History of the Gothic: Twentieth-Century Gothic

History of the Gothic: Twentieth-Century Gothic

by Lucie Armitt


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Continuing the University of Wales Press’s acclaimed series of explorations of the Gothic and its legacy, Twentieth-Century Gothic focuses on the continuing presence of the gothic in the long twentieth century, from The Turn of the Screw to Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, with looks along the way at the work of Clive Barker, Angela Carter, Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and more. Addressing the question of why we are fascinated by ghosts, demons, and monsters of all sorts, despite the professed rationality of our society, Armitt shows how such stories of these supernatural creatures can serve as an outlet for deep-rooted fears about continuing problems in contemporary society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708320433
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 04/01/2011
Series: University of Wales Press - Gothic Literary Studies Series , #3
Pages: 193
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lucie Armitt is head of the English department at Bangor University.

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Twentieth-Century Gothic

History of the Gothic

By Lucie Armitt

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2011 Lucie Armitt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2362-5


Gothic Pathologies: Haunted Children

* * *

What it was least possible to get rid of was the cruel idea that, whatever I had seen, Miles and Flora saw more – things terrible and unguessable that sprang from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past.

Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898), from which this epigraph is taken, anticipates and uncannily shadows our anxieties as they are woven into twentieth-century childhood. One might argue that one of the key ways in which twentieth-century Gothic literature differentiates itself from its predecessors is in its treatment of the theme of the haunted child. That The Turn of the Screw continues to have a cultural resonance is in part shown by the success of The Others (2001, writer/director Alejandro Amenábar), a film set in Jersey in 1945, commonly read as having a direct intertextual connection with James's novella. In The Others, the father is away fighting in the Second World War – a war his wife, Grace, repeatedly describes as 'someone else's', Jersey already being occupied by the Nazis. While he is away, Grace remains behind in their country mansion, accompanied by their two children, Anne and Nicholas. The entire narrative plays with the boundaries between the living and the dead. The film opens as three servants arrive on the doorstep, apparently in answer to a job advertisement, but soon Grace discovers the advert was never placed. For much of the narrative the viewer is aware that the three servants are ghosts: what is far less clear, until the end, is that so are Grace and the children.

As is typically the case in traditional narratives concerning prepubescent girls, haunting and the supernatural, Anne is given a particularly privileged role as 'seer'. She witnesses what she calls 'intruders' entering and walking through the house, characters remaining invisible to us for much of the film, reinforcing our assumptions that they are spectral. However, it turns out we are viewing this film from beyond the grave, and hence are positioned as dead, too. Only later do we discover the 'intruders' comprise a living family, the catalyst for the arrival of the servants being that this family has employed a medium to exorcise the point-of-view protagonists. During the seance which brings both sides into contact, an 'interior' story surfaces: Grace has murdered her children and shot herself in the head, being unable to tolerate her husband's death. Surrounding this narrative of child murder is therefore the wider horror that takes the father to war: the servants have enlisted, just like him, in a fight against alien occupation. Hence it is Victor, the son of the living family, who embodies most poignantly the consequences of this conflict. As the family flees the house he looks back wistfully, espying the ghostly trio staring from the window. Victor's 'knowing' sorrow reinforces the irony of his naming: despite bearing the nomenclature of military success, he is already 'marked' by death, and hence represents the doomed youth of western Europe.

That military might and masculine duty frame the otherwise domesticated plot of The Others is wholly appropriate. Berthold Schoene-Harwood reads The Turn of the Screw as a critique of the 'deformative impact patriarchal gender norms exert', especially within a context of 'political anxieties in late nineteenth-century Britain', whereby 'Bly could be construed as an abbreviation of "Blighty", a term popular amongst British servicemen abroad and originally derived from the Hindi word Bilayati meaning "foreign land" or "England"'. Eric Haralson similarly identifies in The Turn of the Screw 'a fable of jeopardized masculine emergence ... [in relation to] Miles, as a "little gentleman" ... [and] the heavy cost that British society was ready to pay in order to keep its young gentlemen away from the "wrong path altogether"'. Thus are we reminded of the 'murky circumstances surrounding Miles's expulsion from school' and Michael Bakewell's portrait of Charles Dodgson, 'who recalled the prevalence of what he tactfully called "annoyance[s] at night" while at Rugby in the 1840s'. Questions of dubious innocence and likely guilt resonate throughout the disquiet of James's text. As Haralson cautions, citing Bakewell, 'James does not foreclose the other possibility: that Miles was no "muff "at all, but rather one of the aggressors'. At the same time, uppermost among our readerly fears are those linked to the dangers so acutely posed by the adult characters in the text: the abandoning father, the ghostly (perhaps demonic) Quint and Jessel, not to mention the suffocating governess. All in all, as I argue elsewhere, 'a twenty-first century reader has little doubt in labelling James's story a tale of paedophilia, articulated in a culture with no clear definition of the term'.

