This September marked the third year for the Gothic Reading Group (the fifth semester, if you’re keeping track). Our group has been dedicated to exploring and enjoying the Gothic across different time periods and forms, from the earliest Gothic texts (The Castle of Otranto and Christabel), to the Victorian (The Beetle, Werewolf Stories, and Behind a Mask) to contemporary (Dangerous Laughter, Zombie, Altmann’s Tongue, and Coraline). We’ve read poetry, short stories (notably the classics of Poe and Lovecraft), drama, graphic novels, and watched films. We even expanded our focus to include theater: many members of the group went to see the Lehigh Theater Department’s production of The Pillowman in November, a play that we had read for a Spring 2012 meeting. Our group is comprised of members from various specialties, and we’ve used that strength to our benefit to provide a little something for everyone. This has allowed us to make connections across the Gothic’s many manifestations, creating a multidimensional exploration of the tradition while also pinpointing different characteristics of its different forms. All of our texts are deeply rooted in the macabre or the disquieting. They must be scary, that’s the rule.
We began the semester with The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks, who tragically passed away this past summer and who has been mourned by Gothic academic circles (as well as Science Fiction fans). During this meeting, we discussed the role of violence within the Gothic, different types of Gothic madness, “black comedy,” isolation, Freudian themes, and the Scottish Gothic. This is one of my personal favorites, and I was excited to discuss it with the group. During this meeting, members frequently just read and discussed funny or shocking parts and lines from this well-loved novel. Our next meeting turned away from the contemporary in favor of the Romantic as we read a home-made collection of Gothic poetry, much of it from The Longman Anthology of Gothic Verse. This included Keats’s “Lamia,” Wordsworth’s “The Thorn,” and Lewis’s “Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogine,” among others. Though I think the sheer amount of poetry for this session may have deterred a lot of close textual analysis, we did speak briefly about each poem and had a great conversation about the ambivalent relationship between the “high” literature of poetry and the “lowly” Gothic: while some poets (lead by Coleridge) detested and railed against the depravity of Gothic literature (while secretly envying its readership), others like Lewis and Scott embraced it whole heartedly. This led nicely to our next meeting: Stephen King, genre fiction, and horror.
When I presented Stephen King to the group as a potential reading, I said I was surprised that we hadn’t read him yet. King occupies a complicated and important position within the Gothic, and the nature of this position really does depend on whom you ask. A talented writer, King is also hugely prolific, having written over fifty novels, plus collections of short stories and books on writing, not to mention the many TV and movie productions with which he has been involved or his work has inspired. These two qualities—talent and commercial success—are not always looked upon kindly by academia, however. There is no doubt that King’s work is popular, accessible, considered “trash lit” by some… just like the original Gothic and most of the Gothic after that. From my own experiences, I have noticed that some Gothicists love King for some of the fascinating literature he’s brought to the field, while others disregard him for watering down the field with cheap, quickly-written novels. Some of his books have the reputation for being downright “bad,” after all… but, then again, so has The Castle of Otranto, not to mention the spin-off versions that went crazy with the tropes and conventions (again, just ask Coleridge). As someone who used to think the latter, I have gradually come around to believe the former. How else to so accurately replicate the original experience of reading the Gothic, which often appeared in cheap pamphlets, chapbooks, and serials? Plus, some of his novels are as deep and entertaining as any of the more-respected contemporary novelists, sometimes more so.
We read King’s first collection of short stories, Night Shift (1978), and chose to read “Trucks” together, as well as any other stories group members had time or inclination to read. The collection includes stories that inspired many of his well-known movies, such as “Children of the Corn” and “The Lawnmower Man” (I did say some where NOT as good as others). “Trucks,” of course was also been made into a film in 1997, and we began our meeting by watching this (very silly) trailer in order to discuss the differences and the aspects of horror King employs. The short story begins mid-attack, a group of truck drivers and travelers trapped in a diner while their vehicles patrol outside. The trucks have turned against their owners; they have already killed and continue to kill, despite the plotting of the people inside the restaurant. The story ends inconclusively and, despite the light-hearted premise, the text involves real fear based on the panic of the characters, the entrapment of their situation, and appearance of their persecutors’ control over them. These are all elements of the Gothic, but also of the Horror genre.
I have always struggled to articulate the difference between Gothic and Horror: it’s one of those “I know it when I see it” kind of definitions for me, which is not helpful for academic discussion at all. Broadly, I connect spectacle and immediate, reaction-based fear to Horror, while the Gothic seems to imbue a deeper-rooted and lasting disturbance (Scream would qualify as horror while something like American Psycho might fall closer within the Gothic). There may be as many definitions of Horror as there are of the Gothic, however, and some group members consider one classification broader than the other, which allows them to coexist and work together so frequently. Their flexibility may be one reason why the Gothic continues to thrive.
While we ran out of time to discuss it, the introduction to King’s collection explains his own outlook on writing horror, emphasizing the coexistence of rationality and fear, the creation of horror through detail, the central theme of death and knowledge of the unknown, and the writer’s use of phobias (both his/her own and those of the reader). “The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real,” he says. “I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle” (xii).
On that note, we close the chapter of the Gothic Reading Group for this year, making room for Poetry Reading Group in the Spring. We’ll hopefully return next Fall with more tales of terror and more monsters under the bed.
For more updates on the Gothic, check out these blogs: