Thinking about Gothic spaces and where it leaves us.

(1.)

One thing you might ask yourself whilst reading a scary novel, is: ‘what’s (or who’s) behind the door?’ It’s part of the suspense, part of the fun. It’s part of the point. It’s the reason why you decide to read the book in the first place. You want your pulse to rise, you want to sit on the edge of the seat, and barely be able to continue reading the passage. How far can you go? Where is your limit? And as you keep going, you keep pushing the boundaries of what’s normal, the boundaries get further and further apart, you discover new land, you set a new standard of what is normal. That is, in a nutshell, part of what the Gothic literature is about.

The Gothic has been around us for a long time, in different mediums and genres. But since Horace Walpole wrote what is considered to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, all the way back at the end of 1764, the Gothic literary tradition has been met with a range of criticism[1]. One of the more stable of these, one the tradition has met throughout the years with various force, is the notion that Gothic literature is low-brow literature, ‘trash’, not deemed worthy of highly intellectual individuals and the academic establishment. (Even though this criticism is present to a certain degree also today, there is interestingly enough an abundance of Gothic courses being taught at university level thoroughout the Western world.)

Part of the reason the novels written in the Gothic style was subject of much of this type of criticism might date back to the fact that many of the most popular authors of early Gothic fiction were women, and thus wrote about and represented what was morally important to the ‘second sex’. (Again ironic, as without the contribution of these authors, the Gothic might’ve looked very different today than what is does. They were, after all, the ones who persisted through the criticism.) Gothic tropes such as melancholia, failed romantic relations, narratives over-emphazised on emotions etc. These are all examples of tropes that were important in the early ‘female’ Gothic.

Despite being criticised, the Gothic tradition no doubt has been growing since its beginning. I mentioned the growth of Gothic literary courses throughout universities in the Western world. But we do not only see remains of the Gothic tradition in literature, it also scopes over various other forms of media such as film, TV and even music. (The easiest accessible, most popular and mainstreamed part of the Gothic in today’s culture, is in my opinion ‘horror’.) Where would what we know today as zombies and vampires be, if not for the artistic and eerie imagination of the Gothic masters of decades ago?[2]

Through the criticism, the Gothic has prevailed, and one thing still stands true as an important and invaluable trope; You’re afraid of what you don’t know. You’re afraid of the dark. Afraid of what’s (who’s?) on the other side of the door. (Or, classically, under the bed/in the closet).

(2.)

Connected to this is the use of fictional spaces. How an author uses spaces determine the level of the reader’s suspense (and, by extension, fear). Especially is this important in what I regarded as the ‘most popular part of the modern Gothic’, the subgenre horror. Because ‘horror’ is supposed to be scary, and in order to set this up and make the reader ask this question in the first place, the author needs to use fictional spaces. This might be physical as well as abstract. Physical: You might imagine, in your head as you’re reading this, a well-lit corridor. The walls are painted a light red and the lights on the walls are symmetrically alligned, a soft and welcomed light flowing from the lamps. You are walking straight forward in it. Are you scared? Is the corridor scary? Probably not, because we can see everything there. And we are not afraid of the light. But you might still be scared of something. The physical space, in this example, is not scary. Therefore, the abstract space might be.

The use of physical fictional spaces is easily recognisable as a reader, and also, maybe, the easiest way for an author to construct fear and unpleasantness in the reader. The abstract way of using space to construct fear and unpleasantness, however, might be a little more difficult to recognise; but all the more valuable and strong in force. The novel Rosemary’s Baby, already mentioned in a blogpost on this site, is, to me, one of the better ways in which abstract space is used to make the reader uncomfortable and surrounded by uncanny-ness (uncanniness?). Here, truth and fiction, reality and falseness, interact in order to make both the real reader and the fictional participants ask themselves questions such as did that just happen? or wait, but wasn’t that just a dream? (you’re welcome to read the post about Rosemary’s Baby further down if you’re interested in specific details.) Who can I trust? and who’s telling the truth? Indeed, questions such as these are arguably normal in the Gothic as a whole. An example at the top of my head from The Castle of Otranto is a scene where one of the characters sees a person in a portait move within the frames of the painting. Here, as in Rosemary’s Baby, the physical spaces interact with the abstract ones to construct a feeling of unpleasantness, uncanniness, and, most importantly,insecurity concerning what is real and what is not[3]. Did that person actually just move? Or is it my imagination? Or is it somewhere between, perhaps? (but how would that work? did my imagination make it move in reality? do I have telekinetic powers? did my abstract imagination control the real painting?) Asking questions like this also opens up for a discussion surrounding what, or who, is sane, and insane – and what does it mean to be insane? It adds a new dimension, a new trope frequently used in Gothic means. Take the movie Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010), as an example.

