Gothic Literature: Dark, Excessive, Uncanny

the sublime gone dark;
night brings fire to the castle…
in a Gothic tale

Gothic literature explores the darkest human desires, embraces excesses, and develops around uncanny events, places, things, beliefs or individuals.

In his 1992 introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Chris Baldick suggests that this type of fiction provides the individual with a way to explore “existential” and “historical fears… by imagining the worst before it can happen, and giving it… a recognizable form.”

The exploration of darkness Baldick is referring to appears, in all its terrifying gory, in many of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. “Bernice” is one story by Poe that can shed some light into the darkness. Mental illness, epilepsy and the fear of being buried alive are just a few of the themes that appear in this short story.

These are the “existential” and “historical fears” Baldick mentions. Egaeus, the main character in “Bernice”, suffers from a psychological disorder that forces him to obsess with a particular object for long periods of time; in this case, Bernice’s “teeth”. He admires them. This isn’t anything special by itself, for nice teeth are attractive. The dark and commonly unacceptable desire shows when Egaeus’ obsession drives him to dig pull out all “thirty-two” of the object of his obsession’s teeth.

Literary critics of the mid 1800s, where horrified by “Bernice”. They did not appreciate Poe’s treatment of the “subject; and he [Poe] admitted, possibly only half in earnest, that he too considered that he had been excessive”.

Over a century later, “The Bloody Countess”, by Alejandra Pizarnik, made the excess in Poe exercised in “Bernice” look like the work of a sick little boy. Pizarnik’s fragmented retelling of the acts committed by Countess Bathory, a character taken from a novel by Valentine Penrose, shows a woman who enjoys torture, behaves like a sexual sadist, and partakes in cannibalism. This dehumanization of self and others is a characteristic typical of the Gothic—the Countess would bite into girls and bleed them like farm animals.

The Gothic genre takes something familiar (eating), corrupts it to unrecognizable repulsive proportions (ingesting human flesh) that cause pure horror. If the horror last, then what starts as physical repugnance can turn into terror, a type of fear that attacks the mind.

“Bernice” and “The Bloody Countess” start as horrific tales that might evoke terror by the time the reader reaches the end. The thought of a man pulling all the teeth from a woman’s mouth, in the name of love, is terrifying. Worse yet, is the idea of an individual who kills “610” girls and feels “that these acts were all within her rights as a noble woman of ancient lineage.”

I was going to suggest that the ending of “Bernice” and “The Bloody Countess” felt different from that of traditional Gothic tales. That they share most of the elements of the Gothic: darkness, excess, uncanny motifs, and are set in ancient aerie dwellings, but they don’t end with good triumphing over evil or society restoring order. Then I stopped, thought about it a while longer, and realized that these things actually happened in these tales, but not the way I was expecting.

In a rational world, Egaeus should be in psychiatric confinement and the Countess would have probably been put to death, but the world of Gothic fiction seems to be logical only within its own madness. “Bernice” and “The Bloody Countess” evoked powerful emotions in me. The first story left me feeling dread, while the second filled me with outrage and disgust.

These Gothic works offer a clear definition of the style: they took accounts of love and relationships (something known), and related them in a grotesquely unfamiliar manner that terrifies and shows exactly how rotten and complex some human desires can be.
  
for
Queen of The Night
“Suddenly, I have a dreadful urge to be merry.”

Sources
- The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, by Chris Baldick
- “Fiction Themes”, by Vincent Buranelli
- American Gothic: An Anthology from Salem Witchcraft to H. P. Lovecraft, by Charles L. Crow
- The Uncanny, by Sigmund Freud               
- The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe: A Norton Critical Edition
* The second line of the haiku (“night brings fire to the castle…”) alludes to my favorite novel in the Gothic genre: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

35 comments:

  1. Mmm, I feel hungry now...

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    1. Do not bite any peasant girls!

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  2. I have to be in just the right mood to allow Gothic horror to freak me out. My own darkness, however, gets to me all the time.

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    1. Our own fears are more powerful than anything someone else can imagine. Especially if we don't find a way to channel the monsters.

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  3. As one who ascribes to the bringing thought into manifestation, I have scared the holy hannah out of myself over imagined events, car accidents, break ins, etc. I try to quickly erase them from my mind like chalk from a blackboard. That being said, I have watched and read all types of horror from an early age.

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    1. I remember reading Stephen King when I was way too young to be reading his books. I was scared out of my mind; with my eyes huge and mouth open, but still reading, lol!

