Iain Banks and Christopher Whyte: Contemporary Scottish Gothic?

Posted by Kirsty MacDonald on February 22, 2009 in Dr Kirsty McDonald, Guest Blog tagged with

Post 3 (suggested soundtrack – The Amphetameanies, ‘The Devil Lives Upstairs’)

To turn now to recent and contemporary examples of the Gothic from Scotland, the most renowned exponent must surely be Iain Banks. He is widely acknowledged as an important Gothic writer in general (for example he is included in the ‘contemporary Gothic’ chapter in the 2000 Companion to the Gothic, and takes his place on the core twentieth-century module of the M.Litt.).

Although there are Gothic elements in Banks’ science fiction (written as Iain M. Banks), I want to focus on his (slightly) more mainstream fiction to test the Scottish Gothic hypothesis. As well as featuring some of the other familiar trappings of the Gothic (castles/old mansion houses, ominous patriarchal figures and anxiety around the female, transgressions of various kinds, and so on), both The Wasp Factory (1984) and The Crow Road (1992) circumnavigate but ultimately centre on sinister family secrets. These might fruitfully be interpreted using Abraham and Torok’s notion of ‘the phantom’, but might also confirm the supposition that in Scottish Gothic there is a haunting that is historically and geographically specific. Both locate these secrets in the unheimlich North of Scotland – the uncanny location that is both home for and threat to the central protagonists. 

However, his novel A Song of Stone (1997) is equally as self-conscious in its use of the Gothic mode, and yet is far from geographically or historically specific. It is set in a dystopian alternative world, featuring medieval-style feudalism alongside a futuristic military band led by a menacing matriarch. Given its lack of specificity and allegorical style, does this mean it isn’t ‘Scottish Gothic’ but rather Gothic by a Scottish writer?

To take another example, Christopher Whyte’s excellent 1997 novel The Warlock of Strathearn plays with Gothic motifs, and again locates the abject historically and geographically. The novel is presented as a story in a found manuscript with supernatural powers, thus self-consciously inserting itself into a tradition stretching back to The Castle of Otranto, and in a Scottish context via Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). In The Warlock, witchcraft, shape-shifting, and trans-sexuality are all situated in rural Scotland in the seventeenth century. However, some of his other fiction that features elements of the Gothic, such as The Cloud Machinery (2000) and his short story ‘Stifelio’ (2001)., are more concerned with continental European traditions, and are both set in Italy. Again, does this preclude them from being classified as ‘Scottish Gothic’?

Is making this distinction rather like splitting hairs? Or is there a case to be made for particular and distinctive branches of Gothic, when the mode intersects with national literary traditions? Can writers consciously adopt such specific versions of the mode at certain times, and abandon them at others? I will look at examples in film in a further post, and at least attempt a conclusion. Your thoughts on the questions raised so far would be very much appreciated.

For more on the Gothic of Banks and Whyte, see my article ‘Anti-heroes and Androgynes: Gothic Masculinities in Contemporary Scottish Men’s Fiction’, in The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies: http://irishgothichorrorjournal.homestead.com/ScottishGothicMasculinities.html


Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory. Abacus. 1984.
————–The Crow Road. Scribners. 1992.
————–A Song of Stone. Abacus. 1997.

Christopher Whyte. The Warlock of Strathearn. Gollancz. 1997.
—————-The Cloud Machinery. Gollancz. 2000.
—————-‘Stifelio’, in Damage Land: New Scottish Gothic Fiction. Polygon. 2001.

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