Danel Olson is Professor of English at Lone Star College, Texas. He has compiled three collections of new Gothic stories and novel excerpts from around the world: Exotic Gothic: Forbidden Tales from Our Gothic World (2007), Exotic Gothic 2: New Tales of Taboo (2008), Exotic Gothic 3: Strange Visitations (2009) with Exotic Gothic 4: The Nightmare Countries forthcoming next year. EG2 was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award, and EG3 was a finalist for both the Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Awards. He is also the editor of 21st Century Gothic: Great Gothic Novels Since 2000, to be published by Scarecrow Press on December 17th. We asked Danel to talk to us about his experiences in editing this collection of 53 essays on recent Gothic fictions.
When we left off last time, I’d been asking if there was much consensus in these essays about what 21st century Gothic was up to. You’d mentioned the very intriguing idea of the ‘dark gifting’ that appears in so many of these texts, and you’d also noted that there seemed to be a movement toward describing and exposing cruelty. I’m a bit ambivalent about this latter tendency. Of course it’s always good to have cruelty and injustice exposed; it’s just that I’m not sure that is really what Gothic is for. Depends how far it goes, I suppose, but, dare I say it, I’d hate to see Gothic lose its bite and become too politically correct. Joyce Carol Oates is someone who, I think, gets the balance just right.
What the Gothic is for? is a splendid question, and it would captivate me to hear what readers of this say. Is it to chill and darkly delight, to make us fear, to scandalize, to anger, to titillate, to question, to cry, to make insane, to warn, to identify oppressors and trespassers, to provide omens, to make us love to the point of madness and despair, or to make it seem as if the top of our heads have just fallen off? Or is reading the Gothic novel like watching someone blush, revealing in that involuntary response something duplicitous or secret in our midst? Or is this obsessive form, at its very best, doing all of the above to us?
Much of what we get from the Gothic depends on the culture we live in. Right now, just on my southern border, the Gothic seems almost a chronicle of what we are enduring—a sympathetic expression of the violent extremes, and the resulting rage and mourning and helplessness, at the abductions, rapes, and disfigurements about the U.S./Mexico border, the carving of drug-gang symbols into women’s scalps, the use of severed heads for soccer balls, and the hundreds to thousands of innocent women’s bodies left dead (the feminicidios) in the vacant lots and desert areas near Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, since 1993.
The Gothic is to me the fictional warning of what a terrible thing it is in actual life to have complete domination over another. Through the magic of Gothic narrative we enter the victim’s mind, and the victimizer’s, and face the violations squarely. Through the lies of fiction we learn the truths of radical evil. “Absolute total freedom of the human creature,” as Alejandra Pizarnik wrote in her monstrous and marvelous “The Bloody Countess,” is “horrible.” (Jennifer Egan would admit to me that this Pizarnik tale was a lasting influence on her creation of the dark Baroness of The Keep, which is explored in 21st Century Gothic by myself). The drug culture we face here and now, where the Mexican military has been called into Juarez and the citizens have called for UN peacekeepers, is a place of constant risk and Grand Guignol violence actualized. A lurid Gothic tale has become real. I couldn’t even travel recently into Matamoros, Mexico, a town whose name translates as “Death to the Moor” and sits on the Rio Grande near where I was married 20 years ago, without considerable chance of being grabbed or shot: none of my family can. Some of those I know or love have been kidnapped there and elsewhere along the border. It is becoming a zone where the drug barons possess all the money, guns, and influence to do any evil thing. “Mammon,” as the beleaguered Texas sheriff Ed Tom Bell intones in the Cormac McCarthy western Gothic, No Country for Old Men (probed powerfully by the prize-winning Australian writer Deborah Biancotti in 21st Century Gothic). What godawful thing won’t be done on our Mexican/American border in the name of “Mammon”? The Gothic is about losing one’s identity to something unthinkable, and that is happening to us. Again, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: “I thought I’d never seen a person like that and it got me to wonderin if maybe he was some new kind.” One reader across the sea may realize this allusion to Anton Chigurh and have conjured an entertaining Gothic villain. I see a guy who looks like him in my rear view mirror. We are fighting on this land the corrosive effects of ill-gotten wealth, desperate materialism, and the insatiable hunger for controlled substances, and the Gothic is a potent way to understand and express our struggle and anxiety.
