essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Alone, tortured, cursed by the devil, possessed by the devil, evil. Vlad Dracula in the 14th century might have been one of the first in Europe with the reputation but at the dawn of the 19th century along came Lord Byron complete with his whiff of sulphur, and a host of tortured, evil anti heroes of fiction. The idea caught on with the anti establishment.
It’s not the first time it’s happened to me, finding connections between apparently divergent subjects. I was investigating gothic literature because I discovered that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first published work was a gothic novel called Zastrozzi, published when Shelley was 17 in 1810 (I’m reading Richard Holmes’ biography, Shelley: the Pursuit). I found out about Shelley’s hand in the composition of Frankenstein, the influence of Mrs Radcliffe and MG Lewis, and wondered if he had read the Marquis de Sade.
The development of this genre is well known, ETA Hoffman, EA Poe, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the films about Frankenstein: James Whale in 1931 and 1935, Andy Warhol in 1973, Kenneth Branagh in 1994 and the Rocky Horror Picture Show; and Dracula: Murnau’s Nosferatu, Tod Browning’s, Polanski’s, Andy Warhol’s, and Francis Ford Coppola’s versions. And Anne Rice’s 10 volume Vampire Chronicles 1976-2003. I can see the 1931 films of Dracula and Frankenstein (dictators were taking over in a lot of European countries) leading to a classic like The Creature From the Black Lagoon of 1954 (height of the Cold War). But Holmes’ book made it clear to me the gothic was an aspect of the Romantic movement, which is where I expect to find Shelley BTW, and that the Romantic movement was an offshoot from the cataclysm of the French Revolution of 1789 on the rest of Europe and America.
The French Revolution, the death of the ancien régime, revolution in Ireland and America, the cult of the individual, the expression of feelings and the vogue for sentimentality (which Laurence Sterne exploited so wonderfully), the heroes of Byron, and Byron himself, the radicalism of Shelley, the gothic novel. And The Creature From the Black Lagoon. How do professors of literature and popular culture keep all these things separate?
Before I could fully appreciate Childe Harold or Ode to a Skylark, I had to come to terms with the frightening figures of the demonic Lord Byron, who slept with his sister, or the madman Shelley, who advocated atheism; I had to remember the frenzied delight with which de Sade broke taboos, the awful figure of Melmoth the Wanderer, and, most influential of all, MG Lewis’ Monk.
But before all this could be expressed, a restrictive model of society, which gave everyone a place and put everyone rigidly in it, had to be broken. This was the ancien régime, which probably justified itself through Aquinas’ version of Aristotle, in which every being had a graduated place from lowly animal life, to human beings and their various ranks, to angels in their several divisions, and with Lord God at the top. This wasn’t going to change. Kings had a Divine Right to rule. They were supported by the church, which in most European countries was an annex of government.
The French Revolution, when it came, seemed like a fresh start to some. The violence was deplored, but the attempt to remodel society seemed laudable. Out with vested interests, exploitation, the suffering and deprivation of 90% of the population so a few could live in luxury. William Wordsworth was one so affected, and he, together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, produced Lyrical Ballads in 1798, an attempt to write poetry in non poetical language, which became English Romanticism.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven… (The Prelude)
It was similar to the attitude many intellectuals had to the Russian Revolution of 1917. All was going to be fixed up in a brand new model of society. Both revolutions unfortunately were taken over by new versions of the ancien régime, Napoleon in 1804 and Stalin in 1924. Lesson: when you attempt to remodel society, you get shafted.
However the Romantic Movement is still here. It’s left us with a version of technological feudalism, but that’s better than the ordered society of Big Brother. We have utopianism, technocrats and robots, and also plutocrats, media control and loss of literacy, so a battle is being waged, of sorts.
It started with The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764 as a rediscovered medieval manuscript (it loss popularity as soon as the true author was revealed). It is a fevered tale of an evil king, magic armaments, kidnapped virgins, incest, murders and imprisonments, and it all comes out happily at the end. The author, Horace Walpole, hoped to combine what he thought of as ancient fantasy with modern realism. However it is a bit of a pushmipullyu and flops both ends. The trend in fiction was with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela of 1740, which, however affected and sentimental, was purely realism (with melodrama admittedly). And which inspired a parody from Henry Fielding who went on to write Tom Jones in 1749. I find only the last title readable myself. But a revolution was in the offing.
The gothic torch was passed to the Marquis de Sade, who wrote during the French Revolution, and who resembled Shelley in that he wrote to destroy conventional morality, which bolstered up a rotten system. De Sade started with a comparatively restrained erotic novel called Justine in 1791. He spent most of his life in prison on rigged charges and without a trial, and the longer he was in prison the longer his fiction became, with more detailed accounts of perversions (and repetitive, repetitive). De Sade eventually became the virtual founder of the video pornography industry, in which people do six things to each other one after the other, then do them again, ad infinitum. Pornography reminds me of Lord Chesterfield’s alleged remark: “the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable”, the third clause sometimes quoted as “the results unfortunate” (said before the Romantic Movement got underway). The Marquis de Sade was however, originally a revolutionary as fervent as Danton or Robespierre, and betrayed his class and social position to be so, therefore much more committed than they. He reminds me of Edward Fitzgerald, the Irish republican lord I have written about on these pages (though Fitzgerald being eminently sexually respectable).
