Gothic Evolution in Literature
Fear is gothic fiction; it is why we read it. It is exciting, romantic, and it fills us with a powerful cocktail of emotions. It is the danger that draws us into the text, but the danger is safe for us the reader. In the gothic tales that are to be discussed, fear comes from power. It is the idea that someone has the power to harm your life and to place your soul in damnation. This fearful and terrifying power is in all gothic fiction, but there are different variation of fear and terror.
The fear we feel in Peter Teuthold’s, The Necromancer, is different from the fear in John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Sheridan La Fanu’s Carmilla. The fear in The Necromancer is similar to what we feel in waking from a nightmare or in watching a Horror film; it is safe and only the illusion of danger. The fear in The Vampyre, however, is real; it is the type that comes over us when we realize late at night that there is an intruder in our home, or a stalker in our wake. The clear difference is one is imaginary while the other is reality.
In reality there is nothing to fear from a nightmare except the actual fear we create through our imagination. We turn sounds into the coming of monsters by imagining a creak as a footstep, the wind as a voice, and if the wind happens to close a door with vehemence, we think this is it; it is coming. But really we are simply externalizing our own internal fears. The great question here is; why do we do this to ourselves? A simple answer is; most of us do not know any better. For it is our own ignorance we have to fear. The lack of explanation or information causes our imagination to take over and fill in the blank where there is no cognizance. This is why children have a much harder time not letting the simple noises and shadows overpower their senses. They do not know any better; their lack of real life experience is at play with their imagination. Most of us know that there is little to fear in our home, while we safely sleep at night. We live through these fears that seem to come out only at night and by the time we are adults we have conquered our fears through either audacity or exhaustion. But, there have been occasions where that creak in the floorboards, the close of a door or that noise which may or may not have been a voice, portends a fear that should not be put to rest.
In The Necromancer, as well as many other early gothic novels such as The Castle of Otranto, The Castle of Wolfenbach, and The Castle of Ollada, fear is used as a means to obtain power. Power is then used to gain wealth or land as thieves and vagabonds spread fear throughout the local communities, towns and villages. In The Necromancer, a gang of thieves led by the charismatic Captain Wolf, disguises themselves as ghosts hunters on horseback and charge through the land surrounding the old abandoned castle. The local myth of the castle is that a cruel lord lived there and he loved to hunt. He broke his neck after falling from a horse. After being buried his soul could not rest and now returns at midnight, “to make his entry into the castle with his infernal crew, but as soon as the clock strikes one, he is plunged back again into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. (27)” Through their actions this gang is able to frighten away local peasants, “preying on the credulity of mankind, (151) ” and taking “hold of superstitious rumour, turning it to [their] advantage;” thus giving them power and freedom to steal, pillage, and live without consequences.
The situation in The Castle of Wolfenbach and The Castle of Ollada is very similar in that both stories have an atmosphere bathed in mystery and the unknown. As their genre suggests, all take place in an old castle or mansion of gothic architecture. Within these old abodes there can be found the usual secret passages, mysterious tunnels that lead in and out of the castles, and they all are either abandoned or unoccupied by their owners. In the case of The Castle of Wolfenbach, the lord of the castle does not live there, but uses the castle as a prison for his wife, the countess of Wolfenbach; she is his prisoner on account of her love for another man. The locals all believe the castle is haunted, but what they do not know is that the spectre is she. The myth of the spectre is a ploy to keep people away from her and the castle, an eternal punishment for her; only the grounds keeper knows the truth; even his wife is prevented from knowing the secret.
Fear is very useful in these stories. In The Castle of Ollada, the ghouls are played by a group of vagabonds that hide out in the castle and the castle’s caverns within the ground. They only use their ghoul “to terrify any persons who might in future visit the castle . . . in a manner to give the idea of a dreadful spectre. (109)” The leader of the gang uses the phrase, “to intimidate others from approaching the castle, (107)” to describe what they do. Whenever anyone ecounters the ghouls in the flesh, they are frightened away and fooled by the tricks of the vagabonds. But no one is ever hurt by any of the fake spirits from beyond the grave. It is not the intentions of those who pretend to be dead spirits to hurt people. They usually only wish to keep them away, which is why they in a way advertise their presence to those who either investigate the castle with curiosity, see shelter from a storm, try to seek out the source of the mysterious light in the window, or the owner of the noise coming from the abandoned abode.
