Exploring Genre: Dark or Gothic Fantasy
by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Review by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Date: 01 November 2008 /
"It was a dark and stormy night . . ." – well, most of the time.
Dark or Gothic Fantasy is an offshoot of Romantic fiction that has endured. Lovers of the gothic in fiction largely have The Castle of Otranto, Dracula, and the Brontes, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, to thank for the genre. Is there science fiction that can be characterized as Gothic? Some would suggest Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is Gothic science fiction rather than fantasy. I concede the point that Frankenstein has elements of the Gothic – including the classic dark and stormy night – but uses elements of science to make Shelley's point. So while Gothic fiction may not exclusively be categorized as fantasy, it is the realm of the fantastic.
Early Romantic fiction has elements that build into that which becomes Gothic. Romantic fiction does not require a romantic relationship. It is not a Romance story or novel – nope, no lovey-dovey and certainly no sex. Romantic fiction as a literary genre is a story of atmosphere. There is generally some element of excess to the story, bordering on (or going overboard into) melodrama, often with a mystery to solve. It plays on the passions and desires of human nature. It generally involves a complex even convoluted plot with multiple twists, turns, and red herrings. It is certainly not a realistic story in either the literary sense or that of common sense.
Although pinning down an exact definition has often been elusive, archetypes of Romantic fiction are fairly standard. There is the innocent, generally virginal female, who is in a position (job or location) which initially seems ideal, but which conceals some dangerous and mysterious element. The residence itself may have a mysterious history, perhaps even cursed; it may be a dark castle with many secret passageways. The setting location generally holds some element of the unknown – a foggy moor, a dark wood. Family curses, secrets, and madness follow the characters – at times into the next generations. There are initially strange noises and other unexplainable events – at times attributed to a haunting – that are explained later in the story in some reasonable, if not fully logical, fashion. Jane Eyre's madwoman in the attic is certainly not a ghost, but she is mysterious and very dangerous. The element tipping Jane Eyre toward Gothic is the apparent psychic link between Jane and Rochester at the moment of his tragic blinding.
What characterizes Dark or Gothic Fantasy? Is it that dark and stormy night? Is it the creak on the stairs with nothing in view? In truth, it is the feeling generated in the reader as much as the literary elements present in the work. Does it fill you with foreboding? Is it suspenseful? Do you long to find out what happens next, simultaneously not wanting to have it revealed? Has it created the feeling that anything or anyone would be possible in the world of the story? Are you frightened, perhaps terrified, but not sickened?
The literary elements that combine to create these feelings vary in type, degree, and assembly. It includes the elements of Romantic literature noted above with some significant additions and twists of its own. Images of decay, darkness, gloom, implied violence, implied gore – rarely overt or described in nauseating detail – characterize the Dark or Gothic. The reader gets the impression of that which scares, not the concrete. If it is gratuitously bloody or gory, if it sickens, if it tries to horrify and shock the reader for its effect, it is not Dark/Gothic fantasy; it is Horror. Horror is its own genre, with its own tropes and archetypes. Dark/Gothic fantasy illustrates a fear that the reader wants to experience, creating a pleasurable scare that could parallel Aristotle's catharsis in Greek drama. Greek drama was designed to focus the human emotions of the audience so fully that there was a collective psychological and physical release of tensions – catharsis.
Dark/Gothic fiction creates this sensation of terror in its readers, psychological and to some degree physical, building slowly, using suspense and titillation. Elements of the Supernatural world are vital. The strange noises and unexplainable events in this story are explained by something not logical, not reasonable. Houses are truly haunted; people are truly cursed. Ghosts, witches, vampires, werewolves, and mysterious beasts of nearly every ilk run amok in this world. Nightmares come to literary life making the reader's skin crawl, nerves jumpy, seducing every atom of the reader into believing in the possibility as presented.
Edgar Allan Poe is an absolute master of the genre known as Gothic. His stories establish many of the archetypes of the Dark/Gothic. "The Fall of the House of Usher" presents the classic mysterious residence, a dark and dangerous secret, a cursed family – even more cursed and twisted if one believes in the incestuous relationship of the Usher twins. Poe does not present evil in the form of an external monster to battle. Instead Poe's work highlights the inner darkness of the human mind and soul and how the negative side of human nature overwhelms the rational. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil" and The House of the Seven Gables, and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" all illustrate this inner darkness of the human soul.
Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is an interesting bridge between internal and external manifestations of evil because the reader is never quite certain if there is a ghost. Much of Ambrose Bierce's work including "The Damned Thing" can be included in this bridge category. Another fine example is Robert Lewis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where Hyde is represented as the physical reflection of the dark side of Jekyll.
Once the monster of the subconscious becomes physical, the now well-known creatures of the night appear in the tales of the Dark/Gothic authors. Introducing ghosts, vampires, were-creatures, and various configurations of monster(s) to embody the dark side of the human soul. Though born of nightmares, these creatures refocus the theme of the story onto the external manifestations rather than humanity's inner darkness. An exception would be Dickens' A Christmas Carol as perhaps the most beloved Gothic ghost story; it is also quite the morality tale requiring both the reader and Scrooge to reflect upon their own natures and behavior. Much of H. P. Lovecraft's work fits the parameters of Gothic although many classify him as a Horror author. Many of his works do cross over into Horror although even these retain strong elements of the Gothic.
While most of the examples presented here are Victorian or early 20th Century many modern authors have chosen the path of Gothic darkness in their fiction. More recent authors of Dark/Gothic fiction include Peter Straub, Robertson Davies, Tanya Huff, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anne Rice. The less graphic Stephen King works also fit. Although never truly out of fashion, vampire stories have become popular again, especially among the adolescent reader, with Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series.
Following the footpaths created in the Victorian Gothic, these authors often go urban in bringing the genre into the modern world. The damsel in distress is often quite capable of rescuing herself; the haunted house is just as likely to be a high-rise hotel. And the "monster" is not always clearly monstrous, the ghoul with a heart of gold trying to reclaim some goodness and to be redeemed. The battle of the internal demons of the soul emerges once again though fought within the entity originally assumed to be the embodiment of evil. The non-human or once-human revealing the best of humanity by attempting to re-humanize themselves.