You’re insightful again in how you describe Joyce Carol Oates, with her “balance just right.” She has mentioned several times how damaging greed and empty purchases are on American society: how constantly wanting more prompts us to do our worst. Joyce was kind enough to offer a Gothic work for Exotic Gothic I: Forbidden Tales called Beasts, one which has the added sadness of a victim—yet again a female one–who partakes in her victimization.
Willing victims, or say characters who stay too long or return to the locus of horror, gruesome transformation, and death enchant yet another artist you raised. Adam L.G. Nevill terrifies with tales and novels of non-conformists seeking refuge, but they always choose the wrong sanctuary–going into hallways with hidden light switches and unquiet, teak-floored flats from London’s Barrington House in Apartment 16 (2010); or the witchy tunnels and Brown Man-haunted beaches near St. Andrews, Scotland, from his unputdownable Banquet for the Damned (2004); or Antwerp’s mad Dulle Griet Huis in his grotesquely perfect tale “To Forget and Be Forgotten,” debuting in Exotic Gothic 3 (2009). There are strange “occupants” everywhere in his work, some gods too hard to kill.
Speaking of things that seem hard to kill, there’s another trend at the moment that you point to in your introduction, and quite a worrying one. As you note with reference to Stephenie Meyer’s ubiquitous Twilight series, ‘if the über figure of the Gothic—the vampire’ — has been reduced ‘to a softhearted and mumbling boy, less a fiend than a friend, and quite capable of love, maybe even a purer love than our mortal one (enter Edward Cullen), then we have no great monster story but a little romance. What is to dread in that?’ As we move into the next decade, do you think we’ll be able to shake off the Twilight pall or will this trend to sanitise, or, as one of my colleagues so aptly puts it, to mop up the blood and guts of Gothic with romance continue? What about zombies, do you think they are starting to offer something of a corrective?
There’s what we want to happen, and what will. My crystal ball is the what-we-want variety. I would love to bid adieu to sparkly & sensitive vamps (and my daughters will throw a hardbound Twilight at me when they read this—ouch!). On the other spectrum, I would love to see gone the gory Gothic that leaves me yawning and desensitized. Vigilante serial killers who do it for all the right reasons, I would like to show to the door, along with those cancer-ravaged serial killers who want to watch people saw off their body parts.
The psychological Gothic, that paranoid kind, the type that looks into the passion and pathology of love, the one that dresses like a Hitchcock blonde, the one that knows what to keep inside, what to show, and what to leave out, is the one for me. (Understandably, Terry Johnson’s Hitchcock Blonde is a favorite play of mine, asking well the nagging question, “What was the dark secret that caused the great Alfred Hitchcock to obsess over beautiful blondes in jeopardy?”)
As it is a genre highly susceptible to the virus of recent calamity and conspiracy, I reckon we will see an upsurge in fine Gothic works that feature prominently the ruined environment (the BP oil disaster this year being one of the worst Gulf of Mexico catastrophes ever) and mendacious governments (the WikiLeaks this year showing the grand volume of lies & disasters that our tax dollars buy).
Eco-Gothic was discussed and debated several times in 21st Century Gothic, and my students find it enthralling. I just taught today the enviro-Gothic “Black Death” by the Fiji-born Kenneth McKenney from Exotic Gothic 2. His story confronts revenge, cover-up, and the unknown effects of polluting our sea all in a harrowing, almost Lovecraftian way. His tale, he admitted to me, is based on the 2002 sinking of the oil-tanker Prestige off the Spanish coast where Kenneth now lives.
