The Sublime and Subliminal: Pushing boundaries in Gothic fiction

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

One of the most interesting characteristics of Gothic fiction has to be its veneration of the sublime. Before I started diving into the research and academia of all things Gothic, I had always used the term ‘sublime’ to mean a kind of other-worldly, almost transcendent perfection; a pinnacle of intellectual and/or sensual experience. This ‘layman’ definition, as it turns out, is not so far removed from the specific definition used to describe Gothic literature.

For Gothic literature, the ‘sublime’ is a concept deeply rooted in philosopher Edmund Burke’s (somewhat controversial) 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. In this treatise, Burke argued that, as an aesthetic, the sublime was not the same as simple beauty. For Burke, the sublime was two-dimensional and complex, almost contradictory and paradoxical in nature (where, say, terror equated to attraction), and because of that, the sublime (as opposed to beauty) led to more visceral and disquieting and powerful responses. The distinction between the two terms was, for Burke, as obvious as the difference between seeing a beautiful flower and standing before a raging inferno.

Terror and Beauty
Image by Matt Howard via Unsplash

So intrigued by this concept, and being a general word nerd, I decided to look into the etymology of the the two terms…


The study of the beautiful and the sublime is part of the the aesthetics discipline, and the Greek origin of the word ‘aisthesis’ means ‘sensation’ or a ‘reaction to external stimuli’. The difference between our reaction to the beautiful versus the sublime is what prompted Burke to distinguish between the two terms in the first place, and the etymology of both helps us to see clearer that distinction.

‘Beauty’ comes from the Latin bellitatem (nominative bellitas) – “state of being pleasing to the senses”. ‘Pleasing’, by all accounts, is an incredibly passive word – and the word’s historical origins back that up. Emerging around 1300, plesen, meaning “to please or satisfy (a deity), propitiate, appease,” came from the Old French plaisir (“to please, give pleasure to, satisfy”), itself derived from the earlier Latin placere (“to be acceptable, be liked, be approved”) and related to placare (“to soothe, quiet”) and pl(e)hk (“to agree, be pleasant”) and plaki (“permission”) [Online Etymology Dictionary]. In all these definitions, beauty is synonomous with being submissive – pleasing someone else, being acceptable to them and approved by them.

In sharp contrast, ‘Sublime’ comes from a combination of i) the Latin preposition sub, meaning “under, below, beneath, at the foot of,” and also “close to, up to, towards”, and ii) the Latin word limen, meaning “lintel, threshold, sill”.

Up to the Threshold….
Image by Joe Dudeck via Unsplash

While earlier definitions of ‘sublime’ used this etymology as a frame to suggest synergy with “uplifted, high, borne aloft, lofty, exalted, eminent, distinguished”, later interpretations, particularly in Gothic literature, tended to focus on the inherent tension within the word — the space under, and up to, a dividing line of two worlds. ‘Sublime’ wasn’t just about reaching the pinnacle of one world, it was about reaching the final line between one world and another. Or, more precisely, between one world and its opposite. Just as the lintel is the beam that separates under from over, the limen in Gothic literature came to represent the lines between desire and fear, the beautiful and the grotesque, love and hatred, awe and terror’; and the sublime came to embody the depth of sensation that comes from moving closer and closer to those lines (and, perhaps, challenging them).

This is not a passive, submissive experience; it is rife with conflict, tension, and rebellion. When we encounter the sublime, we are moved by two contradictory stimuli — pulled in opposite directions that somehow lead, paradoxically, to the same place. And this inherent conflict generates a powerful and visceral response; a response worlds apart from the soft, calming, pleasing attributes of ‘beauty’.


While the word ‘subliminal’ is obviously related to ‘sublime’, it is a much more contemporary term. Originating in 1873 to mean “below the threshold of consciousness or sensation”, it comes from a “loan-translation of German unter der Schwelle (des Bewusstseins) “beneath the threshold (of consciousness),” from Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841), author of a textbook on psychology published in 1824″. [Online Etymology Dictionary

‘Beneath the threshold of consciousness’
Image by Artem Kovalev via Unsplash

Even though early Gothic literature predates the arrival of this word, I still think it holds some interesting value when looking at how Gothic literature uses sublime elements in ways distinct from other genres.

In my last post, I discussed how Gothic and Grimdark fiction both use the sublime to push the boundaries between opposite concepts of beauty and horror, love and death, purity and corruption. But, as hinted in that post, each presents the sublime in markedly different ways – in Gothic literature it’s all about the ambiguity, in Grimdark, it’s all about the hyper-realism.

To my mind, Gothic gets maximum mileage out of the sublime when it is being subliminal – when the sublime is inexplicable, mysterious, beyond knowing, beyond human comprehension and consciousness.

Chris Angelis, who you might remember from the Gothic Meter and recent Q&A, quotes Philip Shaw, who argues that “true sublimity occurs at ‘the point’ where the distinctions between categories, such as cause and effect, word and thing, object and idea, begin to break down. The moment is religious because it also marks the limits of human conception, the point at which reason gives way to madness, certainty to uncertainty, and security to destruction.” [Home for Fiction]

I like that Shaw emphasises ‘the point’ – referencing back to the threshold concept that underpins the term’s origin. This is also picked up in Angelis’ response: “The sublime, then, refers to an indefinable present moment, at which the ability to express and formulate an adequate depiction collapses. This experience is also accompanied by a heightened sense of metaphysical awareness and of a sense of transcending a certain threshold – despite the fact that limitations of reason and perception forbid direct knowledge of what might exist beyond this border. As a result, such experiences are invariably connected to a distorted sense of reality.”