These types of early gothic fiction can be considered a sub-category of Romantic Literature. The large gothic castles, knights on horseback, secret passages, great wealth of ancient families, and love stories interwoven with the plot all make for a great and exciting tale. In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a young heroine by the name of Catherine is a devout reader of gothic fiction. She lists some of her favorite stories as being, “Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. (39)”
Throughout the book, Catherine is constantly thinking about and referring to her favorite gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho. She is so in love with the romanticism she finds in gothic stories that she tries to believe she is living in one. In the latter half of the novel, she is invited to Northanger Abbey to be a visitor with her new friend, Eleanor Tilney, the daughter of a wealthy General. Catherine is in love with Eleanor’s older brother Henry, but when she arrives at the castle she is more interested in the mystery behind the death of Henry and Eleanor’s mother. She convinces herself to believe the General killed and hid her body in the castle or has kept her hidden in a secret room or a quiet place in the abbey, a similar situation that is found in The Castle of Wolfenbach or The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Her misunderstanding and the loss of control over her imagination are not entirely her fault. She is a young girl of the age of seventeen or eighteen who has been living away from home for the better part of half a year, and has been indulging in the excitement she has read in her gothic novels. Part of the reason why she travels to Northanger Abbey with Henry and Eleanor is to live in an old mansion that she believes to be full of mysteries. On the road to Northanger, Catherine sits next to Henry, who in the process of trying to flirt with her and begins to tell her stories of what she may find at the abbey. He gives examples from the stories she has read, including The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Like a child, she externalizes her imagination, because she does not know any better. One night, while trying to sleep and not think about the mysterious piece of paper she found in a dresser draw, she is agitated by sounds in her room. The scene is described, “The very curtains of her bed seemed at moment in motion, and at another the lock of her door was agitated, as if by the attempt of somebody to enter. Hollow murmurs seemed to creep along the gallery, and more than once her blood was chilled by the sounds of distant moans. (162)” When she wakes in the morning she is able to read the mysterious piece of paper, having been prevented by the sudden extinguishing of her candle the night before, but the paper is only an inventory of laundry and a farrier’s bill. Eventually she comes to the idea that she is not living in a gothic fiction, concluding that her imagination is only a fantasy. She then feels ashamed for believing that the father of the man she loves would actually murder his own wife.
In later gothic fiction, this type of fear is less common. Danger is real, but it disguises itself so that it may get close to its prey. This is the exact opposite of what is discussed above. In the two examples that shall be explored, the threat is in the form of vampires.
In The Vampyre, the monster is a wealthy aristocrat; know by the title of Lord Ruthven. It is important to understand that this story is not a modern day vampire tale, and is in fact one of the original and first vampire tales. This means that it does not follow the rules that we are so accustom to seeing, such as the usual methods for killing a vampire. In this story, being exposed to sunlight, mirrors or garlic cannot kill a vampire. On account of this, Lord Ruthven is more difficult to be labeled a vampire, thus giving him more power through disguise and stealth.
For a true monster, not a thief in disguise, but a creature that preys upon humans, secrecy and mystery are their power. Where as before the power of a thief came from his ability to frighten people and make the weak or more easily influenced believe in ghosts, a vampire’s power is in his or her ability to convince people that they either do not exist or that they are not a monster. Like an animal playing possum or a predator silently approaching its kill, a vampire uses charm and romance to lure their prey into a false sense of hope and comfort. Once he or she is close enough, the vampire strikes and drinks their blood.
In the two stories in this discussion, the vampires are of a different sex, but both use charm and romantic language to get into close proximity to their victims. In The Vampyre, Lord Ruthven only attacks young beautiful girls, most of whom come from wealthy families. In the beginning of the story, the want-to-be hero, Audrey, knows that Lord Ruthven has a reputation of being somewhat of a sexual predator to young women, but he has no understanding or idea of vampires. By the end of the story, Lord Ruthven has married Audrey’s sister. Audrey at this point knows that Lord Ruthven is a vampire, but is unable to warn his sister on account of an oath he gave and due to an illness, which leaves him weak and in a bit of an illusion. On their wedding night, Aubrey goes to rescue his sister, but he is too late, “Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE (23).”
