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Postmodern Gothic

The play of fear and laughter has been inscribed in Gothic texts since their inception, an ambivalence that disturbs critical categories that evaluate their seriousness or triviality. The uncertainty perpetuates Gothic anxieties at the level of narrative and generic form, and affects all categories and boundaries from the generic to the social. Producing powerful emotions rather than aesthetic judgments, effects on audiences and readers rather than instructions for them, narrative forms and devices spill over from worlds of fantasy and fiction into real and social spheres. Exacerbated rather than resolved by the artificial assemblages of Gothic forms, the excess contaminates all distinctions in the way it highlights the function of forms and conventions in the everyday as well as fictional world. The hybrid mixing of forms and narratives has uncanny effects, effects which make narrative play and ambivalence another figure of horror, another duplicitous object to be expelled from proper orders of consciousness and representation.

The twentieth century’s escalating anxiety regarding modernity as a combination of civilisation, progress and rationality has become focused on the way that social, historical and individual formations are bound up with the organising effects of narratives. Perceived as a condensation of grand narratives, the legitimacy, universality and unity of modernity is put in question. Part of the challenge to modernity’s assumptions, meanings, exclusions and suppressions has emerged in fictions that juxtapose, and thereby reorganise, narrative styles and relations. The stories of Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants (1969), mixing fragments of myth, fairytale and everyday realism, expose the violence and the violent structures of fantasy that are inscribed in and between the different narratives composing a culture, an uncanny narrative shadow that subverts distinctions between fictional forms and the narratives shaping reality, family and identity. Angela Carter’s fiction, self-consciously mixing different forms, including fairytale, legend, science fiction and Gothic, shows the interplay of narratives shaping reality and identity, particularly in relation to the production of meanings for sexuality. Her Heroes and Villains (1969) uses the future to reflect on distinctions between civilisation and barbarity. ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979), like the other stories in the collection of the same name, plays with the ways fairytales, legends and Gothic fictions construct identities, fantasies, fears and desires, particularly in terms of female sexuality and desire: a young female speaker casts herself as a Gothic heroine on her marriage to an aristocratic libertine and voluptuary in the Sadeian mould. In echoes of Rebecca, the heroine discovers letters of the Marquis’s first wife. She turns out to have been a relation of Dracula. Further explorations through the Marquis’s precipitously situated castle lead to Radcliffean terrors in dark vaults, amid macabre instruments. Threatened by imminent death at the hands of her husband, a spectral and knightly figure rides to her rescue: the romantic hero is her mother. The play of absurdity and horror interrogates the narrative forms that structure fantasies and have real effects. In her novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972), Carter looks at the play of reality and fantasy by using Freud’s notion of the uncanny, but written over the entire social formation. The mysterious villain of the title has stretched the unconscious over the surface of the world so that all perceptions are transformed and mutated along the paths of desire and, more important, the physical laws supposed to govern concrete reality no longer apply. The narrator’s picaresque travels through worlds in which conventional distinctions of space and time, matter and spirit, reality and fantasy are irrelevant present different stories, myths and social and scientific principles to suggest that the world is fictional in its broadest sense, an effect of narratives, identifications, fantasies and desires that no longer bow to the grand narrative dominated by the reality principle. Encounters with strange peoples, with different customs, assumptions and attributes, open up singular notions of narrative, reality and identity to heterogeneous possibilities.

Throughout Gothic fiction terror and horror have depended on things not being what they seem. In encouraging superstitious interpretation in, and of, novels by means of narrative devices and generic expectations, Gothic texts have always played along the boundaries between fictional forms and social rules. In the complex assemblage of different stories within early Gothic novels, the labyrinthine complexity ultimately delivers its secret and produces the horror that expels the object of fear, restoring properly conventional boundaries. An uncanny and disturbing uncertainty none the less shadows this process with an ambivalence and duplicity that cannot be contained. In Gothic fictions and films it is this ambivalence and duplicity that has emerged as a distinctly reflexive form of narrative anxiety. It involves a pervasive cultural concern—characterised as postmodernist—that things are not only not what they seem: what they seem is what they are, not a unity of word or image and thing, but words and images without things or as things themselves, effects of narrative form and nothing else. Unstable, unfixed and ungrounded in any reality, truth or identity other than those that narratives provide, there emerges a threat of sublime excess, of a new darkness of multiple and labyrinthine narratives, in which human myths again dissolve, confronted by an uncanny force beyond its control.