The Turn of the Screw, then, confronts its readers with the unsayable ('the love that dare not speak its name', perhaps, to follow Haralson), ravelled up in a Gothic frame which enables the horrible to become articulated as the underside of 'respectable' upper-class society, coupled with the powers adults in general hold over theirs and others' (Others'?) children. James's historical positioning at the meeting point of two centuries is significant: the Victorian period is one in which childhood is often perceived to have been 'established' and, indeed, reified for the first time as a concept tied to vulnerability and innocence. As the twentieth century progresses, childhood advances towards a phase of increasing freedom and social protection, only to retreat, towards the end of the century, into one of fear and a stifling lack of freedom to roam.

Child murder and the media storm

A series of late twentieth- and twenty-first-century child victims meet the gaze of our mind's eye as they stare out at us through our memories of newspaper articles and television footage, from the Moors murders of 1963–4 (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley entering the annals of twentieth-century history as counterparts to Quint and Jessel, perhaps), to the more recent murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in 2002. Add to these the mysterious disappearance of Madeleine McCann in May 2007 and what we recognise – beyond the instantaneous sense of shared grief and societal mourning – is a longer-term fascination among the wider public that can only be diagnosed as pathological. Browsing the shelves of a local bookshop recently, I was unexpectedly confronted by a free-standing Harper-Collins publicity display housing solely the following titles: Torey Hayden, One Child (1980; Harper Element, 2004), Torey Hayden, Ghost Girl: The True Story of a Child in Desperate Peril (Harper Element, 1991), Jane Elliott and Andrew Crofts, The Little Prisoner: How a Childhood was Stolen and a Trust Betrayed (Harper Element, 2005), Judy Westwater and Wanda Carter, Street Kid: One Child's Desperate Fight for Survival (Harper Element, 2006), Anya Peters, Abandoned: The True Story of a Little Girl who Didn't Belong (Harper Element, 2007), Toni Maguire, Don't Tell Mummy: A True Story of the Ultimate Betrayal (Harper Element, 2007), David Thomas, Tell Me Why, Mummy: A Little Boy's Struggle to Survive (Harper Element, 2007) and Toni Maguire, When Daddy Comes Home (Harper Element, 2007). Three words recur: 'True', 'Survival' and 'Betrayal', collectively carrying resonances of the child's game, 'Truth, Dare or Promise'; some of these books also carry straplines such as 'Sunday Times Bestseller' or 'Sunday Times Bestselling Author' (in one case the novel is sponsored by the Sun newspaper). Is there no sense of cultural shame inherent in our determination to devour our children through the 'popular' media? Can we who read books not identify a sense of disturbance at the word 'best' being used to boast about the appeal of selling (not to mention sponsoring) child misery? In an age in which conventional fear of the dead is lessening, in which superstition is reducing and in which we no longer believe in ghosts, demons or vampires, paedophiles have become their 'natural' descendants: worse, they appear to inspire in us an insatiable appetite for 'more'.

Nor is this manifestation of cultural morbidity the only way in which our collective response to dead or 'disappeared' children carries Gothic resonances. Following the abduction and subsequent murder of Sarah Payne in 2000, her mother Sara became involved in campaigning for new legislation, colloquially titled 'Sarah's Law', one which would enable people to have access to information concerning convicted sex offenders living locally. The key debates surrounding the possible full implementation of 'Sarah's Law' oscillate around a traditional Gothic anxiety concerning visible and invisible dangers. In 'The 'Uncanny', Sigmund Freud cites but then questions Schelling's observation that 'everything is unheimlich [uncanny] that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light'. This is precisely the difficulty here: would we feel safer were we to discover that the person living across the road is a convicted sex offender, or would that not give us nightmares? Other groups express reservations equally linked to invisibility, fearing that such legislation 'would drive child sex offenders underground'. Freud has a phrase for this, too: 'It may be true that the uncanny ... is something which is secretly familiar ... which has undergone repression and then returned'. At the same time, the very term 'underground' belongs to the Gothic, with its graveyards, crypts and demons rising after dark. This is the fuel upon which the 'popular' press feeds and it is one of the reasons why, in Graham Joyce's novel The Tooth Fairy, discussed later, we find his protagonist, Sam, identifying newspaper journalists as 'ghouls ... They looked like ordinary people ... but Sam knew that beneath the human disguise these ghouls leaked luminous gray slime from ear and nostril'.

Yet, and in the face of an all-pervasive media hysteria implying the contrary, official statistics tell us that our children are no more at risk from 'stranger danger' than they have ever been – except, perhaps, insofar as the media's fuelling of parental fear consigns children who (to play with Freud's definition) ought to 'be out in the light' to becoming suffocated, as effectively as Miles is hugged to death by his governess. Ironically, this becomes a bizarre extension of the Victorian maxim 'children should be seen and never heard', for now they should not be seen (at least unaccompanied) either. In May 2004, the Observer newspaper ran a story on this very subject:

Children choose to stay indoors watching TV and playing computer games because they are terrified of the world outside, fresh research reveals. In a high-profile launch this week, Education Secretary Charles Clarke will announce the findings which disclose that young children carry a daily expectation of being kidnapped by a stranger, sexually abused by a paedophile or becoming a victim of terrorism ... The survey of more than 1,000 children aged 10 and 11 reveals that the choice to remain indoors is being made because of an increasingly unrealistic assessment by children and their parents of the risks of the outside world.

