One of my poems has just been awarded a ‘Highly Commended’ in the Bridport Prize.
Judge Lemn Sissay, kindly wrote of my ‘Niece comes out of the attic’: ‘I was gripped by the gothic in this poem. And by what was not said. It’s beautiful. Powerful. Evocative.’
Lovely to read, of course, but the word that excited me the most was ‘gothic’. My brain is, at the moment, in a fever of gothic for a new, experimental piece of work, in which I am trying to reconcile a sense of the gothic with some incidents of apparent modernity.
Gothic (henceforth I’ll give the word its deserved capital letter): I come to the conclusion that never, or hardly ever, has one word suffered its meaning to be stretched so far and into so many dimensions.
Here, with apologies, is an uncomfortably rushed and creaky whistle-stop tour of the Gothic, simply to signal its pervasiveness. (I am not going to illustrate it, so as not to impede its speed. I see the reader hurtling alone and by night, in a coach drawn by black horses across vast and empty terrains where wolves howl.)
We started with Goths – Visi and Ostro – ‘barbarian’ tribes of the north, whose rise is associated with the fall of the Roman Empire, including the sacking Rome in 410AD. This first Goth manifestation gave us a language, and alphabet and a script, also known as ‘blackletter’.
Then came ‘Gothic’ art and architecture, generally thought to have seen the light first in 12th century France but spreading in all directions. The architecture was despised by the early art-historian Giorgio Vasari, who saw infidel barbarity in its sinuous lines, pointed arches and ribbed vaults (the same elements, perversely, were adored by John Ruskin, a promulgator of Neo-Gothic in the 19th century. Apart from the 'virtue' inherent in each craftsman's creative contribution, Ruskin favoured what he saw as properly pious love of Creation’s flowing, soaring, irregular shapes over Renaissance man’s sterile geometry.)
Before Ruskin & co came to revive the Gothic in our built environment, the term had lurched into a new form. Literature appropriated ‘Gothic’ to describe the kind of fiction that creates a frisson of ‘sublime’ terror in the reader. Screeching away from the restrained formality of the classical, this literature feasts on heightened emotions, death, unnatural life-forces, secrecy, ghosts, the interplay of irresistible attraction and terrified repulsion. Other tropes: ancient curses, brooding anti-heroes, forbidden loves, the torture, slaughter or corruption (moral murder) of innocent victims, often young. Sometimes the horrifying mystery is resolved as ‘explained supernatural’. Other times, the horror is generated by the darkest sides of human nature. If a journey is taken, it is (forgive me) alone and by night, in a coach drawn by black horses across vast and empty terrains where wolves howl.
Horace Walpole is thought to have started it in England with his novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which was initially published as an authentic rediscovered mediaeval romance. Gothic writers fed on one another’s Gothic imaginings. William Beckford’s Vathek, also originally published as a ‘found’ manuscript, was a favourite of Lord Byron. Another early classic of the genre was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, drafted during a ghost story competition in which Byron himself participated
A generalized Gothic architecture – rich in complicated shadow, beset with ancient dark towers, secret tunnels and dungeons – is often the backdrop. Providing the rib-vaulted settings for evil acts, Gothic architecture seems to exert the dark power Vasari saw in it: monstrous and barbarous, a kind of disorder. As at Hogwarts, both ancient and supernatural mischiefs stir in the very fabric of the castles, abbeys and monasteries where the characters are confined in feverish proximity with all that terrifies them. These buildings are sometimes in a ruined state, redolent of moral, physical or emotional collapse in its inhabitants. Nature relentlessly, even cruelly, takes back what man, in his arrogance, thought he had set in stone immortally. Buildings, like human bodies, can rot. This is the ‘Gothic picturesque’ – the sublime beauty to be found in something that can otherwise connote horror.
Victorian Gothic gave us Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula and countless other novels, often played out in three thick volumes. Meanwhile, Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic architecture delivered monumental markers like St Pancras Station. Any commuter can still get his or her daily dose of Gothic there, even now.
Gothic was not confined to English literature. German had its Schauerroman ('shudder novel') and French its roman noir, all accessorized with similar tropes and settings. Nor was it confined to hardcover. Magazines started embracing the Gothic in Victorian times and have continued to this day.
Then came Hollywood, happy to draw on the Gothic model refined in literature, starting with movies based on the famous texts and then going on to develop its own language and iconography, which often associates young sexuality with violent death. The ruined castle or abbey backdrop is optional.
I find it quite extraordinary how many writers of the 20th century have been labelled ‘Gothic’. There are of course the obvious, like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, but also William Faulkner (‘Southern Gothic’), Joan Aiken (‘New Gothic’) and Margaret Atwood (‘Southern Ontario Gothic’).
Moving on to the late twentieth century and beyond, we have Gothic video games, Goth music (Black Sabbath and their ilk) and the Goth fashion subcultures, which drew its aesthetics both from Gothic novels and poetry, as well as horror movies. Black prevails, with white for gaunt contrast: black nail-polish on pale hands; hair dyed profoundly black framing white faces with lips and eyes picked out in black. Trimmings and silhouettes are borrowed from a least a hundred years before: corsetted waists and lace.
For a while now, the Gothic seems to have moved away from a specific obsession with corpses, decay, curses, judgements and settings that contributed much to a sense of loss, dread and terror. We have moved away from a codified horror with specific visual elements, from innocents sacrificed to darkness, paying the price of ancient curses and hatreds that have festered for centuries.
Or have we? Where we’ve been shows Goth associated with the emotional and decorative paths of complicated and wild darkness. Where are we now? Well, this is what I’m working on and it’s not ready to share. Instead, here’s my ‘Gothic’ poem to be getting on with. Its vintage is April 2017.
Niece comes out of the attic
in my red velvet wedding dress, that old sore rash of silk
shamed into horripilation just like the hairs
that tiptoe up my nape at the sight of her,
thirteen, with no idea.
I thought that tongue of threads had long since gone to die.
But all this time it cooled its heat on the rack
of harmless jumble upstairs,
Watching zipper trace her bones, the cold clicks down my spine.
The past, that wolf, half-eats tall tousle of brown-eyed niece.
It grips her, neck to calf, in the thousand teeth
of its greed-red maw.
Yet niece is not its rightful prey. The past may brush those narrow ribs
but she must not taste its carnivore breath nor gag its rankling.
So when the graceful gangle comes dancing
out of the attic
I smile with velvet teeth at niece in my red wedding dress.
I chew the truth, gulp down what’s gone, praise
the prance and ripple of her kin kid-limbs
beneath the long-shed skin.
Michelle Lovric’s website