Writers I read: In conversation with Dr. Stephen Carver, scholar and author
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
What is Gothic literature? Is there a difference between the modern and Victorian variety? Or the Asian and European ones? Why is it a literature of subversion?
I'm a neophyte to the genre. Indeed, I would not even have known to ask these questions until I submitted my MS for review at the UK Literary Consultancy under National Arts Council and SingLit Station’s Manuscript Assessment Scheme. There, Gothic scholar and author Dr. Stephen Carver, opened my eyes to my ignorance.
In his own words, Dr. Carver is ‘a literary historian, editor, occasional novelist’ and 'ageing punk rocker'. He taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia for many years and spent three in Japan as Professor of English at the University of Fukui. He has published numerous academic articles and short stories. His first novel, Shark Alley, was released in 2016. This was followed by two works of outsider history: The 19th Century Underworld, and The Author Who Outsold Dickens, a new biography of W.H. Ainsworth. Retired from teaching two years ago to focus on his own writing, he is currently working on The Opium Eaters: High Literature & the Art of Addiction for Morton Books. I can probably find no one better to be in conversation with regarding Gothic, horror and all that goes with it.
AC: Thank you Stephen for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with a dummy’s guide to the genre first – What is Gothic? Does it have a canon? If so, what would you consider the classics in that canon?
SC: Thank you for asking me. I love this question! Where to start…? In English literary history, the ‘gothic romance’ is a key part of the development of the modern novel. It grows out of the Jacobean Revenge Tragedy with some concurrent development with the French roman noir and the German Schauerroman or ‘shudder novel’. The first truly Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story by Horace Walpole (1764), a tale of intrigue and murder prefaced by an ominous prophecy. Walpole used ‘gothic’ to signal the novel’s medieval setting as during the Renaissance, ‘gothic’ was a label for all things barbarous. The next notable gothic novel was Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1782) by William Beckford, and a genre was born.
The wild settings, sexual threat and supernatural violence were intended to evoke a sublime terror in readers, which suited the rebellious sensibility of Romanticism. The original form reaches its zenith with the novels of Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823) and Matthew Lewis (1775–1818), most notably Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), and Lewis’ The Monk (1896). Radcliffe was a mistress of suspense, and could twist it to almost metaphysical levels, while Lewis’ material was full-on horror, with occult and supernatural plots packed with sex and violence.
At the same time, the more respectable, proto-realist English novel is growing in stature. This is the era of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Gothic novels were nothing like this. There were a kind of ‘anti-novel’, a literary doppelgänger. With their preoccupation with violence and extreme emotional states, gothic novels allowed for the exploration of the dark side of human experience – all that was not said, could not be said, through Realism. This is why gothic fiction is fascinated by doubles and nightmares.
The ‘first wave’ of the Gothic rolled into the second generation of English Romantics and then finally broke. 1818 is the key year, which saw the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jane Austen’s satire, Northanger Abbey. The last of the ‘original’ English gothic novels was Charles Robert Maturin’s wacky gothic immortal story, Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820. We then move onto the Regency ‘Tale of Terror’, but that’s another story…
In the 19th century, the Gothic becomes much more psychological, with Poe’s work an obvious example. The high watermarks are, of course, Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897.
AC: A formidable list! What do you think is it's essence? And, has that essence been retained as Gothic works evolved into the 21st century?
SC: I was just thinking about that with regard to Dracula, which seems to me to pull all the narrative codes together from the Romantics and the Victorians. There’s the ruined castle and the sexually threatening medieval European aristocrat, who is straight out of Radcliffe; the demonic associations, which is Lewis; and then the contemporary urban setting, which, like Steven’s Jekyll and Hyde, takes the horror out of medieval, Catholic Europe and drops it in the heart of the modern British Empire.
While every gothic story is horror, not every horror story is gothic.
It’s important to distinguish between what we mean by ‘gothic’ and ‘horror’. The two forms certainly cross over, but there is a difference. Good gothic should be erotic and sadistic. ‘Horror’, on the other hand, is generally concerned with violence, though the best of it becomes gothic through emotional depth.
There's also a recognizably ‘gothic’ mise-en-scène based around archetypal settings and characters, with familiar visual signifiers and narrative codes. These are a bit like the Joseph Campbell’s ‘17 Stages of the Monomyth’; the different features don’t all have to be present in the narrative, but there must be some . . . I’d say it’s important that competing frames of explanation are offered to generate tension and unease, destabilizing any sense of narrative (and therefore, by extension, individual and societal) certainty. Gone is the reassurance of Realism. You see this a lot in ghost stories, when there’s always a suggestion that the haunted protagonist might be mentally ill, or simply intoxicated. It’s also the reason for all those nested narratives and multiple points of view in novels like Melmoth, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, and Dracula. (You do it too, with the movement between different point of view characters in The Ash House.) The unreal challenges the real, leading to a morally and epistemologically transgressive moment: a dark epiphany when an ancient universe of superstition and barbarity rushes into the vacuum left by modern, civilized rationality, creating an atmosphere of brooding terror.
