AMERICAN GOTHIC FICTION:
THE ROOTS OF MODERN HORROR GENRE
University of Szczecin
American Literature Seminar
January 8, 2014, Szczecin
What is American Gothic Fiction?
Gothic fiction is a literary genre originated in the second half of the 18th century in the Great Britain and is often counted as a feature of Romanticism and the Victorian era. Horace Walpole and William Beckford are amongst the best known English authors of the dawn of the century. With the beginning of the 19th century came some the greatest pieces of the genre such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker and The Portrait of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. Unsurprisingly, with the success of many Gothic authors this mode became popular in other European countries, mainly in France and Germany, and in the United States where subgenres were formed. It is the latter, where American writers created works of fiction as popular as they English counterparts and in 19th century American Gothic fiction emerged.
Authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe opposed transcendentalists' visions of the inborn perfection of mankind. In their image people were often prone to sin and self-destruction. Protagonists of their texts reach for madness and perversities as they came to be unable to free themselves from irrationality. What is more, Puritan tradition of America became an excellent base layer for stories with heroes and heroines driven by shame and guilt. Predestination and the fact of the existence of hell and original sin were ideal for gloomy atmosphere and feeling of impending doom. In addition, the fear of unknown and unexplored surroundings accompanying early settlers was another theme drawing darkness and forbidden spaces. New ideas of evolution and parallelism between humans and other animals posed questions about identity and humanity. They introduced abhuman, a person on the edge of becoming something monstrous.
American Gothic fiction merges fears and fiction, as well as motifs known from Romantic titles and Romances. With the absence of castles familiar to European landscape, wilderness, caves and old mansions serve as a background for stories in which rationality clashes with irrationality. Borders between reality and supernatural blur summoning apparitions, ghosts and other monstrosities to haunt people. However, not only do characters of those stories have to face external powers, but also their own souls and madness, where thoughts and dreams cannot be trusted. People are driven with strong emotions, passions and tormented by obsessions which often lead to their demise.
H. P. Lovecraft: Pillar of Modern Horror Fiction
The same features are familiar to the majority of contemporary people, not because of their knowledge of the 18th and 19th century literature, but rather thanks to popular culture. It feasts upon bygone literary works and refreshes their key themes and motifs so they can be approved by the public. By this manner, numerous modern books and films are filled with the same, almost unchanged ideas created more than a hundred years ago. And pop culture put all best known Gothic elements into one modern genre. Spooky houses, gloomy atmosphere, unknown surroundings, frightening creatures, madness, supernatural, they all appear in modern horror stories, whether in books, on stage or silver screen.
One of the first and best known modern horror authors, proclaimed by popular culture, is Howard Phillips Lovecraft. His works from the early 20th century, filled with insanity, forbidden knowledge and constant threat, serve as a brain candy for many contemporary artists. Most recognizable horror and fantasy writers such as Clive Barker, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, as well as famous film directors like John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Guillermo Del Toro use Lovecraftian trends to spook and frighten the audience. Even popular music bands record songs devoted to elements...
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Hawthorne, N., The House of the Seven Gables, Los Angeles: Pendulum Press, 1977.
Hawthorne, N., The Scarlet Letter, New York: Bantam Books, 1972.
Lovecraft, H. P., Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927. Last modified October 20, 2009. .
Poe, E. A., "The Fall of the House of Usher" In Selected Tales: Edgar Allan Poe, London: Penguin Group, 1994.
Poe, E. A., "The Tell-Tale Heart" In Selected Tales: Edgar Allan Poe, London: Penguin Group, 1994.
Silverman, K., Edgar Allan Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.
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