Thinking about Gothic spaces and where it leaves us.


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).


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


[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.


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