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The Brothers Grimm
The Brothers Grimm

HORROR LITERATURE... a BRIEF History: The Gothic

When one wishes to examine the concepts of good and evil in literature, there is no better mode of fiction than the Gothic. It was in the Gothic that the examination of the human struggle to deal with the concepts of right and wrong came the fore. As we approach the 21st century, the new masters of the genre are trying to uphold the legacy of the Gothic tradition. Some do better than others. Many, however, fall into the stilted language, flat characterizations and simplistic plot structures that the Gothic embodied at its inception. One author, Stephen King, seems to have successfully melded the Gothic tradition of the examination of Good versus Evil with the contemporary attitudes of late 20th century America. A cursory look at the evolution of the Gothic illustrates the growing complexity of the genre as it matured, as well as changes in society, science and literature that eventually led to writers like Stephen King.

I From the inception of the genre, the question of "What is right?" has been the primary subject with which Gothic authors dealt. The first Gothic tale, The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in the early 1700's , examines the moral conduct of a local duke. It was written in stilted, stuffy language, and was ponderous and heavy-handed in its action and message, but it started a genre that, although much maligned, has prospered and is still going strong today. The early novels that were subsequently written dealt with primarily the same issues that Otranto dealt with. One of these is Gregory Lewis' The Monk, which I will examine more closely. Written in the eighteenth century, The Monk told the tale of the moral, ethical and spiritual downfall of a holy man. Lewis sets up his tale with several stock Gothic characters. He invents a hero, a young man of aristocratic blood and impecable breeding. We also have a young woman, Antonia, a fair-haired, fair-complected virgin of the most virtuous nature. Likewise, we also have the fallen woman, Matilda, dark complected, lustful-- and condemned, ultimately, to Hell. And then we have the assorted townspeople, generally portrayed as being superstitious, oxen-like in sophistication and easily swayed by fear or edict from those more powerful than them. The monk himself, Ambrosio, starts out as the embodiment of good. He is virtuous, he is saintly, he is powerful. Other religious figures see him as an embodiment of all they aspire to. We first see him through the townspeople's eyes, an aloof figure of incredible moral and spiritual strength. Then Lewis moves us in closer, and we begin to see a little tarnish around the edges. Not enough to make Ambrosio a sinner, mind you, but enough to make him more human. We find out that this monk is so pure because he has never been tempted. Cloistered in the monastary since his childhood, he has never been exposed to the pitfalls that society might offer. He is proud and haughty, so caught up in his own aura that he believes himself above others. Thus the illusion of perfect piety, although externally inspiring, is, upon closer inspection, easier to explain. To briefly relate the story, the monk is seduced by a Matilda, who, having fallen in love with him, disguises herself as a monk to be near him. Once he has broken his vow of chastity, Ambrosio is rather easily led down a slope of committing more and more misdeeds. The real sin is committed when he falls in love with Antonia and conspires to have her at any cost. His paramour then reveals that she is a sorceress of sorts, and helps him to acquire his victim... but at a price. Although he refuses to sell his soul outright to the devil for this acquisition, during his rape of the girl he is discovered by her protectoress, whom he murders, thus sealing his fate.

It is at this point that the tale begins to develop into a serious discussion of the point where the monk actually passed from a point of being merely human to being a beast. Lewis examines, through his characters and his own narrative, the small steps that seemed so harmless, yet led this sanctimonious man to Hell. Was it his own pride at being "untouchable" by sin? Was it his inability to resist temptation once it was placed before him? Was it his willingness to do anything to quench his own desires that ultimately led him to damnation?

At this juncture it might be prudent to set up some perameters for this discussion. When we discuss Evil, there needs to be made a distinction between Internal and External evil. External evil is more easily defined. External evil emanates from outside the victim of that evil. For instance, much of the early Gothic was consumed with tales of humans who fell to external evil, i.e. temptation by the devil, possession by the devil, bewitchery and so on. The underlying assumption of the authors of such texts is that humans, although fallable and weak, are not necessarily the creators of evil, but merely conduits for that evil. This belief falls in line with many religious beliefs, and since much of early Gothic was overtly or covertly religious in nature, there is little surprise there. Many of Nathaniel Hawthorne's works are preoccupied with the theme of external evil, and although he does not excuse the weakness of the humnans in his stories, there is an underlying empahthy for those who are unlucky enough to be the victims of this outside force.

Internal evil, on the other hand, is that malevolence that emanates from within the person. Someone who commits murder for greed or lust is reacting to and acting upon internal evil. The Gothic evolved into morality plays concerning internal evil, but I will get to that later. (What makes this a posssibly vague distinction is motivation--- if a person commits murder as revenge for a wrongdoing, is not that evil possibly emanating, ultimately, from the outside?)

