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.

So in a curious way the Gothic was about democratisation. Jane Carlyle observed scornfully that ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ might have been written by a seamstress who had eaten something too rich for her supper and gone to sleep on her back. The richness of Keats’s marvellous poem is as much for everybody as TV interiors – imitation grandeur like imitation fear. H.P. Lovecraft used a few lines of the poem as epigraph to his Gothic tale ‘The Outsider’ (1926), and like Poe, only with a greater degree of camp consciousness, he uses all the old trappings of European grandeur transformed into international Gothic. The transformation itself is a display of genre, and as Mrs Barbauld implied, the fright is no more ‘real’ than are the time-honoured properties. Does this mean that Gothic art is always camp, never the ‘real thing’? Possibly, but the question should be shelved for the moment. How near or far from the real thing is Sir Walter Scott, whose art intuits everything implied in the new genre and the new expectations, and who in Waverley specifically places the art world of Scottish picturesque history in opposition to the real bourgeois world of progressive England? In having things both ways, Scott not only gave his variation on the demise of the old feudal world and the comforting solidity of the humdrum present, but made the vanishing world of historic romance equally comforting because harmless. History had become as safe as the ‘objects of terror’ themselves.

Mrs Barbauld was a radical and something of a feminist, and it seems likely that she divined the paradoxical possibilities of freedom in the invention and indulgence of Gothic terror. The persecuted maiden is also the woman on the verge of escape from reactionary old patriarchal lifestyles. Mrs B herself escaped, and in a suitably Gothic manner, when her husband, the Reverend Rochemont Barbauld (a perfect name for the genre) went mad in 1808 and committed suicide. Angela Carter, who has identified de Sade’s victims as among the first feminists, because incipiently conscious stereotypes of woman solely for man’s use, melded the Gothic with fairy-tale to produce new and stylish ideological fantasy, notably in the recast tales of The Bloody Chamber. Her ‘Lady of the House of Love’, one of the items in this wide-ranging anthology, begins by making a skilfully precise use of the Gothic standby in which normality and enlightenment seem to have triumphed, but can one be quite sure? ‘At last the revenants became so troublesome the peasants abandoned the village.’ Peasants, we note, are part of the show, and it is because they still have belief that the show can still go on; while up at the château they all shun for the same reason ‘the beautiful somnambulist helplessly perpetuates her ancestral crimes’. The Gothic situation is always a self-circularising time-warp from which, however, the reader has broken free, carrying with him, as it were, the now emancipated girl and the radical humanist lifestyle. Terror is cosily isolated, enjoyed because left behind. Politically speaking, there is an analogy not only with the Whig view of history, looking back on stagnant superstition, but with a more contemporary and disturbing phenomenon: enlightened citizens of the Common Market contemplating time-warps in Ireland, the Balkans and the Middle East, where revenants, peasants and somnambulists perpetuate their ancestral crimes.

As one would expect of a Post-Modern author, Angela Carter uses the Gothic in the cause of political correctness, rather as Salman Rushdie and the Magic Realists have done with their related genre. In one sense, this is historically as well as politically correct, for the Gothic tale always contrasted by implication a doomed and ancient tyranny with ongoing modern enlightenment or, as Jane Austen put it more succinctly in Northanger Abbey, ‘the midland counties of England’ with ‘the pine trees and vices of the south’. (Not of the north, interestingly enough. Gothicism never took root in the Scottish background which Sir Walter had made his own, and where even barbarous old custom was healthy and bracing as well as picturesque.) Yet like the Magic Realists Angela Carter used the genre to make her views over-explicit, incidentally depriving it of its most genuine property: the ‘objects of terror’. Catherine Morland would not know for worlds what is behind the Black Veil, but Angela Carter would soon tell her, and put her on the right road to girlhood emancipation. Just as Perrault and Lang were really better at transmitting the feel of old fairy tales than Carter’s highly-coloured sophistication did in The Bloody Chamber, so modern practitioners of the Gothic carry us too far beyond the simple devoutness that responded to the terror.

That may be why the good old horror film, in its pre-sophisticated stage, was more faithful than literature has since been to the properties of Gothic which Mrs Barbauld had in mind. Her ‘terror’ may have been a simple form of sado-masochism, but the cinema can render it much more effectively than the too-conscious modern storyteller. Property and atmosphere are more important for the genre than story and meaning, as Coleridge inadvertantly shows in his poem ‘Christabel’, where the splendid Gothic opening would have made any solution an anti-climax. Apart from Mrs Radcliffe’s, most of the original Gothic tales are wretched affairs, as this anthology cannot help revealing, in which the narrator’s invention flagged as the possible horrors in store in convent, inquisition and gloomy dungeon began to run out. Cinema and poetry convey the essence of Gothic better than prose, as Keats demonstrates in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, that most perfect of all Gothic poems, in which solution melts into harmony with atmosphere and properties. Coleridge erred in ‘The Ancient Mariner’ by introducing ‘the Nightmare Life-in-Death’, and her skeletal mate, who in that context merely interrupt the progress of the tale to its ending in forced piety and real pathos. The most successful Gothic action poem is Bürger’s ‘Lenore’, a spirited modern variant of the Unquiet Grave theme, set at the time of the Seven Years War.

