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.
Queen of The Night
“Suddenly, I have a dreadful urge to be merry.”
- 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