The Gothic Romance
The Origins of Gothic Fiction in Europe and America
The term Gothic is used in today’s culture to describe a large genre of fiction, and sometimes non-fiction as well. Though this genre incorporates many hundreds and thousands of novels, novellas and short stories written in the last 250 years, the first Gothic tales are different from what many people understand them to be. The original Gothic tale is something much more specific than is usually understood. The history of the use and the definition of the word gothic are complicated and generally unknown, as the definition of the word has evolved throughout the centuries. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Gothic Fiction became popular and widespread throughout the expanding colonial world. But, whether the tales are American, British or German they all bear more similarities than differences since they are all early Gothic Fiction.
The Origins of Gothic
It is important to understand the origin of the term Gothic. The word originates from the Germanic tribes known as the Goths or Visigoths. The Goths originate from Sweden and are most notorious for the destruction of the City of Rome and the Western Roman Empire in the year 410 of the Common Era. (Encyclopedia Britannica 550) It was the destruction of Rome and the entire Western Empire that plunged Western Europe in what would become the Dark or Medieval Ages and it is this historical event, which made the name Goth notorious. Over the next twelve centuries the name Goth or Gothic would evolve through many different spelling variations such as Gotik, Gothik, Gothique, and Goetic. It also became a popular term as it began to carry a malicious definition describing someone or an idea as being “barbarous, rude, uncouth, unpolished, in bad taste.” (Oxford English Dictionary Definition 4) Generally the word would be used to describe someone as being a savage.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first time the word Gothic was used in this manner was in 1695 by John Dryden in his book Du Fresnoy’s Art Paint, and the sentence reads, “All that has nothing of the Ancient gust is call’d barbarous or Gothique manner.” (Oxford English Dictionary Definition 4) Before this use the word Gothic meant, “of, pertaining to, or concerned with the Goths or their language.” (Need source) This later use indicates that as early as the 17th century, the word Gothic in the English-speaking world bore a negative definition and a hint of reproach for the loss of culture, knowledge, and affluence in the post-Roman European world.
Though there is no evidence of “Gothic” being used in this manner before 1695; there is evidence that shows one reason why this term survived throughout history to be then used this way. According to Robert Hendrickson in his book Word and Phrase Origins, the “Renaissance architects . . . bestowed their names [Gothic] on all buildings characteristic of the Middle Ages, considering such structures crude and barbaric, suitable for the Goths.” (360) This is altogether fitting and appropriate since the Renaissance period in Europe was by definition a revival of that which the Goths helped destroy, the Classical Age. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines the word Renaissance as “The activity, spirit or time of great revival of art, literature and learning in Europe beginning in the 14th century and extend to the 17th century, making the transition from the medieval to the modern world.” (1214.) The literal definition of the word Renaissance means revival or rebirth, but in this time period it meant Europe “had recovered from the confusion consequent upon the dissolution of the ancient Roman Empire,” (Encyclopedia Britannica 122) i.e. Europe had begun to recover from the chaos the Goths created.
By the time of the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, the Goths created an important and infamous place in history for themselves, but more importantly for their name. The Oxford English dictionary has about seven or eight different definitions for Gothic including “Belonging to, or characteristic of, the Middle Ages; medieval, ‘romantic’, as opposed to classical. In early use chiefly with reprobation: Belong to the ‘dark ages.’” Gothic is also used to describe a type of modern day music or clothing style made popular by artist such as Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. Robert Hendrickson makes an important point when he explains the origins for so many definitions. “The 12th-to-16th century building style, characterized by the pointed arch, as well as Gothic art, Gothic type, and myriad other things, was thereby named for a people who had nothing to do with it.” (Word and Phrase Origins 360) This is the evolution of Gothic.
For the purposes of this paper it is more important to focus on Gothic used as “A term for the style of architecture prevalent in Western Europe from the twelfth to the sixteenth century.”(Oxford English Dictionary, definition 3b) It is from this origin that we get, in literary respects, the most important use of the word Gothic. “Of, or designating a genre of fiction characterized by suspenseful, sensational plots involving supernatural or macabre elements and often (esp. in early use) having a medieval theme or setting.”(Oxford English Dictionary)
The Structure of Gothic
The first reference for fiction described as Gothic in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Sir Walter Scott’s 1825 essay Lives Novelists. Here he says, “To this improvement upon the gothic romance there are so many objections, that we own ourselves inclined to prefer . . . the narrative of Walpole.” (Oxford English Dictionary) In the OED’s definition of Gothic it reads, “The novel typically regarded as the first of this genre, The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole, is subtitled ‘a Gothic story’ . . . in reference to its medieval setting.” This is the jump from history to literature, when the term gothic begins to become a genre of literature and it is because of what was named Gothic Architecture of the Medieval Ages.
