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Gothic Literature: the Fascination with Terror

By tracipugh Apr 18, 2013 2213 Words
Traci L. Pugh
Dr. Amber Reagan-Kendrick
ENG 45023-SU-2012-OA Seminar in American Literature
8 August 2012
Gothic Literature: The Fascination with Terror
People have an intrinsic fear of the dark and the unknown. While each person’s level of anxiety and object of terror are different, the fascination to reveal them has inspired Gothic authors such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, and Stephenie Meyer for three centuries. Subjects of these classic tales include vampires, reanimation of the dead, ghosts, murder, witches, and love. These stories and poems can terrify audiences because they can encompass reality of things people cherish with a twist of the impossible. Gothic writers use terror, mystery, and excitement to probe the dark aspects of life by exposing inner human fear.

Mary Shelley was a Romantic Gothic author, and it is speculated that Frankenstein symbolizes “internal conflicts and life experiences with what may have been their manifestations in the fictionalized characters she created” (D’Amato 117). She was orphaned at an early age, and death was no stranger to her due to the deaths of her sister and her husband’s first wife. Mary feared giving birth, mainly because her mother died eleven days after giving birth to her, but D’ Amato proposes that she “may have believed any child she produced would inherit the repressed, hated, and destructive parts of herself” (122). Shelley’s work may have mirrored her life, but it was common for Gothic authors of this time to write about “the nation’s dreams, and their own” (“Gothic Undercurrents”).

The early nineteenth century was a time of fear due to rapid changes in the nation: abolition, the Great Depression, war, and the bank crisis. These events gave Americans the feeling that “life was an experiment that had gone horribly wrong,” and these writers explored this fear with prose (“Gothic Undercurrents”). This newfound style of writing exposed the dark side of humanity, but it also questioned the mystery of unsolvable problems. These works probed the demons of the nation and the writers.

Frankenstein began as Mary Shelley’s dream in 1816, and her tale of loneliness, reanimating the dead, murder, guilt, and revenge has been dubbed a literary classic. The main character, Victor Frankenstein, believes he has discovered the secret of life and proclaims, “Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a church-yard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm” (Shelley 79). Once the monster is created, it feels abandoned and starts killing. The creature inadvertently causes the death of an innocent girl. Victor realizes his creation is lonely, and nothing more than an abomination, so he decides to destroy it. A journey into the mountains ensues, but a crack in the ice divides their paths. When Frankenstein dies, the monster comes to see him and says, “Blasted as thou wert, my agony was still superior to thine; for the bitter sting of remorse may not cease to rankle in my wounds until death shall close them for ever” (Shelley 244). This story reveals the idea that the dead, once reanimated, are like an angry child who lashes out at a parent who has betrayed them. The feeling of abandonment was what Shelley tried to capture in this morbid tale of love and loss, and this theme would continue with future authors.

Edgar Allan Poe, considered a Victorian Gothic, was also an orphan whose life seemed to be full of disaster. He suffered an unmerciful surrogate father, was kicked out of the University of Virginia, dropped out of West Point, married his thirteen year old cousin, and lived in poverty with his freelance lifestyle (Doctorow 241). The driving force behind his work was that he embraced his own misery because he believed that his suffering was natural. His stories were written in the mid-nineteenth century, and people were still afraid of their uncertain futures. Poe used this to his benefit in what he called, “Imp of the Perverse - the force within us that causes us to do just what brings on our destruction” (241). This kind of thinking was the basis for many of his stories, and most of his characters were the reason for their own problems and demise. Poe “worked hard at structuring his tales of aristocratic madmen, self-tormented murderers, neurasthenic necrophiliacs, and other deviant types to produce the greatest possible horrific effects on his readers” (Baym 674). He was quite successful in this endeavor, as most people associate Poe’s name with dark, horrific, murderous tales. His “Philosophy of Composition” tells of his belief that “the supreme subject for a poem is the death of a beautiful woman” (Doctorow 242). This is evident in one of his most famous poems, “The Raven.”

Possibly one of Poe’s most maddening poems, “The Raven” is rhythmic and could be set to music with constant mention of the door, Lenore, evermore, and nevermore. The use of vivid imagery causes the reader to see this black raven sitting on the door pecking at it. The main character is a man grieving for his lost love, Lenore, and he believes the knocking sound is her returning. The raven says but one word, “Nevermore.” The man wonders what this means, and asks the bird if it is a messenger from God or the devil. Again the Raven says, “Nevermore.” Spiraling into madness and grief, he begs the bird, “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door. Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’” (Poe 74). The Raven stays at the door and forever torments the man with his repetitive call. This uncertainty about death was a Gothic specialty, and the introduction of animals and their mysterious qualities would prove to inspire future writers.

A century later, tales of Modern Horror would build on their macabre roots and incorporate popular culture to terrify readers like never before. Stephen King, often named the master of horror, has petrified audiences with tales of demonic cars, possessed children, undead pets and people, aliens, and the inherent evil in all people. King’s inspiration stems from “his own life experiences and fantasies, popular culture, and his reading of archaic burial lore” (Nash 151). Even though most literary critics do not agree with his writing style, horror fans are mesmerized by the images he creates. King and Shelley both play on fears “such as the problematic nature and popular fear of science and technology” (151), but King is “more willing to tackle explicitly cultural issues as opposed to the traditional Gothic preoccupation with personality and character” (152). Many of King’s stories concentrate on a fear of the dead, but they also raise the question of whether the dead want to come back and the consequences that follow. Love is a powerful thing and people never want to let go of a loved one, but at what expense are they willing to have that person back?

