Welcome back to our Dead Days series, where we’re delving into ideas of liminality and thresholds in the Gothic, inspired by the in-between nature of this time of year. For this post, we’ll be thinking about how the Gothic not only features many indefinable elements, but is often indefinable in itself. This is a topic which is central to my own research, as I focus on the ‘fantastic’ – a deliberately genre-blurring field which incorporates works from fantasy, sci-fi, horror and more. It is a term for which (like the Gothic) trying to fix on one definition causes far more problems than it solves but, broadly speaking, it can be applied to texts which deal with the unreal.
Reality or Fantasy?
The Gothic can be found in many of the genres which engage with the fantastic, but it is by no means tied to them. Indeed, despite its prominence in many works, Gothic tales need not feature the supernatural at all. An example which readily springs to mind is Ann Radcliffe’s use of the ‘explained supernatural’, where events which appear to be otherworldly are shown to have logical explanations in the end. If this shadow of the supernatural feels too close to the fantastic, we can also consider Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Although not universally agreed upon as a Gothic work, it nevertheless features several Gothic elements whilst remaining strongly grounded in social realism. Whilst the Gothic does commonly keep company with spooks and spectres, it is by no means reliant on them, and is able to cross over from fantastic to realistic texts.
If the Gothic can be detached from the fantastic, the fantastic can also exist without the Gothic. Much of science fiction, with its futuristic focus on new technologies that are often depicted through bright lights and chrome platings, exists in almost perfect antithesis to the dark, uncertain world of the Gothic. And yet, historically speaking, the two are inextricably linked – Mary Shelley’s seminal Gothic novel Frankenstein is also widely considered to be the first work of science fiction. And the connection between the two continues to this day, with explicitly sci-fi tropes such as aliens popping up in modern horror films – from the classic Alien to the recent hit A Quiet Place.
In some cases, fitting a Gothic text into a particular genre is a difficult task, and perhaps an unnecessary one. Earlier this week, I discussed the variety of Gothic undead, focusing on ghosts, vampires and zombies. The first two would seem to fit relatively comfortably into the category of fantasy, or at least the supernatural, but the status of the zombie is less clear. In many zombie films, events are given a quasi-scientific nature through comparisons to the transmission of viruses, and the very idea of the ‘zombie apocalypse’ links these texts to a plethora of other sci-fi stories which focus on the end of the world. And yet the constant degeneration of these animated creatures and the horror they provoke in characters and audiences alike seems much more akin to a classic Gothic tale than futuristic science fiction.
Throughout this week’s posts, we have been exploring beings and things caught on the threshold, travelling between states but never comfortably settling in one place. Whether this is the creatures who cannot fully ‘pass on’ from life to death, the stories which constantly cross between narratives and pull their readers across these borders with them, or a whole society caught in the shifting social mores which accompany the turn of a millennium, these liminal experiences all emphasise a sense of instability, transition and flux. These are also fitting epithets to apply the Gothic’s relation to other genres. It may flit between them, crossing the boundaries of reality and fantasy, and yet is not fully at home in any of them. The Gothic, as we have seen, can be found in both science fiction and realism, but it is far from essential to either. Sometimes the introduction of the Gothic into a text destabilises its sense of genre, like a drop of cloudy liquid spreading through a clear pool. Like a ghost, or the stroke of midnight that marks the end of a year, the Gothic is difficult to catch hold of, slipping away from you at the moment you reach for it. And yet its presence, and its influence, is undeniable.
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!).