The word “Gothic” for many bibliophiles conjures up the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, and Bram Stoker. Open books by these authors and you’ll find decadent, mist-shrouded mansions, gloomy weather, morose, self-indulgent characters, and probably a ghost or two. Gothic, as understood in American and English literature, is heavy on atmosphere, delves deep into the darker recesses of the human psyche, and pays particular attention to death and its various manifestations.
What does it mean for a book to be Gothic in the 21st century, in this age of tablets, energy-efficient buildings, and miracle diet pills? It seems that as our society has moved further away from the romantic ideal of a brooding Victorian mansion standing sentry in a fearsome thunderstorm, bookshelves have become choked with stories about vampires, werewolves, especially in the “urban fantasy” genre. These books are usually quite dark, violent, and often contain dungeons or crypts hidden beneath modern monolithic skyscrapers, giving a nod to the roots of Gothic storytelling. But is that enough to make a book truly Gothic?
Like all artistic and stylistic debates, there’s no clear answer that will suit everyone’s tastes. In my humble and modestly educated opinion, I would contend that Gothic is more of an attitude than an appearance. You can’t simply inject a graveyard or crumbling cathedral into a novel and declare it to be Gothic. The idea of Gothic isn’t paint-by-numbers or a recipe for the macabre. “Gothic” is a feeling, a vibe. A sense of gloom, of menace, of dread must hover over the proceedings, infusing every scene with a heaviness that is not explicitly mentioned in the story but is undeniable nevertheless.
Philippians 4:8 instructs us to dwell upon what is right and true and noble. So can there be anything “noble” about immersing oneself in these dreary worlds of the imagination? I have to confess that I am drawn towards the darker side of things: music, clothes, movies, art, etc. I don’t particularly care for the gruesome or horrific, but I am fascinated by things that are creepy and foreboding. This is a struggle that I have wrestled with for a very long time, and I have to often remind myself to stay in the light. There is nothing wrong with savoring the ominous atmosphere of a graveyard or admiring the morbid beauty of a skull, but such things should not consume our thoughts. 2 Timothy 1:7 tells us that God has not given us a spirit of fear but one of power, love, and self-control.
“Classic” Gothic stories, chiefly those from the late 19th century, do not depict a Gothic state of mind as something to be nurtured or enjoyed. Nor is it a fashion statement or mode of artistic expression. It is a smothering shadow that prevents the oppressed from enjoying the beauty and brightness of life. It is something to be fought against and cast off, though in these stories, the unfortunate protagonist is often unable to do so, and the gloom consumes them. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the paragon of Gothic literature in my opinion, does not depict the darkness as “cool” or “fun.” The ominous atmosphere that permeates graveyards and cathedrals are merely tricks of light and shadow; the real darkness lies in our souls, and it should be resisted with the light of God’s grace.
Of course, it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a stroll through a cemetery at dusk. I find them to be quite peaceful.