by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
When I was first drafting my latest release, I knew I wanted to call it Tasmanian Gothic. The title was inspired by one of my favourite tv shows growing up – American Gothic – and evoked for me the same sense of small-town menace, darkness, and strangeness. But I worried that Tasmanian Gothic didn’t fit easily into the gothic genre. While gothic literature has always resided firmly within the speculative fiction space, it has tended to stick to the fantasy and horror end of the spectrum. Whereas Tasmanian Gothic, while not at the hard sci-fi/space opera end of SFF, is still firmly in the science fiction realm of dystopian and post-apocalyptic speculation. So how can this non-fantasy, futuristic science-fiction novel claim the title of gothic?
To answer that, let’s take a deep dive into this dark and twisty genre…
(Full disclaimer: I am not a gothic scholar – just a fan and author)
ONCE UPON A GOTHIC NIGHTMARE…
The term ‘gothic’ first came about as an expression of disdain for the dark, gloomy, decaying architectural style of the High and Late Middle Ages in western Europe. Italian painter, architect, and engineer, Giorgio Vasari, used the term “barbarous German style” to signal his contempt for the architectural features of the Goths, whom “he held responsible for destroying the ancient buildings after they conquered Rome, and erecting new ones in this style” (Wikipedia). To Vasari and his Renaissance contemporaries, the Gothic style, in its opposition to classical architecture, was synonymous with the destruction of advancement and sophistication.
Fast forward two-hundred years after Vasari’s death to 1764, and we arrive at the publication of the first gothic novel – ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole – a tragic tale of violence, doomed romance, family secrets, dark prophecy, and supernatural horror.
The novel found its philosophical inspiration in Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, where he “distinguishes between beauty as a product of proportion and dimension and the sublime as a product of wild, irregular, and uncontrollable nature…The sublime carries with it both elements of attraction and terror.” (Encyclopedia.com)
Attraction and Terror, Romance and Death – each were equally dominant in Walpole’s novel – and not as a dichotomous pairing, but as an intertwined synergy of two similar forces – that sublime thrill of dark desire.
In the preface to the second edition, Walpole admits that the novel was composed as “an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern” – the ‘ancient’ synonymous with the fantastical, and centred on “imagination and improbability”; the ‘modern’ synonymous with realism, and centred on “a strict adherence to common life”.
AUSTEN. GOGOL. HAWTHORNE. et al – AN INTERNATIONAL GOTHIC
Walpole’s gothic novel inspired a number of other authors to take up the quill and pen their own gothic nightmares/romances. While some 19th Century works, like Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’, continued against the backdrop of a European setting, others like Hawthorne’s ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ (set in America), and Gogol’s ‘Viy’ (set in Ukraine), pushed the genre into new territories. While, perhaps, the American styles of gothic are more well known – the New England gothic of Hawthorn and Lovecraft, and the Southern Gothic of Cormac McCarthy and Anne Rice – the Eastern European gothic attracts serious discourse and debate.
Jeffrey Brooks in Russian Literature, explains:
“The Gothic aesthetic first appeared in Russian public discourse and literature in the immediate pre-revolutionary decades. It was deployed in satirical journals of the 1905 Revolutionary period to portray the tsarist regime as an inhuman and demonic force… [Later,] critics of the Soviet regime began to apply the Gothic as a tool to critique the despotic excesses of the new era. As Stalinism rose, the Gothic, which had become perhaps too suggestive of political opposition, retreated from the mainstream of Soviet cultural life…”
(For those interested (like me) in exploring this further, Muireann Maguire’s “Red Spectres” is a collection of Russian Gothic short stories from the 20th Century that illustrates this movement. In her introduction, she observes that these gothic tales often appear in times of social and cultural upheaval, citing Russia’s revolutions and civil war as triggers and inspirations).
In all of these international sub-genres of gothic fiction, the place (much like the the gothic castle or gloomy abbey of the earlier works) plays a prominent role. It is as much a character of the story as the human and monstrous and supernatural. And the role it plays is often oppressive, ominous, dangerous, and violent.
HOME GROWN GOTHIC
While Australia is new on the scene, it too has its own brand of gothic stories – Tasmanian Gothic (wild, right?). Tasmanian Gothic (the sub-genre, not the book) is thought to have first been coined by Jim Davidson in his 1989 Meanjin article of the same title. Like many of the other international sub-genres of gothic fiction, Tasmanian Gothic shuns the medieval European imagery for something more local – the natural landscape of Tasmania and its colonial architecture and history:
“…in sparsely populated colonial Australia, especially the penal colony of Tasmania, the religious zeal of some prison wardens (akin, in many ways, to the institutionalised religion of the Inquisition; a theme reflected in European gothicism) and the mysterious rituals and traditions of Tasmania’s indigenous Aboriginal inhabitants lent itself to an entirely different gothic tradition.” (Wikipedia).
But like the gothic stories from other lands and other times, Tasmanian Gothic is focused on a dark past and supernatural horrors. Gothic, even here in my neck of the woods, is still a kind of dark and strange (often historical) fantasy.
But what if you were to take the supernatural and turn it into the weird? What if instead of ghosts, you had monsters? Instead of witchcraft, you had alchemy? Instead of mad clergy or mad lords of the manor, you had mad scientists?
FRANKENSTEIN – THE FIRST GOTHIC SCI-FI?
