ESSAY (September 2019)

IS GOTHIC STILL A CULTURAL PHENOMENON?

asks EDWARD ALPORT

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.

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(Picture credit: Steeleye Span by Brian Marks, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

But the British public were made of sterner stuff than Polidori realised and they immediately latched onto the ‘thirst of a vampire’ and that became the dominant characteristic. Dracula is still a Count, an aristocrat (though not a British aristocrat, of course) but it is his thirst that holds the attention. Dracula contains many memes, such as Lucy Westonra as the Bad Mother, which reinforce Dracula’s role as The Despoiler, but it is his diet, and his consequent immortality, that we associate with him.

This is the strength and the weakness of the vampire meme. Immortality is perversely attractive, and bloodsucking is still horrifying, so they still just about fit and they still retain much of their potency. The other characteristic of the vampire, the aristocratic despoiler, doesn’t. There are still aristocratic social parasites but they are not a feature of society or literature. They are not a threat. That meme doesn’t fit, and only makes sense in modern literature if the context is historical. A modern setting with an aristocratic parasite would seem very niche.

The vampire is the Ultimate Outsider, the Ultimate Beautiful Bad Boy, or girl. The outsider meme has had the effect that vampire gothic enables the writer to address difficult themes such as otherness, difference and acceptance in a comfortably foreign, exotic context. This is the strength of gothic as a genre; difficult issues can be addressed in safely quarantined environment.

In gothic it is absolutely clear that the setting is a thought-experiment because the context is highly unlikely to reflect the reader’s experience or the actual writer’s experience. This is why so many gothic novels are published as ‘translations from the original (insert language of choice)’ as a device to make it seem that the events described were experienced by someone, just not the writer.

Gothic Substance and Gothic Surface

In addition to the deeper, more serious memes, gothic has a host of superficial memes, mere tropes, that nevertheless define the genre. These include a lot of darkness and blackness, fainting heroines, sadistic villains and stalwart heroes. The settings are architecturally gothic, dark (naturally) and complicated in layout with the potential for getting lost. The buildings are frequently haunted, or appear to be. These are still potent memes, but they are not universal. They are only potent to people who accept their potency and they occupy a niche called ‘Gothic Fans’. They are a market, for sure, but they are not a very big one, and they are conservative. Evolution of their memes is greeted with suspicion.

The effect of this definition by superficiality is that a good deal of writing that addresses gothic themes is not labelled as gothic because it doesn’t have the superficial gothic tropes. Take Dickens, for example. Much of his content is wildly gothic (Miss Haversham, anyone?) but he is not considered gothic because he rarely uses gothic tropes. He didn’t want to distance his readers from the action. He was writing social realism and wanted his readers to feel it in their hearts.

The same can be said about Robert Browning (right), who addressed quintessentially gothic subjects (monastic insanity in Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister, murder of innocents in My Last Dutchess and Porphyria’s Lover, rats and revenge in The Pied Piper) but who is never considered gothic.

The superficial tropes also make gothic particularly easy to parody or subvert, so we now have benevolent vampires in Vivian Shaw’s novels, Terry Pratchett’s reformed Black Ribboners and the West Coast cuteness of Christopher Moore. These perpetuate the meme and push it to evolve, but it evolves to fill very small niches; niches that are specific to the writer, not the vast spaces that Dracula occupies.

Chris Riddell’s slyly allusive Goth Girl books treat ‘Gothicism’ itself as a meme and underlines that way that the memes of ‘Vampirism’ and ‘Gothicism’ have evolved away from ‘something to cause a frisson’ into ‘something to cause amusement’.

Then there is the eternal mystery of Twilight, which is essentially a Young Adult convention; Good Girl Meets Bad Boy, with a bit of Romeo and Juliet thrown in to stretch out the series, but overlaid with a veneer of gothicism. But it is easy to underestimate the effect of Twilight. It has evolved a range of gothic memes so that they can fit the culture of the 21st century. It just isn’t literature.

Going to The Shops to Buy Some Gothic

And, like Dickens and Browning, there are modern writers, such as Lionel Shriver and (right) Ian McEwan (though the list is potentially endless) who tackle gothic themes without the gothic tropes.

The conclusion is paradoxical. Gothic is alive and well, but what you see in the shops that is described as gothic is not gothic. Anything that is not described as gothic may be, but you have to decide for yourself.

Edward Alport describes himself as ‘a proud Essex Boy and retired lecturer’. He occupies his time as a gardener and writer. He also restores old keyboard instruments and other furniture. He says that when he has nothing better to do he posts ‘snarky micropoems’ on Twitter as @cross_mouse