GOTHIC, as a literary genre, has been with us for about 250 years, but it really came of age, came into itself, 200 years ago with the publication of Frankenstein. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (A Gothic Story) is a romance, but with the curlicues and details of medievalism. The book was successful, and started a fashion for ‘The Gothic’ in literature but it was not until 1806 that the first substantial gothic novel appeared.
This underlines the particular problem faced by gothic fiction: It runs on two levels and the surface level, by which it is identified and labelled, is not enough to support it through the ups and downs of fashion. Gothic can deal with very serious themes, such as scientific development and ethics, ‘otherness’, gender roles and exploitation, but most gothic literature is conventional, romantic stuff with just an overlay of gothic tropes. Very much like Horace Walpole’s original, in fact.
Most is eminently forgettable, after all, who reads Horace Walpole other than specialised scholars. Even Northanger Abbey is read largely because of the Austen brand and the urge to complete the set. The survivors of the genre are the stories that carry one of the big themes and, of these, Frankenstein is the only one that ticks all the boxes.
Memes and The Gothic
The success of Frankenstein, Dracula and the other survivors can be explained in terms of memes. We tend to think of memes as internet snippets and lolcats, but the word was invented by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 blockbuster The Selfish Gene. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, as well as a militant atheist, and he was looking for a term that described how culture evolves, comparable to the way organisms evolve. The word ‘meme’ evokes ‘memory’ and ‘gene’ and means a unit of culture that can be transmitted from person to person.
It is the same process whether it takes place in an oral tradition or a social media platform: if a meme fits the way that people are thinking (i.e. the cultural environment) then it will spread easily, multiply and prosper. If it does not fit the cultural environment it will either wither and disappear or it will evolve and change so that it does fit. Dawkins was intending to make cultural evolution a Darwinian phenomenon.
An example of the disappearing meme is the folk song. These were songs that emerged and were popular because they reflected important aspects of everyday life that people could relate to easily. Maddy Prior (below), of Steeleye Span, used to joke that all English folk songs were, at base, about sex, which is a bit of an exaggeration but it is certainly a dominant theme. In fact, the dominant theme is not sex as such, the songs are not pornographic. They are about loss of virginity, so-called ‘maidenhead songs’, and celebrate or bemoan the loss of virginity because her virginity was a woman’s greatest financial asset. Any woman who had lost her virginity was essentially unmarriageable, because potential husbands could not guarantee that her eldest child (and his heir) was his.
The most famous of these songs was Early One Morning, but these days few people have even heard of it, let alone know it. The maidenhead song is a meme that has died because loss of virginity is no longer a big deal. The meme doesn’t fit so it has died, and the maidenhead song is a mere historical curiosity.
The legend of The Wandering Jew is an example of a meme that has evolved over time to fit the current culture. The story of a man wandering the earth who cannot die dates to biblical times, and is associated with Lazarus, but is probably much older. It persisted as a medieval tale because it fitted the Christian idea of death withheld (and therefore the chance of resurrection) as a punishment.
As this lost its potency in the Enlightenment and the Age of Discovery the meme morphed into the story of The Flying Dutchman, condemned to rove the oceans for eternity. This in turn evolved to give him the Romantic exit clause of living until he found the love of a good woman. In 1993 the meme remerged in the film Groundhog Day, with Phil Connors reliving an eternity of the same day until he wins the love of his good woman. This should be a rather slight romantic comedy but the core of the story is a meme so powerful that, like Frankenstein himself, it has entered the language in its own right.
The meme does feature in the conventional gothic canon in the form of the Eternal Wanderer, such as Melmoth, but Groundhog Day brings it right up to date. Well, into the nineties, at least.
The Vampire Meme
The gothic meme that has evolved most successfully is the vampire. The original may, like Dracula, have been Transylvanian, but Dr Polidori didn’t trust the British to really get the whole bloodsucking bit and it was not a major feature of his story, The Vampyre. Lord Ruthven was more of a creepy, exploitative aristocrat, a social parasite rather than an ectoparasite. He damages everyone he comes into contact with (a figure very familiar to Polidori’s readership). Miss Aubrey’s exsanguination is pretty much an afterthought, literally the last line.
(Continued next column)
(Picture credit: Steeleye Span by Brian Marks, Wikipedia Creative Commons)