Gothic literature’s impact on weird fiction is well-established (and Sublime Horror is here to show you the proof). HP Lovecraft is said to have been heavily influenced by Hawthorne’s ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ – going so far as to call it “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature” – and ‘The Shunned House’ and ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ are prime examples of how deep this influence was felt. And Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, if credited as the first science fiction novel, can then also – with its tragic monster – make a claim for the first gothic sci-fi novel (although this may be up for debate).
In these science fiction (and science fantasy) tales, the gothic influence is seen most heavily in the exploration of the beautiful and the grotesque, of brutality and vulnerability, and of guilt and atonement.
I find that Shelley’s novel, more so than the works of Lovecraft, leans heavier into the science fiction (as opposed to the supernatural) horror. What hails it as unarguably gothic is its sense of the macabre and the bizarre, and its exploration of the corruption of the natural, and the folly of mankind. In her introduction to the 1831 edition, Shelley confesses that the story was inspired by “a late-night discussion between Bysshe Shelley and Byron about the then ‘fashionable’ scientific topic of galvanism. This was the study of electricity to stimulate muscle contraction and produce chemical reactions, which led to fantastical concepts of a liminal state between life and death as explored through the creation of Frankenstein’s tragic creature.” (BBC History Extra)
In Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, we see the power of melding gothic with science fiction. In many ways, gothic sci-fi appears more surreal than fantastic, more subversive than romantic – as if the ‘almost-realism’ of science fiction pushes the reader towards horror as speculation rather than thrill (although, to be sure, there are both).
MONSTERS AND MONSTROSITIES
Monsters, in their many shapes and forms, are ubiquitous in gothic stories, and common in both horror and sci-fi. In his excellent online essay, Spiders and Flies: The Gothic Monsters of Sci-Fi Horror (which presents a very convincing argument for ‘Alien’ to be regarded as sci-fi gothic), Daniel Pietersen discusses the roles of monsters in both gothic and sci-fi horror; how they inject the necessary power imbalance required by both genres, but also how they ‘go one step further’:
“…both accept that the existence of monsters is not inherently any more (or less) threatening than the existence of wild animals or natural disasters; even giant, radioactive ants, for example, are still just ants. Gothic and sci-fi horror understand that it is not the fact of monsters that we need to be warned about but the becoming of monsters…Monsters are what we might be, if we were not us. Most horrifyingly, they are what we might yet become. Gothic and sci-fi horror asks what happens when the membrane between the human and inhuman is not only reached, but breached?”
This leads him to a discussion of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection – the visceral reaction to the ‘disgusting and defiled other‘ – what Kristeva likens to the “repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage and muck”. (For those of you who have been long-time readers of this blog, or have read my ‘Divided Elements’ series, you know exploring this theme is catnip to me).
Pietersen leans on that idea of abjection and adds clarity, arguing that abjection is “more properly ‘not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order’. The simple existence of the unclean is not abject as long as there exists a system which defines the separation between the clean and the unclean; spoiled food is not abject in itself, only when it is found in a place where spoiled food should not be. True abjection occurs once the membrane between the two – clean and unclean, humans and inhuman, self and other – becomes permeable or ruptures entirely.”
Linking it back to his discussion of monsters in sci-fi and gothic, Pietersen concludes “…most importantly, monsters portend what what happens when we trust too deeply in the networks of ‘identity, system, order’ that they rip apart.”
SO WHERE ARE THE OTHERS?
Given the synergies between science fiction and gothic fiction, and that Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is such a seminal work, you’d expect there to be a plethora of gothic sci-fi novels by now. But, if you’re like me, you haven’t really seen any…
And that’s because there aren’t many. If you search for ‘gothic science fiction’, you’ll mostly find lists of novels and movies that are clear examples of sci-fi horror (e.g. ‘Gravity’), but none that seem to capture the essence of what it is (in my opinion) to be gothic – the macabre, the secret, the grotesque, the repressed, the violent, the mysterious, the contained, the corrupted.
It can’t just be sci-fi scary, it has to sci-fi weird and unsettling with wild emotions and ominous settings. It has to embody or reflect or play with most of the gothic elements we’ve uncovered so far. (See this excellent piece by Chris Angelis on the differences between Gothic, Horror, and Sci-Fi).
Surely my own Tasmanian Gothic can’t be alone out there in this sub-genre wilderness?
As I continued to look for examples that fit my (maybe too limiting?) definition, I serendipitously stumbled across these great non-fiction studies by Sara Wasson:
- Gothic Science Fiction: 1980-2010, by Sara Wasson and Emily Alder
- Transplantation Gothic: Tissue Transfer in Literature, Film and Medicine, by Sara Wasson
As well as these curated lists of gothic sci-fi books:
- Goodreads Gothic Science Fiction https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/122104.Gothic_Science_Fiction
- The Best Sci-Fi Books – 13 Best Gothic Science Fiction Books
And these excellent online posts by:
- Daniel Pietersen
- Chris Angelis
If you’re looking to better understand this subversive genre, you can’t do better than checking these out.
It seems the world of gothic science fiction is as fringe as its stories are – but there are so many amazing, interesting, intelligent conversations about it, and some intriguing books that have only just appeared on my radar. I’m thrilled to be part of it and to contribute Tasmanian Gothic to its weird and dark realm. (And, yes, I’m happy to confirm that Tasmanian Gothic ticks all of the gothic elements I highlighted above. If that’s something that piques your interest, you can grab a copy here).
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