De Sade disturbed many of the people he knew, and it is had to tell how justified they were in their charges against him, or how much of his reputation was manufactured by his enemies. He was basically an anarchist, who saw all systems as corruptible. As a philosopher he would have no effect, not even on socialism, but his writings attracted a lot of attention, and as a survivor of the Reign of Terror he passed on the figure of terror for the fascination of the following generations. Shelley as an adolescent seems very like de Sade in his determination to destroy rotten standards, and both remind me of a modern figure like John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) whose God Save the Queen wasn’t patriotic at all.
The Revolution was still raging in France when Mrs Radcliffe produced The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794. Ann Radcliffe originated the helpless female protagonist familiar from schlock horror films, the silly dilly who locks herself out of the house at midnight dressed in a hobble skirt and stilettos just when the monster calls around, and screams. All those monsters must have been deaf. She was praised highly by de Sade, who disliked the usual gothic recourse to the supernatural (he was against superstition). Mrs Radcliffe used the supernatural to exemplify the sensibilities of her heroines, who reacted exquisitely in the manner of Sterne, often screaming, and crying a lot. But she tended to explain the apparently supernatural events, gloomy atmosphere and demonic persons in her stories as the result of quite natural causes. At the end of the book of course. She was immensely popular. Jane Austen was one who saw the absurdities of the gothic conventions, and parodied them expertly in what became her novel Northanger Abbey, written 1798 though published, after several revisions (usual for Austen) posthumously in 1817. The heroine of Austen’s book, Catherine, is constantly falling flat on her face through expecting gothic situations and not finding them. Another satirist of Romanic sensibilities, especially the morbid ones, was Thomas Love Peacock, whose novels were published from 1815 on, including Nightmare Abbey in 1818. Peacock was a close friend of Shelley so he knew what he was satirising at first hand. I much prefer Peacock and Austen to Radcliffe.
Basically the gothic took the supernatural from the grasp of the church and made it everyone’s concern. The devil from hell became the tortured hero with the devil inside, something that bothered many people until Freud tamed it by scientific means, calling it psychosis.
It was Matthew Gregory Lewis who took the logical step from terror to horror with his novel The Monk of 1795. The Marquis de Sade praised Lewis’ The Monk in his essay “Reflections on the Novel” of 1800, and Lewis was an influence on Shelley, visiting Percy and Mary Shelley at Geneva, Switzerland in the summer of 1816 just prior to the writing of Frankenstein two years later.
Lewis was just 20 when he dashed off The Monk in a few weeks in 1795. All the beautiful 15 year old virgins in the book get raped and murdered in a way that de Sade would approve off, there is a guest appearance from Cunegonda from Voltaire’s Candide of 1759, that merciless satire of the ancien régime, playing a nun, another innocent young girl is kept prisoner in a sepulchre, ghosts walk, the Wandering Jew wanders in, the monk is Ambrosio who commits incest, does most of the raping and murdering, with the help of Matilda, who is an agent of the devil to whom Ambrosio eventually sells his soul, bringing in a reference to the figure of Faust whom Goethe was to feature in a play in 1808. Lewis is far from the restraint of Radcliffe. He revels in rape, murder, devils, sepulchres and incest, and so did his horrified readers. This is really gothic. You expect Kiss to appear any moment. The readers were scandalised, so were the reviewers, and the book sold like hot cakes. The original readers must have imagined a whiff of sulphur as they read horrified on but today it all seems a bit silly.
Zastrozzi followed the tract Shelley wrote with Thomas Jefferson Hogg at Oxford, The Necessity of Atheism. At that stage (age 17) Shelley was a profoundly original thinker with the emotional maturity of a 12 year old. Although the arguments of the tract are tortuous, and resulted in expulsion (on a technicality, not for the publication of the book), they are quite a genuine attempt to come to terms not only with what Shelley thought was wrong with social and political systems of his day, but with deep seated emotional problems of his own. It shows also Shelley’s then fascination with the Illuminati, who claimed responsibility for the French Revolution. Zastrozzi is sub Lewis (he was the way to go with gothic in those days if you wanted to shock) but continues the argument for atheism of the tract. All this is hard to appreciate as it is far from the reputation Shelley now bears as a lyric poet. Shelley has been sanitised, just as de Sade has been satanised, by later writers. The later Shelley is far more interesting. He was a late starter.
