Danel Olson (ed.), 21st Century Gothic

Posted by David McWilliam on September 30, 2011 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

Danel Olson’s impressive collection, 21st Century Gothic, aims to encourage critical attention towards Gothic novels published since the year 2000. Noting the global spread of Gothic in the twenty-first century, the editor has consulted over 180 experts on the subject to help him compile a list of the 53 most significant Gothic novels from the first decade of the new century. My work with the Twisted Tales project, which aims to promote the best of twenty-first century horror, has led to collaborations with several of the writers either offering critical reflection on the works of others or whose novels are the subject of essays in this collection: Adam Nevill, Ramsey Campbell, Lisa Tuttle, Nicholas Royle, and Graham Joyce. I concur with the inclusion of the vast majority of the works selected and have been convinced to read several more on the basis of the engaging analyses showcased in this collection. Olson consulted a wide-ranging group of experts, extending far beyond the academic community to include ‘online horror/ghost/Gothic newsgroup and literary archive founders, long-active horror and fantasy editors, publishers, humanities librarians, speculative-fiction-award board members, horror film experts and directors, true crime writers, literary biographers, editors and authors of dark erotica/noirotica, […] reference guide compilers, and a forensic psychologist whose speciality is serial killers’ (p. xxv). Furthermore, the essays contained in 21st Century Gothic are written by contributors ranging from authors and critics to world-renowned scholars of the Gothic. This has ensured that the latest generation of Gothic novelists are subject to fresh interpretations, not only by established academics but also those from differing specialisms and backgrounds. Like every other aspect of this collection, Olson’s approach when laying the groundwork shows a great deal of innovation. Indeed, the editor’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm for the project is infectious, inspiring the reader to join him in hoping ‘that this dark treasure-box of lucid and penetrating criticism may launch a Gothic discourse that enlarges the Gothic canon, just as Morrison’s Beloved expanded the American literary canon over twenty years ago’ (p. xxvii).

One of the most notable aspects of the collection is that it offers no simple definition of what constitutes contemporary Gothic, instead leaving it up to contributors to choose whether or not to address this issue. Is it an aesthetic, a set of motifs, desired effects on the implied reader, key tropes of character and place, or something else entirely? Olson states that all of the contributors agree with the ‘traits and tones’ of the Gothic as identified by Diane Long Hoeveler and Tamar Heller in their edited collection Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions (2003). However, the list is so extensive that it bypasses any boundaries that may be imposed by taxonomists, spreading further and further into twenty-first century culture as exception proves to be the only rule. Olson offers an intuitively plausible, but enormously open, definition when he states that ‘21st Century Gothic evidences that the Gothic was not so much a literary movement long past as an impulse in art that won’t stay buried’ (p. xxix). The collection covers novels by writers from the USA, England, Australia, Canada, Spain, Japan, Scotland, Wales, Belgium and the Netherlands, but is dominated by Anglo-American texts. In addition to the broad coverage of Gothic novelists, Olson hopes that 21st Century Gothic will serve as a guide to ‘high school and college students, general readers, and seasoned scholars’ (p. xxiv). At 675 pages, inclusive of such diverse subjects and approaches, I cannot hope to cover a representative sample of the collection in any great detail. Instead, I have chosen some of the essays that most interest me and, predominantly, those that will appeal to the contemporary Gothic researcher.

21st Century Gothic repeatedly looks to the past in order to situate these novels in the Gothic tradition. Perhaps the most influential text is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which directly and indirectly shapes the narratives of many contemporary works. As someone who also specializes in science fiction, I found two essays that explore reconfigurations of the Frankenstein archetype in relation to the science of cloning particularly engaging. Frankenstein’s continuing relevance is foregrounded in the opening essay, ‘From Asperger’s Syndrome to Monosexual Reproduction: Stefan Brijs’ The Angel Maker and its Transformations of Frankenstein’ by Jerrold E. Hogle. The Angel Maker (2005) begins in the 1980s, as Dr. Victor Hoppe returns to Wolfheim, Belgium with three infant boys: young clones of himself (his ‘angels’) who share his every feature, including the cleft palate he had hoped to eradicate. While Hogle refers to the novel as Gothic science fiction, he restricts his analysis to a discussion of the text’s interplay with Mary Shelley’s cautionary tale of Promethean science. Hogle notes the differences between Shelley’s and Brijs’s Victor in terms of motivation; whereas the former is possessed by great hubris that is implicitly critiqued within the story, the latter’s drive is far more ambiguous, linked to his Asperger’s syndrome and related scientific genius. Combined with his rejection by his mother and father, Hogle suggests that Victor’s actions are somewhat predetermined:

