Friday, October 6, 2017

Haunting Theology: How the Gothic Mode Can Speak to Christians

John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

By Geoffrey Reiter

Tis the season for monsters, mad scientists, and dark and stormy nights. The history of horror and its association with All Hallows’ Eve is a fascinating topic in itself, but one of the most pertinent branches to this spooky old tree is the strand of fiction we now call the Gothic. More than just a moniker for black-garbed teenagers, the Gothic is an enduring strand woven throughout literature, art, and film over the past two and a half centuries. And despite a reputation (not wholly unearned) for being too bleak for innocent evangelical eyes, the Gothic often brings out some valuable points that remain relevant to Christians, whether we like to face them or not.

What Is Gothic?

Unraveling the origins of the Gothic is a task at once simple and fraught with complication. On the one hand, few deny that it formally begins with the 1764 publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. The first edition of this work was presented as a newly-released Renaissance translation of a medieval manuscript. When Walpole was subsequently revealed to be the (very much alive) author, he affixed to it the subtitle A Gothic Story, complicating an already strange term.

Initially, as an adjective, “Gothic” referred to the race, culture, or language of various northern European tribes that doggedly resisted the Roman Empire, ensuring its eventual fizzling out in Late Antiquity. The word “Gothic” reemerged in the Renaissance as a term used retroactively to insult medieval architecture, thought to be too Germanic, too barbaric, too non-classical-Roman. Walpole’s Otranto and its surroundings (which bore a less-than-coincidental resemblance to his own abode, Strawberry Hill) informed his decision to use the term “Gothic” in this architectural/historical (rather than linguistic or ethnographic) sense. Thus, the generations of strange descendants spawned by his work carried the moniker with them, quite far afield of its original provenance.

Not surprisingly, then, the term “Gothic” still carries with it some vestiges of those old connotations—such tales are often located in old, shadowy, decaying artifices like castles or cathedrals (intact or in ruins). Yet the Gothic resists such simplistic definitions. After all, few would deny Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein entrance into Gothic canon, yet the work contains few of these architectural trappings to commend itself.

So there are many other components to Gothic literature and film most of which can be traced back to The Castle of Otranto. In its day, Otranto received serious censure in some literary and cultural circles for its absurdity, well-nigh glorying as it did in its supernatural and irrational trappings. It was an affront to the sensibilities of Enlightenment society, where moderation and Reason were prized and miraculous phenomena were perceived as the relics of superstitious past ages. Thus, the mysterious and the supernatural were soon associated with the Gothic—particularly insofar as these were potentially dark forces, though they might eventually be purged by supernatural goodness. While Otranto and its offspring offended polite intellectual circles, their popularity was hardly surprising. The quest for abstract Reason that characterized eighteenth-century philosophical thought in some quarters failed to satisfy the human appetite for (and recognition of) the many mysterious facets of existence; rationality by itself threatened to be dry and limited.

Part of the Enlightenment project had likewise been a weakening of traditional Christian doctrines of sin, both the broader understanding of Original Sin and the more intense Reformed emphasis on Total Depravity. Humans, it was felt, were born free from inclination toward evil or irrationality, traits taught and learned by bad upbringing. Gothic texts, however, spared no expense in cataloguing human dispositions toward sin, both on the individual and the generational level. In most cases, this sin eventually results in judgment; sometimes that moral judgment comes across as adequate, while in others, the sheer excess of the depravity in the pages overwhelms any perfunctory moral lessons at the end.

Because the Gothic world envisioned humans as irrational and sinful, it also emphasized their untrustworthiness in conveying information. In the Gothic, the search for objective Reason existing apart from the human experience in the five senses is often rejected. It is well and good to seek an ideal understanding, but nothing can be known outside our perception, and our perception is by no means perfect. As a result, Gothic works are often presented as fractured and unstable texts, existing in “fragments” or bad “translations.” Narrators are frequently unreliable in their accounts, sometimes reporting tales told to them by other equally unreliable narrators. Goodness and Enlightenment here become at best little flickers far off in a labyrinth of shattered mirrors.

Gothic History

There was never really a Gothic “period” of literature or art (or film), though certain eras have found themselves more hospitable to such works. The publication of Otranto ignited the first significant burst of Gothic activity, which finds its peak from the 1790s to the 1820s. William Beckford’s Orientalistic fantasy Vathek (1786) is often considered an early major entrant into the category. The last decade of the 1790s was dominated by Ann Radcliffe, who tried to tidy up Gothic literature for late Enlightenment audiences by explaining away all her supernatural terrors with more mundane explanations, often at the expense of her overly emotional heroes or heroines.

Less tidy or socially acceptable was The Monk (1796), a lurid tale of a depraved abbot, which caused a scandal when it was revealed that its author was Member of Parliament Matthew Gregory Lewis, scarcely twenty years old at the time. This age also saw Caleb Williams (1794) by noted author William Godwin, whose daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would later contribute Frankenstein (1818), the quintessential Gothic romance. Many others could be tallied as well, such as Charles Robert Maturin’s Faustian Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and James Hogg’s doppelganger riff on hyper-Calvinism, Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). The popular writing form was also employed by more mainstream “literary” writers. Jane Austen lovingly savaged Gothic conventions in Northanger Abbey (written late 1790s, published 1817). Romantic poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and, of course, Percy Bysshe Shelley all bear the imprint of Otranto’s legacy. And Gothic style, themes, and imagery migrated quickly to other art forms, as well as other countries.