On Zombies: a zombie Gothic romance would seem a very difficult trick, but it has been done! Because of the prevalence of these grand undead armies in video games as shotgun-fodder, I believe these red & yellow-toothed ones will be running after us for a long time. The best zombie series I ever read (with some Gothic elements within) is David Wellington’s big, bold, adventurous Monster Island Trilogy, featuring Monster Island, Monster Nation, and Monster Planet. The books gave me horrible dreams where I just couldn’t outrun these scheming, munching mobs–and that’s saying something. It also may be the only zombie trilogy in world history that features female Somali soldiers coming to our rescue.
I can certainly see how that might make it somewhat unique! You’ve just mentioned a Gothic story by Fiji-born Kenneth McKenney, and that neatly leads into my next question. As you note in your introduction, the books discussed in 21st Century Gothic are not all from the UK or North America, and this is really heartening. You’re the editor of a number of anthologies of Exotic Gothic, with Exotic Gothic 4: The Nightmare Countries due out next year, and consequently used to publishing work by writers from around the world. When I had a network over here in the UK to examine what I called ‘Global Gothic’, I came across quite a bit of resistance from critics who thought calling works from other countries ‘Gothic’ was a kind of colonial imposition. What’s your position on this? And if we do agree to use Gothic as at least a convenient translation term, is Gothic something globally shared and understood, or do the differences in the particular cultures and societies that produce it lead to expressions of quite different fears embodied with quite different forms?
That’s an interesting resistance, but what might be helpful to remember is that many of the non-European writers who investigate darkness and metaphysics through their fiction were born and bred in former European colonies. A citizen of one of your former colonies myself, I must share that we are inheritors of European languages and literary traditions. Consider the many non-European imagiers of the Exotic Gothic series. They are descendants of those once ruled by Spain, Britain, Germany, Italy, and France. My point is they grew up with Gothicism (and it was called such). But it is as much ours now as it is yours. The Gothic seed long ago was planted in our soil, and it grows in shapes ever more grotesque, with fruit ever more strange. The term Gothic is no imposition, and our thanks for bringing the genre over. One question now leads to another. . . . Non-European writers are wholly reinventing the Gothic. Could one argue that some of the most entrancing recent Gothic works in English are not out of England? That’s former colonials for you.
Watching the table of contents develop over the past couple of years, I’ve found it immensely useful in directing me to some wonderful books I really should have read, but for some reason overlooked, and yes, many of these are not by British authors. I’ve found many new favourites as a result – Jennifer Egan’s The Keep springs immediately to mind, and that dark baroness is indeed a delightfully horrid invention. Looking at the list of books eventually chosen, I wonder how different it would have been if you had just started asking for suggestions now, at the end of the first decade of the new century. One book I would definitely have suggested if it had been published when you first asked me is Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. (Now there’s a book that might suggest the Brits are still managing to hold up their own!) Are there any 21st century Gothic texts produced after the selection process that particularly stand out for you?
Yes, you’re right, The Little Stranger (2009) is a perfect choice! And Sarah, if you are reading this, my humblest apology goes to you, and know I am your biggest fan in Texas. But the editorial decision early on was to have only one book presented by an author, no matter how many other astonishing Gothic titles he or she produced that decade (in this case Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith was featured instead of The Little Stranger). That was my choice, and it certainly is a trade-off. While it does enlarge the study to many other deserving authors there’s bound to be a favorite book of mine or of another reader (by an author already appearing in this reference guide) that just doesn’t appear. If we had scores of more contributors, we would have featured chapters on these books of seductive Gothic power below, as well:
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003)