If such a man cannot make intimate contact with others  and virtually has to be obsessed with his own mental and bodily universe more than any other object, why should he not seek a self-oriented reproduction quite apart from intercourse with a woman, all according to scientific theories and minute genetic procedures for which he has the intellect? After all, he is inherently (if not entirely) oblivious to any external consequences because of an internal condition with which he has been born. (p.5)

From Hogle’s analysis, it appears as though the narrative centres on Victor rather than his ‘angels’, with science and the guilt of creation as its key themes. Whereas Shelley’s Victor blames the creature he brought to life for all his misfortunes, Brijs’s protagonist cares for his children and is distraught when they suffer premature deaths ‘wrought by their artificial insemination from his sperm alone’ (p. 6). Again, whereas Shelley’s ‘mad scientist’ worked in secret, The Angel Maker situates Victor in the very different context of a late twentieth century university system, where his research has the potential to bring grants and prestige. Though the senior academics reject him when they discover the extent of his experiments, Hogle notes how the novel encourages the reader to consider the collective responsibility for scientific innovation:

What The Angel Maker can thus point to in academia is a genuine difficulty that has arisen in our time of determining where the line is to be drawn between experiments promising scientific breakthroughs with wide human benefit and the pushing of experimental data toward unreproducible and even morally questionable conclusions. (p. 11)

The focus shifts entirely from the ethical questions surrounding the act of cloning to the experience of being a clone in ‘Educating Kathy: Clones and Other Creatures in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go’ by Glennis Byron and Linda Ogston. Never Let Me Go (2005) is Gothic science fiction minus the science, as the clones never fully understand who and what they are and who created them. This essay, one of the strongest in the collection, considers the quiet horror of clones educated to accept their status as donors for medical operations (they are essential organ banks for ‘normal’ humans). They are even trained to look after one another as ‘carers’ before their own bodies are pressed into service for the health of their faceless masters. The protagonist, Kathy, describes her experiences growing up at the secluded Hailsham boarding school before being transferred to the Cottages in order to prepare for the transition into mainstream society. Upon reaching maturity, the clones look back to their time at Hailsham as a period of safety and nurturing. But Byron and Ogston challenge their interpretation by pointing to the sinister discipline instilled by the power structures of the school and its function in a society that cares more about readily available organs than the ethics of harvesting them. Whereas Victor’s creature moulds himself in the image of Milton’s Satan, cast out by his creator and left to suffer alone, there is no room for rebellion within the education system presented in Ishiguro’s novel:

[W]hile [Frankenstein’s creature] rages against his fate, [the clones] generally remain unnervingly passive and accepting. […] Elsewhere, clones may throw themselves upon electric fences in desperate attempts at escape, but there is no need for such measures here, it is the educational experiment itself that controls them. The system is a success: no waste at Hailsham. (p. 458)

Thus, Byron and Ogston suggest that Ishiguro has reformulated the Frankenstein narrative for an era not only of genetic engineering but an extreme version of the sort of social conditioning and control identified by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1975).

Outside contributions by academics, other essayists range in approach, style and rigor. For example the essay by critic and author James Marriott considers a novel that had the unusual effect of giving me nightmares as an adult reader. ‘The Sleep of Reason: Gothic Themes in Banquet for the Damned by Adam L. G. Nevill’ serves as an introductory overview of the Gothic themes of the novel. Banquet for the Damned (2004)  is concerned with night terrors and madness in St Andrews, as a cult of witches summon something ancient and terrible that stalks its prey in the lonely hours of the night. Marriott briefly addresses many of the questions thrown up by the narrative, such as the charge that the reality of the witches’ occult powers could be perceived as misogynistic as it suggests the purges were founded on truth rather than prejudice, but does not develop any single line of argument in its seven pages. I hope that this essay will encourage further engagement with this nightmarish novel in subsequent scholarship.

