One thing you can say about Gothic –whether you’re a reader or a writer – it’s the gift that keeps on giving – from Hammer to The Hunger to the seemingly endless series Frankenstein remakes. And of course we have the vampire vibe that refuses to die – not just Twilight and True Blood, but the recent Jonathan Rhys Meyers Dracula, which though it didn’t really deserve the name was a rather gloriously decadent post-Victorian take on the whole Drac craic
All of which just goes to prove that however creaky the elements of Gothic may be, they still manage – somehow – to tap into our deepest fears, and guiltiest pleasures. It’s certainly been an inspiration for me, in my own writing. So in this post I’m going to take a – rather light-hearted – look at the recipe for great Gothic, and how I’ve re-imagined the genre in my own books.
The first ingredient for great Gothic?
This trend was started by the daddy of them all, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto of 1764, which reinforces the centrality of setting by making it the title of the novel (this would have been more striking to contemporary readers than it is now, when you consider that the vast majority of previous fiction had titled the book by the hero or heroine– Pamela, Clarissa, Tim Jones, Evelina, Roderick Random, Tristram Shandy etc etc). The first edition of Otranto claimed it was a translation of a 16th-century document only recently rediscovered in a house belonging to “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England”. Walpole did later admit he was the author, but this little bit of literary subterfuge sets the tone for a lot of later Gothic fiction as well.
Otranto established the parameters of the genre in many other ways too – and again, the title is the big clue – ‘The Castle of Otranto’. Gothic is built on exotic settings (like Otranto) and as often as not far-off time. ‘Long ago and far away’ – literally. A classic example would be Mrs Radcliffe’s blockbuster Mysteries of Udolpho – set in 16th century in Italy (though she never visited the country and cribbed all her many descriptions of the landscape from Salvator Rosa’s paintings). This has the effect of distancing the story from everyday life in both time and space, and adding to the atmosphere of strangeness and mystery – what Freud would later call the ‘uncanny’.
So from the start, Gothic was an art of the ‘other’ , and later versions of this explore ‘otherness’ of other kinds, such as religion (Mrs Radcliffe and Catholicism), and ‘foreignness’, which is central to the presentation of Count Dracula). Nor is it a coincidence that ‘Gothic’ is an architectural term (or that the architectural revival coincided with the emergence of Gothic fiction – Horace Walpole was instrumental in both). Unlike the classical or Palladian, Gothic is an architecture that permits – indeed delights in – hidden passages, dungeons, secret panels, towers, winding stairs, and actually constructs new ‘ruins’.
In structural terms the novels are just as complex – employing multi-layered narratives, recurrent flashbacks, red herring subplots, and multiple narrators. Novel and setting mirror each other in other ways as well – the typical 18th-century plot involves revealing the secrets a building conceals, which in turn involves laying bare the secrets of those who live in it – their real identity, their real past, their real character. The Gothic, in other words, is about the contrast between what appears on the surface, and what lies beneath. Taking its cue from Edmund Burke’s enormously influential 1757 treatise on the Sublime and the Beautiful, the typical 18th-century Gothic narrative resolves itself into situations and events in which polar opposites are juxtaposed: virtue and vice, light and dark, one character with another. And the language of the Gothic does the same – juxtaposing apparently contradictory ideas in the same phrase “delightful horror” ‘horribly beautiful’, ‘awful joy’.
Let’s look at the next ‘ingredient’.
I talked at the beginning about the ‘recipe’ for Gothic and these novels do follow a well-worn – and still highly successful – formula, not just in relation to setting but plot and character too.
There’s a whole pantomime portfolio of stereotypes ranging from tyrant fathers to sinister monks, and including, of course, the dangerously attractive anti-hero. This doesn’t start with Gothic, of course – we can see the same fatal attraction in Milton’s Satan, and Richardson’s Lovelace, but it reaches a peak in Gothic – where many of novels centre on such dark, driven anti-heroes. Predators such as Schedoni in The Italian, Manfred in Otranto, and Ambrosio in The Monk. The latter is also a perfect example of the principle of contrast I just talked about, since he is outwardly a virtuous monk but in reality prone to violence and depraved desires – he rapes his sister and murders his own mother.
