It is with Poe that we first see the gothic shifting away from an emphasis on props and sets—dark forests and lugubrious caverns, skeletons and thunderstorms—and towards a particular sensibility characterized by transgressive tendencies and extreme distortions of perception and affect. Poe’s genius lies in his recognition of the sorts of structural analogies possible between the trappings and the sensibility, then in the deftness with which he splices them together: Roderick Usher’s mind is as much a reflection of his house as his house is a reflection of his mind; when the one fissures, the other fissures also—“and the deep and dank tarn closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.” In such a tale climate, landscape, architecture, genealogy and psychology seem to bleed into one another until it’s impossible to distinguish a figure from its metaphors, and a sort of coalescence of elements results even as a movement of regression is occurring, a collapsing back into a state of primal unity—a death, in other words; and this, finally, is what the gothic is always trying to talk about, though it often hedges and skirts, avoids the thing itself and becomes preoccupied with outgrowths, side effects and repercussions.
The history of the genre is a fascinating one. Several parties conspired in its birth, among them the aesthetic theory that the Horrid and the Terrible were legitimate sources of the Sublime; the cult of Nature, which came to full flower in de Sade (who himself considered the tale of terror a product of revolutionary upheaval: in 1800 he wrote, “there was nobody left who had not experienced more misfortunes in four or five years than could be depicted in a century by literature’s most famous novelists: it was necessary to call upon hell to arouse interest”); and a long-standing petite for the gentle melancholy of ruins. This now acquired rather sinister and morbid undertones. Horace Walpole is credited with the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto of 1765, but the best of the first wave is Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, which energetically tracks the spiritual collapse of Ambrosio, a bad priest, his rape of a lovely virgin in the dank vaults of a church and his eventual damnation. On its publication in 1796 it caused an uproar, Lewis (aged twenty) and his publisher were indicted, and The Monk was expurgated. Thus did the gothic in its very infancy display its subversive inclinations.
Subterranean passages, vaults, dungeons, cellars—these are all staples of the early gothicists, providing as they do sites where terror and unreason hold sway, where passion is transformed into disgust, love turns to hatred and good engenders evil. This alerts us to one of the basic structural principles of the genre, inversion—its delight in turning things upside down. The gothic will move to the dark term of any opposition we care to throw up, it will always attempt to negate. The nineteenth century witnessed a glorious efflorescence of gothic writing: Wuthering Heights is perhaps the finest example, articulating as it does the terrible possibility of a passion so intense as to transcend the barrier that separates the living from the dead. The vampire, who makes a first literary appearance in about 1800, is also biologically anomalous, being a creature distinguished by his or her inability to rot, as well as possessing a perverse and predatory sexuality. In much of Poe’s best work that same theme recurs, an obsessive fascination with necrophilia, arguably the most radical of the transgressions. (We even find a gothic moment in what is considered one of the crowning glories of 19th-century realism, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, in the character of Mr. Casaubon, black-clad, dusty scholar of the world’s myths, and a figure of death, whose one small triumph is briefly to ensnare the heroine Dorothea in his moribund and ghoulish work.) But it is Poe who stands central to the tradition, reaching backwards into the 18th century for his crumbling fungoid buildings and dripping cellars, but forward into the 20th with his demented drunks, his paranoids and neurotics, blazing a trail through the darkness that the greatest of his followers, the psychologist Freud, would explore so fruitfully in the creation of some of the most inspired tales in the genre, the chillingly macabre “case studies.”
