Menu
Home / Art, Culture, Literature / Feature Articles / Gothic: The Transformation, an American Tale

Gothic: The Transformation, an American Tale

Thomas Hart Benton- Approaching Storm

Thomas Hart Benton- Approaching Storm

As we continue to build Diaboliquemagazine.com into an alternative platform for genre coverage, providing deep analysis on all aspects of the genre and its culture, while providing a break from the same old noise, we are ecstatic to announce our first themed season which will offer up a series of articles, essays and interviews revolving around one core theme. I am delighted to declare our first project will focus on American Gothic. The theme will run throughout the summer, so remember to bookmark us and visit our social media for updates!

Gothic: The Transformation, an American Tale

When we think of Gothic in either a literary or cinematic sense of the word, it tends to conjure a certain set of narrative tropes and devices associated with genre, which may have become considered somewhat cliched in modern times. Typically derived from a European literary tradition, the common idea of “Gothic” was later translated to the screen, ultimately defining classic horror cinema. Through this medium, maybe more than any other, Gothic in a particular form has become so much a part of our social and popular consciousness it is difficult not to think of Byronic heroes, maidens in peril, candlelight, crypts, castles, and cobwebs, when thinking in “Gothic” terms. Gothic evokes a sense of supernatural terror, or vampires and a myriad of other horrific creatures which flow from European legend and folklore. It summons a sense of the sublime and the terrifying; of black magic, ghouls and revenants. It creates an atmosphere of dark romanticism with narratives driven by doomed love, madness and sexual transgression. It reminds us of the shadows of our past, and the shadows which lurk within ourselves. As Fine[1] highlights “Gothic tales and films are about exposing what is hidden from view: graves are unearthed, the buried self made visible”.

It is not surprising that European Gothic tends to take centre stage in associated discussions. The first Gothic novel, written in 1764, was crafted by an English Earl, Horace Walpole. Titled The Castle of Otranto, Walpole’s text lay down many of the tropes which would later come to shape the genre. As Gothic literature developed it was through other British writers like Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Bronte, and Mary Shelley that it became hugely popular; while Irish writers such as Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu and Charles Maturin continued to bear the torch which ignited a sense of Gothic imagination as it took light across Europe.

438340With such a fixation on the past, adapting themes of heredity, aristocracy, and haunting images of a feudal past to a New World order presented a difficult task. As the embers of the American Revolution started to finally die, the nation was busy creating a new identity focused on the future. With no past or tradition to call its own, how could a sense of “Gothic” be found on such a fledgling canvass? American Gothic under these terms is far more nebulous, and difficult to define, when compared to its traditional counterpart. That’s not to say “Gothic” as a pure strain in an artistic sense isn’t without its problems either, but it becomes more linear and substantial under the limits of tradition. Yet Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland: or, The Transformation: An American Tale, published in 1798, set out to do just that. To redefine “Gothic” for a newly formed independent nation, as suggested in Weinstock’s Charles Brockden Brown,  [2] “the novels he subsequently produced were conscious attempts to combine elements from these various traditions into something new, something intrinsically American— an “American” novel, built around native scenery, native incidents, blended into the form and style of his European models”.

Fiedler echoes this sentiment in Love and Death in the American Novel[3] “for better or worse, then, Brown established in the American novel a tradition of dealing with the exaggerated and the grotesque, which impose themselves on us, not as they are verifiable in any external landscape or sociological observation of manners and men, but as they correspond quality to our deepest fears and guilts as projected in our dreams or lived through extreme situations”

Wieland was grotesque indeed, weaving in themes of religious mania, ventriloquism, rape, murder and suicide, it was able to set down the cornerstone that would form American Gothic. And yet, while the more sensational names, Poe, Lovecraft, and even King, are well associated with an American Gothic tradition, Brown achieves barely a flicker of recognition compared to either his contempories, or the European forefathers of the genre; Walpole, Lewis and Radcliffe. Regardless of this, Brown makes essential reading for anyone wanting to establish an idea of where American Gothic comes from, and how and why it evolved to become one of the most enduring and adaptable strains of Gothic in a pure sense.

While religious themes had already been explored in Matthew Lewis’ groundbreaking Satanic festival of transgressive sex and violence, The Monk, just two years earlier, Brown took these aspects, echoing from America’s Puritan past, moving the supernatural connotations to one side— in admittedly a Radcliffian tradition— and giving them a relatable and humanistic angle; one which proved so popular it continues to ripple across the genre some 200 years later; also finding its way into the core of what would later become Southern Gothic as the genre continued to be reinvented as an American vehicle. Brown exploited America’s Puritan past to provoke horror in the tale of a man driven to kill his wife and children by voices in his head he interprets as God speaking to him. Using the idea of sin, guilt and punishment to form the basis on which Gothic could be born in the New World.[4]

Themes of guilt litter American Gothic; with a colonial past drenched in the blood of slavery, piracy, genocide of indigenous people, and greed, America, despite its absence of crumbling old castles, became ripe for the picking when building Gothic narratives. Brown outlined in his introduction to his later novel Edgar Huntly his mission to rebuilt the Gothic temple in a strictly American sense, his words throwing down the gauntlet and proposing, as Weinstock explains,  [5]that American literature can and must differ from European models and that it is the purpose of his work to ‘exhibit’ a series of adventures, growing out of the condition of country. His work will engage the reader by means hitherto unemployed by preceding authors and will eschew the ‘puerile superstition and exploded manners; Gothic castles and chimeras of European models’. In place of these established conventions, he will substitute devices he feels are more appropriate to the American condition: ‘incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness”.