What is it that makes us believe child abuse, death and abduction to be the defining fear of our own age, despite us knowing that infanticide, child neglect and child poverty were key themes in Dickens's writing and Hogarth's etchings ('Gin Lane' (1750) was reputedly 'produced as part of a campaign to restrict the sale of gin' – colloquially known as 'Mother's Ruin', of course), and that Wordsworth wrote of them in Lyrical Ballads (1798–1800), in poems such as 'The Two April Mornings' and 'We Are Seven'? Indeed, in the poem 'Lucy Gray' (1800), from the same collection, we have a similar scenario to that reported about Madeleine McCann, in the disappearance that speaks of neither a life nor a death: 'They followed from the snowy bank / The footmarks, one by one, / Into the middle of the plank, / And further there were none.' As in all such cases, we cleave to hopes and tales of the child continuing her life elsewhere: 'Yet some maintain that to this day / She is a living child: / That you may see sweet Lucy Gray / Upon the lonesome wild.'

Fairy stories and 'burial alive': A.S. Byatt and Graham Joyce

It is not just ghost stories, but fairy stories which have traditionally documented the terrifying ordeal childhood can be. The development of a genre specifically labelled the 'Gothic Fairy Tale' perhaps originates with Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (1979), a collection of stories in which she takes existing well-known fairy tales, such as 'Bluebeard', 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'Beauty and the Beast' or 'Sleeping Beauty', retitles them in many cases ('Little Red Riding Hood' becomes 'The Company of Wolves', 'Beauty and the Beast' becomes 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon', 'Sleeping Beauty' becomes 'The Lady of the House of Love' and 'Bluebeard' the titular 'The Bloody Chamber'), and radically retells them, while maintaining and sustaining the presence of the original frame. This is a process Carter herself describes, in a 1983 essay, as 'putting new wine into old bottles', and what it ensures is the salvaging of the fairy tale, formerly sanitised as a consolationist mode of storytelling shored up by surprisingly influential thinkers such as Bettelheim, who both oversimplifies and underestimates the alluring danger of fairy tales and, along with it, the excitement child (like adult) readers find in them.

It seems strange, in a century so concerned to keep its children close at hand, that in 1939 and 1940 we should have sent our children away en masse in the name of 'Operation Pied Piper', as wartime child evacuation was officially called: '[L]abelled like pieces of luggage ... [m]ost were unaware of where they were going, what they would be doing and all were wholly ignorant of when they would be coming back.' A. S. Byatt uses the Gothic implications of this government policy as the backdrop to her short story, 'The Thing in the Forest' (2003), in which two young girls, Penny and Primrose, befriend each other on the journey out and decide to go exploring on arrival at their mystery location. What the story narrates is their subsequent encounter with a 'monster'. Like Carter, Byatt uses the fairy tale to bring out its Gothic foundations, but her intertextual approach differs in straying further from the path of the original. The 'other' text in this case is 'Hansel and Gretel' (though, as we shall see, she throws in a dose of 'Little Red Riding Hood' for good measure) and, though she sticks with two children, unlike in the Brothers Grimm's version these are two girls.

In 'Hansel and Gretel', danger is cloaked in the most seductive guise possible for a child: 'the bird spread his wings and flew before them, and they followed him until they came to a little house ... [when] they saw that the house was built of bread, and roofed with cakes; and the window was of transparent sugar'. What Penny and Primrose recount seeing is very different:

Did they hear it first or smell it first? ... A crunching, a crackling, a crushing, a heavy thumping, combined with threshing and thrashing ...

... Its face – which was triangular – appeared like a rubbery or fleshy mask ... Its colour was the colour of flayed flesh, pitted with wormholes, and its expression was ... pure misery. Its most defined feature was a vast mouth, pulled down and down at the corners, tight with a kind of pain ... It had blind, opaque white eyes, fringed with fleshy lashes ... Its face was close to the ground ... The flesh on [the] forearms was glistening and mottled, every colour, from the green of mould to the red-brown of raw liver, to the dirty white of dry rot.

The rest of its very large body ... had a tubular shape, as a turd has a tubular shape ... It had feeble stubs and stumps of very slender legs ... The little girls observed, with horrified fascination, that when it met a sharp stone, or a narrow tree-trunk, it allowed itself to be sliced through ... They thought it could not see, or certainly could not see clearly ... [as it left] behind it a trail of bloody slime and dead foliage, sucked to dry skeletons.


Excerpted from Twentieth-Century Gothic by Lucie Armitt. Copyright © 2011 Lucie Armitt. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents

Series Editors' Foreword

1. Gothic Pathologies: Haunted Children
2. Building Suspense: Architectural Gothic
3. Gothic Inhumanity
4. Queering the Gothic
5. Survey of Criticism
6. Conclusion: Thriller and Stranger

Annotated Bibliography

Customer Reviews