Frankenstein of 1818 combines a dream of Mary Shelley’s, Percy Bysshe’s fascination with electricity (he had conducted experiments since he was a child) and a competition between the Shelleys, and their friends Polidori and Lord Byron to write a ghost story. The prevailing model at that time was the gothic novel. The result was the story of a scientist who commits hubris by creating a living being. But this ghost who walks is misshapen and malformed. Mary Shelley has the same doubts about the possibilities of science that motivated HG Wells’ ‘scientific romances’ of the late 19th century. The book is considerably more than a horror story because of the humanity of the so called monster that Frankenstein irresponsibly creates. The monster is a bit like Edgar Wallace’s King Kong. It wants to be accepted and loved. Stature as a gothic hero has come to the monster through adaptations for stage and screen, where the fearsomeness of the gigantic thing is emphasised.
The Vampyre of Polidori came of the same competition at Geneva that produced Frankenstein, and was based on a fragment called The Burial written then abandoned by Byron. It introduces Lord Ruthven, a charismatic, aristocratic character who leaves a mysterious chain of anaemic corpses behind him wherever he goes (blood donation was not then a popular idea). A distinguished forebear was Shylock, Shakespeare’s Jew, who demanded his pound of flesh rather than his pint of blood: both ideas perhaps a parody of the Catholic Mass, where the body and blood of Jesus were shared by the faithful. Lord Ruthven was popularised through melodramatic stage plays (as was also Sherlock Holmes), and is still with us. Bela Lugosi in 1931’s Dracula is a pretty close idea of the original Vampyre. Variants include Polanski’s Jewish vampire, who giggles when confronted with a crucifix and says “boy, have you got the wrong vampire” (Polanski also has a camp vampire in pursuit of the manly hero). And there’s Twilight Saga, and Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Not one of them has the line “no thanks, you’re not my type”. Perhaps Lord Ruthven and Victor Frankenstein represent the bloodsucking and supercilious upper classes that the French Revolution attempted to unseat. The vampire is probably based on the medieval idea of the incubus (male) and succubus (female), nightmare figures that have sexual intercourse with sleeping men and woman that eventually leads to their death. Most of the signs of vampirism, long canines, sleeping by day, opera cloaks, fear of garlic and the crucifix, death by a stake in the heart, are late 19th or early 20th century additions, as the idea evolved from its simpler, more disquieting origins.
Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer of 1820 is the story of the Wandering Jew who sells his soul to the devil and is not able to escape his eventual fate of damnation. Like Polidori’s vampyre the emphasis of the story, which is very long and consists of a number of separate tales, is on the damned individual. Earlier gothic stories were plot heavy, but Polidori, who wrote only the one short story, and Maturin, emphasised the state of mind of what was, somewhat precipitately, the Outsider, pre Albert Camus and Colin Wilson. Mervyn Peak’s Gormenghast series is a later, very gothic tale of the outsider. There seems three stages of gothic. The first, as in Walpole, was still basically a ghost story with a gothic setting. Then came the monster, Lewis’ figure who raped and murdered with considerable relish. And finally the Byronic outsider like Melmoth, often carrying a curse. Key books to read are:
1764 Castle of Otranto Horace Walpole 1717-1797
1791 Justine The Marquis de Sade 1740-1814
1794 Mysteries of Udolpho Ann Radcliffe 1764-1823
1795 The Monk Matthew Gregory (MG) Lewis 1775-1818
1810 Zastrozzi Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822
1818 Frankenstein Mary 1797-1851 and Percy Bysshe Shelley
1819 The Vampyre John Polidori 1795-1821
1820 Melmoth the Wanderer Charles Robert Maturin 1782-1824
Personally, I’d put in a word for Jane Austen and Mervyn Peake. Maybe I’ve seen too many monster films. Five of the listed authors died within five years of one another, 1818-1824. Four composed while still in their teens or barely out of them. Four died young, victims of accident or suicide. Seems appropriate doesn’t it? Most listed titles are available here http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/literature/gothic/.
It should be remembered that these books had considerably more influence on people’s thoughts than anything written today. Books, pamphlets and newspapers in the 18th century were the only way ideas could circulate aside from society and political party promulgation. These gothic stories expressed dissent from the ancien régime and a new focus on the individual, and were to a certain extent subversive, as well as fun to read. The focus on the individual, impossible before 1789, is what we remember and have elaborated on in later fiction and drama. Modern gothic is post revolution, and rather cynical about it. It knows the revolution has failed, or at least that there is nothing in it for them. It has spread into several sub cultures, BDSM, rock and roll, comix, cosmetics, and as usual has been commercialised by the marketing teams on TV channels. No 15 year old virgins being raped anymore (actresses don’t like the part) but we can choose between vampires, or vampires. The undead are popular (at least with young actors because it doesn’t require much expression). But aside from that it’s very much a sub culture. Gone today is the revolutionary political connection, and that with poetry and mainstream fiction, that for a brief time, 1790-1820, made gothic so unique.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.