Clive Barker, Mister B. Gone (2007)
Max Brooks, World War Z (2006)
A. S. Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale (2001)
Mary Caponegro, All Fall Down (2009, includes two novellas)
Gail Carriger, Soulless (2009)
Jonathan Carroll, The Ghost in Love (2001), The Wooden Sea (2001), Glass Soup (2005)
Simon Clark, The Midnight Man (2008)
Michael Cox, The Glass of Time (2008)
Justin Cronin, The Passage (2010)
Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park (2005)
Virginia Renfro Ellis, The Wedding Dress (2002)
Leif Enger, Peace Like a River (2001)
Justin Evans, A Good and Happy Child (2007)
Brian Evenson, The Open Curtain (2008), Last Days (2009)
Michel Faber, Under the Skin (2000)
Jana French, In the Woods (2007), The Likeness (2008)
Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001)
Carol Goodman, The Lake of Dead Languages (2002)
Helen Grant, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (2010)
Elizabeth Hand, Mortal Love (2004), Illyria (2006), Generation Loss (2007)
Charlaine Harris, the Southern Vampire series/Sookie Stackhouse series (starting 2001)
Joanne Harris, Sleep, Pale Sister (2004), Holy Fools (2004)
Glen Hirshberg, Snowman’s Children (2002)
Stephen Graham Jones, Demon Theory (2006)
Graham Joyce, Dreamside (2000), Indigo (2000), The Facts of Life (2003)
Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair (2005)
Caitlín R. Kiernan, Threshold (2001), Low Red Moon (2003), The Five of Cups (2003)
Stephen King, Lisey’s Story (2006)
Natsuo Kirino, Grotesque (released in Japanese, 2003, as Gurotesuku; English trans. and pub. 2007)
Rachel Klein, The Moth Diaries (2002)
Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels (2008)
Tanith Lee, Death of the Day (2004), L’amber (2006)
John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let Me In (released in Swedish, 2004, as Låt den rätte komma in; English trans. and pub. 2007, and re-released in 2008 as Let the Right One In)
Jeff Lindsay, the Dexter series (starting 2004)
Margot Livesey, Homework (2001), The Missing World (2005), Criminals (2005), The House on Fortune Street (2008)
Nick Mamatas, Northern Gothic (2001), Move Under Ground (2004)
Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black (2005)
Graham Masterson, A Terrible Beauty (2003)
Patrick McGrath, Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now (2005)
James Meek, The People’s Act of Love (2005)
Stephenie Meyer, the Twilight saga (2005–2008)
China Miéville, The City & The City (2010)
Kate Morton, The House at Riverton (released in Australia as The Shifting Fog, 2007; elsewhere in 2008), The Distant Hours (2011)
Joyce Carol Oates, The Tattooed Girl (2003), The Gravedigger’s Daughter (2007), My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike (2008)
Stewart O’Nan, Songs for the Missing (2008)
Anthony O’Neill, The Lamplighter (2003)
David Oppegaard, The Suicide Collectors (2008)
Chuck Palahniuk, Haunted (2005)
Norman Partridge, Dark Harvest (2006)
David Peace, Tokyo Year Zero (2007)
Rosemary Poole-Carter, Women of Magdalene (2007)
Anne Rice, Merrick (2000)
Cameron Rogers, Music of Razors (2001)
Nicholas Royle, Antwerp (2004)
Will Self, Dorian: An Imitation (2003)
Lucius Shepard, Louisiana Breakdown (2003), Viator (2005), Trujillo (2005)
John Shirley, Demons (2002)
Koji Suzuki, Promenade of the Gods (released in Japanese, 2003, as Kamigami no Promenade; English trans. and pub. 2008)
Thomas Tessier, Father Panic’s Comic Opera (2000)
William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault (2002)
John Updike, Eastwick (2008)
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter (2005)
Jeff VanderMeer, City of Saints and Madmen (2004)
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game (released in Spanish, 2008, as El Juego del Angel; English trans. and pub. 2009)
I guess that’s my reading list set up for the next year or so. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer all these questions, Danel; it’s much appreciated and your answers have been very illuminating. Just one more. As I sit here stranded by more snow than I’ve ever seen in Central Scotland, with a low of -15° C forecast, I notice that you are basking in a balmy 18° C today. We rarely manage that in the middle of summer. Fancy an academic exchange? If not, then what about assembling all your contributors for a Gothic conference in Texas sometime? For a field trip we could go to Sarah Winchester’s ‘palace of weirdness’ in San Jose and test your theory about what we’d see…
Glennis, I am at your command.
And I think that, as usual, you have a bonny idea.
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