Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
South cloister of Gloucester Cathedral, looking eastwards. By William Avery.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Images of the Gothic no longer haunt us, perhaps, as they did earlier generations. Americans, in particular, do not identify much with aristocratic living or, for that matter, peasantry. Most Americans live in apartments or single-family dwellings. Their houses, although often spacious, are seldom the size of castles, and Americans are more likely to be haunted by natural, as opposed to supernatural, events. War, sickness, broken relationships, the deaths of loved ones, upward mobility, taxes, and the heartbreak of psoriasis are apt to frighten Americans more than things that go bump in the night.
Writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons, Robert McCammon, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and James Rollins have survived the decline of fantastic literature in general and of horror fiction in particular by adapting the Gothic in various ways. King and Little bring it to contemporary small-town or rural America, substituting mansions, hotels, universities, and resorts for castles and middle-class neighbors for the peasantry. The nobility is pretty much gone from the picture altogether, with the exception of such stand-ins as occasional politicians, celebrities, and business tycoons. Koontz’s fiction adapts the fantastic and the horrific to modern life, too, but, in doing so, makes both the fantastic and the horrific merely elements of a more inclusive, “cross-genre” body of fiction that includes elements of such other genres as romance, science fiction, adventure, thrillers, and mystery. He even includes, more often than not, a dog of a purer and nobler character than any of his protagonists is likely to develop.
Simmons’ Summer of Night, a slow starter, is a rewarding read similar to King’s It, and other of his early novels tread ground that is likewise familiar to Gothic and contemporary readers alike as well: vampires (Carrion Comfort), ghosts (A Winter‘s Haunting), and even an irate volcano goddess (Fires of Eden). His more recent work, when it has dealt with horror rather than with science fiction, has reworked Gothic themes (Drood) or historical events (The Terror). McCammon’s novels often deal with sociological (The Sting) or psychological (Mine!) themes, especially as they relate to growing up (Boy’s Life). Preston and Child introduce elements of the police procedural and the thriller into their uncanny fiction by having the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast solve unusual, X-Files-type crimes that often take the reader into such exotic locales as museums, subway and sewer systems, cruise ships, Buddhist monasteries, and dream worlds, at the same time acquainting fans with specialized and esoteric knowledge about ancient artifacts, engineering marvels, the maritime trade, the finer points of Zen, and astral projection. Rollins brings special forces personnel into stories set in Amazon jungles, subterranean worlds, and other places similar to those of his literary mentors, the Doc Savage authors, Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Frank Baum, C. S. Lewis, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne.
The Gothic elements, although transformed, persist not so much in imagery as in mood and tone. Darkness. Shadows. Monstrous faces appearing out of the gloom. Fog. Images of decadence and death. Hints of a stranger, deeper cosmos beyond the familiar, everyday world. Portals to nowhere--and everywhere. Wraiths and apparitions that may be merely imaginary. Intimations of immortality. Mysterious ruins. Beautiful, but deadly, women. Hideous, half-seen shapes. The falling of divine judgment, like lightning, at the stroke of midnight. Time out of joint and space deformed. The themes and images may be interpreted to fit the prejudices and needs of the day, but they remain eternally Gothic, even when they are disguised.
Overlook Hotel. By Rob Lee.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.