Far stronger is Adam Nevill’s ‘Wonder and Awe: Mysticism, Poetry, and Perception in Ramsey Campbell’s The Darkest Part of the Woods’, in which the author considers the sustained disturbing effects of the supernatural and the irrational in a book by the novelist S. T. Joshi claims in his Foreword to the collection as deserving ‘serious consideration as the greatest horror writer of our time, and perhaps of all time’ (p. xvii). Nevill has elsewhere claimed that Campbell’s horror fiction has been a significant influence on his writing and one gains an insight into both his subject’s and his own work when reading this critique of the latter’s technique. Indeed, it is noteworthy that all references are to The Darkest Part of the Woods (2002), as Nevill offers a personal explanation of how and why the novel affects him so deeply from the perspective of a fellow writer. He notes that ‘the realm of psychology that Campbell excels at exploring in his fiction is that of the disturbed in the process of being disturbed. His characters inhabit a region of consciousness that is often both difficult and painful to empathise with’ (p. 152). When he interviewed Campbell for the Twisted Tales blog, Nevill argued that this shift from aiming to scare readers to disturbing them is liberating for horror writers and this is borne out by the affective power of his own work. From Nevill’s comments about the resonance of the ancient forest in The Darkest Part of the Woods, Goodmanswood, one can clearly identify Campbell’s influence on Nevill’s latest novel, The Ritual (2011); a book likely to compete for a place in a similar volume to this collection for our current decade.

Humanities librarian, editor and critic Richard Bleiler considers the limits of the term ‘Gothic’ in relation to a children’s book in the essay ‘Raised By the Dead: The Maturational Gothic of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book’. Bleiler explores the tension between the inherent Gothic qualities of The Graveyard Book’s (2008) undead and their graveyard home with the benevolence they display in their treatment of a young orphan, Nobody ‘Bod’ Owens. Bleiler asks whether, when the haunted mausoleums of a burial ground become a site of security rather than menace, they retain the essence of the Gothic:

How explicit―or, if one will, how derivative or referential―does a work need to be in order to be considered Gothic? The answer is not easily determined, for unlike terms such as fantasy and science fiction, Gothic is not inherently a transformational term. One overtly fantastic or supernatural element can and often does transform a hitherto mimetic work of fiction into something else, whereas one piece of Gothic furniture does not necessarily transform an entire edifice into a Gothic castle. (pp. 275-6)

Whilst Bleiler makes a strong argument as to the difficulty of pinning the Gothic down, the other two genres he refers to are far from easily taxonomized. Take a novel such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), which is either a science fiction story about astral projection and time travel, an anti-asylum narrative about the relentless discipline and correction of a woman trapped within a cruel institution, or both. Bleiler identifies the tension between the Gothic tropes and characters (including predatory magicians known as Jacks) with the fundamentally positive narrative trajectory of the bildungsroman; two genres he perceives to be ‘inherently different’. Again, this raises another difficulty in reaching a definition, this time through opposition, as I consider both Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1) early examples that challenge Bleiler’s division. Most interesting, however, is the essay’s conclusion, which goes some way to explaining the specifically twenty-first century elements of Gaiman’s novel:

The Graveyard Book definitely references much that is traditionally Gothic, utilizing works, characters, themes, and settings that generations of scholars have identified and classified as Gothic. At the same time, although these Gothic elements and   references are undeniable, Gaiman frequently subverts them and develops the novel by focusing on the positive aspects of maturation, concentrating on the values of learning, friendship, and sacrifice, and the importance of life and exploration. The Graveyard Book is, then, in the final analysis, a literary hybrid of a kind that literary   critics and genre historians do not yet appear to have identified, perhaps because it is among the first of its kind: it is Gothic Bildungsroman. It is a fitting hybrid to start the twenty-first century. (p. 277)

The juxtaposition of the optimism of Gaiman’s novel and its use of the undead tropes of the Gothic is not as unique as Bleiler seems to suggest. As Catherine Spooner argues in her forthcoming monograph Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic, it is in fact a widespread feature of twenty-first century Gothic, particularly in young adult and children’s fiction, a shift that Gaiman is participating in rather than beginning. Nevertheless, this essay engages in a debate that is sure to grow in coming years, as we witness the expansion of contemporary Gothic studies. As insightful and provocative as many of the essays by authors and critics may be, those working within contemporary Gothic studies are most likely to find the contributions by scholars to be of use in their research. It is to these contributions that I return for the remainder of this review.

