Robert Louis Stevenson was quite a character, he had bronchial trouble all his life but that didn’t stop him from travelling the world and having adventures. He was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and died in Samoa, over 15,000 kms away in 1894 at the age of 44. I found conflicting accounts surrounding his death, but regardless of the circumstances surrounding his demise, the commonly cited manner of death was a cerebral hemorrhage.
His story The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was an immense success prompting people to guess at his inspiration for such an unprecedented tale. These days the story and its mechanics are so much a part of the collective consciousness that to think of it as unique and innovative seems strange. But in 1886, a time in which science was a consent source of curiousity and disquiet a tale of science giving license to acts of depravity and animalistic instinct the idea was not only timely, it was also inspiring, opening the door to many tales of its kind. It is a tale of a scientist splitting his personality in two so that he could effectively compartmentalise and quarantine those uncouth and problematic urges so that they could still be expressed, but without impacting on his status as a well-respected doctor.
The fear of the evil potential of humanity, even the seemingly good and honest doctor, is represented in Hyde. Hyde is the ID, the animal. He operates for his own gratification so that Henry Jekyll can operate according to his superego.
I don’t know Fruedian psychology that well so if I have used that wrong feel free to let me know.
As I was looking for resources through the hit and miss machine that is Google, I kept coming across goth dating sites… this is not relevant, I just thought you should know the level of people in pseudo-Victorian garb staring whimsically off into space that I had to endure to research this was relatively high compared with other topics I have written about.
Romanticism and the Gothic overlap so much that it is probably easier to define was isn’t Romantic Gothic and it might take less time. So rather than go over a definition of Gothic Romanticism that is so similar to the millions of others out there, not to mention our introductory episode, I thought I would give you a list of a few of my favourite stories that deal in Gothic Romanticism that we haven’t covered on The FrankenPod podcast:
The Murders in The Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)
Falling into the category of both the genius detective (pre-Holmes I might add) and urban gothic, and with at least one very clear example of gothic excess (that is the fate of the victims in the story and their killer). Dupain is a delight and in my opinion far more likeable and intriguing than his successor Holmes.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue is as much fun as you can possibly have with a corpse shoved up a chimney.
There is also an excellent dramatisation of Murders in the Rue Morgue that was released as part of The Rivals Audio drama on BBC Radio 4 with the eternally adorable James Fleet inserted into the narrative as Inspector Lestrade, who is an Arthur Conan Doyle creation. The thread of the series is that Lestrade, of Sherlock Holmes fame, is basically offering examples of detectives who are better than Holmes, and Dupain played by the incomparable Andrew Scott is his first example.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
This was the first gothic novel I ever read and it has a very special place in my heart to rival Frankenstein. Pop culture has entirely ruined the ending for new readers unless they are 10 like I was. If you do let a 10-year-old read it, maybe go for a kid’s edition to minimise nightmares. Still worth a read despite the spoilers. Doubling you guys! More Doubling!
I know that there are other vampire stories that pave the way to Dracula (some of which we will talk about on the podcast), but none of them quite achieve the drama and the sense of formidable invasion the way the Bram Stoker does. He has brought together a lot of ideas surrounding vampires and made them into an incredibly compelling novel that still holds up. It is also insanely problematic as most novels of its time are so easily outraged should tread carefully as with all these books really.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)
Another childhood favourite of mine of which you are less likely to know the big twist. And you know what, like a lot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels even if you have read it, the solutions are either so complicated and outlandish or unexpectedly pedestrian that the reader often has difficulty recalling the exact circumstances of the crime and the solution to the riddle. But that is a genius detective novel for you, their leaps of inductive reasoning (not deductive as any first-year critical thinking student will tell you) are incredibly entertaining but often don’t stand up to scrutiny. A fantastic story though, possibly the best in the Holmes canon.
Du Maurier, I would hazard to say is one of the great geniuses of gothic romanticism. Often eclipsed by her predecessors, the Bronte’s (for there are more than cursory similarities) she crafts books that paint a bleak, yet compelling picture of the world surrounding a young girl who is generally a damsel in distress. Her damsels in distress are often isolated without a clear ally. She uses tropes artfully, without letting them becomes cliches, and creates a few new narrative devices that will be deployed often and with great enthusiasm by her successors.
