Copyright 201 by Gary L. Pullman
Charles Brockden Brown
In “Brown, Charles Brockden (1771-1810),” T. J. Lustig locates the central conflict in Brown’s Gothic fiction in a clash within Brown’s own mind concerning the limitations of the rationalism and ideal of progress that the Enlightenment represented and that he embraced:
The United States was uniquely founded on Enlightenment principles of reason and progress. It is, perhaps, the thoroughgoing demonstration of the fragility of optimistic rationalism that makes Brown’s American tales distinctly Gothic. For Brown the grounds of human decisions are inevitably imperfect, the effects of human actions are always unpredictable, and moral behavior usually conceals selfish motives. Brown is a rationalist with little faith in the power of reason, a follower of Locke without his predecessor’s belief in progress. Brown’s darkest insights spring from Lockean psychology. His is a world where sensory evidence is misleading and inferences from such evidence are frequently irrational. Brown’s novels show good producing evil and the rational giving rise to the irrational (The Handbook of the Gothic, ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts, 13).Although Edgar Allan Poe did not write novels, his short stories and poems reflect much the same sense of ambiguity, if not outright pessimism, concerning the notion of human progress and reason. On the one hand, Poe obviously believed in science and its application in the form of technology and in the efficacy of reason in solving problems--often, it would seem, the selfsame problems that it had earlier created. “It may well be doubted whether human ingenuity can construct an enigma. . . which human ingenuity may not, by proper application, resolve,” he wrote. Nevertheless, he also found it necessary to declare that “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active--not more happy--or more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.”
Both Brown and Poe lived much closer to the founding of the nation than we live today. It is both heartening and disheartening to know that men of letters and philosophical and political acumen doubted the principles upon which the nation was founded then, as now, and to know that, so far, the United States has demonstrated the validity of Locke’s own faith. Of course, the country is still young in a world of ancient nations and the insights of writers such as Brown and Poe should give us pause. Poe doesn’t identify the cause of his misgivings concerning human perfectibility, but Brown does. There is a sense, in his thinking, that human behavior is dishonest, because, as Lustig points out, he regards there to be an egoistic self-interest at the base even of seemingly purely “moral behavior,” which suggests that men and women do what is right (or wrong) not so much because the act is right (or wrong) but because the deed benefits them personally in some way. However, it is likely that, in doing what is right, one is apt to lay claim to the good deed rather than to its motive, an act of hypocrisy if the deed is done for the good that it does oneself rather than the good itself that it accomplishes.
The rational uncertainty and moral ambiguity that Brown sees as characteristic of human behavior is demonstrated in his fiction in another way as well, Lustig argues: “Circuitries of physical resemblance link ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters so that any stable moral spectrum dissolves. Brown’s characters begin to look like the projections of each other’s fears, desires and possible identities” (13) (a statement that is often as much true of Poe’s characters as it is of Brown’s).
In every man or woman who writes, whether horror fiction or otherwise, there is one or more schisms of thought, belief, and sentiment that could become the wellspring of not one short story or novel but an entire corpus. In previous posts, I have written of how the experiences of such authors as Hans Christian Andersen, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and others seem to have shaped much of their mature work. Like it or not, we must write from our own experiences. Therefore, one could argue, it is helpful to know what conflicts exist within one’s own outlook on life, in one’s own personal point of view toward the self, the other, and the world. These conflicts may be few or many, ranging from the personal, or emotional, to the social and political; they may involve philosophical perspectives or religious faith. They may be sexual or aesthetic, vocational or familial, practical or speculative, maternal or paternal. There are as many possibilities as there are aspects of personality and human experience. From one or more of these great conflicts within the soul, a volume of literary work may arise that is worth reading and, indeed, writing about.
However, crises need not be the source of one’s inspiration as a writer; a powerful interest, bordering upon the obsessive, can also motivate a writer to write, and his or her treatment of such a theme, in popularizing a genre’s essential elements, or ingredients, as it were, can make such a writer‘s more-or-less narrow or even idiosyncratic concern interesting to a wider audience.. The interest need not even be mainstream or entirely respectable. Indeed, for readers of Gothic fiction (and horror literature in general), the more bizarre such interests are in themselves, the more intriguing thy are apt to be. For example, as Helen Small points out in her article concerning “Bulwer Lytton, Edward (1803-73),” which also appears in The Handbook of the Gothic, “all Bulwer Lytton’s writing about the occult is informed by his knowledge of Rosicrucian lore,” although “the primary interest of connoisseurs of the Gothic lies in its recasting of the traditional subject matter of the genre--Faustian hubris, predatory sexual desire, supernatural forces, madness, revenge--in terms which made them more immediately relevant to the concerns of early Victorian readers” (16-17).
The Handbook of the Gothic does such an outstanding job of identifying sources of authorial inspiration and the themes of their work that Chillers and Thrillers will offer more of the anthology’s authors insights, always with his own as well, of course, in future installments of this series.