This post looks at the ways in which the gothic genre is updated in contemporary fiction and film.
How do we define a “genre” or style that re/emerges decade after decade, updating itself to remain relevant while maintaining the same basic anxieties, tropes, and themes. In some cases, we begin by calling it “gothic” and then tack on a prefix or additional descriptor (pre-, early, high, late, post-). Three texts of the gothic genre, two twenty-first century novels and one film, exemplify consistent trends in classical gothic literature, while utilizing them in modern contexts to imbue them with new meaning. All three texts, however, inform and are informed by the classical genre in ways that perhaps also illuminate the historiography of cultural production.
The first example of this particular kind of updating is Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener. In terms of what The Night Gardener borrows from the gothic genre at the height of its popularity, there are a two major tropes that the narrative utilizes. First, the tendency for children, and especially wealthy children, to be the primary recipients of supernatural danger. This trend has, of course, appeared in numerous horror sub-genres beyond just the gothic novel, however when we recall exemplars of the genre such as The Turn of the Screw and Wuthering Heights the trend in gothic literature encompasses its own specific criteria. Most notably, the children themselves initially seem to take on supernatural characteristics or are otherwise classified as being outside of “normal” behavior for well-brought-up children. We’ll see this trope reappear in This House is Haunted, but for The Night Gardener there are considerably more children than the genre generally allows for and thus we’re presented with a binary dichotomy between types of children in the gothic landscape. First, the novel’s protagonists, Molly and Kip, are orphaned siblings from Ireland whose parents have recently died, leaving Molly to look after Kip. They make their way to a wealthy family’s dilapidated home where Molly talks herself into a job as the family’s children’s governess. These orphans exist, among other things, as prototypical “good” children, Molly especially. They set the example for ideal behavior and sensibility, and Molly moves beyond this to something similar to sainthood. She protects and looks after her brother, she is considerably resourceful, capable, clever, and competent not just for her age but for the cast of characters she encounters, and she possesses compassion rivaled only by her courage. Her younger brother, following a similar character thread, was born with a physical disability that interferes with his ability to walk or move easily, is fiercely loyal and kind, and has a soft spot for protecting underdogs from bullies. He is the archetypal “inspirational disabled character” with only slightly more depth provided by his parents’ death and his impoverished Irish background. In contrast with Molly and Kip are the Windsor’s children Penny and Alistair. In a wholly transparent attempt at parallelism, the Windsors have a young boy and girl, and where Molly is courageous and compassionate, Penny is fearful and self-involved. Similarly, Alistair is the selfish, glutinous bully that Kip most despises.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the cardboard-esque nature of these children, they each come to exist as a type in the story that mimics similar gothic stories written during the 18th and 19th centuries. The setting, a decrepit manor house in the middle of an eerily mysterious forest that is the subject of numerous local legends, place this 2014 novel firmly with the realm of gothic fiction. The update, then, is with the source of the novel’s threat. Where gothic fiction typically ascribes existential threat to nature (for example, the encroachment of nature on homes signaling the inherent decay of the house in The House of Seven Gables, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Rebecca) The Night Gardener’s primary threat derives from human greed so that the novel serves as an allegorical critique of capitalist consumption. The family is being drained of life, energy, and free will by the Night Gardener (who was, at one time, human but has existed as a spirit or ghoul for years because of his greed and pride in his garden). Each family member has agreed to this metaphorical exsanguination willingly, however; there is a tree on the property with a knothole in it that will give a person a seemingly unlimited (although exponentially dwindling) supply of whichever one item they desire most. In exchange, the Night Gardener waters the tree with each family member’s fear sweat produced during intense nightmares while they sleep. As the person becomes weaker, the tree provides less to them (Alistair for example, wanted candies more than anything else when he first visited the tree, and while it initially provided him with a plethora of them by the story’s climax he’s lucky to get one or two a day). Through this contractually-sound system of exchange, Molly and Kip are put in danger so that Molly must save the entire family, destroying the house and tree in the process. This is, perhaps, another point of deviation from the gothic genre, in that even later (neo)gothic works such as Rebecca are not known for having happy endings. The Night Gardener, however, provides its reader with a relative sense of positive resolution in order to bring the critique of capitalism full-circle; by resolving the narrative conflict somewhat satisfactorily, it provides the reader with a sense, first, of the possibility for a solution to capitalism’s damage, and second, a sense of well-being that we lack in our own lives due to the seeming un-solvability of the problems of capitalism.