Lewis, then, makes his players victims of external evil. The monk is a pawn to Matilda's charms. She, in turn, is a pawn to the being to whom she sold her soul. All the horror that occurs is directed by an external, non-human hand. This makes for a problem. We view these people as weak, but can we aver that they are overtly evil? Lewis examines the acts of his players and, while not excusing their actions altogether, does make a convincing argument that what transpires may not entirely be their fault. Ambrosio's actions are certainly good examples of this concept, as are, it turns out, Matilda's. Lewis then turns his eye on the townspeople, who, upon hearing of the misdeeds of the monk, turn to riot, killing and destroying innocent and guilty alike, with no care for any damage that they do. But they are all manipulated by each other-- there is no ringleader per se. Indeed, Lewis leaves few unscathed. His overlying opinion seems to be that all of us, from the lowliest maid to the highest priest, are guilty of being human, which is enough for damnation. His biases reflect his time-- for the means by which the strong fall is sex-- and his breeding, for those that keep their heads are inevitably male and educated. But his tale ultimately works because he shows the reader how those in power might be inclined to abuse that power, and how often things emotional (like religion or sexual desire) can lead to destruction of the innocent. The evil in this tale is primarily external, for in the absense of temptation, Ambrosio might have remaind as saintly as ever. His seducer is also driven by outside forces, for we learn that she has sold her soul to the devil. The mob reaction of the townspeople (one of the fixtures of the Gothic tradition) is also an external force, for it seems one must either join the mob or become one of its victims. Good is embodied as primarily external as well. Those who are good are also religious and educated. Indeed, the mob is quelled instantly by our hero, who orders the riot stopped "in the name of the Inquisition". Again, power lies in the hands of a mortal higher up, who ostensibly receives his power from God himself. Lewis seems to be telling us that humans are merely blank slates to be etched upon by others more powerful, wise and controlling than we. Conversely, Mary Shelley added a new dimension to the argument in the early 1800's. Shelley's beings are, like Lewis', affected by evil that is external. But there is the absence of a supernatural (i.e. God or devil) being directing the action of the mortal players. In her tale Frankenstein, her protagonist, a man obsessed with knowing more than perhaps a human should, is driven to the brink of madness by his quest for knowledge of the secret of life (a similar quest got the first two humans booted from Eden). Victor Frankenstein creates a man out of parts reclaimed from the cemetary. But he fails to love his creature, and from there the destruction begins. Shelley was a Romantic, and her monster reflects that. It wishes merely to be accepted and loved. It is an emotional creature, and thus reacts emotionally. Rejected by its creator, it strikes out to find acceptance anywhere. It learns speech and other refinements, but it cannot join society becasue of its appearance. It retaliates with a path of destruction, in two instances accidentally murdering, and in the other two cases killing as a means to exact revenge on the good doctor. The monster reacts to others. Its intentions are the best-- it tells the reader that very eloquently. But the reaction of the people (call in the mob scene, Mabel) causes him to react in antisocial ways. Good, then, according to Shelley (again a Romantic notion) is inherent in the individual human. This turns to evil (in the case of the monster) from lack of response to a request for love, and (in the case of the mob) from superstition and mass hysteria. The tale ends as Victor is chasing his monster across a polar icecap in an endeavor to kill it. But there is pathos for this monster. We wish it had been treated better. Shelley gives us every reason to believe it would have been an otherwise model citizen. (Indeed, some of the monster's first person passages are heartbreaking, and one can only think of other instances when the "ugly one" is made the goat and rejected en masse.) While Lewis does not trust humans in general, and most humans in specific, Shelley dilslikes them in crowds, but has hope for the individual.

