The Current State of Experimental Gothic: Part One

Posted by Neil McRobert on November 09, 2014 in Blog, Guest Blog, News tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Since the death of David Foster Wallace in 2008, there has been much discussion of the status of experimentation in contemporary literature. Zadie Smith’s article, “Two Paths for the Novel”, was published in the same year and kindled a polarising debate over whether the experimental fiction is thriving or has been thoroughly beaten to death.[i] Some critics bemoan the loss of novelistic innovation, as if David Foster Wallace took the sacred art of experimental prose with him into oblivion. The cause is not helped by the recent trajectory of that totemic indicator of middlebrow literary consumption: the Man Booker Prize. In the last decade the prize has been dominated by straightforward historical fictions. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013) takes the zodiac as a central motif and structure, and both Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending (2011) and John Banville’s The Sea (2005) contain a degree of stylistic ambiguity, but neither can be considered experimental in any substantial way. Critical and commercial reticence towards experimental fiction was once again highlighted by this years Booker, in which Richard Flanagan’s victorious The Narrow Road to the Deep North is by far the most conventional offering in a field that otherwise contained the narrative complexity of Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, Karen Joy Fowler’s supremely odd We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and David Mitchell’s genre-defying (and merely long-listed) The Bone Clocks. (Personally I consider the fact that Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas lost out to Allan Hollinghurst’s The Thin Line of Beauty in 2004 an utter atrocity). As Smith laments, in the current literary landscape, experimental fiction has been “relegated to a safe corner of literary history” whilst “a breed of lyrical realism has the freedom of the highway.”

The Booker Prize: Creme-de-la-creme or literary beige?

The Booker Prize: creative supremacy or literary beige?

A claim can be made, however, that beyond the margins of mainstream prizes and Waterstones’ buy-one-get-one-half-price tables, a streak of originality survives, even prospers. Surprisingly, the Gothic has been instrumental in keeping experimentation’s head above the waves.

I say surprising because, in the first analysis, Gothic fiction would seem to be hostile territory for experimentation of any kind. It is, after all, a genre or mode of writing marked by adherence to convention and the deployment of familiar tropes. Whilst defamiliarisation is key to the Gothic effect—­­the ever-present uncanny, for instance, necessitates disorientation and a ‘shaking-up’ of the signifying process—its very purpose is undercut by the genre’s reliance on familiar forms of defamiliarisation. Liminal states of being and perception, monstrosity and grotesquery, and the violent juxtaposition of the real and fantastic: each of these attempts to render the familiar strange have themselves become commonplace. This begs the question of how a mode of writing as formally and thematically restrictive as the Gothic can offer anything meaningful in the way of experimentation.

The solution is two-fold. First, I would argue (vehemently) that the Gothic was born from experimentation. To adopt a Frankensteinian metaphor here is to regurgitate yet another hoary cliché, albeit an apt one. The Gothic was a sutured being in its infancy, birthed by Horace Walpole in an “attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern.”[ii] This stylistic amalgamation and innovation has become a guiding tenet of the Gothic. Walpole’s blending of literary types has been replicated in the Gothic’s ensuing hybridity, particularly in its merging with science fiction and, more generally, in it’s infiltration of other modes of writing. Equally, Eric Savoy claims that “the [American] Gothic is, first and foremost, an innovative and experimental literature” whose power “comes from it’s dazzling originality and diversity in a series of departures that situate the perverse—as forms, techniques and themes—inside the mainstream . . .”[iii]

Second, whilst the imposition of cliché and convention can be seen to have led the Gothic down an ever-narrowing avenue of originality (a cul-de-sac of convention, to be nauseatingly twee), the genre has found an ingenious, even paradoxical, manner of escape. The Gothic novel has overcome the claustrophobia of reductive familiarity by employing its own codes and forms as the focus of experimentation. More than ever—though by no means is it purely a contemporary trait—the Gothic functions on a self-reflexive and critically self-aware level. A significant number of contemporary Gothic novels reveal and revel in an awareness of their generic makeup, their linguistic properties, and the inherent Gothic nature of textuality.

The essential text in this vein of self-referential Gothic is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). Danielewski’s novel is so thorough in its self-reflexivity that it has the potential to make all future experimentation redundant. A book about a house that is also a book, House of Leaves is at once both a highly successful ghost story and a staging of the unstable, uncanny and often downright terrifying properties of text. Danielewski throws the full toolkit of postmodern literary theory into his novel: extreme narrative unreliability, metalepsis, ergodic text, and the critical theories of Derrida, Foucault and Heidegger, to name just a few of the critics who prowl the fringes of the narrative. Even the words on the page are presented in such a way as to turn the reading into as disturbing and disorienting a process as the protagonists’ attempts to navigate the eponymous house.

House of Leaves' mazelike typography

House of Leaves’ mazelike typography

House of Leaves was written during the 1990s, a period in which horror and Gothic was fully engaged in a process of playful deconstruction. In cinema, Scream (1996) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) are the prominent texts of an experimental and self-aware zeitgeist. House of Leaves was released at the end of this period of extreme self-examination that, more often than not, tipped over into parody. Therefore, whilst its millennial publication date indicates that it is the inaugural moment in a resurgence of experimental Gothic fiction, the novel is actually better seen as the terminal text in a prior literary era. House of Leaves, I would argue, is the last, great postmodern novel. The texts that have followed, in contrast, belong to whatever period has come next. Critics have coined several terms for this era of post-postmodernism, the most notable being Alan Kirkby’s “pseudo-modernism” and Timoetheus Velmeulen and Robin van den Akker’s “metamodernism.” These theories are distinct: Kirby pseudomodernism denotes a form of cultural expression that cannot, and does not exist, “unless the individual intervenes physically in them.” Postmodernism, Kirby argues:

conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematized. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product.[iv]

Velmeulen and van den Akker’s metamodernism is less prescriptive. They rightly claim that the majority of claims for the end of postmodernism focus too narrowly on the cultural impact of emergent technology and, in doing so, merely radicalise the postmodern rather than restructuring it. Metamodernism is rather “characterised by the oscillation between a typically modern commitment and a markedly postmodern detachment”[v] This metamodernist attitude is, therefore, neither a continuation of postmodern nihilism, nor a return to the aspiration of modernism and, importantly, neither is it a stable balance between the two. Instead “it is a pendulum, swinging between 2, 3, 5, 10, innumerable poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back towards irony; the moment its irony swings toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm.”[vi]

This is the climate in which the Gothic provides a way for experimental fiction to flourish. Neither wholly deconstructive (as in the 1990s), nor ever unaware of its own heritage and textual makeup, current experimental Gothic has become a playful yet satisfying genre. The list of such novels is now quite substantial: Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park (2006), Jennifer Egan’s The Keep (2006), Jeremy Dyson’s The Haunted Book (2013), Marisha Pessl’s Night Film (2013) Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams S, (2013) and Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements (2014) are just the most famous. In subsequent posts I will be discussing these and other experimental texts in more detail in order to map the contours of a new era of Gothic fiction; one that is no longer restricted by either formality or the nullifying impulses of postmodernism.




[i] Zadie Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel”, The New York Review of Books (November 20, 2008).

 [ii] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Ed. E.J Clery. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996) 9.

 [iii] Eric Savoy, “The Rise of American Gothic”, The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature, ed. Jerrold E. Hogle (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002) 167-188.

 [iv] Alan Kirkby, “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” Philosophy Now. 58 (2006);

 [v] Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, “Notes on Metamodernism,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 2 (2010)

 [vi] Ibid

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