Stephen King’s scariest tale, Pet Sematary, asks and answers this very question by illustrating a modern family and the horrific, yet normal, happenings that tear the family apart and invoke the need for the supernatural. The Creeds move to a new house in Maine to start a new life. Mr. Creed is a doctor at the University, and he befriends the old neighbor next door. The neighbor tells of an Indian burial ground beyond the pet cemetery where the dead can come back. The family cat, Church, is killed by a truck on the busy road in front of the house, and Mr. Creed desperately buries the body in the “magic circle” of the burial ground to keep from telling this horror to his daughter. The cat comes back to life, but is “changed, if not psychotic” (Nash 156). Soon, the youngest son, Gage, meets the same disastrous fate as the cat. The father is consumed with grief and frantically buries the little boy in the same place. Gage comes back in the same fashion as the cat and kills his mother and the neighbor. Even though the father is a doctor, and knows what the monster that resembles his son is capable of, he again makes a journey to the burial ground to bury his wife. He sits and waits for her to arrive. Love makes people desperate and willing to cross unrealistic boundaries in order to escape pain. Writers have used the connection between love and death to explore new avenues in horror.

Stephenie Meyer has spellbound audiences with her Twilight series by introducing us to a world of supernatural beings, jealousy, ancient pacts, and love. Much like her Gothic predecessors, Meyers uses her dreams and popular culture to inspire her tales. Her vampires differ from the earlier versions in that “our vampires reflect our fears of new, changing or dissolved boundaries” (Mutch 76). New topics, such as “violent intolerance in the U.S. and elsewhere” are revealed by her characters going “to great lengths to hide their true identity” (78). This new generation of creatures reflect the thirst for blood and supernatural strength of the original monsters that began this era, but a regard for human life sets these apart.

The overall view of the Twilight series, by Stephenie Meyer, is that love conquers all, even death. Much like Gothic literature itself, this story involves centuries of vampires hiding from the light to maintain existence among their prey. The human girl, Bella, is in love with a vampire, Edward, and they know that being together is impossible. She is willing to end her life and join his dark world, but he is unwilling to claim her mortality. In the same spirit as Frankenstein, Edward sees his creator as a father figure, but laments his own vile existence. It is revealed that her best friend, Jacob, who is also in love with her, is a werewolf. The vampires and the werewolves have a pact, but it will be breached if Bella joins the vampires. There are constant struggles between the humans, vampires, and the werewolves, but the undying love between Bella and Edward is unyielding. The two finally marry, and a baby is conceived that almost kills Bella. Although he has fought it diligently, Edward is forced to ferociously inject his venom into her lifeless body to save her in childbirth. The baby is half vampire and human, and instantly demonstrates supernatural powers, and captivates Jacob, which ends the battle between the coven and the clan. The book ends with a glimpse into the beauty of becoming a vampire when Bella remembers the first moments after she wakes as a newborn vampire: “his face when I’d opened my eyes to my new life, to the endless dawn of immortality . . . that first kiss . . . that first night . . .” (Meyer 753).

The Twilight series is a love story with interjections of paranormal powers and the desire to want the things that cannot be obtained. This tale has consumed many and launched the “Twihard” generation. Meyer made vampires and werewolves vicious and bloodthirsty, but beautiful; unlike their nineteenth century counterparts, who burst into flames in the sunlight and transformed into hideous, drooling monsters, these beautiful creatures glitter in the sunlight and resemble overgrown dogs. Although Meyer made this less horrific than older horror stories, her series encouraged younger generations to discover the beauty of literature again.

Stephen King once said, “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret” (9). Although it is often grotesque, demonic, and depraved, people have an inherent need to explore the divide between good and evil, the known and unknown, and this world and the next. These tales have endured, yet changed, over the last three centuries. Future writers of the macabre will most assuredly follow in their predecessors’ footsteps and adapt to cultural changes in their own style. As long as people have inner demons, there will be a need for writers to expose them. Even though these horror classics are classified as fiction, what makes them terrifying is that they mimic the reality of everyday life.

Works Cited
Baym, Nina, ed. “Edgar Allan Poe.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2008. 671-674. Print. D’Amato, Barbara. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: an orphaned author’s dream and journey toward integration.” Modern Psychoanalysis. 34.1 (2009): 117-135. Web. 7 Aug 2012. Doctrow, E.L. “Our Edgar.” Virginia Quarterly Review. 82.4 (2006): 240-247. Web 7 Aug 2012. “Gothic Undercurrents.” American Passages: A Literary Survey. Annenberg Learner, n.d. Web 7 Aug 2012. King, Stephen. Pet Sematary. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984. Print. Meyer, Stephenie. Breaking Dawn. 1st ed. New York: Atom Books, 2009. Print. Mutch, Deborah. “Coming Out of the Coffin: The Vampire and Transnationalism in the Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse Series.” Critical Survey. 23.2 (2011): 75-90. Web. 7 Aug 2012. Nash, Jesse. “Postmodern Gothic: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.” Journal of Popular Culture. 30.4 (1997): 151-160. Web. 7 Aug 2012. Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe With Selections From His Critical Writings. Expanded. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. Alfre A. Knopf. Inc.. 1992. Print. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 2nd ed. Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999. Print.

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