This is stretching the definition of gothic I know, and most people would turn to Collins’ other, more conventionally romantic gothic novel The Woman in White. I am ashamed to say I haven’t read it yet. The Moonstone is part detective novel, part romance, part scathing indictment on contemporary society and colonialism.
Yes, Jane Austen. This is possibly one of the most cleverly crafted gothic novels and yet, it started life as a parody of one of the most influential stories of gothic romanticism of its time; The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. Catherine Morland, the hero of the piece, encounters many tropes of gothic fiction, but they are all overcome with a practicality and wit that is so uniquely Austen.
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862)
We could easily call this sensation fiction narrative a proto-detective novel. If the style of dress and manner of speech were 70 years in the future you could easily see this novel fitting in with the detective noir genre. There is double-crossing, murder, mistaken identity, a femme fatale and private investigator of a kind.
If you are going to read a Bronte novel, might I humbly suggest this epistolary novel by possibly the least appreciated Bronte aside from Branwell? There are remarkably less awful people who you are supposed to sympathise with and decidedly less harmful relationships. It’s not a hugely popular opinion but I’ll take Anne Bronte over her sisters (and obviously Branwell) any day.
Before our podcast release next week I thought it might be a good idea to have a bit of a chat about Gothic literature and what exactly that entails. I am not assuming that everyone knows or doesn’t know about the gothic genre and this certainly won’t be a deep dive because I am simply not qualified. This is just to define the parameters of the initial genre we will be focusing on with Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
First up we need to acknowledge that the gothic genre is super problematic. There are stories that give a strong voice to people of all shapes, sizes, gender identifications, sexual orientations and nationalities but this progressiveness is a pretty recent development. Gothic literature can be racist, homophobic and is frequently classist and misogynist. Whilst we could dismiss these issues as being products of the time in which they were written I think it is important that we are aware of the problems in the things we love and to acknowledge them. The only way we can move forward is to understand the issues of our past. Frankenstein is classist, misogynistic and racist. It is my favourite novel of all time, but I completely acknowledge it’s flawed.
Let’s get into my barebones overview of Gothic Literature.
Particularly popular in the 18th and 19th century, Gothic literature typically draws on a spectre of evil
from the distant past that threatens to reach forward and destroy the present. Bram Stoker creates a particularly threatening creature who oozes ancient evil in Dracula. With vampire myths existing in every culture, some tied to the bible, some tied to ancient Egyptian mythology Bram Stoker had a wealth of ancient evil to draw from. His Count is descended from Attila the Hun and himself is a spectre of ancient or at the very least medieval evil, being virtually immortal. He has been around for centuries, but in Stoker’s narrative, he ventures into Victorian industrialised society to act all creepy around the ladies of London.
The Corruption of the Innocent
The predatory sexuality of Dracula is one of the most blatant examples of the corruption of the innocent, a trope that is revived again and again. He preys on young vulnerable and virginal women in the same way that monsters of his kind will again and again in the novels we cover. But the innocent does not have to be a young virginal woman. The good Doctor Jekyll is corrupted in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the innocent Dorian is corrupted by his own vanity, Sir Henry and a supernatural lack of accountability, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is usually a girl or a woman who gets shortchanged. Even in contemporary gothic tales, the innocent vs. the beast is trotted out regularly, look at Buffy and Twin Peaks. I promise this will not become a Twin Peaks podcast but that won’t be the last reference to the series.
Locked Doors and Secret Passageways
Often gothic literature features mysterious castles, decrepit houses or monasteries. Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) is commonly cited as the first gothic novel, which is a whole ridiculous story that we will get to in another episode. The Castle of Otranto has a lot of the features that would come to be prevalent in the gothic novels that would come after it; an old castle, a family curse, the corruption of the innocent, the supernatural and the sublime.