Of the most well known Gothic style buildings in Europe are Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (twelfth to thirteenth century), Salisbury Cathedral in England (1220-60), York Minster (Fourteenth Century), Sainte Chapelle in Paris (1246-48), Erfut Cathedral in Germany (1349-70), Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral in France (thirteenth century), and the Batalha Monastery in Portugal (fourteenth century). The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Gothic Architecture as being, “a loose term used variously . . . which developed . . . during the latter half of the twelfth century . . . and this general usage of the word is too wise and too descriptive to be gainsaid.” Indeed there are those who argue of the use of the term to describe this style of buildings, mostly churches.
There are some people, such as Sir Christopher Wren, who believe that it is wrong to label these buildings as Gothic. As was mentioned earlier, most of what is termed or referred to, as being Gothic has nothing to do with the Goths. Wren is quoted in Montague Summer’s book, The Gothic Quest, of having written “This we now call the Gothick Manner of Architecture . . . tho’ the Goths were rather Destroyers than Builders; I think it should with more reason be called the Saracen style . . . The Crusado gave us an Idea of this Form.” (38) Though there are some similarities between Gothic Architecture and some of the “‘Mosques, Caravansaras, and Sepulchres’ built by Mohammedans,” it is difficult to confirm this theory. It is, however, true that the Goth’s were destroyers rather than builders, which is why the term is fitting since this style became popular after The Crusades.
Still, Horace Walpole “must be assisted the honour of having introduced the Gothic romance and of having made if fashionable.” (Birkhead 16) It is rightfully called a “Gothic Tale,” as the story takes place in the castle Otranto during the Dark Ages. Birkhead tells in her book, The Tale of Terror that Walpole had begun to construct his own Gothic style miniature castle about fourteen years before he wrote his renowned book. In a letter written by Walpole he confesses, “In the heretical corner of my heart I adore the Gothic building.” (Birkhead 17) His castle was named Strawberry Hill.
Walpole developed a love for the old and antiquary world of the past. Birkhead writes, “His interest in things mediaeval was not that of an antiquary, but rather that of an artist who loves things old because of their age and beauty.” (17 – 18) Walpole translated his love of the history and its surviving beauty into The Castle of Otranto. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Otranto, Michael Gamer writes, Most influential and evocative of all, of course, has been the icon of the castle.” (xiii)
The cathedrals and castles that survive from the Dark Ages are to this day a major tourist attraction. They are a site at which to marvel and wonder. Spread throughout Europe, Gothic structures are found in countries like England, France, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Holland, Poland, Czech Republic, and many others. These places are almost meant to be the setting of strange and horrible tales as they are where much tales of superstitions are born. They are like the American wilderness in their ability to capture imagination and to spawn such tales of the macabre. Summers quotes Dr. Nathan Drake as saying, “Of the various kinds of superstitions which have in any age influenced the human mind, non appear to have operated with so much effect as what has been termed the Gothic.” (50) Though Walpole was not alone in his love of the past and its ability to inspire imaginations, he did take a risk in publishing his tale when he did.
This had been the age of the Enlightenment, which had begun in Germany and sent inspiration throughout Western Europe. Before Walpole’s time, Sir Isaac Newton had tested his theories of gravity, and Galileo had perfected the telescope and created his theory of heliocentrism. Birkhead explains, “Diffident as to the success of so ‘wild’ a story in an age devoted to good sense and reason, he [Walpole] sent forth his mediaeval tale disguised as a translation from the Italian of ‘Onuphrio Muralto,’ by William Marshall.” (16) Later after the book had been well received, Walpole came forth to admit his creation. There had been many critics whom did not receive the book very well.
The book and other Gothic novels to come became mostly popular with young readers, as others felt Gothic tales were too irregular. Of those critics are people like Alexander Pope and Anna Letitia Barbauld. In his Preface to Shakespeare, Pope “admits the strength and majesty of the Gothic, but deplores its irregularity.” (Birkhead 17) This is interesting since the cover to the Penguin Classics edition of The Castle of Otranto has an image of a woman holding a torch, which is a well known painting called Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking, by Henry Fuseli, which hangs in the Louvre. This seems to be appropriate since Otranto does share some similarities with Macbeth, in that they are both about lords and noblemen gone made with greed for power. Eventually critics of Walpole’s were overpowered by his growing popularity. Birkhead explains, “When the nineteenth century is reached the epithet has lost all tinge of blame, and has become entirely one of praise.” (17) It is remarkable to imagine that the popularity of one book and its author could quell in less than half a century, the negative terms associated with Gothic, which took centuries to create.
The sudden popularity of this Gothic genre created a world ready for the writings of Matthew Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, Ann Radcliffe, Francis Lathom, Eliza Parsons, and Peter Teuthold. The novels produced by these authors during this time period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries all bore similarities to The Castle of Otranto, which mostly was the setting of an old castle, mansion or cathedral. Three other books, The Castle Spectre (1797), The Castle of Ollada (1795) and The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) carry the word castle in their title. Even their plots bare resemblance as they take place during the mediaeval times and deal with a mystery surrounded with a haunting from a ghost or multiple ghosts. This is how early Gothic Fiction began in Europe, which is similar, but still different from what happened in the New World.
The American Gothic
It did not take long for the popularity of the Gothic genre to cross the Atlantic to what had recently become the United States of America. Charles Brockden Brown is considered to be the first established American novelist with any significance, thus making him the first American gothic novelist. It is written in the introduction to Edgar Huntly that “The novel is original in that it avoids the Gothic machinery of medieval castles and superstitions to trace instead adventures ‘growing out of the condition of our country’ and the ‘perils of the western wilderness.’” (xv) He published his first novel Wieland in 1798, which around the same time as the European writers mentioned earlier. This genre became popular very quickly as many people had read Walpole and were reading other European authors. With the publication of new tales by American authors like Brown or Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving, it soon clear that these American authors and other like them, were remaking Gothic in their own image with an American imagination.
The basic different between American and European Gothic fictions comes from the fact that there are no mediaeval castles or cathedrals in American. At this time in American history, the young nation was trying to create its identity and compete in the arts with Western Europe. Rather than write stories with a European setting, early authors chose to instead write with an American background, but the trick lay in what frightened people in this new wild world? What were Americans afraid of and could their imaginations harvest ideas and locations for their fears to take roots? Two ideas stand out amongst the rest; the vast wilderness in America’s backyard and the wild Indians who inhabit that wilderness. There are other tales that do not tie into either of these ideas, but they do take place in and around American history.
In the introduction to Edgar Huntly, Norman S. Grabo claims that, “Brown was a dedicated walker, for whom escape into the ‘country’ would have been an easy and regular excursion.” (xii) In his novels, Edgar Huntly and Wieland, most of the stories take place in the wilderness surrounding the mid-Atlantic region near the city of Philadelphia. Similar to Walpole being inspired by the dark and mysterious structures of old European cities, Brown had his own inspiration in the forests and hills of the Eastern United States. Much like that fact that there are no Gothic structures in American, the forests of Europe have been long harvested for timber and what deep woods that still survive do not have native Indians or wild mountain lions and coyotes. Summers mentions in his book, The Gothic Quest, that “they [writers] wished to reproduce . . . the manners and landscapes around them.” (19)
All of the Native American elements can be found in Edgar Huntly. In the story, the narrator awakes in the middle of the wilderness unable to see and completely in the dark as to where he is or how he got there. Later the reader and the narrator discover that he is a sleepwalker who had stumbled out into the thick woods in the middle of the night. He awakes in a cavern to find that he is not alone. He relates his fears, “Something was perceived moving among the bushes and rocks . . . which presently appeared to be a panther.” (118) This is a terrifying situation, because the danger and reality is so real. In a place like this, a wild predator is a monster that can and will tear human flesh to feed its hunger. Like a vampire, a beast such as this, “when stimulated by hunger, was accustomed to assail whatever could provide him with a banquet of blood.” (119) This is worst and more horrifying than any ghosts or specters from the novels already mentioned. In those stories, no one is ever harmed by the ghosts as they are simply ploys used to frighten people, not to kill of physically harm them.