Byron later became the living embodiment of the dark anti-hero – and of course gave it his name. But there’s a suitably delicious dark irony here in which life overlaps with art – Byron started The Vampyre, one of the first books taking this theme it was finished and published by Polidori) as well as being present at the conception of Frankenstein (of which more later)
This trope is alive and well in films like the Twilight saga, but characters like Bella Swan (surely not an accidental choice of name) have their origins as far back as Emily St Aubert in Udolpho, Ellena in The Italian, Matilda in Otranto, and Agnes in The Monk – with the latter, there there’s the extra frisson of her actually being a nun. Gothic has always had a strong sexual charge – in the original novels this was largely implicit, but it later became more overt (in, for example, Fuseli’s famous painting The Nightmare), and these days, of course, it’s extremely explicit.
Some of the much earlier novels were surprisingly explicit too – in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (written at 20 in ten weeks!) the sexual content still shocks even now – from the titillating description of Antonia bathing, to her later brutal rape and murder. Lewis started a trend towards more ‘masculine’ version of Gothic which evolves eventually into the Horror genre.
This is in contrast with the ‘feminine Gothic’ – of which Mrs Radcliffe is the leading example – where the aim is the pleasurable ‘terror’ (that paradox again), which arises from a painfully heightened sensibility. The early Gothic was perhaps the first literary dominated by women – both as readers and as writers. So it won’t surprise you that this in itself drew down disdain from serious readers (most of them, of course, men). As a reviewer in the Aberdeen Magazine put it in 1798,
Ye female scribes! Who write without a blot,
‘Mysterious Warnings’ of – the Lord knows what;
O quit this trade; exert your proper skill,
Resume the needle, and lay down the quill.”
More subtly, the Gothic allowed female writers to explore forbidden or socially unsanctioned elements of their own sexuality. This also features in the masculine Gothic as well, though usually more explicitly, as with the incest theme in The Monk,
The difference between early Gothic novels and other fantasy literature is that Gothic narratives are populated not by monsters as per The Lord of the Rings, but entities that occupy the shadowy space between the living and the dead – ghosts, the spectre of ‘bleeding nun’ in The Monk, and – famously – the Undead in Dracula. This is another way in which the Gothic explores ‘boundary states’. And not just literally but psychologically – what lies beneath the daylight consciousness, in the unconscious mind.
This is Gothic’s own ‘dark secret’ – it preys on our own deepest fears about what lies hidden in our own psyches, in our own darkest selves. And that’s what drives much of my own reworking of the genre. But just as the 18th– and 19th-century Gothic novels had many different incarnations, so I’ve taken a very different approach to the genre in each of my books.
Starting with The Man in Black, my second novel, which was inspired by Bleak House.
In both life and art, Dickens was much possessed by death, and always visited the Paris morgue whenever he was in the city. And as John Carey has pointed out, he also had a fascination – almost an obsession – with the sort of ‘boundary states’ I just talked about. In his case it’s the threshold between the living and the inanimate –where people overlap with things. Be they the waxworks in The Old Curiosity Shop, or Mr Venus’ unsettling taxidermy emporium in Our Mutual Friend, which includes “Bones, various. Skulls, various. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, various. Mummied bird”.
It was in the preface to Bleak House that Dickens described his art as dwelling on the ‘romantic side of familiar things’, and in ‘reimagining’ his world, I have done the same, only darker. Because where Dickens will often default to comedy, turning the ghastly into the grotesque, my recreation of his sprawling, noisy, filthy city does what he could not. Exposing the dark underside of London which he saw nightly, as he walked its streets, but could never write about in novels designed for a bourgeois readership. The Man in Black is, in effect, Urban Gothic. This is a Gothic which is not about long ago and far away, but finds horror in the urban ‘ruin’ – in the perversion of what society should be. Dickens’ London was itself, a ‘boundary state’.
It was the largest city in the world, and the capital of a nation with a huge empire, the most advanced industrial economy in the world, and enormous financial wealth. That wealth drew people from all over Britain and all over the world, and in the half century between 1800 and 1850, London’s population more than doubled from under a million to two and a half. By 1850 the city we know now was also starting to take shape – Waterloo station had already opened, the Houses of Parliament were under construction, and the ramshackle old city was jostling next to glamorous new developments like Regent Street and Belgravia. But there was a price to be paid for all this growth and change, and as usual, that price was paid by the poor.
London’s infrastructure hopelessly failed to keep pace with the influx of people, and the result was slums of a squalor and depravity we can scarcely even imagine now. Tom-All-Alone’s was never a real place-name but it was a real place – between what is now the Tottenham Court Road and Covent Garden. People lived there 30 to a room, and with that degree of overcrowding disease was rife. 150,000 died of cholera between 1848 and 1849, and when you think about where they were getting their water, it’s only surprising the death-toll was that low. All the city’s drinking water was drawn from the Thames, and all its sewage was pumped straight back into it – apparently the river ran black for 18 miles.