If Gothic is best defined in terms of atmosphere rather than of genre or story, that atmosphere can serve as the point of departure for the development of a new kind of masterpiece. Baldick has been scrupulous in including only tales which remain, as it were, in the mainstream of the method, however far they wander in terms of place and period or intention. Isak Dinesen’s ‘The Monkey’ (1934) and Eudora Welty’s ‘Clytie’ (1941) are good examples to be found here. But Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ arguably starts from a Gothic setting, and even with the heroine donning her wrap to set forth on a perilous trail of curiosity. Of course James brilliantly transcends Gothic atmosphere to explore the secretiveness of childhood and the psychology of a governess, and his tale ends with a Gothic flourish when little Miles dies of heart failure in the arms of the governess and in the presence of the frustrated ghost valet. One of Gothic’s strongest suits – the violence and appeal of sex without its actual presence – came naturally to James. Walter de la Mare, his disciple in the prose tale, followed him by producing two of the very best, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ and ‘A Recluse’, which use atmosphere as overpoweringly as in the best Gothic, though without the specifically Gothic properties. Neither of these tales is here, for one cannot expect the poor editor to chase up every narrative masterpiece with some degree of Gothic inspiration. He would never have finished a compilation which in fact represents the type admirably, and covers a great deal of ground.

The point returns us to the question of how good real Gothic can ever be, and whether the terror/pleasure principle ever produced the finest art. Is Gothic in the end the least respectable of the trio which includes ghost and fairy stories? Isak Dinesen, Nathaniel Hawthorne (‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’), Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, Jorge Luis Borges (‘The Gospel according to Mark’) might seem to point the other way – and all are included here. The effect of some could be said to hover over that debatable ground where delicious literary fear ends and real fear begins. Borges’s tale is not only genuinely horrifying but has total plausibility in terms of its setting on a lonely and primitive pampas farm. The heart of Gothic, if it can be said to have a heart, is in a contrast between old strange ways of doing things, and the usually innocent or enlightened intruder who enters that world like a stone dropped into a pool. Borges beautifully reverses the Gothic expectation by making his primitives so simple and literal that they think the Crucifixion they have heard about from city priests must be literally re-enacted. (The phrase about a stone dropping into a pool I recall from ‘Taman’, the little anecdote inside Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time which Chekhov thought one of the best stories ever written. The ‘hero’ reflects at its end that he has merely disturbed the lives of a set of persons who were going about their own affairs in their own way.) Like other tales, ‘Taman’ borrows from the essentials of Gothic without using its atmosphere. Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Olalla’, on the other hand, uses every item in the Gothic book, combining Scottish diablerie with an old Spanish setting of changeless sloth and superstition, a time-warp in which the intruder’s romantic love is desolated by the rituals of ancient evil and madness. Though borrowing heavily from the ‘House of Usher’, it is one of the strongest items in this collection, for it shows something dark and obsessive in the author’s own make-up, a streak of pathological pleasure in cruelty which is not at all what Mrs Barbauld had in mind. Most objects of terror, including the fashionable contes cruels of the present day, seem concocted by professionals not a bit excited by what they describe.

Traditionally, Gothic is matter for the connoisseur rather than for your true partaker in the dark depths of the psyche. And yet in a memorable sketch called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), which has also appeared as a Virago paperback, the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman identified very effectively in her feminist role with the persecuted girl of old Gothic convention. Reversal is again cleverly used. The heroine and narrator is sure she is ill. Her husband, a doctor, a brisk modern emancipated tyrant, pooh-poohs the idea and dominates his wife quite unconsciously and instinctively by being so broadmindedly up to date. Imprisoned in masculinity, the wife pines as if in a Gothic dungeon. But it is the real thing, and not the place of delicious terror as brought up to date with possibly unconscious humour in E. Nesbit’s Art Nouveau Gothic tale, ‘Hurst of Hurstcote’. This has all the banality of its originals, but the atmosphere is delightful: a Sussex castle in fumed oak, stained glass and mock-Tudor chimneys. Hurstcote is supposed to be a grand old mansion, but the period flavour of the narration makes it seem engagingly bogus.

Baldick decided, no doubt rightly, to exclude parody, noting that ‘so many Gothic tales are already halfway to sending themselves up.’ He cannot however resist including Bret Harte’s hilarious ‘Selina Sedilia’, which like all good parodies reveals the touching desires behind the appetite for the genre – particularly nostalgia for the past, romanticism’s backward look – as well as its absurdities. Selina’s young man

turned his dark liquid orbs fondly upon the ingenuous face of his betrothed. ‘My own Edgardo! – and you still love me? You still would marry me in spite of the dark mystery which surrounds me? In spite of the fatal history of my race? In spite of the ominous predictions of my aged nurse? ... Leave me Edgardo ... A mysterious something – a fatal misgiving – a dark ambiguity – an equivocal mistrust oppresses me! I would be alone.’

Self-indulgence in Gothic is a solitary pleasure, as Selina knows, but no less satisfying for that.