South African Gothic

Posted by rebeccaduncan on February 03, 2013 in Guest Blog, Rebecca Duncan tagged with , , , ,

Since its inception in late 18th century Britain, the Gothic has always been determined by the anxieties of the cultural moment. Dangerous patriarchs, the shadowy castles they inhabit, and the swooning damsels they pursue:  these now-indelible signs with which we still associate fictions of the genre, and which hark back to Horace Walpole’s first gothic experimentations, reflect, as critics have often pointed out, the fears of a society on the eve of upheaval. The industrial revolution, which took hold of Britain around the time of Otranto’s publication, was to scramble the aristocratic codes that had given European reality its shape for so long  (Punter 1996: 193). The gothic text, in its original, morbid fascination with nobility, registers both the unease invested in feudal institutions as these begin to decay, and the fear that their dissolution might somehow incite terrible vengeance. Now-canonical readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reveal, with similar clarity, the extent to which gothic fiction is something of an index for cultural anxiety.  Jerrold Hogle in particular has located the infamous monster amidst threats and ‘attractions of old alchemy and modern biochemistry’ (2002: 4). These shuddered through the western world as the enlightenment gathered momentum, and with it, the quasi-occult and certainly blasphemous capacity to undermine order in the religious universe. The same sort of observations have frequently been made in relation to the role of women in society, which has been a concern in gothic fiction since its genesis. Questions about gender become especially pronounced around the end of the nineteenth century in works such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ published on the eve of what was to become known as feminism’s ‘first wave.’ Empire too brought with it its own set of nightmares. As Britain extended itself all over the world – an enterprise conducted under a host of increasingly dubious signs in the vein of ‘glory’ and ‘progress’ – it also opened itself up to a new barrage of what it perceived to be threats. These find their way, in various guises, into fiction from the nineteenth century and beyond: William Beckford’s Vathek, Charlotte Bronte’s racially ambiguous Bertha Rochester, and H. Rider Haggard’s She, for example, have repeatedly been linked to the anxieties of empire. Such narratives frame monstrosity in a way which, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert writes, reflects ‘a growing fear in British society … of the consequences of the nation’s exposure to colonial societies, nonwhite races, non-Christian belief systems, and the moral evils of slavery’ (2002; 258).

The crumbling of social hierarchy that came with industrialisation, the difficult intersection of scientific and religious conceptions of self and world, the changing role of women in society, and the throwing open of British culture, through imperial expansion, to the effects and influences of its colonial dominions: this is a somewhat ‘pick ‘n mix’ assortment  of developments that took place in British society during the first century of the Gothic’s lifespan (and one which might be tied together under the title ‘modernity’ – another dubious sign), but it is, nevertheless, a list which illustrates the way in which the genre responds to, and is fundamentally informed by, unease that is specific to particular epochs and communities. The Gothic, as Steven Bruhm puts it, ‘has always been a barometer of the anxieties plaguing a certain culture at a particular moment in history’ (2002: 288) and what even a cursory survey like mine should make clear about the conditions in which such fiction was born and developed, is the extent to which the fears it reflects have been bound up with rupture, with upheaval, with change. The fault lines of history are, after all, both exciting and terrifying. As the structures that shaped the past disintegrate, new vistas of possibility and opportunity open up. At any moment, however, these might transmogrify into scenes of terrible, threatening chaos; amorphous, brutal, and inaccessible via the codes and systems that used configure a recognisable universe. In moments of seismic change the world itself is, as Stephen Clingman writes, ‘in some sense invisible, present only as the shadowed and the uncanny’ (2012: 635). In the absence of a suitably stable illusion of entrenched order – which would, Clingman implies, render things ‘visible’ once more – the worst seems imminent, lurking in the impenetrable gloom that reality has become. In such conditions, nightmares jostle daydreams with no sense of what might prevail, and, as harmony and pandemonium teeter anxiously on a knife-edge, the fiction of fear flourishes.

It is at this point, perhaps, that we might begin to see a connection between the Gothic and South African literature from the last three decades. This is the period during which apartheid – the country’s policy of institutionalised racism – faltered amidst equal measures of hope, desolation and violence, and finally fell in the 1994 triumph of democracy over oppression. Although the ruin of the old regime marks the beginning of legislated freedom and equality in the country, it was also to generate, perhaps paradoxically, its own powerful brands of unease and frustration amongst South Africa’s people. ‘The momentum of change carries with it anxieties’ (2002; 279), Fred Botting reminds us, and this thought is reiterated with specific reference to the South African context by Clingman in his recent essay: ‘But who in the earlier years could have foreseen the latter?’ he asks of the fraught time leading up to liberation, ‘And who in the latter years would have escaped the trauma and after images of the former? The South African world during these years was so foreboding that cataclysm was as easily imaginable an outcome as peace’ (2012: 634). Dramatic change, in other words, renders the world opaque and unpredictable, and while, on the one hand, the dismantling of an unjust system might clear the way for a better, brighter future, on the other, it may equally herald a descent into unprecedented brutality. This uncertainty, in which catastrophe is a constant, imminent potentiality, characterises life in South Africa in the time leading up to, and immediately following, the demise of apartheid, and it is also, as we have seen, one condition which drives the production of particularly gothic fiction. Just as shifts in the shape of European reality during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries generated anxieties that crystallise in what we might term ‘original’ gothic narratives, so South African literature registers the instability of life during the transition, and it does so often in narratives that pivot on the monstrous, the spectral and a host of other disturbing devices.