The Other Goths
The word Goth does allude to a mysterious Scandinavian people who come into the verifiable historical record suddenly in the first century A.D. and this part of the story I am horrifically underqualified to talk about, even more than everything else I have been talking about. If you know a lot about the Goths, the Visigoths or the Ostrogoths please get in touch. Absolutely willing to revisit this! All I know is that as a teenage goth it was a source of very real and deep disappointment that the goths were not pale skinned eyeliner wearing robed people with black hair lounging about nonchalantly waiting for The Cure to be formed.
The Gothic became a pejorative term that was used to dismiss architecture as ugly or barbaric which is a little harsh not to mention more than a touch racist. I also know basically nothing about this aspect of the gothic so again… if you know your way around gothic architecture please get in touch. Gothic literature has a lot more to do with the emergence of the goth subculture as we know it today than the Germanic Goths and gothic architecture.
This architectural notion of the terrible, dramatic and brutal has carried over into the gothic as it pertains to literature. With gothic plots being frequently brutal and dramatic in their content. Gothic literature also blurs the lines between the natural and the supernatural.
The Indefinable Threat
The gothic does not require a ghost or a ghoul but needs an analogous threat. In fact, some of the most ambiguously supernatural gothic novels are the most troubling. Oscar Wilde’s protagonist does not have to wrestle with a literal physical monster, but with his own bargain with a malevolent force and we never conclusively find out if the governess of Henry James’ Turn of The Screw (1898) is actually experiencing a haunting or a psychotic break.
Stemming from the romantic supernatural gothic novel is the detective novel which dabbles in the macabre and the mysterious. These stories might start with a supernatural interpretation, as in the Sherlock Holmes novels, and a shown by the genius detective to be wholly natural, however improbable. The blurring of the gothic and the detective novel is particularly prevalent in The Hound of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which we get an appearance of the moors which feature so heavily in gothic fiction, they are like naturally occurring labyrinthine castles full of mystery and unpleasant surprises.
The gothic film genre is closely tied to horror as it often features a lot of evil, death and destruction, however, it is also closely tied to the genre of period drama as the movies that draw inspiration from the classic gothic novel often keep their narratives within the same time and space as the original narrative. Most of the films we will focus on will have a Victorian or Vintage flavour, but the neo-gothic and gothic noir film has moved the gothic movie into the city and the modern world so there is a rich vein, no pun intended of material to work with.
So what makes Frankenstein gothic?
Well aside from the cliché that it happened on a dark and stormy night. Victor Frankenstein is beholden to a deep ancient desire to create life from whole cloth. The Doctor’s drive to emulate god has a lineage tracing back to ancient Greece. Mary Shelley even renders the curse of the doctor explicit in the title of the novel Frankenstein, or the modern-day Prometheus. The Prometheus myth is a huge thing to unpack so I might have to do that another time. The creature of the novel is not born of God, so while he is a creature of science and consequently science fiction he is also a supernatural innocent that seeks to find his way in the world. There is the corruption of the innocent, death and the fall of a great noble family.
So what do you ideally need for a gothic novel or film? Not all novels will have all these but these are the factors to look out for…
The Gothic Text Wish List
□ A Haunting
□ A Curse
□ A Challenge to the conventional
□ An Artefact imbued with magic or supernatural properties
□ The Corruption of the innocent
□ Creepy architecture
□ Preferably a labyrinth of some kind
□ And an Ancient Evil
*Bats and ambiguous shadows optional
I’ll see you next week with Brent to compare the 1931 movie Frankenstein and the 1818 novel in which we officially apply the concepts of galvanism to the unsuspecting creature that is our podcast.
How could this possibly go wrong?
You can watch the fall out from this act of hubris in real time @thefrankenpod on twitter and thefrankenpod.wordpress.com has all the resources I was diligent enough to include.
In the meantime hit up Project Gutenberg and Librivox for a free copy of Frankenstein and any other gothic tales in the public domain.
Smith, Andrew. Gothic literature. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
My copy of many gothic texts discussed are drawn from:“A Gothic Treasury of the Supernatural: The Castle of Otranto; Frankenstein: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Dracula; The Turn of the Screw” 1981
The feature image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 17 August 2008, 12:59 by Yuriybrisk. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.