. Wisker’s ability to categorise the various strains of contemporary women’s writing into their relevant Gothic subgenres creates an orderly and fascinating catalogue of research that is not only beneficial to scholars working in such areas but also a true delight to read!

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