Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1741-1825, oil on canvas, c.1781

The monster that lurks within us

The enduring popularity of fantasy and horror fiction proves that we still live in the long, dark shadow of the Gothic novel

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If reason, politeness and sensibility vie for our attention when considering the long eighteenth century, so also should shock, horror and nightmare. This lack of ease was presented not only in the dreams of the protagonists of Gothic fiction, but also in the physicality of sensation and shock. In Charles Maturin’s Fatal Revenge (1807), one of the most potent and sustained of the dramatic tales of supernatural challenge, the protagonist finds a dark cavity in which he sees “a heap of bloody and decayed garments, pierced with more holes than those of decay”, and then:

half smothered by the dust and rubbish, I scrambled through, crushing at every touch the eggs of the little domestic serpents, and displacing the nests of lizards and toads, whose cold slime made me shudder, as I crawled amongst them.

The capacity of woods to be horrific was also captured in Fatal Revenge as the protagonist flees pursuit:

how I listened in horror to the wind, and the hollow whistle that ran through the wood, mixed with it; how I thought the whisper of murder was in the underworld, as it hissed in the breeze; and how often I recoiled as the tossing branches of the trees flung a sudden shadow across the way.

The Age of Nightmare is not the usual term for the period from the 1760s to the 1810s, let alone the following century. Yet, in Britain, alongside transformative change toward greater international and economic power, it was an age of anxiety and fear.

This was the case not least among the élite and the growing middling orders but also more widely. Successive crises hit the national mood: fear in the 1760s about political breakdown; revolution in British North America between 1775 and 1783; the danger that the French Revolution would spread to Britain and then the war with Napoleon; domestic post-war traumas and anxiety about declining religious observance and the consequences of economic and social change.

Novels had included a melodramatic dimension from the outset, with threats to status, most commonly social or virginal, a key theme. At the same time, the attempt to provide acceptable sentimental novels was to be affected by the development of new forms of imagination, leading towards the Gothic novel.

This development drew on ideas of the sublime. The word was used at the time for George Frederick Handel’s music, which indeed sought a religious sublimity, but was defined by Edmund Burke as whatever led to ideas of danger, pain, or terror. He suggested obscurity, vastness, privation, and infinity, the sources of which could be imaginary.

The Sensation novel tended to rely on the metaphorical skeleton in the cupboard

Burke’s aesthetic Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1759) underscored the extent to which “the sublime” could transform the reader and spectator, and emphasised that terror was important in creating a sense of the sublime. For him, emotions and potent sensory experiences, rather than reason and dignity, were to the fore. This was a reaction against what had been the standard intellectual approach earlier in the century, one that matched the official approach to Christian exposition.

The disturbing potential of medievalism was taken in a dramatically new direction with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the second edition of which was subtitled A Gothic Story. Commonly presented as the originator of the Gothic novel, Walpole (1717-97), assaulted established practices by breaking with the existing conventions of the novel and its emphasis on realism, a theme he made explicit in his preface to the second edition of The Castle of Otranto.

Instead, he deliberately emphasised the need to employ “fancy”, a form of imagination which included strangeness and uncertainty. Mystery was underlined by manifestations of the supernatural; and the reader, like the protagonist, was repeatedly unclear about what was happening. This was heightened to a nightmarish character by accounts of menace, danger, pursuit, and assault.

Gothic fiction was produced against the background of a search for stability and understanding in an essentially unstable and inexplicable world. This involved an attempt to reconcile divine justice with human suffering, and to order experience in a way that reflected the hard and apparently arbitrary nature of life.

On a long-term pattern, religious world views provided the most effective explanatory model, the best psychological defences, and an essential note of continuity. Gothic fiction provided an opportunity also to warn about the danger of turning to evil. It was not so much secular morality as religious admonition and entertainment.

Providence delivered many of its lessons through nightmare, with the novelist providing an explanatory role akin to that of the clergyman. Charles Maturin, a clergyman-novelist, did both, and his most famous novel, Melmoth, the Wanderer (1820) provides, in his protagonist’s last desperate dream, a warning of retribution at once religious and surreal. There is a quality of Dante in his imaginative writing. Having sold his soul for 150 years of life and failed to lead others into taking on his corrupt and corrupting bargain, Melmoth dreams he overlooks a fiery ocean of the damned, before falling into it:

The burning waves boomed over his sinking head, and the clock of eternity rung out its awful chime — “Room for the soul of the Wanderer!” — and the waves of the burning ocean answered, as they lashed the adamantine rock — “There is room for more!”

Like the paintings of Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), whose Nightmare attracted great interest when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782, the plots of Gothic literature tested conventional notions of probability, not least the established patterns of expressing and moulding experience with reference to the interior and natural world.

Gothic fiction reworked many of the images of landscape poetry: monastic stonework and trees became ruined abbeys and sinister woods that served both as malign settings and a representation of psychological strains.

This fiction, in part a Reformation throwback with its echoes of malign and corrupt monks and nuns, was different to the metropolitan settings that had dominated the books of the start of the eighteenth century and the country houses that had followed.

Ann Radcliffe moves in her novels between, on the one hand, a pervasive atmosphere of threat and oppression, notably to women, and, on the other, more commonplace discussions of relations between her principals, most of which relate to the standard tropes of sentimental fiction.