The narrator’s situation worsens after he escaped the wild beast and discovers a band of resting Indians. He thinks to himself, “Had some mysterious power snatched me from the earth, and cast me, in a moment, into the heart of the wilderness? Was I still in the vicinity of my paternal habitation, or was I thousands of miles distant?” (164) Indians were a real threat to the colonists and the early Americans. To be fair, the native Indians had been equally terrified by the threat of Europeans. To them, the early colonists were invading aliens with strange technology such as guns, cannons, clocks, and they came in on strange vessels from an unknown world. The colonists invaded the land committing murder in a story that can resemble a modern day science fiction tale of terror.
To the colonists and early Americans these natives lived in their backyard and were a mysterious group of dark people that lived in the heathen lands. Acts of atrocity were committed on both sides, but as the narrator in this story explains,
My father’s house was placed on the verge of this solitude. Eight of these assassins [Indians] assailed it at the dead of night. My parents and an infant child were murdered in their beds; the house was pillaged, and then burnt to the ground . . . Most men are haunted by some species of terror or antipathy, which they are, for the most part, able to trace to some incident which befell them in their early years. You would not be surprised that the fate of my parents . . . should produce lasting and terrific images in my fancy.” (166)
This last point in the quotation is important as it hits a tender nerve in the thoughts and emotions of many people living in America. At that point in history, almost everyone living in or near the frontier experienced an Indian attack in someway. Some escaped attacks, some had loved ones, family members, children or friends killed or taken by Indians. In the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, an American audience could and would personally relate to this, making the story and the words jump off the page and make the fears fresh.
Many survivors of Indian attacks and captivity would write about their time in captivity once they were free. Many of these accounts survive today and can be viewed as Gothic Non-Fiction tales of horror. Among the surviving tales are those from Hannah Dustan who was captured in 1657 and had her newborn child killed by the Abenaki Indians. She later led a rebellion against the Indians with her fellow captives and claims to not only have killed ten of them, but also scalped them. There are other tales of Elizabeth Hanson (1728), Mary Kinnan (1795), Mary Jemison (1824), and there is even a captivity account from as late as 1892, which is the story of Emeline L. Fuller.
A well-known account is called the “Panther Captivity,” dating from 1787. This account begins much like a Gothic tale, “I now sit down agreeable to your request to give you an account of my journey.” (86) The beginning of Edgar Huntly begins, “I sit down, my friend, to comply with thy request . . . the transports of my wonder permit me to recollect my promise and perform it.” (5) This is a story about a woman and her lover who are driven into the wilderness on account of her father not allowing her to marry the man she loves. This is nearly the same plot of The Castle of Wolfenbach, except she flees into the wilderness instead of fleeing Germany to England. Having fled into the wilderness, she sought shelter in a cave when she “was surprised at seeing a man of gigantic figure walking towards,” her. (88) This does bear some resemblance to the gigantic helmet or armor that is mention in The Castle of Otranto.
These stories all have some relation as they all awake an excitement when they are read. The excitement varies with different readers as they all share different pasts. There are other American Gothic tales that have more resemblance to those from Europe. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is as close to a European story as an American author of gothic fiction can get, not counting his short stories that take place in Europe such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” G.R. Thompson writes, “Poe is the preeminent American follower of the European ‘Romantic Ironists.’” His writing is more neutral than anything else. He writers for readers on both side of the Atlantic.
In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as the narrator approaches the house of Usher he notes not only the look of the building, but how it makes him feel. He says, “I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.” (95) He later goes on the describe the house as he approaches on horseback,
“I looked upon the scene before me—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium.” (95)
There is never any mention of this house being in either America or Europe as it could be either. This building, like the castles of Europe, is old and has been the setting for many stories from many generations. One look at the house and a person’s imagination is sent into a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. Gothic fiction had been born in structures like this.
A story that is similar to this one, but much more American, is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. This tale has a similar taste to European Gothic as the story focuses on an old mansion, the Pyncheon house, but it has a background of American history. This house is the American equivalent to European castles and abbeys as it also comes with a curse and ghosts.
The descriptions of the house suggest a hint gothic style. It is described as having “seven acutely peaked gables,” and as “bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also for long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes, that have passed within.” (5) This description of the house explains that its façade shows the wear of generations of inhabitants and gives evidence to the lives of its owners. Similar descriptions are made about the castle of Ollada “I never come by it [castle Ollada] but the memory of former days rushes in upon me.” (4) Another description of the Pyncheon house says, “Its whole visible exterior was ornamented with quaint figures, conceived in the grotesqueness of a Gothic fancy . . . the seven gables pointed sharply towards the sky.” (11) Two of the most identifying features of gothic buildings are the pointed steeples and the gargoyles.
As close as this story gets to European Gothic, it is still American. There are still hints to the wilderness as the land upon which the house was to be build was “hewn out of the primeval forest.” (7) There is also the history of the Indian land and the deed to the land that was lost after the mysterious death of Colonel Pyncheon. Even the death surround the Colonel is bathed in New England history. The Colonel had attempted for a long time to acquire this lot of land from a Matthew Maul, but Maul would never negotiate. The piece of land was in a very attractive part of town and the Colonel wanted it so that he could tear down Maul’s house and build the house with seven gables. When the Colonel realized that he could never get Maul to give it to him, he accused Maul of being a witch and he was then executed as part of the Salem witch trials of 1692. In this part of the story there is a great deal of American history. William Philips was the Royal Governor of Massachusetts during the time of the witch trials and, according to Milton R. Stern, “It was he who initiated the witchcraft courts, opening an ugly moment of hideous hysteria and land-grabbing whose memory Hawthorne was to feel as a shadow on his soul.” (xvii) Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather, John Hawthorne, had been a hanging judge during the trials of 1692.
It is common for writers to not only write about what they know, but also about what their audience knows or at least to write on a topic that their audience will understand. Another American Gothic tale is “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving. Written in 1820, this story has historical roots in the American Revolution. At the time the story was written, the war had only ended nearly fourty years earlier. The atmosphere of this story, similar to that of “Rip Van Winkle,” is in a sleepy, dreamy, almost magical region of New York State along the Hudson River. The setting is described, “In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee . . . there lies a small market town or rural report . . . Not far from the village . . . A small brook glides through it, with just a murmur enough to lull one to repose.” (272) There is a very natural yet mysterious feeling to this region. A combination of being a new settlement in a secluded almost too quiet location and yet being a land of mystery as it was still new to its inhabitants; their memory of the land being short as they were almost strangers to the virgin land.
With what short a timeline as their history had, they already developed myths and superstitions about a Headless Horseman and a Woman in White, “that often haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winters nights before a storm.” (289) “The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions.” (273) As for the Headless Horseman, his myth grew from a war still fresh in the minds of the locals. Much of the fighting during the war took place between Boston and New York City, which this small town happens to be located in between the two. It is the perfect setting for a tale of a headless Hessian soldier who rides at night in search of his head, which had been taken by a cannon ball. The main character Ichabod Crane loses his wits on his ride home after a part. On the ride home, “All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon hi recollection. The night grew darker and darker.” (291) Like the Gothic castles and cathedrals of Europe, this natural landscape with its wild weather is full of imagination and is the perfect location from where tales can be born.
American Gothic is about nature as nature had been the inspiration for American authors, just like castles and cathedrals had been the inspiration for European authors. Though the setting different, they are more alike than they are different as Americans and Europeans are more alike than they are different. Both share the Christian faith, even if they practices different denominations; Both share the same origins as we are all descended from Anglo-Saxons or some other European tribe; Both speak the same languages whether it be Dutch, English, French, German, or Italian, all these languages could be found living in the New World. Even the authors shared similar tastes and beliefs. A common element, which has only been hinted towards in this essay, is the Romantic element.
The Romance of Gothic
In almost all early Gothic Fiction from both sides of the Atlantic, there is the presence of romance or a love story thrown into the dark plot. In his book, The Gothic Quest, Montague Summers dedicates the first chapter to what he titles. “The Romantic Feeling.” He explains his idea of the “essence of the romantic spirit,” by saying “it is reactionary in its revolt against the present since it yearns for the loveliness of the past as so picturesquely revealed to us in art and poem.” (18) This idea of images of the past and survivors of history being awoken in gothic novels is present in most tales from this time. Walpole had a love for history as is mentioned before; Hawthorne’s family was a part of the past, which was a past that surrounded him as he grew up in New England.