Indeed the monster does get away in the end of The Vampyre, but that is not the case in Carmilla. In this story the vampire comes in the shape of a young girl of about eighteen, though she has walked the Earth for more than one hundred years. Carmilla is said to be the most beautiful girl anyone had every laid eyes upon. The two maids of the castle describe her beauty by saying “she is . . . the prettiest creature I ever saw,” and “She is absolutely beautiful” (219). Her beauty over powers even the young Laura, a girl who nearly falls victim to Carmilla. It is because of her lovely countenance, that Carmilla is admitted in the homes of people where she is then able to prey upon the young daughters. She comes into the home of Laura and her father, and is very quickly befriended by the latter.
Laura and Carmilla become close as Carmilla slowly preys upon her at night while she sleeps. Laura describes Carmilla’s love by saying, “Sometimes . . . my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure . . . she would gaze in my face with languid and burning eyes . . . it was hateful yet overpowering . . . her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are for ever (226).’” This continues for several weeks and the no one has any suspicions that she is the cause of Laura’s sudden illness.
Like the Lord Ruthven, Carmilla is not a typical 20th century cinema vampire. She does have super human strength, but her touch can paralyze a victim’s limb if she pleases. Like the Lord Ruthven, Carmilla is not killed by sunlight, although she is sensitive to it and does keep to her room until late in the day. She is not harmed by mirrors or garlic; and rather than transforming her figure into a dog as we see in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or into a bat as we see in cinema, she can turn into a large black cat or become a fog of mist that allows her to move through walls, thus baffling her victims as they sleep in their rooms with locked doors and windows. People then are led to believe that they are falling to an illness instead of a vampire. These qualities allow her to be taken for a harmless young girl more easily and with less suspicion. This combined with her beauty, gives her great stealth and with that comes terrible power.
Carmilla is so convincing that she nearly succeeds in making Laura her next victim. In the end, the father of another of Carmilla’s victims, General Spielsdorf, exposes her for the monster that she is, and she is ultimately beheaded, and burned at the stake. If he did not recognize her as the creature, Mircalla, as he once new her name, would have taken Laura’s life, just as she did to the General’s daughter. Here it is the unsuspicious who typically fall victim to the vampire. While those who believe in the supernatural, though they sometimes become victims, have enough sense to be cautious.
In the earlier stories, it is typically those who are suspicious, or those who are believers in the old tales of superstitions, who stay out of the way of the ghosts, as they do believe they are real. This is made easier since these ghosts are villains in disguise; they advertise their fear to make people leave or stay away from the place they wish to operate their crimes. Those who do believe are typically from two classes of people. They are either the zealous Christians or poor and uneducated peasants; sometimes they are both. But, in each story there are those who are non-believers.
In The Necromancer, the heroes of the stories are not the typical knights in shinning armor; they are instead soldiers of the Austrian and Danish army. Whilst in the town of F–, these men go to the castle thought to be haunted by a gang of ghost hunters who are led by the ghost of the dead and terrible lord, and investigate to discover the reason behind the haunting. Through all the smoke and mirrors, the audacious soldiers discover the truth behind the ghoulish gang, exposing them to the authorities and freeing the people of the region from the fear.
The heroes of other stories, who expose the masquerading thieves, are men of likeness to the soldiers in The Necromancer. Though at times the ghosts are not the villains, as is the case in The Castle of Ollada, it is typically the audacity of the wise and cunning, who do not fear the terror of a ghost. There can be, however, a down side to not believing.
To someone who does not believe or does not understand the existence of a certain danger, that danger can unknowingly come into close proximity. In Carmilla, Laura and her father unknowingly welcome a vampire into their house. Laura does develop suspicions, but these are only due to Carmilla’s strange behavior and never once, until the end where Carmilla is exposed, does Laura suspect her to be a vampire. The same understanding is true for Laura’s father who does not know the truth until a friend of his tells a story of how his daughter was attacked again and again from a vampire by the name of Mircalla, whom they also welcomed into their home. As for him, he did not believe Mircalla to be a vampire, nor did he believe that his daughter was becoming the victim of a vampire until the called on a physician who recommended that they call on a member of the clergy.
Laura and her father are lucky to hear the story from the general. If it were not for him, Carmilla would have succeeded in making Laura a victim and would have then made another her prey. By telling his story he makes his friend and Laura aware of the presence of a vampire, thus steeling away Carmilla’s power, which is the power of stealth. Once her secret was known, Carmilla was unable to get close to Laura for her attack. By the end of the story, her tomb is discovered and she is destroyed.
Power and fear can work in two ways; either creator of fear gains power through the fear, or the powerful gain more power through the masking of fear.