The horror of textuality is linked to pervasive terrors of anarchic disintegration or psychotic dissolution. In an impressive example of Gothic fiction, The Name of the Rose (1980), Umberto Eco displays its sublimely textual form. With selfconsciously Gothic features like the narrative detailing the discovery of a medieval manuscript, the gloomy settings, dark vaults, mysterious deaths and the medieval architecture and history that run through it, the novel rearticulates distinctions between enlightenment rationality and religious superstition. The arrival of a monk, William of Baskerville, and his novice, the narrator, Adso, at a fourteenth-century Abbey dominated by a great octagonal library coincides with a series of mysterious and macabre deaths. Interpreted as signs of divine apocalypse or diabolical machination, the deaths foretell greater terrors for the superstitious monastic community. Baskerville, as his name suggests, has powers of deduction like those of Sherlock Holmes and sets out to provide a rational explanation of supposedly supernatural terrors.

The conventional disingenuity of the ‘editor’s’ preface to the story, stating its absolute distance from concerns of the present, ironically focuses attention on the relation of history and contemporaneity. The novel is full of modern as well as historical allusions: important contemporary antecedents signal a concern with literary and theoretical issues, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges being particularly significant in that the mystery centres on the library constructed in the form of a labyrinth. The novel’s mystery is a mystery in and about texts, its  object and cause being a text itself, a missing philosophical work whose knowledge and power is feared and desired. Baskerville, monk and detective, is also slightly different from his conventional fictional forebears; his rational and detective skills are presented as critical and analytic abilities: he is an excellent reader of signs and narrative conventions (pp. 24–5). Superstition appears as an effect of misreading, of the mislocation of signs and narratives. Following the clues through the dark corridors and vaults of the Abbey, Baskerville uncovers the textual and fragmented trail of signs and secret codes that both conceal and cause the crimes, arriving at the horror and the explanation in the hidden chamber of the labyrinthine library. The horror is not a bloody spectre or corpse but takes the form of Baskerville’s double, an old librarian named Jorge, possessed of religious dogmatism and callous and diabolical cunning, perfect foils for the former’s intellectual pride. The murders are explained as the attempt to prevent monks reading a book that was believed lost: Aristotle’s second book of the Poetics, on comedy. Jorge, to Baskerville’s horror, explains the motive for murderous censorship. Such a book by the philosopher would undermine the power of ecclesiastical order by celebrating laughter, legitimating its refusal to respect any law and authority, its rebellious energy threatening the ‘dismantling and upsetting of every holy and venerable image’ (p. 476). Laughter, activating a diabolical play that exceeds the attempts of sacred horror to expel or control it, is associated with the play of signs, narratives and interpretations, a play that is itself ambivalent in the way it is constructed as either rationally open and liberating or devilishly, anarchically irreverent.

For the order Jorge represents laughter is reviled as the enemy of truth and power. His fear of laughter, however, produces his own acts of irrational and intolerant suppression. The violence that Jorge’s dogmatic and restricted order sanctions is, from the narrator’s identification with Baskerville’s position, shown to be the true object of horror, associated with the superstitious and tyrannical oppression that, throughout Gothic fiction, is linked to the injustice and cruelty of the Catholic Inquisition. Arbitrary, irrational and restrictive power is opposed by Baskerville’s enlightened and rational humanism. The invocation of enlightenment values that are produced and contested throughout Gothic fiction is made with a significant difference: truth and reason are no longer seen as absolutes or agents of systems of power. They are, instead, ways of reading in which texts are left open and plural, their play not subjected to a singular, restricted and partial—politically interested—meaning. Adso’s concluding reflections remain uncertain about his mentor’s motivations and ideas as well as the message that his own manuscript holds. The uncertainty, presented throughout the novel in textual terms, is repeated in a last anecdote of Adso’s later return to the Abbey whose library was destroyed in a great conflagration occurring as a result of Jorge’s and Baskerville’s confrontation. Amid the library’s ruins, Adso collects and catalogues some of the tiny fragments of books that remain: ‘at the end of my reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books’ (p. 500).

While The Name of the Rose advances this vision of the fragmentary forms of textual, individual and social bodies, whose meanings and identities are effects of patient and partial reconstruction, the image of disintegration that it implies is a shocking one for positions that have been fostered by narratives of individual, social and natural unity, homogeneity and totality. The shadows of narrative duplicity, ambivalence and play that open on to a fragmented glimpse of textuality are, in Alan Parker’s film, Angel Heart (1986), rendered spectral and threatening objects of terror. Beginning in the manner of a 1950s detective thriller, with a corpse, the film’s opening image cedes to an apparently different narrative in which a down-at-heel private eye, Harry Angel, is hired to find a missing person by a mysterious client called Louis Cyphre. The investigation leads Angel away from a grubby New York: it takes him south to a world dominated by religious ritual and voodoo. In the course of the investigation Angel becomes the chief suspect for the murders that shadow it.