The nascent United States quickly established its presence among Gothic elites, for the first major American novelist Charles Brockden Brown wrote masterful works like Wieland (1798) and Edgar Huntly (1799) that effectively transferred the terrors and ambiguities of old Europe onto the soil of his native Pennsylvania. And while the mid-nineteenth century saw something of a lull in British Gothic fiction (the Brontë sisters excepted, of course), the United States could applaud the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and, even more importantly, the rise of Edgar Allan Poe, who chilled audiences with his horrific tales in the 1830s and ’40s. Later, the ironic story-writer Ambrose Bierce would carry Poe’s tradition into the twentieth century.

A later burst of Gothic activity would occur in England from the late 1880s through the 1890s, fueled by the fears of a waning Victorian British imperial presence and the apparent threats of modern science. Some of our favorite monsters and fears can be traced to this brief boom: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Other lesser-known but equally worthy publications emerged at the time, such as Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894) and The Three Impostors (1895), Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897), and Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire (1897).

Ever changeable, the Gothic morphed into myriad forms in the twentieth century. Its spectral supernatural trappings were amped up further by authors of “weird” fiction, often in pulp magazines in America (H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard) or as more traditional novelists and story-writers in England (M. P. Shiel, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson). But the Gothic mode also found ways to emerge in more “realist” settings, particularly in writing of the American south, where its echo could be heard behind the pages of writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and Carson McCullers. The nascent media of film and television gave ample space to elaborate on Gothic imagery, as well as to adapt visually many of the great writings from the past centuries. Today, Gothic influence is so pervasive that it would be hard to find any segment of society unaffected.

Gothic Church?

But should Christians welcome this influence? One would not have to look far to find conservative Christians condemning the dark, supernatural, or occult realms so thoroughly staked out by Gothic literature, art, film, and culture. Should Philippians 4:8 believers really be absorbing such darkness; should children of the light indulge such dark tastes?

I have no wish to set up a false dichotomy. Tempting as it is for culturally savvy Christians to dismiss the fears of their less permissive fundamentalist brethren, the Gothic mode does raise some concerns that need to be considered. Some Gothic works rack up serious lists of vices in their pages or their screen-times, and it would be wise for a follower of Christ to be discerning about what he or she is prepared to handle spiritually. I cannot affirm that steady diet only of Gothic media would necessarily be edifying. And because Gothic literature is frequently subversive in nature, it can (sometimes overtly and sometimes more subtly) serve to undermine convictions in problematic ways. Even a superficial victory for the “good guys” can be challenged or rendered weakly insufficient.

Such cautions notwithstanding, faithful Christians have long recognized the potential uses of the Gothic toward positive ends. Some Gothic writers have explicitly Christian backgrounds, such as Charles Robert Maturin (an Anglican priest), Bram Stoker (who likened novels to Christ’s parables) and, more recently, William Peter Blatty (whose book The Exorcist was the first in what he calls his “trilogy of faith”). Contemporary filmmaker Scott Derrickson may also be added to this list. Many early Gothic works emerged out of a hard-core Protestant anti-Catholicism, while several of the earliest writers came from Christian (often Calvinist) environments that shaped the tenor of their works even if the authors ultimately rejected doctrinal faith.

In reality, the best Gothic follows in the tradition of the biblical books we often like the least—books like Judges or Nahum—that remind us in brutal detail of just how bad humans can be—and worse, just how bad we can be. Gothic protagonists like The Monk’s Ambrosio, Justified Sinner’s Robert, Dr. Jekyll, or even Victor Frankenstein often rationalize away their evils and delude themselves into twisted justifications for their own shortcomings. Many of these books are told in the first person, and their narrators’ failings subtly implicate us as well: they use the novel’s natural tendency toward creating empathy to draw us into the lives of their “heroes,” only to slap us with the realization of how complicit we may be. Just as Walpole’s original work proved outrageous to innocent Enlightened eyes that couldn’t bear to look on such blatant irrationality, Gothic now confronts any iteration of Christianity that seeks to avoid humanity’s failings by keeping the atmosphere light and encouraging.

Gothic works also often remind us of the uncomfortable reality that sin exists on a generational as well as an individual level. Sometimes, as in Otranto, the curses are supernatural in nature, but they remind us of a very natural and hard truth: that like it or not, we are the inheritors of our ancestors’ failings, and we will pass failings down to our children. Some Gothic texts present complex structures that allow us to see how multiple generations of human sinners are horrifically interconnected; this is true, for example, of Wieland, Caleb Williams, Melmoth the Wanderer, Wuthering Heights, and even twentieth-century stories as diverse as Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

And yes, sometimes we even get to see legitimization of a moral order in the world of the Gothic. Though some critics seem to think that the least twinge of Gothicism is enough to make any text automatically morally subversive, in reality, many of these works either let the forces of good triumph over evil or at least present adequate judgment upon wickedness. For all its excesses, The Castle of Otranto really does undermine its villain in the end. Radcliffe always ensured that virtue was triumphant, and the ending of the original Dracula similarly endorses its heroes at the expense of its eponymous antagonist. While some Gothic texts do craft ambivalent endings, others climax with more definitive resolution: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, build to collapses of their protagonists that follow the calculated logic of good tragedies.

Suffice it to say, there is no one-size-fits-all Christian approach to Gothic artistry, precisely because the Gothic is itself so idiosyncratic. But blanket condemnations of this 250-year-old mode cannot be supported. Taken alone, most Gothic works provide insufficient nutrition for spiritual sustenance; but they are fortified with enough vitamins to be part of a healthy Christian’s artistic diet, and, whether or not they are in good taste, they taste great going down. Gothic is here to stay, and if we choose, we as Christians can be all the better for its presence.



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