The author utilizes and combines both physical and abstract spaces in order to scare us. When this is done, something else might protrude to the theory; metanarrative.[4] What I would like to cast light upon, is the ways in which the author uses the reader to make the reader afraid. This makes for a superb and intense reading experience. A marvellous book that exemplifies this perfectly, is Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park. If you haven’t already, I recommend you read it. Ellis starts off with swearing to the reader that what follows in the next pages is not fiction, and that it’s all true. The fictional protagonist’s name is Bret Eastion Ellis,which contributes in making it more trustworthy.[5] It then goes on to describe a series of encounters between the protagonist and a person he doesn’t know, and is always unable to see clearly. The problem is, noone except from the protagonist is able to see this person[6]. Again, questions surrounding whether or not the events the protagonist is witness to, is real, or just a result from his imagination. The new point I want to make in brining this particular novel up, however, is this is a way of making the reader scared of himself. The author Bret Easton Ellis is fictionalising himself, thus distancing himself from himself. He is de-subjectifying himself from himself, and attempting to exist as a fictional individual. As he is doing so, he is trying to breach into the lines and sentences on the page. The fictional Bret Easton Ellis, on the other hand, is doing the opposite; He is trying to break out of the convensions set up by the real Bret Easton Ellis. He wants to know how its like to be a real person. And as the reader is reading the passages in this book, he or she might start feeling the same. A novel is supposed to make the reader feel empathy with the characters and protagonists, but it is questionable whether or not Ellis manages this by breaching the boundaries between fiction and realities; It is be more difficult for the reader to know what is real and not, and as a result, spends more time trying to figure this out instead of trying to visualise him/herself in the shoes of the protagonist.

And so we are back at where we started. We covered one of the main tropes in the Gothic, and one of the main criticism the Gothic tradition has received since the very start of its existence. We looked at some example of how this might look in practice, and asked ourselves rhetorical questions concerning the legibility and effect of these examples. As and end note, I would like to reassure the reader that this post, no matter the signs of the opposite, is, has been and always will be, real.

~ milk

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[1] One example in the text. Others might include: morally unfit for children/immature audience, misrepresentation of gender/ gender stereotypes, unnecessary depiction of physical/body horror (especially the transgressive fictions of Chuck Palahniuk)

[2] I.E the contributors to the early ‘female’ Gothic

[3] As I’m writing this, I come to think of yet another example from a book I recently read, It, by Stephen King. Here, a group of pre-adolescent children hears voices and sees blood coming from the sink drain in one of the kids’s bathrooms. But only they can hear/see it, not the grown-ups. Just another example.

[4] Or rather, calling what I am about to illustrate metanarrative might be misleading. Metanarrative, in itself, is something else than what I want to shine light on now. But metanarrative is being used in the example to a certain degree.

[5] Also, one way in which the novel is a metanarrative. The fictional B.E.E cannot be the real one, for obvious reasons. Another example of what makes this book meta; one of the students at the college the fictional B.E.E teaches at, is writing her thesis on him. But is she writing her thesis on the fictional, or the real Bret Easton Ellis? What are the conventions in which the novel wants us to answer this question?

[6] As the narrative goes on, the person changes shape and turns into something similar to a dog-like creature.

Letter From Merriland

Dear Mom and Dad

 

I have now been living here for about ten years, I apologize for not writing in a long time, but there has been so much going on. Life in Merriland is not what one would expect. Since it has been so long so I have a lot to tell and here is my story if you want to hear it. When I first left Sand Lake, I ended up in the Welsh town called Gloomington where I lived in a shared apartment that was named “The Dudgeon Dungeon”. A bleak and depressing place. I spent most of my days missing home and sitting in my room. I often played my accordion and sang folk songs and I was feeling a bit bitter about having ended up in Gloomington. I must admit that I enjoyed it somehow, there is sometimes nice about feeling sorry for yourself. I was part of something. Everyone in Dudgeon Dungeon felt sorry for themselves and we shared our self-pity. Little did I know that these were the best months of my life, at least after I left Sand Lake. I could not stand staying in Gloomington for long. I packed up and left after living there for approximately six months. I then ended up in Merriland, a country too little and too beautiful to be found on any world map. A paradise on earth, a modern Garden of Eden with fully dressed people.

 

Merriland has a population of around 3 million people, which is a little more than a third of the population of New York City. Merriland might be a small country, but they stand for democratic values. Even if most of the politicians may have very similar opinions, electing them is fully up to the people. Their values have a few similarities with America, but maybe a bit more social democratic, and their political execution may be a bit more efficient. I was surprised in my first encounter with this nation. I was quickly given the right to vote. There was a consensus in the population that if someone worked and paid taxes, they should obviously have the right to be involved in the democratic process of the nation. For them anything else would be unheard of. My first job in Merriland was at a grain factory and my labor was the reason so many Merrilandians got their daily bread. This country surprised me. It seemed the people living there were sincerely happy, they were not living in a dictatorship. I have never experienced a more democratic system than in Merriland. I settled down in a small apartment with air conditioning and quick internet, even before Wifi was a thing. A thing in my block was that every Sunday there was something they called “The Clean-up” where everyone got together to clean up and fix things, we drank coffee and afterwards we ate cake. There was such great unity and everyone was delighted to contribute.

 

I read quite a few books my first year in Merriland. I read Kafka, Bjørneboe, Plath, Hemingway and Wolf. John Irving did not get away either. Finding literature was simple in Merriland. Every bookshop was like a library and it was easy for them to find the more uncommon books. Instead of commercials, they have a TV and entertainment tax, which paid for all the TV channels in the country. The ads that were sent in between were mostly information about the world. Usually with happy children holding hands, reminding us to take care of each other. The shows were quite diverse. There were feel-good reality shows, sitcoms, staged TV Drama and Drama shows similar to those in the US. Everything from the heavy and serious to the light and humoristic.

After living in Merriland for five years things started to change. My happiness turned into discontent. I was no longer happy to be part of Merriland’s happy community. It did not make things better that everyone else were happy and laughed.

 

Thing took a bad turn the time that I cried because I was homesick. I missed Sand Lake. The pleasant, East Coast small town in the state of New York, east of Albany. The place of picnics, porches and progress. I choked up one evening when I was watching a movie with some Merrilandian friends. There must have been something about the film that reminded me of Sand Lake specifically, I cannot put my finger on what it was, but it must have been something. Maybe it just reminded me of home. The scenery in the movie reminded me of Sand Lake. I dreamed back on the old days and my youth back there. It was not perfect, but it was mine. When I started weeping my friend Jessie asked me why I had started crying when it was such a cozy and funny movie. I told him that I missed home and that I just could not control it. Jessie could not understand it at all. This also caught the attention of the rest of the gang: “How can you be homesick when you live in Merriland, the greatest place in the world?” I was used to the United States, the greatest nation in the world, you could love it or leave it. Not loving it left you with a sense of guilt, In Merriland you had to multiply that with at least a hundred. This was a place of wonder and riches. I felt like the world’s most ungrateful person. Here I was surrounded by generous and beautiful people in some kind of paradise and the ungrateful bastard I was, I was missing Sand Lake: The armpit of the world!!!!!

