Part Two: American Gothic Fiction
The first manifestation of the Gothic impulse in America was naturally felt in literature, as the Gothic Fiction of England and Europe made its way to the United States in the second half of the 18th Century. Curiously the first important work of American fiction, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, published in 1798, was also not only a Gothic work, but upon retrospection it was also clearly the first example of the American Gothic idea. (For questions of definition please refer back to American Gothic #1.)
In Wieland we find many of the hallmarks of the American Gothic outlook. There is a sense of darkness at the edge of the frontier, of fanatical quasi-Christian religious cults leading to ritual murders and strange motifs like ventriloquism (foreshadowing the spiritualism scams commencing another fifty years down the line). In his book Ormond (1799) Brown describes the nearly post-apocalyptic scenario of a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. In Arthur Mervyn (1799) he describes Cormac McCarthy-like violent upheavals on the Pennsylvania frontier. (Or perhaps we should say that McCarthy writes in Charles Brockden Brown-like spasms of frontier violence.) In Edgar Huntley (1799) sleepwalking is a major component to the tale. In his forward to that book Brown relates his purposeful decision to abandon the castles and manner houses of the European Gothic Fiction and to fully Americanize his novels by including American themes because; “The incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness, are far more suitable; and, for a native of America to overlook these, would admit of no apology. These, therefore, are, in part, the ingredients of this tale, and these he has been ambitious of depicting in vivid and faithful colours.”
And those colours, the colors of American Gothic literature are overwhelmingly autumnal. All American Gothic culture seems tinted by the dank browns of barren trees and wood planked ghost towns, the cracking white paint of old southern mansions and Texas Chainsaw white picket fences, the rotting mold green of decay, the oranges of dead leaves and collapsing pumpkins and above all the grays of thick leaden skies. It is impossible to imagine the American Gothic vision to contain the greens of spring, the yellows of summer or the blues of sky and reflective waters, unless they can be tainted. And the master of American tainting is Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe was certainly influenced by Brown, as were Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Poe’s works certainly still often hearken back to old Europe. Yet in many ways Poe lays the foundation for what will be the American Gothic tradition. The narrator is often completely unreliable and much great American Gothic Fiction has followed this path. (See Ambrose Bierce.) (See HP Lovecraft.) (See Shirley Jackson.) (See Jim Thompson.) There is more than a trace of psychological instability. (See reams of American fiction at this point.) Brown was also deeply concerned with contemporary psychological issues and fads. Poe uses hypnotism. Poe invents so many new tropes that entire genres kick into gear by the time he is done: Not only horror, but his tales of “ratiocination” or what we now know as the Detective Story or the Mystery. And that leads to questions about the relationship between the Gothic tale and the Mystery. And that also helps to understand how Hardboiled Detective literature and Film Noir seem so aligned with the American Gothic mode.
Poe is obviously a lengthy subject and we are only skimming the pond here. But as long as I am in the 19th Century I must mention Ambrose Bierce, who is as sarcastic and cynical as Mark Twain, yet darker than Poe, perhaps the blackest purely American vision ever committed to paper. His Devil’s Dictionary is a uniquely sardonic concoction. His odd and humorous short stories delineate the motifs of comic aspects of American Gothic, preparing the way eventually for the likes of Holden Caulfield and the grave puns of EC Comics. He begins An Imperfect Conflagration with a memorably mordant sentence; “Early one morning in 1872 I murdered my father – an act which made a deep impression upon me at the time.” Stories like Oil of Dog and The Hypnotist are bleak comic gems. But it was in his Civil War stories that “Bitter Bierce” turns on his full power. As the only important fiction writer to actually fight in and write about the war, his works are a crucial testament to the stark horror of those Civil War battlegrounds. Nothing so bleak has ever been penned. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is justly famous for its last moments of false hope before the snap of an executioner’s rope. And Chickamauga is told in such a way that the final revelation as seen through deaf mute child’s eyes can simply eviscerate the modern reader who is used to at least at shard of ambiguous hope. Bierce died as he lived and wrote, as if he were a wanderer from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, disappearing somewhere in the Mexican dessert searching for death before a firing squad.
The next really important stop along the way is HP Lovecraft. His work is often Gothic after the European model, or even Science Fiction and Fantasy. But there is a core of his work that mines the putrid vegetal remains of New England for its Gothic terror. Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, Cool Air and Dreams of the Witch House, among other stories, portray a New England soaking in hidden secrets. The lineage that runs from Cotton Mather, through Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lovecraft, Tom Tryon, and even Stephen King, spells out many of the aspects of New England Gothic. The fact that these areas were settled early adds to the availability of lost and haunted imagery ripe for use.
