Discworld Gothic

Posted by Emily Alder on September 11, 2011 in Dr Emily Alder, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

While I might not argue that the Discworld is Gothic, it undeniably uses Gothic: from vampires, zombies, werewolves, and Igors to sublime landscapes and indescribable monsters, Terry Pratchett’s best-selling series of comic novels is riddled with familiar Gothic tropes and characters. It is Discworld’s conscious use of Gothic that most interests me here. Comic Gothic, argue Horner and Zlosnik in Gothic and the Comic Turn, intertextual and self-reflexive, ‘bares the devices’ of narrative. They are not describing Pratchett’s writing, but they could be. As ardent Discworld fan and student of Gothic, for me some of Pratchett’s most delicious parody is to be found in his treatment of Gothic conventions.


Discworld novels

Like the best parody, however, Pratchett’s Gothic send-ups do more than just evoke laughter. For Horner and Zlosnik, parody is ‘a literary mode that, while engaging with a target text or genre, exhibits a keen sense of the comic, an acute awareness of intertextuality and an engagement with the idea of metafiction’ (12). Parody ‘not only allows an irreverent response to target works and authors but also enables the writer, if he or she chooses, to engage critically with aspects of the contemporary world’ and can ‘offer Gothic a comic turn. This turn frequently allows a fresh perspective on a changing world, one of accommodation rather than terrified apprehension’ (12). Intertextual, irreverent, and self-conscious, Pratchett’s novels offer some particularly pure examples of this type of critically engaged parody. His skill with this is, I believe, why there are readers out there (and you know who you are) who never, ever read Gothic or fantasy, but adore Discworld.

The Discworld novels target both particular Gothic works (The Phantom of the Opera in Maskerade [1984]) and more general narratives (vampires in Carpe Jugulum [1998], The Fifth Elephant [1999], The Truth [2001]). Discworld is gleefully self-aware; the landscape itself is conscious of its fictionality and narrative devices. And, as I will show, Pratchett’s comic Gothic explores the accommodation of difference in our contemporary culture, through the repetition and revision of vampire narratives in the deeply significant settings of Uberwald and Ankh-Morpork.

Discworld landscape is saturated with meaning: the Lancre topography changes in response to characters’ moods (Sayers); in Uberwald, the old country of vampires, werewolves, and dwarves, the Gothic lives and relives its narratives. Literary conventions have so much power that the very fabric of the landscape is saturated with story. Often, that story is Gothic:

‘“…if I was to say something portentous like ‘zer dark eyes of zer mind’ back in Uberwald, zer would be a sudden crash of thunder,” said Otto. “And if I was to point at a castle on a towering crag and say ‘Yonder is… zer castle’ a volf would be bound to howl mournfully.” He sighed. “In zer old country, zer scenery is psychotropic and knows vot is expected of it.” (The Truth, 225)

Otto Chriek ©2010-2011 ~dodisa

Otto Chriek ©2010-2011 ~dodisa

Pratchett’s cleverness here is not only in his own parody, but in his reminders, through our ready recognition of the howling wolf, sorry, volf, and the crashing thunder, that ‘Gothic and parody have always been close companions’ (Spooner 35). And the Gothic comic turn, say Horner and Zlosnik, allays fears. In Thud! (2005), Otto Chriek reveals this awareness with his vampire costume: a ‘carefully-cut widow’s peak’, a ‘red-lined opera cloak with pockets for all his [photography] gear’ and an accent

that grew thicker or thinner depending on who he was talking to… He looked funny, a joke, a music-hall vampire. It had never previously occurred to Vimes that, just possibly, the joke was on other people. Make them laugh, and they’re not afraid. (18)

Otto, a real vampire, counterfeits his own identity in order to nullify it (a few pages later we see Doreen Winkings, an ordinary human, affecting the same accent and fake canines to achieve the opposite).

In Discworld Gothic, counterfeit Gothic is the link between comic parody and Pratchett’s cultural critique. Hogle argues that Gothic is ‘based on… resymbolisations of that which is already symbolic and thus more fake than real… a recounterfeiting of the already counterfeit’ (295). Counterfeiting, like parody, turns Gothic into a space accommodating competing tensions:

By allowing such an emphatic conflation of beliefs and interplays of feeling, where ideologies and their symbols pull in different directions at once, Gothic fiction, with its ghosts of counterfeits, becomes a site into which widely felt tensions arising out of this state of culture can be transferred, sequestered, disguised, and yet played out. (296)

Pratchett makes full play with Gothic’s intrinsic fakery, emptying already empty signs only to repopulate them. Carpe Jugulum and The Truth, in particular, suggest some ways in which Pratchett uses Discworld Gothic to explore tensions between the old and the modern.

In Carpe Jugulum, the Gothic’s fair heroine of extreme sensibility is replaced by the robust and practical Agnes, and the de Magpyr vampires see themselves as modern and superior, revising traditional laws: ‘“That is the Lancre River down there. Running water. And we will cross it. … Cultural conditioning would be the death of us, if we are not careful”’ (49). Eschewing creaking doors and guttering candles, the de Magpyrs eat garlic, cross rivers, and wear evening dress only in the evenings.

These vampires try to rewrite their own rules, signified by their leaving Uberwald (the home of Gothic convention) for the up-and-coming kingdom of Lancre. Tensions mount between the vampires, dynastic aristocrats of an old world order, and the citizens of Lancre, whose king rules more or less by permission, mostly that of the witches. Yet the de Magpyrs’ attempt to redefine the vampire narrative leads to their defeat, by witch Granny Weatherwax, who turns the tables by transferring her own values back into the vampires (most significantly, her inability to hurt a child, specifically Princess Esmerelda Margaret Note Spelling of Lancre). Through their consumption of her blood, Granny replaces the vampires’ blood-lust with the desire for something craved by old ladies: ‘“Tea!” one screamed. “I must have… tea!”’ (375). Ironically, the vampires are weakened by turning their backs on Uberwald for modernity, enervated by one of its most innocuous symbols.

By contrast, the old Uberwaldian Count welcomes his traditional stakings and beheadings by generations of villagers as right and proper:

“We met briefly and then she cut off my head and stuck a stake through my heart.” The Count sighed happily. “A very spirited woman”. (405)

The Count’s version of vampirism is ‘right’ and permissible, while the new version becomes abhorrent and ‘wrong’, contravening Gothic narrative conventions. Failed in their attempts to initiate a new vampire modernity, the de Magpyrs also fail as traditional vampires: ‘“I do apologise for my nephew’s behaviour,”’ explains the urbane old Count. ‘“Quite out of keeping for a vampire. Would you people from Escrow like to kill these two? It’s the least I could do”’ (405).

The old Count and the Escrow villagers exist in an Uberwaldian framework of mutual understanding as each performs and reperforms their narrative role:

‘“Oh, him,” said Piotr, from among the Escrow citizens. “He only ever came round once every few years and anyway if you remembered about the garlic he wasn’t a problem.”’ (401)

The villagers overcome the vampire, who ultimately rises again and the story retells itself. Uberwald enables these narratives, but also contains them in a cycle of repetition that reaffirms the respective positions of the old and the modern.

Those vampires who make it to Ankh-Morpork face different trials, attempting not to dominate Discworld modernity, but to adapt to it. The Black Ribboners, to gain acceptance in modern Ankh-Morpork society, sign a pledge to renounce consumption of blood. These vampires are unusually deferential and insecure; they gather in Alcoholics Anonymous-type groups to sing songs and drink cocoa (a performance with echoes of Granny Weatherwax’s victory by tea); vampires cannot be modernised, integrated, and domesticated if they still suck blood.

Black Ribboners carry 'The Kit'

Black Ribboners carry 'The Kit'

If Uberwald alone has the capacity to accommodate blood-sucking vampires as part of its narrative landscape, vampires who wish to move to the modern city must relinquish part of their culture and identity. Widely abjected, hated and marginalised, vampires are the last non-human Discworld species to gain acceptance in the Watch (Ankh-Morpork’s police), in Thud!. In The Truth, which is concerned (of course) with the relationship between words and truth, Pratchett draws on the reader’s sense of justice and honesty, relocating Ankh-Morpork vampires from the margins. As William de Worde establishes the first Discworld newspaper, the Ankh-Morpork Times, a community develops of dwarves, humans, and the paper’s unlikely photographer, the Black Ribboner Otto. Otto is made sympathetic by his struggle against blood-lust, his enthusiasm for flash photography which regularly reduces him to dust, and his encounters with Ankh-Morporkian prejudice, notably from William’s father, Lord de Worde.

At the novel’s climax, to save William, Otto becomes hero of the hour, neatly using Lord de Worde’s fear against him. Otto’s vampire performance both exposes Lord de Worde’s bigotry and displays his own integrity:

“Keep it away from me!” shouted his lordship. …

“Oh yes?” said Otto, still advancing. “You think I am an it? Vell, let me act like an it.”

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He grabbed Lord de Worde’s jacket and held him up in the air, with one hand, at arm’s length.

“Ve have people like you back home,” he said. … “I come here to Ankh-Morpork, zey tell me things are different, but really it is alvays the same…. And now, vot shall I do viz you?”

He wrenched at his own jacket and tossed the black ribbon aside.

“I never liked the damn cocoa anyvay,” he said.

… Lord de Worde had gone pale. William had never seen him so obviously frightened before.

… “Shall I bite you, Mister Lordship? Vell, maybe not, because Villiam here thinks I am a good person. … Now, maybe I have to ask myself, how good am I? Or maybe I just have to ask myself… am I better zan you?”

… With great delicacy, he planted a kiss on Lord de Worde’s forehead. (408)

Here, Otto moves seamlessly between conventional vampire and modernised subject who has internalised human morality. We’ll never know which, if either, is ‘the truth’, but on the surface, he successfully reconciles the two sides of his identity. This slippage is made possible because of Gothic parody – because the epitome of comic Gothic is its capacity to accommodate competing tensions in the same space.

There’s more I’d like to say; I’ve barely mentioned werewolves, or Igor. I’ve had to skip Igor, Sally, Angua, Lady Margolotta, Igor, Igor, Biers, Mrs Cake, Reg Shoe, Windle Poons, and Death. There’s a whole lot more Discworld Gothic, and if you haven’t read any, it’s time you got out there.

Just beware of old ladies bearing cups of tea.


Hogle, J. ‘The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit’, Companion to the Gothic, ed. by D. Punter (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) pp. 293-304.

Horner, A. and Zlosnik, S. Gothic and the Comic Turn (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

Pratchett, T. Thud! (London: Corgi, 2005)

Pratchett, T. The Truth (London: Corgi, 2001)

Pratchett, T.  Carpe Jugulum (London: Corgi, 1999)

Sayers, K.  ‘The Witches, Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, ed. by A. M. Butler, E. James, and F. Mendlesohn (Reading: Science Fiction Foundation, 2000) pp. 83-98.

Spooner, C.  Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion, 2006)

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