 

After the incident, I decided to keep all emotions that were not extreme happiness or ecstasy to myself. I may have sat in my room crying my eyes out, but in public, I laughed like everyone else.  I was actually just acting 95% of the time, the other 5% I felt genuinely happy. The others seemed genuinely happy all the time. I envied them and I was extremely jealous of their joy and their lives. Maybe I was even jealous of their lies. If you are that happy all the time, you have got to lie to yourself, right? There must be some dark secret. This cannot be that much of a paradise! There must be something wrong here, it is all too good to be true. One day it happened, I found love! Her name was Irene! She was born and raised in Merriland. She was one of them and her happiness spread to me. This was also around the time when I was promoted at the grain factory; I had slowly started working my way up. Irene worked as a manager at a restaurant, my favorite restaurant in Merriland. We talked about having kids. Merriland was the perfect place for kids to grow up. We dreamed about watching them grow, seeing them go to school and succeed in life and maybe find love and have kids of their own. The future looked bright; it was always did in Merriland. It is common in Merriland to have two kids. There is not much adoption in Merriland as there are few families who struggle with raising their kids properly. Contraception is also developed in such an advanced way that no one gets unwanted kids. In fact, most people in Merriland want kids! Those who cannot can try test tubes or a surrogate mother. A Merrilander will gladly loan away their sperm or their uterus to make someone else happy, that is just the way they are! Irene and I got married during my fourth year in Merriland.

 

One day I was trying to send an SMS, but my phone was low on battery and it shut itself off. I re-charged it, but in my frustration, I had forgotten my SIM-code. I started getting stressed out and my head looked like a boiled tomato. I yelled, “Fuck! Shit! Goddamn! Fuck! Shit! Fuck!”  in frustration. Swearing was not frowned upon in Merriland, but frustration was. Frustration was very uncommon there, because it was so nice and pleasant that were no reasons to be frustrated. Finally, I had to write in the PUK-code. That was when my cup overflowed. The SIM-code was just the final bubble in the cup. I had been thinking over my life all day. I was worried that my thoughts were not free and happy enough and that I did not have a reason to live. I was simply not worthy of living in Merriland. I thought; “Is this the time when I end it all?….Should I actually just kill myself?” It was not as if I had a lot to lose, except Irene, but she would be better off without me anyway. I had very little to offer, either her or Merriland. It would probably make quite a fuss if I did kill myself; no one had committed suicide in Merriland in at least twenty-five years. There was not much illness either in Merriland. The most common cause of death was old age. Most Marylanders grew to be around 110 years old. Imagine sticking out this life for 110 years! How the fuck is that possible? I cried a little. Then I told myself I was ungrateful and pathetic.

 

One day I was out biking in the wilderness. I met a gentleman named Kurt, he had a much nicer bike than me and he had clean jeans and bent knees. I asked him if he was interested in a loaf of bread and he told me he had some condiments we could put on it. Sharing was the foundation in Merriland. Without sharing society would fall apart and we would be left with nothing. We had a picnic. Me and Kurt. Me and a stranger. He was happy, like everyone in Merriland. A cheerful man who did not take himself too seriously, but also was not too fatuous. We got to know each other quickly.

 

Kurt told me he was born and raised in Merriland. He had a lovely childhood and he grew up with his sister Katrina, his brother Lorentz and their parents. They used to spend their summers at Tranquil Island, which seemed to be the perfect vacation spot. I told him I grew up in Sand Lake in America. He wondered how it was like to grow up in the US, a place with so much sorrow and violence. I told him it was horrible, but also sort of nice at times. I did not tell him I missed home, that would have been ridiculous. When you meet a new acquaintance in Merriland it is common to tell them your entire life story. Kurt said: I started school when I was five. I met lots of new friends and we had so much fun. The most important thing about growing up was learning from your mistakes. Maybe I did dumb things, but I learned from it every time. We would be happy, play together, and maybe sing a song. Music has always meant a lot to me and I learned to play the harp when I was 11. Every time I went to a party, I would bring my harp. I now work as a police officer, which is a simple job because the crime rate is so low, but there of course are a few things to do. There is always someone in need of a passport or someone driving too fast in their electric cars or someone being naughty and biking on the wrong sidewalk. Everyone can make a mistake, but the police forgives, of course. That is just the Merrilandian way. When I was 20, I married Anita and we have three beautiful children together. We have now been married for almost 20 years and we are just as in love with each other as the day we met!