The Ecstasy of the Unknown
Image by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

This sense of the unknown and unknowable is a powerful trigger for (often very primal) human emotions.

In his online essay, ‘The Fascination of the Abomination’, Ben Thomas talks about Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, explaining that the “book’s thesis centers on the idea of “paradoxes of the heart” — i.e., that the unknown holds a powerful fascination for many people precisely because it’s so potentially dangerous”. He suggests that “the more we fear something, it seems, the more we’re driven to learn about it — perhaps to test our mettle and prove our strength; perhaps because we sense that knowledge of a thing’s true nature is a form of power over it.”

From here, Thomas springboards to Rudolf Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy, and the idea that “the root of all religious experience is something [Otto] calls ‘the numinous’ — a sense of vast, powerful, and ineffable mystery that can’t be described in terms of other experiences.” He goes on to explain that Otto defined this feeling “as a sort of transformation — or sublimation — of the indefinable dread one might feel when walking through a forest at night, or the chill that runs up one’s spine when wind whistles through an empty canyon. It’s a feeling one encounters much more in wild places, when traveling alone — a sense of a place’s vastness, power, and Otherness.”

Vast, Terrifying, Awesome
Image by Ken Cheung via Unsplash

In this, it is the subliminal that makes the sublime possible: That visceral, transcendent feeling of walking the barrier between opposites comes only when our minds touch on a concept we can’t fully comprehend, or experience an emotion we can’t adequately confine to words. It is in that grey area of the ‘almost’ – the ‘up to, but still underneath’ precipice of touching something unknown (and maybe unknowable), but never advancing any further – that we encounter the sublime.

This idea is perfectly captured in Thomas’ quote from Orrin Greys’ essay ‘The Condition of a Monster’:

“H.P. Lovecraft once said that ‘suggestion [is] the highest form of horror-presentation.’

I think of this as less an affirmation of the old saw that things are scarier in direct proportion to how well (or how much) you see them, and more an exhortation that it’s not the monster itself that’s so scary at all but rather what that monster, by its very existence, suggests.

To put it another way, the thing that makes a vampire interesting … is not that it will suck your blood, but that it is a vampire at all. That it is a teratism, a thing outside of commonly accepted possibility.

The better such a creature is understood, the more bound in rules it is, the more pedestrian and commonplace it becomes…”


It is this division – between the unknown and the known, between suggestion and comprehension – that distinguishes terror from horror (and, to that end, Gothic from Grimdark).

The debates on terror vs horror are long-standing in Gothic literature. Ann Radcliffe, one of earliest writers of Gothic fiction, and one of the most prolific, spoke in detail about the differences in her essay, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’. As Julia, from the online Gothic Library, recounts it:

“Radcliffe describes horror as the cheaper, shock-value version of the emotion. Horror is the fear of something concrete, as experienced when one encounters a monster, a specter, or a scene of violence. Terror, on the other hand, is characterized by ‘uncertainty and obscurity.’ It is the sense of anxiety and dread that comes from the fear of the unknown or the yet-to-come. Radcliffe felt that terror, and not horror, was the path to the sublime—the ultimate goal shared by Romantic poets and many Gothic writers of achieving a higher emotional state in which fear and awe are intermingled. Radcliffe exemplified this ideal of terror in her own novels which often featured young heroines trapped in spooky castles and tortured by ominous sounds outside their doors and shadows just out of sight.

It’s the not knowing…
Image by Edilson Borges via Unsplash

Radcliffe’s denunciation of horror was in all likelihood a dig at her rival Matthew Gregory Lewis, best known as the author of the most shocking and gory of the early Gothic novels, The Monk. In Lewis’s novel, the object of fear is not an ambiguous being of murmurs and shadows but rather a lustful monk who poses a very real danger to the characters in the story. Other dangers include bloodthirsty mobs and murderously sanctimonious nuns. The novel is full of scandalous scenes of violence, lewdness, and grotesquerie which have secured it a memorable place in the history of Gothic fiction.” [The Gothic Library]

And that, dear readers, is about the best example of Gothic vs Grimdark I’ve yet come across 😎


Like any good mashup of Gothic and Grimdark fiction, Tasmanian Gothic has its fair share of both terror and horror. The horror comes from the post-apocalyptic, dystopian world of gangland debts, urban warzones, and sadistic crimelords. The terror comes from the hidden monsters in the swathes of lush, mutant wilderness known as ‘the Fringes’ that stretches along the island’s west coast.

Interestingly, the blurred line between the horrors of the post-apocalyptic/dystopian cities and the terrors of the wild and dark Fringes reflects the same blurred line between horror and terror. And our protagonist, Solari, is forced to encounter both on an adrenalin-fueled race through the Southern Reaches of Tasmania.


This post on genre and mode is one of many I’m publishing in the lead up to the release of Tasmanian Gothic, which is available to pre-order now.

If you want to catch up on the full series of discussions about Gothic and Grimdark and Weird Fiction, click on the ‘Genre’ category to pull up all related posts or use the search bar at the top of the page.

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