While many of the novels discussed in 21st Century Gothic seek to unsettle the reader in a subtle manner, there are other texts that work within the tradition of body horror that came to prominence with the Splatterpunk movement of the 1980s. Sue Zlosnik’s essay ‘Deadly Words: The Gothic Slumber Song of Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby’ (2002) considers the novel in the context of a Gothic tradition that includes the ‘comic turn’ and an emphasis on transgression extending as far back as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). By ‘comic turn’, Zlosnik refers to a term she coined with Avril Horner that argues: ‘the Gothic’s emphasis on fakery in the representation of extremes of feeling and experience inevitably invites the ludicrous excess of further layers of fakery in the form of parody’ (p. 374). As anyone familiar with Palahniuk’s Haunted (2005) will attest, this is a form of Gothic the author revels in. Lullaby is structured around the deadly power of the culling song, a poem contained in the volume Poems and Rhymes from Around the World, which can kill just by being spoken. The central characters go on a roadtrip to find this grimoire and suffer the consequences of terrible power easily wielded. Giving examples including a man who is made to fall and split open his head for pushing one character in the street, Zlosnik argues that ‘[m]uch of the body horror in the novel verges on the comic, sometimes through incongruity’ (p. 377). Ultimately, Zlosnik argues that Lullaby is ‘a novel about the power of words. The potent spells of the grimoire are words endowed with ancient power, yet the novel also shows everyday words, the dynamics of human relations, as inherently dangerous’ (p. 381). This juxtaposition of supernatural horror and the pain which words can inflict is a theme also addressed in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), another novel written about in the collection.

The notion of violence committed through words takes centre stage in Carol Margaret Davison’s essay ‘His Dark Materials: Gothic Resurrections and Insurrections in Patrick McGrath’s Martha Peake’ (2000). Davison explores McGrath’s overt interrogation of the process of writing history, how this can be distorted in order to inflict damage on those one despises and encourage misrepresentation of the narratives of individuals to suit one’s own assumptions. Set in eighteenth-century Britain, against the backdrop of the American Revolution, McGrath’s novel is ostensibly written by the highly unreliable narrator Ambrose Tree, who attempts to record the history of Martha Peake and her father Harry. Harry is an alcoholic who once accidentally set fire to his house, killing his wife and seriously injuring himself in the process. The accident leaves him with a twisted, crooked spine and Harry pays penitence for his ‘demon within’ by reinventing himself as the Cripplegate Monster, displaying his spine to the curious for a price. Martha is presented as a loyal daughter to Harry, who is subsequently depicted as a Gothic monster, complete with ‘horse penis’, who succumbs to his addiction and rapes his daughter in a drunken haze. Davison points out the way in which Ambrose demonizes Harry, who others argue was a more complex figure than his narrative suggests:

Martha Peake provocatively brings the Gothic to bear on historiography. Over the course of this fictional production, McGrath suggests that historians are, of necessity, unreliable Victor Frankenstein-style producers in their painstaking process, as Ambrose Gothically describes it, of placing flesh on the bones of history. Prejudices, in part due to personal experiences, invariably take root, thus affecting the ostensible objectivity of their enterprise or ‘black art’. (p. 393)

Martha becomes pregnant as a result of the rape and flees to America, where she quickly marries in order to raise her son without the stigma of illegitimacy. There she betrays her new country for information about her father, but then kills the British officer in question, allowing her ‘spin doctor father-in-law’ to use her tale to promote the American cause. Davison notes how McGrath’s novel offers insights into ‘the Gothic realities that sometimes underpin ideals and the propagandistic, socially galvanizing power of a falsified history’ (p. 394). Martha is not able to tell her own story and Davison reserves strongest criticism for Ambrose who, despite his apparent support for her, ‘violates his subject’ and ‘commits a stunningly grotesque offense in his closing words when he envisions a romanticized, supernatural, and posthumous reunion between Martha and her rapist father’ (p. 395). This is an excellent essay, rich in ideas and textual analysis.