 

I told him about Irene and that we were thinking of having children someday. I said we had been married for three years. He said, “Good luck”. He advised us to have children; it was a greatest experience one could have in an otherwise amazing life. My happiness-cup was again overflown. I think I started hating him. Maybe it was the American in me that could not stand all the happiness Kurt brought to the conversation. The sleazy bastard with his nuclear family! Fuck him! I smiled and told him I was delighted to have kids. Did I really? Was it just what was expected of us? Did Irene want children? Would not childbirth be just as painful in Merriland? I could not imagine it being more pleasant in Merriland than in any other place in the world. I wanted to tell him about my homesickness, but I skipped it. It would not have done any good. Bringing negativity to such a nice picnic? I could never have done that!!

 

When I got home, I cried again, the tears were flowing. I was just happy Irene did not see me. She could not see me like that. No one could see me like that! I often see my brain as its own universe. I feel like there are planets and civilizations spinning around inside of me without being aware of each other and that there is a planet or even a galaxy behind every single thought. I have often thought of seeing a therapist, but there are so few of them in Merriland. It was basically a profession that was obsolete. Almost no one were sad or depressed and mental illness was almost eradicated. I am not sure if there would be a stigma around such a visit, but still. There were few stigmas in Merriland and people were quite open and tolerant. Maybe it is because actual destructive things are almost non-existent. Sometimes I wonder how people would react if I did commit a terrible crime or murdered someone. You can only imagine how a society where nothing bad happens would take that. It must have been quite a shock! Do not get me wrong, I would never do anything like that, but it is tempting. I would just love to see their faces! To be fair I would like to see their faces if I ever went to a therapist. Imagine being depressed in Merriland!

 

One day I looked through the weekly classifieds and saw that a local library was in need of a manager. Maybe it would help for my body and soul to change fields. I applied. The job interview terrified me. I could not see myself in such a position. I would, of course, not be the boss of the entire library, just a manager position within the library-hierarchy. The interview turned out well and they seemed to like me. One week later, I got a call that the job was mine. I immediately quite the old one and was thrilled to start. I do love books!

 

 

The job turned out to be amazing. Not only did I get to work with books and people, but I also got a bit of responsibility. Responsibility was the thing that separated the bosses from their minions. Not power, but responsibility. At least in Merriland. I did not have much power, but I did have responsibility, and that is how it should be. There was a hierarchy, but the hierarchy was based on responsibility, not power. I was responsible for my department, while my bosses were responsible for me. The job also made it so that I could read a lot of interesting literature. It gave me the opportunity to read nice books, good books and rare books I had never heard of. Literature for Sweden, from Pakistan, from Tanzania, from South America, from the entire globe! I got myself a cup of coffee on the way home and thought to myself; “Life can be nice, life is beautiful! It’s great here in Merriland” I came home and Irene and I went to a restaurant together. We had Tapas for dinner and Crème Brulé for dessert, a perfect meal, if I am allowed to say.  A perfect meal, a perfect day, a perfect life in a perfect country. I love Merriland! I woke up the next morning aware that I was alive, the sun was up, so was I. The days at work were great and I felt that I amounted to something, I was a human being. Not an insignificant human being either, because no human being is insignificant. We are all one unity, we are together about this, and Merriland has shown me.

 

One week Irene went to a culinary course in Paris. She was going to be taught new tricks from the best chefs in France. I had my first night alone, it felt nice, and it was only me. I played the accordion and watched foreign films on TV. I was all by myself and it felt good. I was quite happy at work the next day, I smiled to the others at work, and everything just felt terrific. I looked at a picture of Irene in my office and considered myself happy to have her. When I got home I felt a little sad, I really missed her. She was now in Paris, a city where people get murdered, most likely every night. She is not used to that sort of thing. What if she witnesses a murder? What if she sees a dead body? The solitude drove me crazy, I really missed her and my suicidal thoughts were back. Are not people going away for courses all the time? Are not their significant others missing them when they are gone? Do they not have the ability to miss people in Merriland? I teared up, another night alone. A record or a movie meant nothing to me. I cried and I cried. If I were in the states I would feel pathetic, but also a bit cute, but if Irene knew I cried for her she would be heartbroken, possibly even angry. Why cry? Who the hell cries in Merriland? I was happy for her, she got to go to this great course, but I really missed her. Would she have missed me if I were away? Maybe!, but would she cry? Definitely not! It was the worst week ever, well, at least in that year. I cried every night. I could keep myself together and smile as usual at work, but I broke down the moment I got home. I stared at the pictures of her and all the times and the tears were flowing. I was a sad, sad person. When she got back I gave her a huge hug, I felt so happy. She smiled because I was smiling and she laughed when I laughed. I asked her how she liked Paris and she said it was fantastic. In spite of all the suffering, she thought it was a nice city and the lights were glittering. She told me she might sacrifice some of her happiness just to see such lights in Merriland. She was joking of course.

