“Feast your Eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!” Gothic horror – Thinking in Images

Posted by Elizabeth McCarthy on December 09, 2010 in Dr Elizabeth McCarthy, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

“Feast your Eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!”
Lon Chaney, The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

When aesthetic theory makes the eye the pre-eminent organ of truth where can the unbelievable and impossibly monstrous spectacle stand? John Ruskin wrote, “To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion – all in one.”  But what if our clear vision falls upon sights so inconceivably hideous that our rational mind revolts at the profanity of the poetry, prophecy and religion offered? And why would we consciously seek out such intellectually and emotionally disturbing sights? The latent paradox of a vision which is attracted to what is unbelievably repulsive is an issue returned to time and again by critics of the Gothic horror genre, most particularly by those critics whose focus is the horror film. However, the issue of the visuality in Gothic horror is as old as the genre itself. By placing this visuality in a socio-historical, as well as a theoretical, context the visual attraction of the horrifically repulsive can be understood not as an anomaly but as a part of a natural progression which the genre itself invites. While such a exploration will not answer the question of why we look, it will make the apparent straightforwardness of such questions far more problematic.

During my tenure as guest blogger for The Gothic Imagination I’d like to consider this subject in detail by looking at a number of relevant areas, including  the importance of illustration in Gothic writing and its reception, the visuals in dramatic stage interpretations of the genre, the key role of vision in the late Victorian era and the invention of the cinema. It’s a rather tall order and I should make it clear I will look at these as I see fit but I’ll attempt to keep a vague chronological order to things…

My reason for choosing this topic is twofold.  I have always been interested in the interplay between text and other media and, in particular, Gothic literature’s long-standing relationship with the visual.  My second reason for choosing this topic is my ardent disbelief in visual depiction as a limiting process which fixes imaginative and interpretative possibilities. One example of his narrow reading of the visual is Wolfgang Iser’s comments in his essay ‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’, where, using Fielding’s Tom Jones as his example, he argues that

The reader of Tom Jones is able to visualise the hero virtually for himself, and so his imagination senses the vast number of possibilities; the moment these possibilities are narrowed down to one complete and immutable picture, the imagination is put out of action, and we feel we have somehow been cheated.

Such claims seek to devalue the physical sensory capacity of sight and accuse it of somehow blocking intellectual thought. A considered exploration of the subject reveals that there is nothing “complete” or “immutable” about the visual image’s relationship with the textual.  The Gothic’s relationship with visuality, in which text and image continually mutate,  is a proof of this.

This idea of mutation, of morphic, as well as generic, variability and possibility is a key element of the Gothic’s success. Despite its negative connotations, mutation is, nonetheless, a potentially positive force because it keeps open the possibility of change. Mutation is, after all, a form of adaptation, and it is this mutative ability of the form and content of the Gothic, as a whole, which holds our attention and fixes our gaze. To borrow David J. Skal’s words, the genre’s dark energies are “shape-changing entities that move in the modern imagination like dream-carvings on a dark carousel. With each revolution the mutate and evolve, the better to hold our attention.” Here Skal hits upon an very important aspect of the Gothic; for both in its depictions as a genre itself, it not only invites mutation, it thrives on it and, in particular, it thrives on making that mutation visible.

Gothic and the Visualising of Mutation

Rosemary Jackson’s assertion that fantastic literature “traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture; that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made absent” points out this literature’s tendency to disclose, reveal and make visible that which is deemed best hidden from view.

Whether these subjects take the form of the discontents or anxieties of a given class, race or gender, or whether they involve other related issues of economics, religious or scientific developments, Gothic literature has, at different points in time and through varying methods, engaged with all of them.  In this sense, Gothic literature can be seen as arising out of a context of social mutation, (from the French Revolution to the Atomic Age and well beyond) which it consequently gives form to in its vivid depictions of contorted worlds and beings gone awry. What such an understanding also reveals is that even in the very origins of the Gothic there resides a compulsion to visualise the mutation of society as a whole, as well as that of a given individual within it.

Illustrating Evil

Within this context, actual works of Gothic fiction reveal a tendency toward detailed depictions of physical appearance, not so much as an aid to a broader narrative interpretation but as the very key to interpretation itself. Gothic writing’s visuality, that is its obsession with the verbal rendering of the visual is, of course, to be expected. In a fiction that deals with the unseen, the unimaginable and, indeed, the unbelievable, convincingly detailed physical depictions often prevail. Only Dickens himself, who is not without his Gothic elements, gives such vivid descriptions of facial and bodily features as can be found in the works of Stoker or Lovecraft. In Gothic literature looks count, they count an awful lot. Descriptions such as Stoker’s Count Dracula or Lovecraft’s Wilbur Whateley read almost as blueprints for illustrators. Gaston Leroux’s Gothic romance, The Phantom of the Opera, contains descriptions so precise and vivid that Lon Chaney’s appearance as Erik, the Phantom, in the 1925 cinema version (see picture above), seems almost entirely based on Leroux’s text, right down to the last detail:

He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeleton frame. His eyes are so deep that you can hardly see the fixed pupils. You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man’s skull. His skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow. His nose is so little worth talking about that you can’t see it side-face; and the absence of that nose is a horrible thing to look at. All the hair he has is three or four long dark locks on his forehead and behind his ears.

Even in instances where the descriptive capacity of the narrator fails, as it so notoriously does with Stevenson’s Mr Hyde, the very absence of description draws attention to the importance of vision and the elusiveness of the visual when language alone must capture it.

