Our Holiday Gothic series takes a look at the darker sides of celebrations throughout the year. In this post, Megan Stephens explores the influence of Irish authors on the Gothic for St Patrick’s Day.
Happy St Patrick’s Day! Today, as drinks run freely and rivers run green, here at Sheffield Gothic we’re celebrating by having a look at some of the Irish authors who have contributed seminal works to the Gothic tradition.
The Gothic has always been a place for exploring social anxieties and uncertainties, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that in its early days it found a home in Ireland, where religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics were high and the introduction and subsequent removal of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws left many occupying a liminal and constantly shifting social status. The works produced by Irish authors spoke to more than the situation in their country, however, with some of the most famous Gothic works springing from their pens.
The Popular Imagination
Two of these Irish authors, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, are among the most well-known classic Gothic authors. Stoker’s Dracula is known across the world, seen as a key iteration of the vampire and one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of this Gothic figure, which remains as undying today as when Dracula was first published in 1897. Wilde is perhaps as well-remembered for the dramatic events of his own life as those from his works, but nevertheless his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray remains a seminal and influential work of Gothic literature. Like the vampiric figure of Dracula, the image of the decaying portrait has taken on a life of its own, known by many even if they have never read the original text.
Tales of the Ancestors
Whilst Stoker and Wilde remain best remembered in the public eye, the Irish authors Charles Maturin and Sheridan Le Fanu also made significant contributions to the Gothic tradition. Maturin’s remarkable novel Melmoth the Wanderer tells the story of a tormented soul who has entered into a pact with the devil in order to extend his life and must attempt to find someone who will take his place in damnation. The story is told through a series of nested narratives discovered by Melmoth’s descendent, with a series of manuscripts and tales told by one character to another relating the events from across Melmoth’s unnaturally long life. Both its themes and narrative methods locate Melmoth the Wanderer securely in the Gothic tradition, and its continuing influence is seen in the fact that, after his release from prison, Oscar Wilde took up the alias Sebastian Melmoth in reference to Maturin’s work.
Le Fanu also influenced a later Irish writer, as his vampiric novel Carmilla is often seen as one of the key inspirations for Dracula. Le Fanu’s work differs from Stoker’s in one key respect, however; his vampire, the titular Carmilla, is female. The novel is notable for the homoerotic undertones present through the relationship between Carmilla and her victim Laura. These undertones were made far more explicit in the recent web-series adaptation of Carmilla, which updated the story into the present day, setting it at a university, and openly portrayed Laura and Carmilla as a couple.
An Unending Story
Works by Irish authors were a key part of the establishment of the Gothic tradition, whether through their influence on later writers or on popular culture more generally. Like the undying vampires Dracula and Carmilla, or the long-lived Dorian and Melmoth, the works of these authors are also enjoying an extended – although hopefully less tormented – existence. And the influence of the Irish is not trapped in the past – why not celebrate St Patrick’s Day the Gothic way by picking up one of these Irish Gothic novels from the 20th and 21st centuries?
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!).