The pieces collected here all manifest the gothic sensibility; several, in addition, make explicit their ties to the bloodline through the use of traditional motifs. Vollmann’s “Grave of Lost Stories” is a vivid example of this: the very idea of the death of Poe seems to gather to itself all the sheer blackness in the gothic palette; in fact from a certain perspective Vollmann’s tale can be seen as a sustained exploration of gothic black, a “darkness coagulated into obsidian.” Hawkes and Coover also are working with recognizable motifs, the ruined monastery and the persecuted fugitive respectively. Hawkes’s “Regulus and Maximus” is remarkable not only for its startling imagery (to see his snails is to remember them forever) and its elegance of style, but also for the fact that with his strangely fabulous running monks he returns to the “original” Gothic civilization of the Middle Ages. The architecture of that civilization exerted a powerful romantic influence on early gothicists like Walpole, Lewis and Ann Radcliffe; the latter is often associated with the image of the spotless maiden fleeing by moonlight through the ruins of a medieval abbey, fleeing for her virtue from some degenerate, swarthy, Roman Catholic aristocrat. The image is so recurrent, in fact, in early gothic fiction, that it has stimulated the theory that the persecuted maiden represents the pristine spirit of a young Protestant mercantile culture guilty at having destroyed the authority of both the Catholic church and the landed aristocracy. Robert Coover’s “Night of the Assassins” reworks the theme of the flight from the monster in what must be one of the most gothic of settings, the back streets of Venice in a storm by night; the terrified victim is not, however, a pure Protestant maiden but a “world-renowned art historian and critic, social anthropologist, moral philosopher and theological gadfly,” author of works like Astringent Truth and The Transformation of the Beast; and he is brought low by a very Venetian beast “on this, the night of his glorious homecoming, head buried and ancient fulminating arse high ... ”
The beast and the monster, though by no means its exclusive preserve, have had full and extensive development in gothic literature. One thinks immediately of Frankenstein’s creature, of Mr. Hyde, of the things produced by Dr. Moreau on his island; of grotesques like HopFrog and Quasimodo, and Carson McCullers’s extraordinary hunchbacked dwarf, Lymon Willis; and bearing in mind the gothic’s propensity to question and negate, we may detect here a tendency to worry constantly at the idea of the human, what it means, where it begins and ends. Several authors in this issue have invented monstrous creatures, Kincaid and Tillman primarily. “Ovando” is a vast, towering figure with a body made of plates of steel and stained with decaying blood, a figure who carries his person bibles, cathedrals, museums and libraries; Kincaid’s narrator finally confesses to being exhausted from “laying out before him his transgressions … from shielding myself so that his sins do not obsess and so possess me.” This is a mythic tale, its symbolism centrifugal; Lynne Tillman’s “The Trouble with Beauty” by contrast has a tight, precise and focused grip upon the nature of its beast: the inversion of the familiar fairy tale trans-forms it to a mordant comment on an authentic contemporary horror, at which point “The Trouble with Beauty” forms a linkage with Mary Caponegro’s “The Sound,” both stories implicitly identifying bestiality with the violence and violation of paternal incest and rape, while both also recognizing the hideous paradox that, in Caponegro’s words, “man become beast has made us also bestial creatures.”
Transgressive sexuality pervades these writings. Hillary Johnson’s Physical Culture is a novel about concealment, both physical and psychological. At the end of the passage reprinted here the narrator proposes a literal turning-inside-out of his own body, an inversion that finds an echo in his responses to pleasure and pain. And in Bradford Morrow’s piece, excerpted from his novel-in-progress, the eerie, hallucinatory quality of the encounter between a young girl and the ghost of her brother is drawn from some fantastic region of the sexual imagination that’s aroused by the torment of a migraine, and where the utter absorption of one body by another is effected, a weird reversal of the birth process, a sort of inverted necrophilia even, that is finally connected to violation, to ravishment. Sylvia Kelly pursues the ineffable gossamer tissue of dream in passages here reprinted from her long story “The Colors of Sleep,” a delicate, impressionist piece of writing that shows how eagerly the gothic tends to slip away from realist modes of narration.
In this regard probably the most consistently subversive of these writers is Kathy Acker. Her strident, fractured collage of a text nicely marries its disjunctive formal traits with the violent sexuality, the sacrilege and the raging social and political broadsides that to a large extent comprise its content: transgression here is operative at every level, the principle of inversion applied with an almost religious zeal. “The issue’s my death,” her Rimbaud says. “The issue is always the self. I am going to die”—a cry of pain that issues from the very heart of the gothic. Both Peter Straub’s and Paul West’s pieces are pertinent here, in that both of them, like Vollmann’s “Grave of Lost Stories,” describe a familiar gothic progression or tendency, the movement toward death. Straub’s excerpt is remarkable in that it arouses a high level of unease through a series of incidents that only cumulatively sound their ominous, sinister tone—a driver unfamiliar with English roads, for instance, being trapped in the inner circle of a roundabout as he makes his way toward a mysterious house, site (one guesses) of evil and death. Paul West’s “A Whore”s Agincourt’ is taken from a forthcoming novel about Jack the Ripper; the encounter here between the doomed whore and her executioner occurs in a shabby lodging in “the lingering damps of a November night.’ The murder and its aftermath are depicted with an awful, graphic vividness, the banality of the horror sadly noted by a witness-participant who, when the butchery is underway, describes the scene as “God’s studio in reverse … an art of botch.”
Gary Indiana’s “Dreams Involving Water” succeeds in fusing a shadowy and pervasive atmosphere of loss (particularly in its evocation of decaying European cities—an example of contemporary ruin—melancholy) with a depiction of a mind drifting, haunted, without moorings, amid a flux of memories both erotic and nostalgic, a fading, disoriented consciousness that sounds the chords of neurotic collapse first touched by Poe in characters like Roderick Usher. Elsewhere, too, we encounter figures at the outer limits of psychic experience—Johnson’s masochist, for instance; Coover’s terrified fugitive; Morrow’s psychotically aroused necrophile; and the narrator of “Vigilance,” who suffers from an obsessive control disorder.
In the realm of the physiological the expression of breakdown is disease. John Edgar Wideman’s “Fever” is built around the experiences of Richard Allen, a former slave who assisted Dr. Benjamin Rush during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793 (descriptions of which, incidentally, also fill the first pages of Arthur Mervyn, a gothic written in 1798 by Charles Brockden Brown, the first American novelist). At least five thousand perished in that plague, almost ten per cent of the population; it is Wideman’s accomplishment not only to render the utter horror of the epidemic, but at the same time to develop fully the complex character of his narrator, a man insulted in his own church by whites, who then labored without rest, and in constant peril of his own life, to save theirs. Robert Kelly’s “Carville” is a short, disturbing piece spoken by a resident of the last leprosy treatment center in the country, which the government is about to close down. “We are coming to you,” says the leper, “and you are becoming us, until we share the pungent sunshine of our common exile. We are all exiles … [in] the endless, mindless exile that is the world, stench by stench in all its detail to be savored, each pain to be unlocked and suffered, each ecstasy to be sucked until the penis rots away and the labia swell closed in a common mass of putrescence and in our tainted clothes we walk through the sweet afternoon by the river bank and the dogs howl and the children whimper and bleat their ancient song, The Lepers, The Lepers Are Coming To Town!”
A last note on gothic black: shadows, night, concealment and death are all associated in the gothic with black, and in the series photographs by Clegg and Guttmann black seems to arouse just these associations. The brooding, sinister quality of these portraits, their air of veiled malevolence, of old, subtle, inherited power—this is quintessentially gothic. And the final point is, that the gothic is precisely this, an air, a tone, an atmosphere, a tendency. It is not a monolith, and there is no objective gauge by means of which one can detect its presence or absence. It’s a matter of subjective arousal, indistinct and unreliable, which is as it should be, the gothic wouldn’t have it any other way. Evil, says Bataille, “is not only the dream of the wicked: it is to some extent the dream of Good. Death is the punishment, sought and accepted, of this mad dream, but nothing can prevent the dream from having been dreamt.” The writers represented in this special section of Conjunctions concern themselves variously with extremes of sexual experience, with disease and social power, with murder and terror and death. Common to all is an idea of evil, transgression of natural and social law, and the gothic, in its suppleness, is the literature that permits that mad dream to be dreamt in a thousand forms.