There is a mystery about the past, which is an itch that is scratched by the creation of gothic tales. Summers suggests, “Romanticism is, in effect, a supernaturalism . . . Romanticism is literary Mysticism.” (18) It is the idea that the past is a foreign place, where things are different and that begets interest and romantic ideas. In Europe, there survived these massive and dark structure that seem to almost have a personality, as they seem to live and breathe. In the New World, there is such a vast wilderness unknown to Europeans until the fifteenth century. The idea of the past is so strange as we walk through its doors, into its forest or think about the lives that came before us. At this moment in human history as Europe walked tall out of the Dark Ages and into the Enlightenment there began a rebirth of knowledge. More questions were being asked and only a few answers were found. There are more mysteries of this world than there are histories.
Simpler than the love of history is the excitement of fear, which is romanticized in gothic. As Birkhead writes, “All tale tellers know that dear is a potent spell . . . Human nature desires not only to be amused ad entertained, but moved to pity and fear.” (3) There is a sense of danger that draws into the suspenseful text, but the danger is safe to us, the reader. In reality, there is nothing to fear from a nightmare except the actual fear we create from 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. People love the thrill and excitement from being scared in the safety of their own him. This is the romance of fear. There is a great deal of fear and mystery that springs from religion.
There are elements of religion in the gothic, partly due to the mysticism that is born from faith and partly due to fact that most Europeans and Americans were Christians who attended the impressive Gothic Cathedrals of Europe. Faith is the biggest mystery of all. But, there is romance of a different kind in Gothic Fiction.
Love and romance is very much a strong part of early and even modern Gothic Fiction. It begins with a love story in The Castle of Otranto and continues in The Castle of Wolfenbach, where the entire story surrounds a tragic love affair. This could be a reason as to why Gothic Fiction from its beginning was so popular amongst younger readers, who as young people are, full of love, romance and a sense of adventure. There is a tragic love story in Edgar Huntly, The House of Seven Gables, and in The Castle of Ollada. This is altogether fitting and proper since two of the most powerful forces acting on the human spirit and imagination are love and mystery. Humans are so deeply ignorant to the workings of this world that it is not a surprise that our imaginations focus on that which we cannot explain. Summers notes in his book, “Dr. F.H. Hedge has given his opinion that the Romantic feeling has its origins in wonder ad mystery, the essence of Romanticism being Aspiration.” (23) Within this romantic feeling of wonder and mystery is a sense of reality.
The term most commonly found to describe sense of realism in early Gothic Fiction is the Godwinian Rationalism. This is named after William Godwin, author of Caleb Williams and ?. This rationalism is the reason why most early works do not have real ghosts, ghouls or supernatural monsters. More often than not, the ghost is a villain or some person using the idea of ghosts to frighten people away from what crimes or secret operations they are trying to perform. In The Necromancer, by Peter Teuthold, the charismatic Captain Wolf leads a gang of thieves who dress as ghost 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 plunges back again into the lake of fire burning with brimstone.” (27)
In the case of Brown’s novels, what once appeared as supernatural is later discovered to have a natural and rational explanation. Birkhead explains, “Brown himself condescended to take over . . . the device of introducing apparently supernatural occurrences which are ultimately traced to natural causes. Like Mrs. Radcliffe he is at the mercy of a conscience which forbids him to thrust upon his readers spectres in which he himself does not believe.” (198) In both Edgar Huntly and in Wieland, the mysteries of what appears to be supernatural are revealed to be a case of sleepwalking and Biloquist, an older term what was is now referred to as a ventriloquist. Many are surprised when the read early Gothic Fiction for the first time to discover that there are no ghosts or products of the supernatural.
The Forgotten Gothic
This is a part of Gothic Fiction of which few are aware. For most people, when they think of Gothic Fiction they think of two stories more often than not, Dracula and Frankenstein. Indeed these stories are two of the best and most popular Gothic tales, but they are modern gothic, or what can be called New Gothic, like naming of New England, New Jersey, New Hampshire and New York. This natural evolution of fiction began in the early eighteenth century, when the model of Otranto had been used many times over and the reading audience needed a new idea. The original Gothic Fiction had been the home to some many ideas including mystery of the supernatural and other romantic qualities, it seems natural that these elements would split off from each other and spin off into their own separate genres. One direction leads to novels like Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; the other direction is towards what many people think of as Gothic Fiction, which includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” and other such tales that have creatures of real supernatural origins.