This House is Haunted, like The Night Gardener, borrows a central narrative construction present across various eras/formations of the gothic novel but shifts the context for the construction to modernize the novel’s moral.[i] This House is Haunted borrows the central conflict of a haunting stemming from a secret murder (usually of or by a woman) perhaps made most popular in du Maurier 1938 neo-gothic classic Rebecca. Whereas Manderlay’s haunting in Rebecca is attributed to Max DeWinter’s late wife who he brutally murdered and subsequently staged as a suicide, This House is Haunted’s Gaudlin Hall is plagued by the late Santina Westerley who was hanged after having permanently disfigured her husband and killed the children’s first governess. Santina’s violence was apparently inspired by her intense protection of her children and insistence on being the only person to touch or look after them. This strange attachment derived from her own scandalous childhood in which her father molested her repeatedly, rendering her unmarriagable within her own small community in Spain and thus accounting for her marrying James Westerley, and moving to Norfolk with him. Her haunting, like the Night Gardener’s control of the Windsor family and ensuing powers is bounded so that she may only harm the children’s governesses (3 of whom she kills, one of whom she scares off back to London, and the last of whom, Eliza Cain, is the story’s protagonist) and speak to the children while they remain on the Gaudlin Hall estate.
Given the all-too-familiar narrative, then, of This House is Haunted, the update then emerges only upon closer examination of the story’s central characters. Initially, it may seem that the sexual corruption of children by adults they should trust is a new approach to the genre, however this theme presents itself in a veiled but nonetheless climactic way in The Turn of the Screw. The “innovation” or adaptation of the genre, then, comes in the placement of women in the narrative, or more specifically their centrality to the story. Not only is the protagonist who is eventually able to save the children, free their father, and exorcise the ghost a woman, the majority of the novel’s characters including the antagonist are women. There are 7 named male characters in the novel, compared to 9 named female characters (granted, a number of these women are dead before the story begins). Eliza’s success, then, comes from her ability to embrace the transient nature of her position—a governess is a temporary mother to numerous families’ children, existing as part of the family and simultaneously apart from them—and her belonging to a community of women who have tried to care for and protect these children before her. In this, she exists almost as a female trickster per Lori Landay’s description of the archetype: “Obviously, women have not had the same opportunities for such a high degree of mobility (physical as well as psychological, social, economic, artistic, and political). The fact of her limitations makes the female version more determined, in many stories, and also alters her identification of self. The trickster takes care of self, and the female trickster identifies herself with her community.”[ii] Following Landay’s description, Eliza identifies herself with her community and acts selfishly according to that community’s needs, however she does so in an exceedingly forthright, heroic way that complicates her role as trickster.
Finally, Ciaran Foy’s 2012 film Citadel borrows most from the themes, anxiety, and tone of gothic fiction while eschewing the standard period, settings, and other trappings of the genre so completely as to be almost unrecognizable as a gothic piece. The film’s narrative is relatively convoluted and twists in an anti-Chekovian direction towards the end, but suffice it to say that the antagonist(s) are children who have been corrupted somehow and now exist somewhere between human teenagers and subhuman creatures, having returned somehow to an imagined pre-human evolution. Further, the film’s protagonist, Tommy (last name) has recently developed sever agoraphobia after his very-pregnant wife was attached by what he assumes to be a gang of young men (later revealed to be strange faery-like creatures akin to those in The Hallow) and their subsequent attempted kidnapping of his newborn daughter.
Tommy’s anxiety best illustrates the film’s primary conflict, and that conflict’s relationship to 19th century gothic literature. His fear, in the film, becomes representative of the anxiety in rural areas of urbanization or the encroachment of cosmopolitanism into provincial space. This tension neatly folds into standardized gothic anxieties (such as those presented in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein’s Monster: The Modern Prometheus) where nature is menacing, but not nearly as menacing as man’s[iii] attempt to control, change, and manipulate nature. While the film’s spatiotemporal setting is updated for its 2012 release date, the essential concerns about human intervention into natural processes remain at the film’s core.
Each of these texts provides its audience with equal parts classic gothic referent and 21st century context. Each utilizes various themes, motifs, tones, and tropes from gothic fiction to explore essential questions that have informed cultural production since the 18th century (if not significantly earlier). Each also includes its own distinct means of updating the genre, either through an updated political critique, gender representation, or the postmodern setting of the 2010s metropole. What each of these texts offers, then, despite their particularities, is a window into which questions persist and which have faded to the back of popular consciousness since the 1700s. For example, Shelly’s apparent apprehension regarding electricity may have faded, but her preoccupation with the limitations of whether we should do something simply because we can have persisted. Du Maurier’s fear over the late wife’s ghost may remain, but the solution to exorcising her is decidedly more feminist than the late 1930s. We may not necessarily be afraid of the encroachment of nature on a decrepit house anymore, but the encroachment of capitalist greed is certainly still a credible threat. Considering each of these texts separately and together, the gothic genre in its 21st century iteration provides a useful set of literary, cinematic, and narrative, tools with which to critically consider the roots of contemporary anxieties and popular fear.
[i] This House is Haunted is furthest removed from its “Irishness” on this list, however it bares mentioning that while the other two examples do contain distinctively Irish aspects (the orphans in The Night Gardener and the location in Citadel) these aspects function more as set dressing in that they are potentially interchangeable with any European “other” identity (Welsh, Scottish, Russian, Romanian, etc.)
[ii] Landay, Lori. Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women. 2
[iii] I use “man” intentionally here for its usefulness in illuminating Shelly’s elaboration on concepts of mastery and masculine arrogance.
Image Credit: Blinder Films, Citadel Films © 2012
Author: Geneveive Newman