Edgar Allan Poe, whose writing graced the mid-nineteenth century, had a different view altogether. The evil in his characters was (as was the little good he portrayed) an internal structure. There was no outside, supernatural force as in the work of Lewis. In many of Poe's tales, in fact, there is but one player, with little motivation than a perception of some hurt. No one, mortal or otherwise, plants any ideas into the head of the player. The evil is entirely manuactured by that person. One particular tale, The Telltale Heart, tells the tale of a man seeking revenge. But unlike other stories Poe wrote, in which the revenge is for some misdeed real or imagined on the part of the intended victim, this protagonist, who tells the tale himself, has no reason other than the victim's "Evil Eye". Here is evil in its purest form. No rhyme-- no reason. Only action and reaction. Like most of Poe's work, the first-person narrative is employed, for nothing is so personal as murder. And we hear of it, every detail. But the tone is not entirely gloating. There is a hint of pathos here, too, for the teller wishes the reader to understand his point of view. He wants us to understand he only did what anyone would have done. And that is what makes Poe so effectively terrifying. For somewhere inside of us there may be a switch of sorts that keeps us from crossing that line that makes us killers or rapists or arsonists. There is the line that most of us will not cross, and we give all sorts of justifications, from law and fear of incarceration to religion and fear of external damnation. But many of Poe's characters have blown fuses, there is nothing to keep that switch open, and it is then that the mayhem starts. From incest in The Fall of the House of Usher to vengeance in "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe's characters play out the underlying urges that came to be known later under the Freudian nomenclature of Id. And Poe's characters are missing that switch that Freud called the Superego. And that is what is so frightening. Foreall of us know that we could never do such rash things... but we do believe others could, and watching the news is an excellent lesson in how far someone would go to satisfy those inner urges.

When we begin "The Telltale Heart" we are immediately confronted with the problem. The protagonist has committed murder, and we know quickly that the storyteller is mad. But neither the murder nor the madness are the problem. The problem lies under thef loorboards of the house, where the victim is buried-- our narrator can still hear the heart ticking away, and he fears all of us can hear it. This is Poe's redemption for humans. For even though this man is stark raving mad, he still has some factor inside him that listens for that heart. The neighbors can't hear it. The cops can't hear it. But he can. And the thumping grows louder as time progresses. This is the inner good that is trying to come out and show itself, disguised as remorse. It is this noise that finally gives the killer away. He rips up the floorboards, imploring his arrestors to make the thumping stop-- by taking him in.

All of Poe's character's motivations are internal. We don't need a mob to make us insane, nor the devil to help us kill. We don't need religion or laws to make us straight, either. One's own internal barometer is the means by which Poe's characters decide right from wrong.

William Faulkner took the theme of internal versus external evil and began to draw it outward again. He carefully examined the motivations of his players; their histories, beliefs and aspirations create a tableau of complex emotions that illustrate how external influences can create what might be otherwise perceived as internal evil. Faulkners' characters embodied some of the aspects of those created by writers that came before him. His works in the early twentieth century reflected the sophistication of the "knowledge" of Freud and the recognition of external factors in behaviour. It was a careful melding of the two that helped him to create his complex figures with such convoluted histories. Light in August is an excellent example of this. Joe Christmas is a man with no roots. Like Shelley's monster, he is rejected by his creator, then by those he looks to for love and acceptance. He is unnacceptable to all who perceive him. In the deep south, he is a white man to the blacks, and a black man to the whites. He has no roots, no foundations, no harbor. It is up to himself to make or break. Religion does not help him either, since the people on both sides see him as a devilish figure. Like the mobs in The Monk and Frankenstein, these people follow common superstition and gossip as truth, rather than looking for real truth. Yet religion is not held as the scapegoat. His only allies come from a religious belief. But they fail at trying to free him from the mold he is stuck in. But Joe Christmas cannot be freed. In order to be freed you must know your captors and see yourself as something else. But Faulkner himself said that Joe Christmas didn't know what he was-- and therefore he was nothing. Thus he had nowhere to go, just like Frankenstein's creation. No matter where he would go, he faces the same problem. Like Poe's protagonist, he finds his tormentor following him-- because his tormentor is, partly, himself and his perception of himself. Faulkner's deft manipulation of the internal and external forces of evil work well to examine the complex nature of evil as it was understood in his time.

Within the trappings of old mansions, deserted graveyards, ghosts real or imagined, there lies the truth of what makes humans afraid. And the Gothic realizes that and brings it out to be examined. Originally an external force, evil became an internal force, a reaction to perceived hurt and pain. And then evil became entirely internal-- a manifestation of the human side that we dare not acknowldge, but is nevertheless there. And then we have the melding of the two concepts, where that evil that we do not inherently possess inside may be foisted upon us externally. And throughout all of these stories, there is the underlying voice that tells us that each of the protagonists had a choice, and the choice that he or she made was the deciding factor in the outcome of the story. Whether it was Ambrosio's decision to be seduced by Matilda, or his wilingness to rape Antonia; whether it was Victor's decision to create life, then not control it-- whether it was the monster's decision to retaliate with violence-- whether it was Poe's unnamed narrator's choice to murder, whether it was Joe Christmas's choice to do the same, whether it is anyone's choice to do the deeds they do, including all past historiess and external influences, that is what the Gothic is about.

Work Cited


© T. T. Eiland, August, 2006
Last modified: October 31, 2006