The Dead Days: Stories Within Stories

Welcome back to our Dead Days series, where we are revelling in the eerie in-between nature of the year’s end by thinking about ideas of liminality and thresholds in the Gothic. For today’s post, we’re looking at the boundaries which exist within texts: those between narratives, which readers cross over alongside characters.

Opening Up

The frame narrative is a common literary device where the main story is introduced to readers by characters who are themselves experiencing it second-hand. Perhaps they discover an ancient document or listen to their inn-keep tell a tale of something that happened many years ago. This device is often taken to another level in the Gothic as events unfurl through a series of nested narratives, reaching the reader through a recounting of a remembering of a discovery of a document, barely legible, in which a tale handed down through the centuries was recorded.

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These nested narratives are the structure of choice for many classic Gothic texts. In Wuthering Heights, the frame narrator Lockwood hears the tale of Cathy and Heathcliff from the housekeeper Nelly, whose telling includes recounted conversations held with other key characters in which they related events to her, all recalled word-perfect from thirty years ago. Frankenstein is presented to the reader through letters sent by a Captain Walton to his sister, in which he details the story told to him by Victor Frankenstein which includes at its heart the Creature’s tale, spoken to Frankenstein atop Mont Blanc. The characters of Dracula provide a series of documents which form the narrative, and whilst these do not stack up inside each other in the manner of the other novels, they nevertheless maintain the sense of constantly crossing boundaries between separate narrative spaces.

Lost in a Maze

These complex structures prevent the reader from approaching the Gothic texts in a straightforward manner; instead, they are constantly dislocated, pulled between different voices and often conflicting accounts, creating a sense of uncertainty around the events. Even in the comparatively stable structure of Frankenstein, in which we move in and out of three clearly demarcated narratives, the journey is anything but easy. The reader is returned by the end of the novel to the place where they began, but the multiple narrators have made everything uncertain – indeed, the question of who is the real monster is a key and enduring debate for this work.

The organisation of these texts makes the narratives themselves into liminal spaces, difficult to pin down. In this way, the telling of the Gothic tales reflects the uncertainty and fluidity of the events they relate. Chris Baldick believes that a Gothic story ‘should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space’ (The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales), two elements which are evoked by the nested narratives. As the reader travels through the layers of story, there is both a sense of delving back into the past and moving inwards, crowding into ever tighter spaces which fit inside one another like a set of Russian dolls.

These unconventional narrative structures are not only found in classic Gothic works. Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 novel House of Leaves takes the nested narrative concept to an entirely new level. If you have not yet come across this intriguing book (and have the time to grapple with it), I would definitely recommend checking it out. As with some of the classic novels, it features a frame narrator who discovers a mysterious manuscript, but this intricate text also incorporates footnotes within footnotes and the arrangement of words to create shapes on the page, some of which require the reader to rotate the book as they read. Through several highly inventive strategies Danielewski brings to the fore the sense, present in the classic works, that the thresholds in the telling of the tale are just as important as those within the story, and that the reader, like the characters, must constantly cross and re-cross boundaries, never fully certain that they will emerge onto stable ground.

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Megan Stephens is a first year PhD student in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, funded by the AHRC through the White Rose Consortium. She is looking at minor character deaths in contemporary fantastic film and television, thinking about the presence or lack of mourning and the value of different lives (and she promises she isn’t as morbid as this makes her sound!).