And the degradation wasn’t just about dirt. I knew a certain amount about the Victorian sex industry before I started researching the novel, but even so I was still shocked by what I discovered. One account described the old women who lived in the city’s parks, who only came out at night and were prepared to “consent to any species of humiliation for the sake of acquiring a few shillings”. And that wasn’t the worst of it. On a visit to London in 1863 Dostoyevsky recounted how he was propositioned by a girl of six. This is the ‘other London’, and for me – as dark an ‘other’ as any that Gothic ever presented. The Man in Black lays open the ‘deadly secrets’ of London just as the earlier Gothic explored a castle’s dungeons or an abbey’s secret passageways, penetrating beneath the city’s daylight, respectable surface to find what ‘lies beneath’. From the slums of Seven Dials to the tanneries of Bermondsey. From the brutal reality of child prostitution and baby farms, to the perversion of normal sexual desires which was so often hinted at in the 18th century Gothic texts.
In The Man in Black I use Gothic mode and motifs to create almost a ‘hyper reality’, in which nothing is what it seems, and everything is unreliable, including our narrators. A world of deception, disguise and double-take, which finds its objective correlative in the elaborate subterranean art gallery I give the lawyer Tulkinghorn. It was inspired by the house of Sir John Soane – who also, like Tulkinghorn, lived in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – but in Tulkinghorn’s case I make this collection not just an extraordinary showcase of extreme wealth, but the externalisation of the secrets of his ‘bloodline’, and his own dark past.
The book stands alone, as a story, but it’s also a sequel, in that it takes the same central character from The Man in Black – the young detective Charles Maddox – and supplies him with a new and even more complex case. More complex for him, and also more complex for me, in that I’m working here with biographical material, which puts much more rigid constraints on what you can and can’t do in fiction. I allowed myself to ‘fill the gaps’, but I was scrupulous not to change known facts, or shift dates and places simply to make my task easier. But thankfully (for me) the number – and strangeness – of the gaps and silences in the Shelleys’ story makes them an extraordinarily rich seam for a novelist.
More than once, readers have said to me that halfway through the book they were convinced I was ‘making it all up’, only to find from the notes at the end, that only about 10% of the story is speculation. The Shelleys’ story is almost more Gothic than the classic Gothic novel that emerges from it, and while I do recreate that infamous summer when Frankenstein was conceived, I’m more interested in the minds and histories of the two people that wrote it.
The mystery unravelled in this novel is as much interior, as it is exterior. The Frankenstein Monster is, in other words, Psychological Gothic.
One of the most powerful aspects about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – for me – are the parallels between that story and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s own life (and that’s one reason why I think you can see his shaping hand in Frankenstein’s evolution). Shelley described himself as “an exile & a Pariah” and “an outcast from human society”. He was also obsessed by the idea of pursuit from an early age, and his poetry is pervaded by what his biographer Richard Holmes calls “ghostly following figures” and dark demonic antitypes of the self. It was an obsession that began early – even as a child he was prey to sleepwalking, especially at times of stress, and suffered from strange waking visions of events that he clearly believed had actually happened, but others said ”vanished under the touch of investigation”, which gained him a reputation for either hallucinations or outright lies.
He also had a mania for the occult – something that lasted long after childhood – at Eton, at the age of 16, he was discovered one night within a circle of blue flame, trying to raise the devil; Beelzebub apparently did not oblige.
And on another occasion he wrote to a friend arranging to meet him in the holidays, warning him that he might meet on the way “Death-demons, & skeletons dripping with the putrefaction of the grave” and “at the frightful hour of midnight” awake to see “the Hell-Demon lean[ing] over your sleeping form.” He continued to take delight in terrifying both children and women throughout the rest of his life – there is a particular and frankly bizarre episode in 1815, for example, when he reduced the teenage Claire Clairmont to hysteria by telling her tales of terror, which I recreate in The Frankenstein Monster.
As an adult, he left wreckage in his wake and (knowingly or not) caused immense pain to those around him, especially the women who loved him. So much so, that I started to wonder if there was something more to this than mere self-centredness – could his volatile behaviour be evidence, in fact, not just of a disordered personality but an actual personality disorder?
As a young man, Shelley put about a story that his father had tried to have him committed to a madhouse. Whether or not that was actually true, it’s easy to see why Sir Timothy Shelley might have resorted to it. There could be evidence of bipolar disorder in his violent fluctuations of mood, which would veer unpredictably between a deep and often suicidal depression, and manic episodes in which he would play childish pranks, or succumb to fits of hysteria. On the other hand, many of the symptoms associated with conditions like Asperger’s tally closely with contemporary descriptions of Shelley – his obsessive insistence on a rigid daily schedule, his physical clumsiness, his discomfort in social situations, his sensitivity to discordant noises, his inability to understand the emotional needs of other people.
Whatever lay behind it, Shelley certainly saw his own personality in terms of the ‘divided self’ – he wrote often of the terror of a fiendish ‘anti-type’ that lurked within “the obscure parts of my own nature”, and regularly referred to himself in the third person. This sense of dislocation became bound up in extreme feelings of fear and paranoia (though that particular word only came into the English language as late as 1811). As Richard Holmes says, “ghostly ‘following-figures’” haunted Shelley both in his life and in his writing. Or as Shelley himself put it in the poem ‘Oh! there are spirits of the air’, “this fiend, whose ghastly presence ever / beside thee like thy shadow hangs.” After an apparent attempt to kill him, in Wales in 1813 – which I also include in the novel – Shelley became convinced that he was being pursued by some person or persons unknown, despite the fact that even his own friends thought it some sort of hallucination, and others in the area referred to it as ‘Shelley’s ghost’. In the days before he died, during another period of extreme stress, he saw terrifying visions of his own doppelgänger, one of which was in the act of strangling his wife.
It’s fascinating, in this context, that when Mary Shelley later put her long-dead husband into a novel, Lodore, she did so by splitting his personality in two: on the one hand the noble-minded and courageous Lord Lodore, champion of the downtrodden; on the other the nervous and introverted Derham, prone to “wild fancies and strange inexplicable ideas”.
And what of Mary Shelley herself?
The daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley referred to herself as “from great parents sprung” and talked of the comet seen in the sky when she was born – so she lacked neither confidence or intelligence, or the education needed to make the most of it. William Godwin boasted that she was “Singularly bold, somewhat imperious… her perseverance in everything she undertakes is almost invincible” – the words were clearly said with pride, but how could he not appreciate how ambivalent they sound?
As a motherless child, Mary developed an especially intense relationship with her father, which she later4 described as an ‘excessive & romantic attachment’. A phrase that, with modern hindsight, feels distinctly uncomfortable (Godwin found her later novel Matilda, about a father’s incestuous love for his daughter, “disgusting and detestable” and it was not published until 1959). But from the age of four Mary had a rival for her father’s affections: in 1802, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont. It’s fair to say the contrast with the intellectual and rather ethereal Mary Wollstonecraft couldn’t have been greater – the second Mrs Godwin was fleshy and rather coarse, famously described by Charles Lamb as a ‘damn’d infernal bitch’.
Mary’s relationship with her stepmother was a disaster from the outset, and there’s some evidence that Mary tried various means to regain her central position in her father’s life. For example – there was a strange episode when she apparently had a problem with her arm, which necessitated the wearing of a sling. We don’t know what it was, though there’s some suggestion it may have been a skin complaint like eczema. Whatever it was, Mrs Godwin certainly felt Mary was exaggerating it. But why should the Godwins have referred to this apparently straightforward issue as a ‘dreadful evil’?
Another odd question – why did Godwin send his beloved daughter away from the family for months at a time, even when she was quite young? Certainly not for her education, as she would have received a better one at home. Even more oddly, on one of these occasions he wrote that there was still a chance of her becoming ‘a wise and even happy woman’, ‘in spite of unfavourable appearances’. And finally, why was there a mysterious fire in the family’s bookshop only a few days after Mary returned from one of these long trips away?
I talked earlier about how the Gothic preys on our deepest fears about what lies hidden in our own psyches – in The Frankenstein Monster, the monsters are truly monsters of the mind
And finally, to Dracula.
Like Frankenstein, Dracula is the source of a powerful and enduring modern myth. It’s a book about the perversion of repressed desire, the fear of sexual promiscuity, and the dread of the ‘other’ – whether the Undead, or the foreigner (remember it’s set after Jack the Ripper). It’s about ‘bad blood’ in every sense of the word.