And the same is obviously true for the South. But the American South also has one additional feature that is crucial to its Southern Gothic literature. It is its complete defeat during the Civil War. It is not merely the broken houses and burnt over lands, it is in its crushed people that the Southern Gothic writer finds so much inspiration. Boo Radley from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. The kinds of characters who people William Faulkner’s novels or Flannery O’Connor’s short works are a very different species from even the Gothic writers from other parts of the country. They are broken or deluded, cursed and noble, visionary and confined. Again we approach a vast subject for study here. But the important point is that Southern Gothic ultimately is species of American Gothic.
And there are so many other important American Gothic works: Shirley Jackson’s horror stories are as subtle as wilted corsages. Richard Matheson has often mined the American Gothic quarry. Likewise Consider Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes. Images of the dark traveling carnival take on American Gothic hues instantly. The now forgotten works of William Lindsay Gresham infest the mind at this point, particularly his non-fiction study of carnies from the inside out called Monster Midway and his classic Nightmare Alley, which really blends Hardboiled fiction completely with the Gothic, and specializes in mentalist scams and cold reading and other aspects of carnival chicanery. (Not to mention his revelation of the sinister aspects of a being called the Geek.) And of course there is Cormac McCarthy who is the reigning master of the Southwestern branch of American Gothic, and a good bet for consideration as America’s preeminent living novelist.
And finally I will mention what might be the ultimate American Gothic novel ever written: that quest for the white whale aboard the now ghostly remains of the whaling trade – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Is it starting to become clear yet, the shape of this American Gothic creature? If so stick around as we examine the other American Gothic modes.
Coming up next: American Gothic in the visual arts.
Part One: What is American Gothic?
The terms Goth and Gothic have been apply to numerous phenomena: the Germanic tribe that sacked Rome, the cathedrals of Medieval Europe, horror and supernatural literature in the early Romantic age, romance novels of a certain style, the writings of American southerners William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor and more recently to the music and lifestyles of those attracted to images and particularly music of death and darkness often with a Victorian twist. And while these arts and artists appear to be only obliquely related there is indeed a stream that runs through them all. It is felt but rarely articulated.
The Goths were among the many tribes at Rome’s frontiers. Seeking sanctuary within the Empire, the Huns closing in from the hinterlands, they were allowed to settle in Dacia, present day Romania. The Goths only partially acclimatized themselves to life in the decaying pax romana. But Roman arrogance and misrule eventually led them to revolt. They sacked Rome and were given kingdoms of their own in Italy and France. Eventually the fracturing Rome of the Caesar’s became more and more of a memory. The Goth’s had envied Rome though, even as they were allowing the last dregs of its essence to slip through their feudal fingers. The new Gothic and Germanic Europe began to forget and to forget deeply. Among the things forgotten: architecture, engineering, crop rotation and ultimately the Goths themselves. But one can imagine the children of these Ostrogoths and Visigoths, these warlords, riding through the slowly crumbling ruins of temples and aqueducts and amphitheatres longing for the Rome that created them.
Eventually the ancestors of these feudal rulers did create their own art and architecture. They created cathedrals that pierced the clouds, covered in images of Christian saints and demonic gargoyles. And even later in the self-proclaimed Renaissance, the very word proudly meaning ‘new birth’, the cathedrals of this earlier era were called ‘Gothic’ as a term of derision, a term related to those barbarian hordes who thought they could rule the great Roman Empire. The post-Roman age then became known as the ‘Dark Ages’.
In mid-Eighteenth Century German and English Romantics, in their flight from the excesses of voltairian reason, rediscovered the Middle Ages. They considered Gothic cathedrals and the detritus of ancient Europa the perfect fodder for the Romantic Soul. And they began to write. Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis all wrote of old abandoned mansions, dark and stormy nights, chains rattling in the basements, unspeakable family secrets, terrible things too awful to describe and ghosts. Again the longing for something old crept into the proceedings. The word Gothic now seems to have taken on its dreadful quality.
The Gothic idea took off in several directions following the Bronte sisters into Romance, or following Edgar Allan Poe into the horror story. A good case can even be made that detective and mystery fiction are a subspecies of the Gothic. Fairy stories like those of George MacDonald bear heavy Gothic stamps upon them leading to the likes of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-Twentieth Century.
But the hallmark of the true Gothic idea had to with loss or decay and certainly with dread. And so it seemed that whenever something was already found to be lost to the society of the present the Gothic was near at hand. Thus Southern Gothic fiction was born in America below the Mason-Dixon line after the fall of the old antebellum South. William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor are two exemplars of the style. Their scenes of poverty and twisted souls seeking redemption are the reflection of the Gothic image of loss and dread. And it didn’t hurt to have a South strewn with the fading ruins of pre-war mansions.
Obviously when we mention Southern Gothic we are now already firmly inside the doorway of that larger category and the subject of this set of essays: American Gothic. But what is it really? What do we mean by saying that Wise Blood is classic example of American Gothic Fiction? Or that the music of David Eugene Edwards is crucial to an understanding of American Gothic Music? Or to say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a sine qua non of contemporary American Gothic cinema?
Maybe it might be easiest to point to examples of what is and isn’t American Gothic. Edgar Allan Poe’s work both is and isn’t American Gothic. When it relates to the classic European Gothic, as in The Fall of the House of Usher, it isn’t. But oddly enough a story like The Gold Bug, which is not a horror story at all, bears many of the hallmarks of an American Gothic work. This has to do with the use of American settings and feeling of southern vegetative overgrowth.
In other words just because a person is a Goth in America doesn’t mean they have any traces of the American Gothic outlook. (They could indeed be seen in opposition.) Most people who would identify themselves as Goths have their eyes more firmly facing Europe. Much of the original Goth imagery from the early 80’s had a Euro-centric notion of darkness. Interestingly enough, the first rock band of any sort to have Gothic aspects came from sunny Southern California: The Doors. And yet their music references Bertolt Brecht and French symbolist poets.
Or take that great American genre: the Western. Most Westerns are not American Gothics. Stagecoach, with John Wayne, certainly isn’t. Nay, likewise, to your average Saturday matinée oater from the 40’s or 50’s. Yet Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven most certainly is. Why? Many classic Westerns look forward to a time when law and order will prevail and the West will be settled. Unforgiven does not. It looks back at the West as a dark epoch. And that darkness still consumes us. Yet a film like William S. Harts 1916 Hell’s Hinges reeks of American Gothic. Its images portray a lost and morally bankrupt world that is decaying from within. This would be considered a subspecies: Western Gothic.
This puts the bleaker Western in line with the works of Cormac McCarthy, whose fiction is often American Gothic in the deepest sense. Blood Meridian is American Gothic pure and not so simple. And even his contemporary works like No Country For Old Men bear the same stamp. And so does The Road, although set in the future; a future that looks back to the present in mournful terms.
One really sees this in the film version of The Road, which is the most American Gothic post-apocalyptic film ever made. Its vision of cannibal Americans is a dead serious descendant of the EC Comics tradition of the 1950’s. The scene of armed cannibals attired in soiled ragged work clothes and trucker’s caps emerging from a tunnel flanking the dingiest of massive flatbed trucks in a dire autumnal landscape conjures up a vision of an America possibly being birthed today.
In music we return to the Doors. While good chunks their philosophy sources from Europe nevertheless a nightmarish epic like The End taps deeply into the American Gothic with it’s weird scenes inside the goldmine and the ominous blue bus, an allusion to that most American of institutions the Greyhound bus. The 1967 song practically predicts the rise of Manson styled serial killer cult leaders, also prime American Gothic territory. And it is no surprise that Apocalypse Now featured The End as the psychic breaking point of a US soldier all the while hijacking American Gothic imagery into our foreign wars.
And so what is American Gothic? Look it up and the first thing you will probably come across is Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting, which hardly seems to be Gothic at all. Next you might find a dictionary definition based upon that painting: some wheeze about frugality, hard work, socially conservative and rural America.
And yet it is clear that American Gothic as a point of view is a markedly different creature. A sensibility which can include Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, EC Comics, Bernie Wrightson, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Night of the Hunter and Winter’s Bone cannot be reduced to a satirical painting and its comment on old time farmers.
So the elements seem to be simple. First, it is American. That seems rather obvious but in fact it is not. Baseball for instance while wholly American rarely shows up in a Gothic form. Why? It is still quite active. It still has a future. Westward expansion, the post-Civil War South, New England whalers, etc. do not. So it is an America in the minor key, without any sentimental nostalgia.
Second, it must have elements of Gothic decay. And let’s distinguish Gothic decay from other forms decay. Rotting garbage is not Gothic decay, whereas a rotting garbage dump on the Blackfeet Indian reservation puts us firmly within Gothic territory. The decay that has haunted Gothicism all along has been an autumnal specter of the once meaningful, now rendered irretrievably lost.
Third, it must have elements of dread. And this dread is not just fear, terror or horror. It is something still and heavy even when, as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is accompanied by a ferocious engine steaming down the tracks. What makes a horror film like TCM Gothic is not the plot, but the atmosphere.
Lastly, in the best cases, it can have an aspect of sorrow leading to the deeper questions of redemption. Unless it is of the humorous species, which is another tale altogether…
Interestingly the American Gothic arts and world view are NOT postmodern nor even modern. The references they make are filled with bitter ironies. Even in the humorous vein, they tend toward gallows humor rather than pomo media appropriation. The bone furniture in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a deconstruction of Ikea. It is like the skull found in the tree in Poe’s The Gold Bug or the iconic buffalo carcasses in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, an emblem much darker, yet symbolically richer, within the American Dream/Nightmare.
And to get an ax handle on that we’ll have to cross the withered plains of American Gothic cinema, music, literature and art.
(Stick around. Part two in this American Gothic series is on its way.)