Melmoth the Wanderer
I recently read Irish clergyman C.R. Maturin’s send-up of the Gothic Horror genre, Melmoth the Wanderer, which was originally published in 1820, twenty five years after Ann Radcliffe’s seminal novel of Gothic Romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and only two years after Mary Shelley’s uber-classic Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. I am more piqued than ever by literature of this ilk and its influence through to the present day; not that I haven’t always been interested in the dark and more seamy hues of story-telling, but Melmoth has refocused me. The Faustian tale is truly a parody like much of the hyperbolic genre; what’s not to like about a school of writing that refuses to take itself too seriously.
The Genesis of Melodrama
The first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was written in 1764 by Horace Walpole (the son of the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, Sir Robert Walpole). It is a medieval story of Prince Manfred, evil lord of Castle Otranto and the curse that has been cast on his family. The novel employs many of the thematic elements which came to define the Gothic school of literature: a labyrinthine castle, family secrets, an impending wedding, an innocent damsel, a nefarious villain, an older foolish woman, a monk or some sort of clerical figure, and of course supernatural events (like doors opening for no apparent reason (crrrreeeeeeeaaaaak)).
Another melodramatic parody published around the same time, 1818 to be exact, was Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which actually integrates Radcliffe’s popular tome. Austen’s protagonist, seventeen year-old Catherine Morland, is a huge fan of The Mysteries of Udolpho. When she is invited to a wealthy estate in Bath, an overactive imagination gets the better of her and she ultimately learns that real life is nothing like a Gothic novel. Go figure.
What’s in a Name?
The Gothic literary genre takes its sobriquet from the popular architectural design of the time in England where, amid its angular spires and vaulted ceilings, most of the novels are set. The style, applied to both architecture and literature, lends itself to exaggerated form. Its use of gargoyles for instance, grotesque sentinels serving as rain gutters, add to the dark, demonic sense and sensibility of its kind. The pointed arches and flying buttresses are evocative of houses of worship; in fact many churches were designed in this very style. All of these aspects play into Gothic Horror of the 17th century right through to the 21st century and our modern obsession with vampires and paranormal activity.
One of the earliest American novels of the genre is called Wieland, or The Transformation (1797) written by Charles Brockden Brown which I discovered and read, about ten or eleven years ago. Wieland is the disturbing tale of a German immigrant who has founded his own religion in America, his odd demise, and the events that eventually destroy his family. The motif of the metaphysical dominates here as evidenced through phenomena like spontaneous combustion and biloquism (the act of furtively projecting ones voice with the aim of influencing another’s behavior).
Edgar Allan Poe kept the tradition alive through the nineteenth century with poetry like The Raven and The Bells. His short story The Fall of the House of Usher, among others, served to popularize creepiness in the States But it was the American South, finally, that proved to have a special corner of its cobwebbed soul set aside for all things grotesque. Writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, and Tennessee Williams have contributed to the sub genre known as Southern Gothic. Key aspects of this brand of broody lit include: nostalgia, religious dogma, clannish mentality, family secrets, eccentricity and guilt; a veritable black stew of dramatic tension. Beyond these dark themes, books like O’Conner’s Wise Blood add an absurdly comic element to the mix. Picture demented teenage zookeeper, Enoch Emery, stalking a man in a gorilla costume, dispatching him, then donning the suit himself only to jab terror into the guts of a young couple he’s attempted to befriend. Shades of Frankenstein’s monster.
A Fecund Mythology
The seeds of Gothic literature have grown over the years in many different directions, sprouting horrific, distorted, darkly comic limbs gnarled in pastiche; producing pulpy fruit. Melmoth, the misguided soul of Maturin’s prose: pervades the dank dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition; infiltrates an island paradise inhabited only by an allegorical Eve; permeates the abode of a starving family. He does all these things and who knows what else only to tempt desire from desperation, to vainly salvage his own transgressions. Themes likes these proliferated by Maturin are like his creation Melmoth, transcendent, timeless. It’s Faust cloned in a thousand different attitudes. It’s Dracula drawn in infinite forms. There are still many castles like Otranto looming in the realm of make believe, with their vaulted chambers and their portraits with eyes that follow you wherever you go. I’m ready now to discover more of their secret passageways.