This idea of words not being enough in themselves, coupled with the use of vivid verbal depictions as blueprints for visual interpretations, brings us to the important role of the illustrator in the development of Gothic’s visuality. Virtually all of Dickens’ publications were immediately supplemented with illustrations. His close working with the illustrators Phiz (Hablot Browne) and Cruikshank is a perfect example of a writer’s consciousness of the elemental visuality of his/her work and the benefit of enhancing that work with faithful illustrations. In instances such as the spontaneous combustion of Mr Krook, in Bleak House, Phiz’s interpretation of the scene becomes as instrumental in the suspension of the reader’s disbelief in such a remarkably horrific occurrence as Dickens’ own vehement argument on the subject in his 1853 preface.


The spontaneous combustion of Mr Krook by Phiz (December 1852)

Of course, Dickens is not alone in this appreciation of the potential of illustration to provoke and convince the reader.  The sensational and downright false stories of many ‘news’ publications, both before, during and after Dickens’ time, heavily relied on visual renditions to support their facts. Take for example the report of the pig-face woman in the penny publication ‘The Magazine of Curiosity and Wonder’. Such a claim virtually demands visualisation, for although the reader can conceptualise the image of both a pig and a woman, a mutated cross between the two disrupts conceptual categories and, by doing so, provokes an interest which visual depiction will come some way closer to satisfying than words alone. Another particularly Gothic and grisly ‘true’ tale appears in the early eighteenth-century publication ‘The Ghost’.  It is the story of French man, Antoine Langulet, whose unnatural appetite for human flesh in the “highest state of putrefaction” leads him to rifle rotten bodies from their graves and “feast upon them on the spot.” The unimaginable horridness of such a report is imagined by the story’s illustrator, whose explicit visual depiction of cannibalism makes the report’s claims and, more significantly, the activity of modern-day cannibalism in a civilized nation, a little less unimaginable and a little more disturbingly possible.

The Magazine of Curiosity and Wonder's account of the pig-faced woman (1836). The Ghost's account of 'The Dead Devoured by the Living' (early 1800s)

These penny publications are just two of many such, reasonably priced, sensational publications aimed at an ever-growing literate public, which heavily relied on illustrated matter in the relating of a story. The Gothic ‘blue books’ of the late eighteen century, the ‘penny dreadfuls’ of the nineteenth century, and shilling shockers in the latter part of the century, were all full of tales of terror, dramatically illustrated and bursting with a visual excess and imagination which would find its way into the pulp magazines of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Just as the stage play and cinema would later do, these publications ransacked the rich store of imagery in the literary Gothic and appropriated it for their own vivid visual ends.

Early 19th Century Gothic Blue Books

Gothic ‘blue books’ mercilessly pirated versions of Gothic novels like The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk and Melmoth The Wanderer. These unscrupulously published, short volumes (approximately 30 to 70 pages in length) appealed to readers who could not, or did not want to, handle long two to five volume originals but delighted in these inexpensive versions with their sensational engravings and woodcuts. As Edith Birkhead explains:

Ingenious authors realised that it was possible to compress into five pages of a short story as much sensation as was contained in the five volumes of a Gothic romance. For the brevity of the tales, which were issued in ‘chap book’, readers were compensated by gaudily coloured illustrations.

The following comments from the London Review, dated May 1866, highlight just how integral a part illustrations played in these publications:

At the East end of London almost all the murder and highwayman literature of the past sixty years is being republished and sold in penny numbers. In tobacconists’ shop windows, up dirty courts and alleys, this literature may be seen suspended between canisters and brier-roots in strings. The woodcuts are of the Blueskin and Jonathan Wild stamp – slouching fellows with big boots, black masks, and gory poniards flashing high above the victims’ heads. Robinson Crusoe has just been republished in penny portions, and illustrated after the fashion; but it does not seem to be very popular. “It aren’t strong enough, sir,” answered a news agent, in reply to a question put to him.

What one gets through an accumulation of publications such as these, right up until the pulp magazines and comics of the 1950s, is a soup of visual imagery, which remained relatively uncensored. This vast store of visual imagery would in turn be consumed by generations of artists, writers and, later, film makers. The continual mutation of the format in which images of Gothic horror could be transmitted is matched, even surpassed, by the sheer mutative capacity of the images themselves; images which suggested things their corresponding texts often did not – making non-verbal connections with a myriad of cultural concerns and anxieties. For example, the illustrator Mary Byfield’s depictions of scenes of gruesome torture, violence and execution often went much further in expressing an ambivalent attitude toward sexual and racial difference and the politics of power, law and order, and justice than the actual texts which her illustrations  accompanied.

One of Byfield's many illustrations of torture. This one depicts a female criminal being broken on the wheel in Brussels (c. 1830)

Illustration by Robert Prowse for 'The Blue Dwarf' (1860-61) by Lady Esther Hope

Similarly, Robert Prowse’s illustrations for ‘The Blue Dwarf’ strongly evoke colonial and racial anxieties which the text itself only hints at. Such visual signifiers can be found in all manner of publications throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here we see that one of the great strengths of visual depiction is its highly suggestive inter- and extra-textual nature, which often prefigures the textual in the issues and concerns it raises. Such an understanding of the visual image is completely overlooked by assertions such as Wolfgang Iser’s, which so unquestioningly give primacy to the mind’s eye and its capacity to envision over physical sight and the mind’s  capacity to assimilate, interpret, cross-reference and combine visual imagery.

For my next entry I’ll look at more official visual interpretations of Gothic texts, in particular Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Poe. I’ll then say a little about theatrical adaptations of Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula.

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