Punctuated by flashbacks of mysterious shrouded figures, blood-filled bowls and blood-stained walls, the film suggests another story: one narrative, the detective story, is gradually supplanted by a Faustian tale of diabolical repossession. This is marked by a complete reversal of narrative expectations, a narrative twist that, though characteristic of the detective genre, in this case undermines it. Angel discovers that he is the criminal he has been pursuing. For, in the arcane ritual alluded to in the flashbacks, the heart of an innocent victim, Angel, was torn out and eaten by the criminal who then assumed Angel’s appearance. This was done so that the villain could renege on a contract with the devil, substituting another’s soul for his own. Satan—‘Lucifer’ in the shape and name of ‘Louis Cyphre’—returns to claim his due, hiring ‘Angel’ for the purpose. The word-play reveals the secret of the film, a fact that, in horror, is recognised by Angel’. New flashbacks, replicating scenes from earlier in the film, show Angel’ committing the murders that have shadowed his investigation. The first narrative, it appears, has constructed a false identity: like the shots of mirrors, identity cards and dog tags throughout the film, it is also duplicitous. Angel is detective and criminal, hero and villain, pursuer and pursued, deceiver and dupe. In the play of narrative deceptions bodies, souls, identities and roles are substituted for each other. In the movement between genres there is a diabolical process of deception displayed and performed, a process that multiplies meanings and identities to the point where nothing is what it seems but an effect of narrative appearances. The audience is drawn into this process, duped by the narrative play and robbed of a proper ending and solution to the mystery. The play of narratives is also a game of signs: Louis Cyphre is not only Lucifer, but Lu-cipher, the name that cracks the Faustian narrative’s code. The deciphering of the name draws the audience further into the narrative’s play of codes, signs and images. The play of words, of codes and ciphers, also encodes the film as a narrative game of ciphers and signs: it is just a matter of word-play. Signs and images are thus presented as diabolical and excluded, cast out in horrified recognition of the empty and superficial word-play that ends the film. Angel, the figure of duplicity, described as the closest thing to ‘pure evil’, is a transgressor who is simultaneously punished by diabolical law, for breaking the contract, and by secular law, for murder, condemned to burn in hell’s flames and the electric chair. Evil, presented in and as a duplicitous play of words, is thus displayed and cast out.

Enmeshed, however, in processes of doubling that its attempt to join its parallel narratives never closes, Angel Heart, as a film, as a set of narrative images itself, also signifies the opposite: that identity, meaning and unity are spectral illusions of signs. It cannot expunge this horror, cannot take an external and fixed position. The invocation of evil, however, signals a return to romantic patterns of organising the significance on a global and binary scale. In the films of David Lynch a similar interplay of good and evil, light and dark, is manifested as an uncanny and unavoidable duplicity. In Blue Velvet (1986), the play of visual allusions also absorbs the American Gothic tradition in which the uncanny proximity of good and evil is seen to be very close to home, within the boundaries of community life. Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks (1990–2), uses similar Gothic contrasts in a visual text whose network of allusions, quotations, stylistic parodies and pastiches was as broad as it was reflexive. Playing with various narrative conventions the series followed the investigation of a terrible murder of a girl in the small-town community to uncover evils multiple sources in primordial, individual, cultural and narrative locations: deep in the woods, in human fears, selfish desires and sexual repressions, in the community and within the family. The evil in the woods alludes to Hawthorne; the evil father resonates throughout Gothic, as does the identification with psychopathology. The figure of evil, the vagrant face of Bob, appears as the mirror image of the paternal perpetrator, a reflection that haunts the series. Evil, also, is located in outer space, an echo of the Cold War threat of communism that had just disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Evils place is multiplied in the dense network of cultural and narrative allusion. Evil is also identified, in the self-conscious use of romance forms, with myths and fictions.

The final battle of good and evil is staged when the detective enters the deceptive Black Lodge—a place of reversals and evil doubles—to save the woman he loves. They both return. But the romantic happy ending is undermined by the final scene. Washing in his hotel bathroom, the detective looks in a mirror. Staring from it is the dishevelled face of Bob, the evil image and sign of diabolical possession. The turning of one into the other, good into evil, forms a doubly self-conscious and banal inversion of the conventional romantic ending. The camera returns from the mirror to focus on the detective’s features, now distorted in a malevolent grin that is itself a reflection of the mirror image’s evil face. Not so much a conventional display of the truth of interiority, of the evil within, the double reflection presents evil as an effect of images and narrative surfaces, another device of diabolical duplicity. Having turned the figure of good, unity, coherence, identity and cleanliness into evil’s double, another alluring figure in a diabolical repertoire of signs, the series’ playfulness evokes both laughter and horror: it just plays games, and yet, there seems to be nothing but narrative games, no position outside or determining them, no frame that is not, itself, caught up in a web of duplicity and ambivalent effects that contaminates all cultural boundaries and distinctions.

Source: Botting, Fred, and Dale Townshend. Gothic. London: Routledge, 2004.
Prawer, S.S., Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, Oxford, Oxford University
Press, 1980.

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Categories: Gothic Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Postmodernism, Vampire Narratives

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