by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
Keeping with the deep-dive into all things gothic in the lead up to Tasmanian Gothic‘s release (Aug 2022), I was lucky enough to chat with Gothic scholar Chris Angelis about his academic research and general thoughts on gothic stories.
Chris holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere, and his research interests include Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, the usage of time as well as the concept of ambiguous ontology in such narratives. He is host of Home For Fiction – an online site that showcases his academic work in the field of Gothic literature, his own works of fiction, and his programs and apps related to writing and literature (including the very impressive Gothic Meter that I used on Tasmanian Gothic).
What was your first interaction with gothic stories and what was it about the gothic genre that got you so hooked?
As most kids, I was fascinated by ghost stories – and I watched plenty of Scooby-Doo. Later, I read every Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft story I could get my hands on. Though at that time I wasn’t consciously aware of it, I was likely fascinated for the same reason the Gothic captivates people in general: It offered alternative realities, a different way of looking at things. On some abstract, subconscious level, I’d argue people become enthralled with Gothic tales because they seek an alternative explanation, a way of making sense of reality. But I wouldn’t call it “escapist”. The difference is perhaps subtle, but whereas escapist fiction is about forgetting one’s reality, Gothic fiction is about understanding it.
When you started studying and researching gothic literature, what was one thing that surprised you and one aspect you found (and still find) particularly interesting?
I was fascinated by the element of time and how intricate and meaningful it is. In the Gothic, time is distorted and presented in ways that are meaningful, signifying some underlining pattern – usually with sociocultural repercussions, for instance, in terms of class, gender, or ethnicity. Most readers would likely notice such temporal distortions in the Gothic (just the trope of immortality alone is hard to miss), but my research attempts to offer a theoretical framework in regard to the underlying importance. To offer a quick example, Gothic castles – or “castles” (think of the Bates motel, or Patrick Bateman’s penthouse) – aren’t only about aesthetics; they can be temporally liminal areas, in-between states between one way of life and another, one time-frame and another. Traditionally, the castle is an ambiguous element both separating and uniting feudal rule from the emergence of the middle class, religious fanaticism from technology (e.g. through the invention of siege machines etc.), or similar.
Another thing that fascinated me and which I discovered along the way, is how often Gothic stories depict children. I’d argue there are strong temporal elements involved, because children personify the ambiguous area between past and future, connecting the old and the new. As a symbol, a Gothic child carries the past within – both literally, as the continuation of the parents’ genetic code, as well as metaphorically, as the continuation of a cultural, social, or simply family tradition. Yet they also carry the – or rather “a” – future. A typical example (one most casual readers miss) revolves around the ending of Dracula. Everything seems to be in order, until we remember the child of Mina and Jonathan Harker. As Maurice Hindle aptly notices in his introduction of the 2003 Penguin edition, the Harkers believe the spirit of their dead friend, Quincey Morris, has passed into their baby, conveniently ignoring that something else has also passed into the body of the little one, namely Dracula’s blood – as Mina was forced to drink it. The novel ends with the (perhaps unintended) possibility that the vampiric threat is still existent.
What do you think most people misunderstand about the gothic genre?
Conflating aesthetics with substance. In other words, most casual readers or viewers don’t understand that the aesthetics involved are mere symbols. This troubles me, because the Gothic, as a mode, is about expressing the inexpressible. If we can’t understand the sociocultural implications and what a narrative tries to express indirectly (via symbols), we can’t understand the reason it can’t express these ideas and concepts directly.
Take The Exorcist, for instance, a film that has had a profound impact in terms of aesthetics (even today; for the 1973 audiences it was simply overwhelming) but whose deeper implications largely pass unnoticed. If we stripped all the aesthetics off, what would we be left with? The story of a young child who behaves in ways we’d today clearly associate with abuse and PTSD. The explicit sexual elements, the fact that men – among them Catholic priests – go up alone in the child’s room, and the centrality of the bed (indeed a shaking bed, which connotes violence) in the film are all elements that are hard not to associate with such a reading. Parenthetically, notice how the very fact of missing the deeper meaning because of the surface aesthetics is a metaphor-within-a-metaphor (a meta-metaphor?), in that it symbolizes how, in this reading, people missed abuse cases because everything seemed fine on the surface.
How far has gothic literature come since the publication of Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’? And where do you see it’s future?
It has definitely come a long way, at least in terms of the different expressions it offers. From science fiction to horror and from fantasy to psychological fiction, much of our literature and art in general revolves around Gothic ideas: the sublime, the inexpressible, the ambiguous. The Gothic is as undead as some of its characters, and for good reason: The Gothic isn’t about vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and whatnot. It’s about the monsters we hide inside. It’s not about cemeteries or castles, but about the scary unknown that is the human mind. The Gothic is about problems that have always existed and which will always exist, all the how’s and the why’s of our most intimate existential fears.
As for its future, we’re already seeing what has been term Eco-Gothic, that is, narratives dealing with ecological disasters, humanity being superseded by other life forms, etc. Another set of narratives we’ve been seeing for a while are about AI and robots, though the exploration so far hasn’t gone into too much depth. I’d like to see something more cerebral, more about the nature of consciousness, rather than I’m-a-Terminator-who-came-from-the-future stories!
What’s one of your favourite gothic stories (book or movie) and what about it presents it as an excellent/interesting/subversive example of the genre?
For a recent example, I’d easily go with Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse – I’ve written a review of it on the blog, by the way. I’d consider it the most successfully Gothic narrative of the past 10-20 years. Every Gothic trope parades through the film in an organic, naturally occurring manner – it’s an art to do that; I’ve seen many novels or films just showcasing tropes and motifs without thinking about them properly. To name only one (no spoilers), at some point one of the characters of the film essentially gaslights the other, insisting that something which just occurred, didn’t. Viewers perhaps don’t realize it, but the joke’s on them: They are also gaslighted in the process, since they have just witnessed the event, but the destabilized temporal framework of the narrative (a character explicitly mentions at some point “how long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two days? Help me recollect”) makes them wonder, too. It takes a lot of skill to pull such narrative tricks convincingly.
For an older example, I’ll have to mention Mary Shelley, but not Frankenstein (which is a remarkable text, to be sure). Instead, I’ll mention another of her novels, far less known but very intriguing: The Last Man. Written in 1826, It could very well be the first post-apocalyptic novel. There are many interesting things to mention, but one of the most fascinating ones is a trick similar to Eggers’s, that is, a narrative strategy creatively manipulating the audience. The story is offered as an ancient prophecy (we have the usual trope of discovered manuscript) of a future apocalypse (set in the year 2100) that is written retrospectively by the only survivor. This is ingenious, in that it presents the events of the story as true, yet not yet having occurred. I mean, the only thing scarier than a true story (because it has happened), is a true story that will happen!
A big thank you to Chris for his generosity in sharing his research and thoughts!
If you have more questions for Chris, leave them in the comments below.
Many thanks for offering me the chance to ponder on this interesting topic!
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