There is, as a result, a profoundly gothic element to fictions written in and about South Africa since the late twentieth century, and this dark strand in the post-apartheid canon has, I suggest in line with scholars Jack Shear, Gerald Gaylard and Cheryl Stobie, a postcolonial agenda. Even as it reflects mutating cultural anxieties – about the national future, for example, identity and the persistence of inequality – Gothic in recent South African narratives also problematizes the deep divisions carved into in the country through years of oppression.  In the coming weeks I will discuss a selection of post-apartheid narratives, each of which deploys elements of terror, horror and excess  in a bid to address the wounds in South African society.  I will introduce fictions produced in the difficult run up to 1994, in its immediate aftermath, and also some from the present day, and will show quite how powerfully these South African texts engage with the Gothic aesthetic. Incest, parricide, and distorted doubles abound in these novels; ghosts manifest in droves and black magic is legion. It is, in fact, surprising that more work has not already been done on the South African Gothic, so deeply invested is the literature in traits which define the genre. The reason for this lacuna is not entirely clear, although I suspect – and this point has been raised elsewhere by Gerald Gaylard – that, in South African circles, the stigma of frivolity, of fantasy, of being mere sensationalism continues to cling to Gothic as a mode of literary production (2008: 3). The genre appears – and again this something of a hunch – not quite responsible enough to account for the real-world horror and dehumanisation which, for generations, characterised so many lives in the country. The Gothic is, after all, in some sense about hyperbole and excess; about the delight of fear, the thrill of discomfort, and, it might seem, also about gratuitous violence for violence’s sake. How, given such observations, could it be an appropriate style in which to tell the stories of a country where these things – fear and violence – have been part of an insistent, everyday trauma? How might the Gothic (and indeed literature in general) approach this kind of history, this kind of context, without reducing unspeakable pain to the flimsy language of pulp fiction, to cheap thrills? The answer to this question is much longer and more complex than there is space for in this particular forum, but I would suggest that it has in part, to do with the Gothic as a means through which to engage with alterity; with the un-approachable difference that sets the (cultural, racial, gendered … ) ‘other’ apart from the self. My thinking here is partially in line with Gaylard’s own. He grapples with the problem of the Gothic in South Africa by highlighting the extent to which the often meta-fictional genre ‘points beyond itself to … the other which never disappears despite the best attempts of … social engineering’ (2006: 15). Writing of the postcolonial Gothic in general, Tabish Khair has argued to a similar end. He suggests that the presence of exaggerated emotion in the gothic text marks ‘an attempt, however incomplete or unclear, by the Self to deal with the Other.’ Because, he goes on, this approach is neither rational nor linguistic, it avoids recourse to ‘the language employed by the Self to capture, describe, conscribe or deny the Other’ (2009: 94-5).Hyperbolic emotions – elsewhere conceived of, perhaps, as the signs of sentimentality or sensationalism – thus account for the inaccessibility of the other’s experience, without translating, transforming and reducing that experience; their presence in the text admits of  its limits, and of the limits of the self. In this light, the Gothic can be seen to register alterity – not to destroy it by forcing it into words, but to preserve it in feeling-filled gaps and breaks. Both Khair and Gaylard have, it seems to me, given powerful reason for literary scholars working on South African fiction to consider the gothic forms which so clearly populate its pages. There is, I think, much to be said about the way in which cultural anxieties coagulate in the fearful figures  and sinister scenarios endemic  to literature of  the post-apartheid canon, and some of this I shall say myself, here, in the coming few weeks.


Botting, Fred. 2002. ‘Aftergothic: Consumption, Machines and Black Holes.’ In: Jerrold E. Hogle (Ed). Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruhm, Steven. 2002. ‘The Contemporary Gothic: Why We Need It.’ In: Jerrold E. Hogle (ed). Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Clingman, Stephen.2012. ‘Writing the Interregnum: Literature and the Demise of Apartheid.’ In: David Atwell and Derek Attridge (eds). The Cambridge History of South African Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaylard, Gerald. 2008. ‘Postcolonial Gothic: Time and Death in Southern African Literature.’ Journal of Literary Studies. 24 (4): 1-18.

Hogle, Jerrold E. 2002, ‘The Gothic in Western Culture.’ In Jerrold E. Hogle (ed).Gothic Fiction.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Khair, Tabish. 2009. The Gothic Postcolonialism and Otherness: Ghosts from Elsewhere. Houdmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. 2002. ‘Colonial and Postcolonial Gothic: The Carribbean.’ In: Jerrold E. Hogle (ed). Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Punter, David. 1996. The Literature of Terror: The Modern Gothic. Michigan: Longman

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