Books Besides the Bible: Christ and the Gothic

Every Monday in Books Besides the Bible, Ethan Bartlett considers the value and pleasure of reading for Christians.

Like all good criticism, Elizabeth Lowry’s recent review of Victoria Nelson’s Gothica is worth reading on its own merits. The book, in brief, looks at the revival of Gothic horror tropes (e.g., vampires, werewolves, zombies) and theorizes that they signal a new religion on the horizon. The argument is that the new wave of Gothic revivalism involves union with things that were once horrifying — i.e., Bella Swann’s triumphant transformation into a vampire in the Twilight books, a transformation that is not horrible and life-ending (as it would have been in older vampire books), but transcendent and almost an experience of rebirth.

Lowry goes on to point out, correctly, the inherent flaws in expecting a new religion to grow out of a fictional movement that follows the “zeitgeist,” as well as the flaws in thinking that the expectation for humans to achieve their own transcendence is anything new. But what I have a problem with is some of the arguments that Lowry simply grants. Lowry says that Nelson’s book:

[B]egins with the familiar argument that the Gothic genre arose as a subversive counterpoint to the bleakness of the Enlightenment. In Protestant societies at least, our sense of the transcendent, once it had been exiled from daily life by all that rationalism, was relegated to the realm of the imaginative grotesque. Enter the Gothic novel, with its guilty nostalgia for the past, its fetishized Catholic medievalism—the ruined castle, the tapestried chamber, the sealed convent—and thrilling dose of supernatural terror. It laid the foundations for a long tradition of popular fiction that stretches all the way from Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” (1764) through Edgar Allan Poe’s tales to Ms. Meyer’s urban vampires.

While there is probably some inarguable truth to these assertions, as a blanket description and dismissal of Gothic fiction they have problems. Remember that this is the genre that gave birth to Mary Shelley’s infamous Frankenstein, arguably one of the first science fiction novels and a fictional critique of the very idea Nelson is arguing for in her book — man’s transcendence by virtue of union with something once thought grotesque.

This is also the genre that gave birth, in 1820, to what is considered the last true Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer (which, full disclosure, is one of my favorite novels). This book traces the character of Sebastian Melmoth, a man who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for an extra 400 years of life. Melmoth is then cursed to wander the world, finding people in their darkest hour and offering to trade places with them in exchange for their soul. But he can find no one who, to gain the world, will give up their soul.

Besides the obvious Christian themes — the author, Robert Maturin, was a Presbyterian minister — this novel is brilliant on all kinds of levels. Long before the structural interplay that came to characterize modern and postmodern novels, Maturin explodes the familiar Gothic frame story, at one point telling a story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Yet the novel is rarely confusing, and while it does fall prey to some of the Gothic tropes that may seem hackneyed to the modern eye, it is just as often brilliantly insightful into the nature of humanity and the mental lives of its characters (both the prosaic and the supernatural).

And this is my point: the narrow-minded dismissal of Gothic “fetishized Catholic medievalism” papers over a much more interesting and complex genre. At its best, like all good fantasy, the Gothic novel is not a fetishized escapist thrill-show, but a way to posit the unnatural and the supernatural into human consciousness, to face us with horror and to see what our reaction is. Death and hell are horrifying. But when we can hide them behind sentences like that one, they are easy not to think about. The best Gothic novels bring them out of hiding.

Like all fantastic fiction, the Gothic novel at its best serves to expand our imaginations, allowing us to prepare for the unexpected. At its best, Gothic fiction (original or revival) shows us our fallen nature, and our need for a redeemer.

About Ethan Bartlett
  • Geoffrey R.

    “At its best, Gothic fiction (original or revival) shows us our fallen nature, and our need for a redeemer.”

    I think you’re absolutely right on this count, Ethan. I would concur with Lowry/Nelson that the Gothic (a la Walpole) indeed begins as a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism; but that rationalism is no more Protestant than it is Catholic. While some early Gothic works do inhabit old monasteries or medieval environments (e.g. Otranto, The Monk, etc.), others are more Protestant (e.g. Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Frankenstein), or Muslim (e.g. Vathek). And, it is fair to note, that Enlightenment thinkers also struck back and tried to claim the mode for themselves (e.g. Ann Radcliffe, William Godwin).

    To me, the key to the best Gothic is that it recognizes something the Enlightenment could never acknowledge: that humans are not blank slates at birth, that our problems are not simply the results of bad education extrenally but also come from irrational, subconscious, and (ultimately) sinful sources.

  • Ethan

    Thanks, Geoffrey. I had forgotten about “Memoirs and Confessions,” which would also have served my point due to its strong (albeit twisted) Calvinist underpinnings. Being quite honest, I think your last sentence is just brilliant.


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