In contrast, Ambrosio, the protagonist of Matthew Lewis’s lurid novel The Monk (1796), is presented as a victim of his impulses, specifically lustful self-destructive drives, which are, at the end of the novel, unconvincingly attributed to diabolical forces. He is more frightening than the creations of Walpole and Radcliffe, and is a threat to all, notably women.

The arrival of Satan, a potent figure, in The Monk very much captured the continuation of a belief in the real presence of Evil, an element of the Enlightenment and the post-Enlightenment it is all too easy to underplay. Gothic fiction was not simply about this, but saving souls, winning redemption, and achieving salvation were frequent themes.

On a “cold and stormy” night, with the wind roaring round the house, Elinor starts “back with a look of horror” when she sees the “flaring lamps of a carriage” drawn by four horses (instead of two) and therefore moving fast. Jane Austen could certainly do drama, but Elinor Dashwood’s visitor in Sense and Sensibility turns out to be far from sinister, in a passage in which the author is clearly having much fun.

The Shelleys, in contrast, were imbued with horror. In Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (1810) by Shelley and Thomas Hogg, there was, in “The Spectral Horseman”, an engagement with forms of evil, not least:

a shivering fiend that thirsting for sin, Seeks murder and guilt when virtue sleeps, Winged with the power of some ruthless king.

Shelley’s verse drama The Cenci, written and published in 1819, was not, due to its theme of incest, performed in public in England until 1922. Evil Catholic clergy, parental rape, and a justified patricide, all play a role in this powerful tragedy. Darkness, a frequent theme of Gothic fiction, is brought in with reference to “some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart”.

There is also a critique of religion with an attack on “Superstitious horror”. Differentiating it from Protestantism, Shelley explains Italian Catholicism as, “interwoven with the whole fabric of life. It is adoration, faith, submission, penitence, blind admiration; not a rule for moral conduct. It has no necessary connection with any one virtue.”

Earlier, in Zastrozzi (1810), Shelley had piled on classic features, including family feuds, incarceration, murder, suicide, the Inquisition and revenge on a neglectful father in the shape of helping drive the father’s other son to suicide. Driven by a diabolical intensity, the protagonist denounces religion and morality. His wife, Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein (1818) looked in a different direction, not to apocalyptic images from the world of Christian millenarism, but rather to a troubling present, and the problems posed by a quest to control the future.

Widely treated as the first Sensation novel, as well as the foundation of the British detective story, Wilkie Collins’s highly successful The Woman in White (1860) took Gothic plots from the settings of Italian and British abbeys and castles in the past and placed them in the Britain of his times.

Collins had referred in Basil: a story of Modern Life (1852) to “the secret theatre of home”. This was melodrama at home, and from novelists who also produced plays, stories acted around the reader, and, as such, different from classic Gothic fiction. Indeed, the Sensation novel tended to rely on the metaphorical skeleton in the cupboard, and not the actual one in the castle chapel. This contrast ensured a difference in characters and tone, as well as plot and narrative features.

Thus, in Collins’s No Name (1862), there is the usual Gothic theme of dispossession, and again the beneficiary is an uncle, though in this case, the negligent failure of a father to change his will to the benefit of his illegitimate daughters is the major cause. In response, the illegitimate Magdalen Vanstone uses conspiracy and deceit to regain her position. Illegitimacy was an aspect of the uncertainty not only of dynasticism, but also of landownership as a whole, and, more generally, of families.

The penny blood serial works of the 1840s-70s were succeeded by the penny dreadfuls of the 1860s-1900s, a genre aimed at young men. The sequential publication of stories in magazines was important because it changed the nature of plots, with repeated cliffhangers introduced in a disciplined way, instead of a more baggy and extended terror.

The locations for Gothic horrors ranged greatly as the nineteenth century drew toward a close, with Gothic themes revived and developed in such works as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), all of which offered different types of the surreal to that in The Castle of Otranto.

The most lasting of the surreal horrors of this period in its impact was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), in which evil is on the attack. In contrast, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) represented the more conventional type of horror story, with a rational solution to what was a Gothic tale. Evil in that story is human, not supernatural and there was no equivalent to the author’s interest in spiritualism.

Dracula was also reminiscent of the engagement with a mysterious Continent seen in the earlier Gothic novels, in that it began in a distant and exotic part of Europe, one that involved considerable journeying. In this case, Transylvania took the place of the Catholic Mediterranean. There is frequent religious imagery in Dracula, Stoker giving evil deeds and thoughts names and in Dracula a voice. In doing so, he provided both an adventure story and a Christian message, which was the case as a whole, directly or indirectly, of the Gothic revival.

That stance may not conform to many modern understandings, and clearly much else was involved in both writing and reception, not least, in the case of Dracula, adventure and pornography. But horror was scarcely separate for a culture that saw Hell as a real presence. The Westminster Journal was not alone in 1773-4 in publishing articles on the need, in light of thunder and lightning, to contemplate the Day of Judgment and the Torments of Hell. Such beliefs continued in the nineteenth century, however much social patterns were disrupted by large-scale urbanization.

And so on with the reiterated success of fantasy in more recent culture, from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995-2000). The Gothic novel was the historical entry to this literature, one that repurposed conventional Christian accounts in order to provide a new age of nightmare. We are still in its shadows.

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