Pine Trees and Vices

John Bayley

  • The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales edited by Chris Baldick
    Oxford, 533 pp, £16.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 19 214194 5

What an agreeable moment it used to be in horror films when the heroine arose from her bed in the old castle where she was staying the weekend and throwing a negligée over her nightdress began to wander with hypnotised stealth along the dark corridor. The camera and soundtrack dwelt for some minutes on the manifestations attending this rash pilgrimage – now a motionless suit of armour revealed by the moonlight, now the cry of an owl outside the casement – but nothing more spectral occured until ... Invariably and with tremulous curiosity she opened the fatal door with a sepulchral creak; her hand flies to her lips and her eyes widen into blue saucers. A piercingly satisfying scream sometimes followed, sometimes not: and usually, in adroit anti-climax, the camera tracked to the smiling features of Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, dapper in antique costume or Victorian evening wear, surveying her discomfiture with sinister benevolence.

What followed could have been avoided if the heroine had scampered safely back to bed, but of course she didn’t; and her compulsion to explore was at once invitation and analogue to the reader or viewer’s own wish to go on being deliciously frightened. The function of Gothic narrative was exactly summed up by one of its exponents, Mrs Anna Laetitia Barbauld, whom I am surprised Chris Baldick does not refer to in his thoughtful and well-informed introduction. In the course of a long career which spanned the last half of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th she edited Collins’s and Akenside’s poems and Richardson’s letters, joined Mrs Montagu’s circle of radical intellectuals, and had some of her verses admired by Wordsworth. In her poem ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’ she foretold with striking accuracy the gradual decline of English economic power, the ‘Midas Dream’, and its departure to America, from whose prosperous shores nostalgic tourists would return to visit ‘the gray ruin and the mouldering stone’ of England.

Her essay ‘On the Pleasure to be extracted front Objects of Terror’ analysed the Gothic mode as just that. It was a kind of reductio for literary purposes of Burke’s notion of the sublime as the manifestation in nature of wonder, awe and fear, and in its practical application was a kind of precursor of Post-Modernism. Anything goes provided it frightens you: no high as opposed to pop art, no élitism; a single shiver makes the whole world kin. And like other kinds of pop art the Gothic had things both ways: all that old-fashioned aristocratic religious tyrannical stuff would be swept away, but it still retained its fears and fascinations and dangers, to give us all a delightful shudder. It was a way of participating in high life while rejecting it, which attracted the new reading class, as did the immediacy of the aim. It satisfied a hunger for rituals. Mrs Barbauld rightly pointed out that old ghost and fairy stories had long had the aim of terrifying us pleasurably; but unmasked and stated openly it foreshadowed the industry of movie and bestseller escapism. When the heroine puts on her negligée and glides out into the corridor, she enters a world less of Freudian significances than of modern and accessible cultural satisfactions, giggles and dreams, fears and wish fulfilments. ‘I nearly died,’ laugh Larkin’s Whitsun brides, adjusting their wedding hats in the railway carriage.

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