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  4. As a metaphysical healer, I am struck by the need of the man to pull the teeth of his beloved. He took the bite from her words and attitudes and left her unable to chew on anything for nourishment. Do you see where I am going with this? The same with the Countess as in so many old witch tales where the witch drained the blood (essence) of the young girls to keep herself youthful and to do away with competition. Anybody else get these vibes? Thought provoking blog, Magaly!

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    1. I suspect you are quite correct. He might not be able to handle a "functioning" woman, in his condition; so he takes away her right to make a choice. Ouch.

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  5. Classic elements of the gothic here!

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  6. Well, I loved this post, erudite and intriguing. It also made me poke through Emma Bovary for the scene where she's described reading Gothic Horror and stuffing a hanky into her mouth to stifle her screams. (I couldn't find it, but I know it's in there. But I can't read much Emma B before yelling at the woman. She ruined her credit rating and took arsenic. )The one unifying feature of Gothic Horror as you pointed out, is the Edifice; the stories are bound to a place which is part of their horror. So 'Alien', technically...

    As for poor Erzsébet Báthory whose "true life" exploits have been passed round from one author to the next, probably since the day after she died in her castle, there's an intriguing side note.

    Countess Báthory was an extremely wealthy woman and she loaned King Rudolf II a lot of money. Lots and lots. So much so, that she became short of cash herself and was obliged to sell a castle. The loan wasn't repaid. The trials and accusations didn't start until the following king succeeded and the countess began to demand her money from him. She was never actually brought to trial, although her personal servants were accused of witchcraft, with the usual consequences. All the confessions of her accusers were made under torture. You see where this is going? There were no eyewitness accounts of her bathing in blood and no long list of names of dead girls. The countess was put on house arrest (in novels, this can be spiced up to being "walled up alive" but she had a castle to live in.). She's a very handy plot coupon for the Vampire set, and therefore it's rather disappointing to find her crime might have been getting on the wrong side of the Holy Roman Empire. But as a literary trope, she's very useful.

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    1. The Bloody Countess and Vlad the Impaler have been remade and remade again almost as much as fairy tales have been. I wonder if in a few centuries they will be recognizable.

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  7. an extremely informative post on this gothic form literature on darkness.

    the opening haiku is just so well crafted

    much love...

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  8. Your opening Haiku sets the mood for your interesting post very well. I am pleased to learn more about Gothic writing. My daughter reads some but I've always been a little to nervous, imagining I would have nightmares afterward.

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    1. There are some bits of Gothic fiction that I refuse to read in the dark...

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  9. I think the melodrama of the Gothic draws us in and gives us a thrilling and dreadful hyperreality that allows us to (safely) grapple with the idea of "exactly how rotten and complex some human desires can be". The fact that equivalent horrors might be taking place in an ordinary suburban home, in our very own street, is a horror that is very uncomfortable to confront.

    The Haiku is perfect!

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    1. The known, when corrupted, is what makes us really tremble...

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  10. This looks like a haibun ~ Thanks for the info on the gothic tale Magaly ~

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  11. A lesson on Gothic, I love it. Poe was my reason for writing poetry. Thanks so much for writing for the challenge!

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    1. Poe is such a driving influence in so many. I can definitely read his in some of your poems.

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  12. Dark, excessive, uncanny...and intense! You nail the genre well.

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  13. You make me feel so clever when you right like this...as in, I am privileged to count such an intelligent being as a friend....*has just noticed how "shiny" and precious your teeth are* mwahahahaha :D XXX

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    1. *bares teeth in a shiny and precious way* ;-D

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  14. Do yo think Poe's Egaeus is creating another toothless orifice for to enjoy (?) separating the thing he loves (teeth) from the flesh they were encased in (Bernice) dehumanized the female (?) and made any further actions or violations of Poe's character on her guilt free? LOVE THE POST AND COMMENTS!!! Still away, had to borrow a phone with internet to catch this one :)

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    1. Shelle, I (and I suspect Sharon might agree) think you are on to something... The idea of separating the bits we like best from the ones we don't care for seems to be the thing here. I think that would make a very interesting story. I might have to write it... ;-D

      P.S. I've missed you. And I LOVE your new "Fallen Angel" and "The Gift"!

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  15. Shiver....I agree with Shelle.

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    1. A bit scary, isn't it?

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    2. Both Shelly and Sharon made great points. Something fishy (and controlling) is going on here.

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  16. I don't know if I would want to be reading this at night?

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    1. Our fears, especially the ones that have been reinforced by society, are best faced in the brightness of the sun. That way, we don't miss when we poke it in the eye. ;-D

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