What has always intrigued me about the book is that it assumes vampirism as a given, and presents the supernatural as ‘real’ despite being written so much later in an age of ‘science’. In fact, the book is stuffed full of technology, and the ‘machinery’ of the plot is often just that – from the phonograph used to record much of the narrative, to the repeated blood transfusions, to the messages by telegraph, and travel by train. The 19th century was of course an extraordinary period of progress in science and technology, and many of the advances that have shaped the modern world were either made then, or owe a debt to the discoveries made by Victorian scientists.
The Victorians were the also the first to understand some of the invisible forces that had previously been seen as ‘magical’. Electromagnetism, for example, was first discovered in the 1820s, and (as we know from ‘that summer’ of 1816) Galvani was experimenting with electric currents as early as the 1790s. Armed with successes like this, the Victorians really did start to think of themselves as invincible – that they would decipher all the secrets of the universe. And that sense of power – that enormous confidence – is what lay behind the Great Exhibition itself – that vast exposition of ‘The Works of Industry of all Nations’, which forms the backdrop to The London Vampire.
Dracula is the overt inspiration for this novel – I deliberately echo many of its themes, as well as its structure and the names of some of its characters. But in some ways the novel owes just as much to its covert source, Frankenstein. Frankenstein gives birth not just to a monster and a myth, but to a whole new literary genre – science fiction. Though – as many critics have pointed out – there’s actually very little ‘science’ in this fiction, and Shelley is remarkably uninterested in how the monster is actually created.
But what the novel is interested in, and succeeds magnificently in doing, is to evoke the terrifying consequences of using science to acquire secret or forbidden knowledge – to “pursue nature to her hiding-places”. And that’s the horror I explore in The London Vampire – the horror of ‘unhallowed arts’. It’s a theme that become more and more chilling in the last 50 years, as we’ve gained the power to clone human beings, and annihilate the planet through climate change and nuclear disaster. But it had just as much resonance in the 19th century, because some of the Victorians’ scientific discoveries were not ‘scientific’ at all.
There were many – Conan Doyle famously among them – who believed that Spiritualism was a scientific fact, and there were other so-called scientists who are now forgotten who were famous at the time for fantastic breakthroughs that proved to be either mistaken or downright mendacious. One such was Baron Karl von Reichenbach. He was an extraordinarily successful inventor and industrialist, who gave up that work to study the various forms of mental affliction, including sleepwalking, catatonia, and hysteria. He found that certain people – especially young women – were particularly affected by the cycles of the moon (the idea of ‘lunacy’ was still prevalent at the time), and he eventually concluded that this was down to a peculiar sensitivity to an invisible and mysterious force, a force present in both moonlight and sunlight.
He believed it was an ‘occult energy’ that suffused the entire cosmos, and he gave it the ungainly and unintentionally comic name of ‘Od’. This Odic force was, in fact, a 19th-century equivalent of the theory of everything – Von Reichenbach believed it was the ‘blood’ of the universe and explained everything from ectoplasm, to the Northern Lights, to the ‘table-turning’ performed at séances, as well as the symptoms of hysteria and sleepwalking. But Von Reichenbach’s behaviour was so bizarre that he was known by those living near his estate as the ’sorceror of Cobenzl’ – a tall and mysterious man dressed in black, who walked alone, was often seen at newly-dug graves, and would not touch metals or eat during daylight (remind you of anyone?).
And his approach to his work was both scientifically and ethically unsound – he worked with vulnerable and suggestible people, many of them young women, and he kept them confined in the dark for long hours so that their senses would be more receptive to the Odic force. In Von Reichenbach I found my own Gothic anti-hero – a real-life figure, as strange and terrifying as Count Dracula ever was, and all the more so because he did what he did in the name of science and progress.
Von Reichenbach’s theories were first published in Germany in 1849, and translated into English the following year. He divided contemporary scientific opinion, with some praising his work, while others questioned his methods, and asked for more objective proof. And though Von Reichenbach eventually came to believe he could see the Odic light himself, he was never able to provide the proof his critics demanded. By the early 20th century his ideas had fallen into disrepute, not least because Hitler was apparently a great enthusiast for the idea of a cosmic Odic force.
And just as the early Gothic juxtaposed light and dark, virtue and vice, so my version of the Baron Von Reichenbach is set against the thoroughly modern mid-Victorian Charles Maddox, fascinated by science, trained in medicine, and a pioneer of what we would call the forensics of crime. But even he cannot explain the serial murders that are terrorising London – young women found with their heads removed, their hearts pierced, and the marks of teeth about the necks….
Originally written 2015, updated 2022