In regards to the novels by the Brontes and Ms. Austin, their novels house more elements of Realism than Romanticism. Their novels still have dark qualities in locations such as the moors of England, mansions and great houses. Even Jane Eyre shares many similarities to The Castle of Wolfenbach in that both novels have a wife who has been trapped in a secluded, almost inaccessible part of the house. Many people passing by or through these houses believe the cries and noises produced by the poor creature to be noises from a ghoul or ghost. This idea is also addressed, though in a satirical way, in Northanger Abbey.
Throughout the novel, the heroine Catherine is completely captivated by Gothic Fiction. Of the stories she lists in this novel are The Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, The Necromancer, and other horrid mysteries. She is a young girl whose imagination and obsession with gothic run out of control. She is so in love with 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 of her new friend who is the daughter of a wealthy general. When she arrives is becomes more interested in the mystery behind the death of the general’s wife, her friend’s mother. She convinces herself to believe the general either killed his wife or has her kept hidden in a secret room in the abbey. By the stories end she understands that she is completely wrong, and feels ashamed for believing in such nonsense. This is also somewhat similar to what happened to the early gothic tales.
As most stories following The Castle of Otranto, tried to use its example the idea of the supernatural developing into a natural explanation, the idea itself became over used, predictable, and many readers wanted something different. Authors wanted to use more imagination and readers wanted more terror. Many people criticized the sudden turn in early novels from the superstitions into explained natural events. Summers quotes, “The principal fault of the work is that it gives too much encouragement to superstition, by connecting events with preceding predictions, and by visionary appearances, for which the reader is not enabled to account from natural causes.” (140) In The quarterly Review, from May 1810, there is an article titles “Explained Supernatural,” which Summers also quotes. “We disapprove of the mode introduced by Mrs. Radcliffe . . . and her other imitators, of winding up their story with a solution by which all the incidents appearing to partake of the mystic and marvelous are resolved by very simple and natural causes.” (140) With such demand for new principles in gothic, the change came in the early nineteenth century.
The product of such forces created the New Gothic, which resembles more of what modern day enthusiasts refer to as being in the genre of Horror. This New Gothic became the home for such monsters as vampires, demons, real ghosts, and creatures from beyond our immediate world. This also changed the nature of fear.
Before in the gothic world of Walpole, regular people created fear as they played on the superstitions of others. The fear created was an advertised type, saying I am a ghost, run away from me. This changed with the New Gothic. No longer was fear advertised, it was covered up and kept quiet in a stealth manner. The idea that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was in convincing the world that he did not exist. In the short story, “The Vampyre,” the vampire Lord Ruthven gains power not by showing everyone who he really is, but by hiding his thirst for human blood. It became the fear of ignorance, not knowing what was happening. Lord Ruthven attracts his victims, mostly young beautiful women, through charm and handsome looks. When he has successfully lured them to him, he goes for their throats.
The same is the case in the novella, “Carmilla” by Le Fanu. In this story the vampire is what appears to be a young girl. She preys on her victims by tricking them into thinking that she is nothing more than an innocent and sweet young girl. It is because of her lovely countenance, that Carmilla is admitted into the homes of people where is then able to prey up the young daughters. They simply thought their daughters were sick with a fever or illness, not from the thirst of a vampire.
It is the not knowing that is terrifying. The idea that a somewhat ordinary and beautiful day is not quite so ordinary and beautiful; the complete opposite from what gothic was before when the not so ordinary day would then be proven to be as ordinary as any other day. There is more imagination and mystery in the former. The change sparked the creation of gothic, as we know it today.
Concluding the Gothic
Now matter what Gothic Fiction has become, its origin is still the same. It was born during the Mediaeval Ages as the Gothic structures were built with their dark and mysterious style. The spirit of all that was to become Gothic was born in the castles and the cathedrals in the time following the fall of Rome when the crusaders were returning from their religious battles. They had been born long before Walpole, but it was he who took from the architecture its name and gave it to his own creation.