 

The joy of seeing Irene again was the only that kept me happy, the only thing that made me feel alive. The only thing that made me feel like a true Merrilander. There is no feeling like seeing someone you have missed again, it somehow makes the time missing them worth it. Maybe as an American I could never adapt to life in Merriland. I was used to awful headlines in the newspapers. I was used to murder and abuse and people committing suicide. I was also used to those moments when a certain smile or laugh could make me forget those headlines. There are some keywords that burn themselves into your brain and never disappear, even in Merriland. Maybe Merrilandians do not have these keywords stuck in their minds, because most of their headlines are good news. Maybe it is also so that they do not miss people here and the feeling of longing is nonexistent. Maybe none of these happy people has ever felt the happiness I felt when I finally saw Irene again. It was a strange thought. I of course envied them because a word like “murder” was a foreign word to them, something you are just not used to, but to people elsewhere it is a word you probably hear every day. Other places you will never know when a terrorist attack might occur and you will never know if you will attacked or robbed. In Merriland, there is no such thing as terrorism, but there might be something I have that they do not. In one tiny moment, I might have been the happiest person in Merriland. It was a very strange thought. Possibly the only person in Merriland who ever considered committing suicide, was for a couple of hours the happiest person there. I almost get the chills thinking about it. I was happy! I was a Merrilander.

 

After a couple of months things started to get bad again. Irene noticed it; at least that is what I feared. I walked to the highway and I saw life pass before my eyes. I saw a truck and I almost ran toward it. If I am going to be completely honest, it was not my will to live or my survival instincts that kept me from going through with it. It was Merriland. I liked the goddamn place. Just one tiny place in the world where horrible things do not happen. Where the people can be happy without worry about the horrors that might occur. They really had something nice there and I did not want to ruin it for them. If I brought my Sand Lake-infected sadness to Merriland and told Irene about, it would defile her and Merriland as well. If I had actually taken my life, I would have changed Merriland forever. I knew I had to get away, but how would I tell Irene about it, make her sad, and ruin the happy harmony of Merriland? I told her that America had corrupted me, she did not understand, there was no way for her to understand my sadness. I told her that I missed living with sadness and that happiness only made me unhappy. I told her that I loved and that I would miss her, but that it was for the best for the both of us that I left. It was also the best for Merriland. She told me that she would miss me and asked me to send her letters. I did not know if I will be able to do it. It might be the absence seem worse.  I still do not know if missing someone is common in Merriland. I have a little selfish dream that when I am gone she will leave Merriland and come live with me. In that way, we can live together, aware of our unhappiness. If I have indeed defiled her with my pain, we could indeed live together and be miserable. We could be the modern Adam and Eve, defiled and expelled from paradise. We could live together in sin and destruction. It was of course a dream. A selfish yet beautiful dream that made the longing and heartache much easier.

 

I have of course missed the both of you over the years I have been in Merriland. I hope one day to return to Sand Lake: The armpit of the world! I will soon be on my way and my arrival in American might be right around the corner. The forgotten son returns to his hometown to finish his unfinished projects or get a fresh start. I apologize for not writing sooner, but it would probably make me miss you more and increase my homesickness if I did stay in touch. It was better just keep up my Merriland happiness. I think I am going to be happier now. Maybe I find my own little Merriland someday. Maybe there exsists such a place inside of me as well.  Lots of love.

 

Dearest,  Kenneth.

~Readhard