What Brown presented in Edgar Huntly was the idea of the Gothic “Other”; turning to focus on Indian Savages as threat. Building on the foundation he set out in Wieland, where it was the criminal outsider, ventriloquist Carwin, who worked as a catalyst for terror. The writer created yet another theme that would echo through the genre for years to come. He also introduced another typically American Gothic device, doubling, in his work on Edgar Huntley; an idea which Edgar Allan Poe cemented in the genre consciousness later on throughout his work, but most notably in his short story William Wilson. While Brown’s idea of the “Other”; a savage and wild  outsider threat, set to invade the sanctity of family life, reverberated into later works within the American Gothic cannon; seen at its most surreal and heightened in the work of HP Lovecraft, who created an entire mythos of invading “others” waiting to inflict Gothic horror on unwitting victims. The combination of savage outsiders, and rural terrors, introduced in Edgar Huntly, used the wilderness and American landscape in the same way Europeans devised threat and horror from castles, an aspect which has proved to be a remarkably enduring theme for the genre— even in contemporary cinema, with films like Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Blair Witch Project, still mining the vein to great effect.

Edgar_Allan_Poe_2What remains interesting is how American Gothic continues to reinvent itself, through those initial tropes laid down by Charles Brockden Brown. Unlike the period, traditional European Gothic, especially in cinema, which has become stale and cliched to some extent, the flexibility of American Gothic, with its free-flowing nature, has ensured that although not always obvious, Gothic themes continue to thrive in an American domain. Writers like Poe added further building blocks to the recipe. Poe, although not always taken seriously, or regarded as highly as he probably should be, mixed in Dark Romantic themes, the idea of ghosts, madness, and repeating motifs like the burial of beautiful young maidens— be it alive or dead— reintroducing aspects that might be associated with a European tradition, spoken in an American voice; albeit with a bit of Graveyard Poetry thrown in. Poe returned time and time again, as Giddings suggests  [6]  “to the core theme of “ death and dying,  given an elaborate ceremonial treatment”. Working from the strands laid out by Brown, Poe propelled the idea of madness in the Gothic field, giving his narratives— especially the highly influential The Fall of the House of Usher— multi-layered subtexts that make for interesting reading when viewed under a Freudian microscope.

There are many other writers I could pick out to demonstrate just how far the tendrils of Brown’s American Gothic has reached into the nation’s literary— and later filmic, and musical— culture, but the fact is that this influence is so far reaching, so rich and expansive, to try and drag every facet into one coherent discussion here would prove impossible if not entirely exhausting. Poe was not the only writer influenced by Brown, although he is arguably one of the most important— and ironically influential, (given his form of Euro-tinged American Gothic was so popular in Europe, especially France, that the writer went on to inform an entire generation of International Gothic)— but one thing that can be counted on is he won’t be the last. Just as Brown exploited common-day fears— using guilt from a Colonial past, the recent revolution, disease, threat from Indians, religious fervor— so the genre continues to exploit these factors. Writers from Hawthorne to Poe, James, Lovecraft, Jackson, and King continued to work along those lines, updating the narrative to suit contemporary fears. Yet, deep down in the core, those same ideas are still there, lurking, haunting.

And so that brings us to our task, to present an entire season on American Gothic, exploring the shadows to see just how far the genre has expanded since the publication of Wieland when America claimed a Gothic imagination all of its own.

Exploring the trend of American Gothic in cinema, literature, and music, we are excited to present this project to our readers as something of a celebration piece for a substrand of Gothic that is often overlooked in favour of its traditional European cousin.

[1] Fine. David (2014) Film Noir and the Gothic, (p.477). In: Crow, Charles L. A Companion to American Gothic.

[2] Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew (2011) Charles Brockden Brown (p.21)

[3] Fiedler, Lesley (1960) Love and Death in the American Novel. (p.142)

[4] Davidson, Carol Margret (2008) Calvinist Gothic: The Case of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, or the Transformation and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. In Horner, Avril. Zlosnik, Sue. (eds) (2008) Le Gothic: Influences and Appropriations in Europe and America.

[5] Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew (2011) Charles Brockden Brown (p.44)

[6] Giddings, Robert Poe: Rituals of Life and Death (1990). In Docherty, Brian (ed) American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King.

About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief of Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness podcast. Her writing has appeared in the pages of Fangoria, Scream Magazine (UK) and Gothic culture magazine Carpe Nocturne. She has recently worked a number of liner notes for cult home video label Arrow Films, as well as appearing on camera for them, written for Senses of Cinema and is currently working on a book on Daughters of Darkness (1971) for the Devil's Advocates Series (Auteur).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Stay Informed. Subscribe To Our Newsletter!

You will never receive spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

You have Successfully Subscribed!