THE APPEAL OF THE VICTORIAN GOTHIC

Victorian Gothic Horror is a genre of storytelling that generates immediate, distinctive imagery and an almost visceral tone. Dark misty moors, old abandoned houses, women in black corsets and long dresses, changeling children with cold-dead stares… And above all, a sense of extraordinary terror found in everyday things. As Edgar Allen Poe wrote in The Raven, “the silken, sad, uncertain rusting of each purple curtain thrilled me, filled me, with fantastic terrors I’d never seen before…”

But more than just a genre with established conventions, the Victorian Gothic Horror dictates a particular time and historical period. Certainly we associate a host of classic novels to the Victorian era setting but the popular dominance of ‘Gothic Fiction’ in literature had largely passed by the time of the Victorian age. Yet the hangover of the Gothic form seems indelibly marked on this period of time around the industrial revolution. The weight of literary greats such as Charles Dickens are obviously a big factor, as are the seminal stories such as The Strange case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Elisabeth Gaskell’s, The Grey Woman.

But it's not just classic writers of the period that wrote Victorian Gothic, modern writers do as well, such as Susan Hill (The Woman in Black) and John Harwood (The Asylum); borrowing not just the tone and conventions of the Gothic, but very literally the setting and period.

What I worry about (in the way I worry about the fate of other high-concept genres; SciFi, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic) is many writers leaping to the simplistic tropes and trappings without a deeper engagement with the underlying chemistry of the genre. Or to put it another way, a focus on the bathroom fixtures rather than the plumbing.

What it is that makes this period in history so scary, so haunting and so loaded with supernatural potential? What does the unique Victorian setting bring to the writer’s table? The body of Victorian Gothic stories bring up a recurrent collection of themes - madness, morality, criminality, family bonds and the animal or demon ‘within’. These are the common elements that span the genre on both page and screen. So what is it about the Victorian period that pushes and fosters these themes? 

To understand any historical period you have to look at what forces, at that time, are in collision? If you can identify what prevailed before and what prevails after you’ll know the mind-set of people and their stories caught in the moment. Victorian England (along with the western world) is an historically crucial moment of transformation. The industrial revolution is radically altering a previously agrarian society and with large scale industry comes rapid advancements in science and technology - the understanding of the world itself was re-imagined.

But change doesn’t happen easy, change is hard, change is brutal; and for communities and culture such upheaval slams together belief systems and ideologies in abrasive ways. In the Victorian era science is advancing but it has a long way to go. Likewise the beliefs of people are progressing but haven’t nearly shaken off superstition. At this time there is immense desire to ‘understand’ and yet still so very much that ‘cannot yet be understood’.

This is the sublimely delicious gap that the Victorian Gothic Horror lives and thrives in; a rich vein of story-telling juice that stems from a collision between the Rational and the Superstitious. At this time, and unlike other periods of history, both these forces are powerful and deeply held in a kind of stasis of equal weighting. Rational scientific thinking has proven its power and physically changed the world, but superstition is still highly compelling for a people attached to their long-held folklore. It’s an age when traditional religion is breaking down under the weight of science and reason and yet people seek to replace their old beliefs with a new mythology. Unable yet to fully substitute the superstitious with the rational, they replace one mythology for another. 

In the case of the Victorian era this was broadly known as Spiritualism; the belief that the souls of the dead could speak to the living through a kind of pseudo-rational set of mechanics - seances, automatic writing, paranormal photographics. Indeed the somewhat contemporary idea of a ‘paranormal investigator’ is entirely Victorian in origin, melding a kind of scientific rationale to examine that which is neither scientific nor rational.

It’s no co-incidence either that, as the world reeled from the implications of Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ and questioned what it meant to be ‘human’, new theories about our behaviour and humanity emerged. Atavism was predicated on the idea of people being biologically and genealogically predetermined to primitive ‘animal’ behaviours, or the idea that we could de-evolve into animalistic states - madness, criminality, immorality - if exposed to certain forces or conditions (both scientific and supernatural).

And it’s these ideas of the ‘primitive’ held barely at bay, regression into madness, and criminality nature being biological rather than behavioural, that are the guts of gothic horror. This is the space where ghosts haunt machines, where spirits of the dead test the morality of the living, where phantasms of the past drive people to violence in the present, where isolation leads to insanity and where immorality fractures the mind and body.

So with this in mind, for a writer seeking to draw a horror narrative out of the Victorian Gothic space, a set of important questions emerge:

‘where does the Supernatural collide with Reason in your story?’

‘what forces trap a character between Rational and Irrational?’

‘what keeps a character Rational when they should be Irrational?’

‘how will a character’s attachment to Logic and Reason be tested?’

‘what Transgressions bring about Madness?’

‘what is the Primal Demon within that is only barely held at bay?’

Writer Sarah Perry frames the appeal and feeling-state tensions of the Gothic superbly in an essay entitled A sublime contagion.

I am deliciously uneasy, repulsively thrilled, sublimely afraid. It gives licence to sensations that we feel but cannot admit, and at precisely the same time cloaks those sensations in such strangeness that it is possible to say: ‘It is only an absurd tale of vampires and shadows; it has nothing whatever to do with me.’ The Gothic provides a hiding-place and a place of consecration for those seeking what lies beyond the boundary of society and reason, a sublime contagion to which we are never quite immune.”

What is also important about Victorian Gothic, as both a genre and a period of history, is the unique blend of Familiar and Foreign it delivers for audiences. The Victorian age is far enough back in time from the present that it feels foreign, otherworldly, full of behaviours and iconography that is strange and removed from our own world. And yet, at the same time, it is not so far away as to be unfamiliar. The Victorian age is the birth of modernity - we see the period and we see industry and technology, science, reason, electric lights and clocks and a range of devices of the modern world that remind us of our own. This blend of things we recognise in a setting that we don’t, fits directly with the Freudian idea of the uncanny. Sarah Perry observes this connection, saying;

“Freud conceived of the uncanny – an approximation of the untranslatable German unheimlich – as a state of indescribable unease and terror, drawn not from encounters with ghouls and beasts but from something horribly familiar. To be heimlich is to be homely, of the domestic sphere, but also concealed, secret, hidden. What is unheimlich is therefore simultaneously unhomely and revelatory: it spells an unwelcome encounter with our primitive desires and social taboos, an encounter all the more horrible because it is with ourselves.”

This idea of the ‘uncanny’ manifests in all sorts of ways. For Freud attics and basements were uncanny spaces as they were both ‘of the house’ and connected to the house, but at the same time were outside it’s bounds, outside the Home. In animation the term ‘uncanny valley’ describes human faces that intend to be real yet do not quite make it, they lack a kind of soul and our human instincts cringe at such faces (try watching the animated film Polar Express without cringing and you’ll know what I mean).

The Victorian gothic as a whole presents a storyworld that is in a great many ways 'uncanny' because of both its position in history (the cusp with superstition and reason) and also because of it’s distance back in time from the present - far enough away to be foreign, just close enough to be familiar. 

Perhaps because of this there is a window of opportunity, that the Victorian Gothic won’t hold its special uncanny place forever as the modern world continues to advance…