Finally, Danel Olson not only edited the collection, but also contributed four essays. Though I have not enough space to write on it in any detail, Olson’s analysis of Jennifer Egan’s The Keep (2006) suggests that it is a vital contribution to the contemporary Gothic field that is likely to appeal to those who enjoy the metafictional complexities of House of Leaves. Instead, I will conclude by considering the editor’s analysis of a novel that engages with another key Gothic text, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In ‘Vlad Lives! The Ultimate Gothic Revenge in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian’ (2005), Olson considers the author’s reworking of Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire as Vlad III Dracula, who ‘scars’ the lives of three generations of historians. Like Stoker’s creation, Vlad III Dracula loves the bloody violence of war. Olson notes the parallels between both Draculas and the historic figure of Vlad the Impaler, as they all share a willingness to sacrifice multitudes in their lust for power. Vlad III Dracula provides the reader and historians with a long view of humanity, glorying in ‘our total warfare more obscene and invidious than such a monster as he could ever have dreamt’ (p. 291). Olson notes that Kostova is engaging in a Gothic theme that extends back to Lewis’s The Monk and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), that the division of human and monster is a false binary and that the latter can reside in the former:

The great Gothic stories in the end remind us not only of the cost of cruelty to the victim, but how much it disables and dehumanizes the perpetrator, turning the vanquishers (from the politician, to the general, to the tank commander) into monsters that bury the innocent, along with their memories of freedom. Partly a bildungsroman, this book has a narrator who grows and comes to terms with our passive response toward the self-serving politics and vicious history of the twentieth century. She understands the dark truth that the longing for power turns leaders and nations into vampires, draining all the life from those who are weaker. (p. 292)

In my own research, I question the metaphor of monstrosity to describe extreme human criminals, as it is often used by those in power against whom the object of this labelling practice cannot reply. Many have used the term monster to describe the actions of dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, but the notion that those in power act as vampires when it comes to starting wars, including the victors such as the British and American governments, is less common and somewhat intriguing. It suggests a need to feed off bloodshed (whether for prestige, power and/or financial gain), moving from one conflict to another, and is perhaps less emotive if one ascribes this to the Anglo-American military-industrial complexes. In the first eleven years of the twenty-first century, Britain and the USA have invaded three countries to date, suggesting that Vlad III Dracula has identified a dark truth to the corrupting nature of human power. Olson notes that Kostova’s vampire still thirsts for revenge against his Muslim enemies and is thus delighted with the brutality of terrorist attacks and the military counterattacks from Britain and America:

The ultimate Gothic revenge that this ultimate Islamaphobe Vlad III Dracula intimates is obscene: he believes in and welcomes a clash of civilizations. He would like to kill every Muslim man, woman, and child with our nuclear dust. And we are to help him. […] Vlad III Dracula aims to seduce us not by the cheesy trances from the vampire films of old, but by an alliance of hatreds, by arousing our own blindness, frustration and anger over recent radical Islamist violence and our desire for a solution that restores our hyperpower and security. Nations, history keeps telling us, will do anything to keep their power. (p. 299)

Here, Olson suggests that twenty-first century Gothic tackles some of the most controversial political debates of the new century, asking searching questions of those in power and the complicity of their fellow citizens who stand by and do nothing.

As I conclude this 4,000 word review, I must confess that I have barely scraped the surface of this complex and provocative collection. These essays will serve to stimulate debate on novels which have, for the most part, not been studied at any great length, as well as presenting questions and positions that subsequent scholars will want to engage with and challenge. This book is likely to become a staple of contemporary Gothic courses and a useful reference for those conducting research in what is still a burgeoning field. Only time will tell whether the editor’s dreams for the collection will be realized, but for now it serves as a totemic declaration that a new era of the Gothic is upon us, deserving of critical attention as we seek to understand the fears and nightmares of a new century.

Danel Olson is editor of the forthcoming The Exorcist: Studies in the Horror Film, 500+ page study of the original film and its controversial prequels and sequels, due out from Centipede Press December 2011, and an all-new anthology of fiction, Exotic Gothic 4, due out from PS Publishing in March 2012.

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