If you take this ‘essence’ on board, then you have a massive playing field. You can still use the traditional baroque trappings of gothic fiction, and go with lavish historical psychodrama, such as Lara Dietz’s In The Tenth House, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. You can strip down and modernize, like Richard Matheson in I Am Legend and Stephen King in Salem’s Lot. Or you can transpose and allegorise, like Park Chan-wook’s movie Stoker. Setting can also be infinite. The derelict spacecraft of Ridley Scott’s original Alien, for example, is a gothic castle while Ripley is a Radcliffian girl under sexual threat from the absurdly phallic monster.
As for the 21st century, it’s notable how utterly mainstream the Gothic has become. It’s no longer a ‘transgressive’ form of narrative, which for me has taken some of the fun out of it.
AC: You taught in Japan for a number of years. Are there classical and modern Japanese works which might be considered Gothic? What about other Asian works? How are they the same, and different from European Gothic stories.
SC: Yeah, I was in Fukui Prefecture on the west coast, between Osaka and Kyoto. Fukui City’s quite big, but the region’s predominantly rural and full of legends.
One night, I saw an old woman in traditional dress pushing an ancient hoop-frame bicycle toward the shrine on the top of Mount Asuwa while I was walking down. She was wearing an old-fashioned gasmask and seemed totally oblivious to my presence. I’ve never managed to entirely shift the thought that I’d just seen a ghost from the night the Americans bombed the city in World War II…
I don’t know as much about Japanese and East Asian Gothic as I should. If anything, I’m better on the movies. Like a lot of westerners, my first experience of Japanese Gothic were the ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn, received secondhand through Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 movie Kwaidan. Hearn moved to Japan from the US, married and became a Japanese citizen. He wrote extensively about Japanese culture around the turn of the century and translated and transcribed many folk tales and legends. The best of these are collected in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904). Some of these are amazing, but Hearn as an anthologist was infuriating, muddling up fiction with non-fiction as if desperate to pull in copy to fill a book. Kwaidan, for example, veers off at one point into a study of insects. Another good introduction is Japanese Gothic Tales by Kyōka Izumi (1873–1939), a beautiful blend of supernatural Romanticism and Modernism. For more contemporary Japanese Gothic, the writer most people will probably know is Koji Suzuki, the author of the Ring novels.
I don’t know a lot about Chinese literature, but I can heartily recommend Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling (1740). Again, I’m ashamed to say I came to it through the movies, specifically Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), which is loosely adapted from one of Pu’s tales. This was part of the renaissance in Hong Kong cinema and produced some remarkable ghost stories. My favourite is Rouge (1988) directed by Stanley Kwan, from the novel by Lilian Lee (Li Pi-Hua). I defy anyone to get through the third act without crying.
As to the relationship between the Asian and the European Gothic traditions, I’d say there was a lot of convergent evolution, with similar art being produced while practitioners had no knowledge of each other. My guess is European literature made its way to China along with the British East India Company, and to Japan after the Meiji Restoration. But the European stories would be feeding into a much older literary culture, since, in China, the Xia dynasty rising while the British were still living in caves.
There’s something archetypal about Gothic motifs and symbols. As the form is based around the human universals of sex, cruelty, obsession, violence and death, similar stories are going to develop along with human culture, and pretty much every society believes in ghosts and demons. But, despite the common themes and settings in many of the stories, there are also many differences. There’s more tragedy in the Asian stories I’ve read. Women often have more agency than their European counterparts, becoming supernatural instruments of vengeance, as in The Ash House. And just as European Gothic is a multifaceted form incorporating elements of Christian and pre-Christian myth, Enlightenment philosophy, revolutionary politics and Romantic individualism, the East Asian Gothic will necessarily draw on Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.
AC: After reviewing my MS for TLC, you very kindly blurbed my novel The Ash House, mentioning it was a ‘an original addition to the literature of subversion’. Now if I only knew what ‘the literature of subversion’ is. Would you care to enlighten us, perhaps with examples.
SC: Well, isn’t all the best stuff subversive?
This goes back to the theory of Gothic literature being transgressive through its revolt against Realism, which demands certainty and presupposes some sort of natural order to human society just as the omniscient narrator controls the text like God surveying the world.
Real life is much more complicated. Constructed meaning is always going to be contingent. Gothic fiction undercuts this sense of stability, offering multiple interpretations of phenomena and warning of screaming chasms of madness below. Remember the ‘dark epiphany’?
As a predominantly psychological form, the Gothic also explores drives and desires not usually admitted in polite society, its subject frequently taboo. It’s often the vehicle for political commentary and satire, too. The Marquis De Sade used it to mock Church and State, and in Frankenstein Mary Shelley challenged patriarchal authority right up to God. At a less metaphysical level, Gothic fiction is always going to be subversive through its content as well, which is all about sexuality and violence, delivered in an aesthetically extreme way.
AC: Do you see those subversive themes in your own fiction?
SC: I hope so. I am nothing if not an ageing punk rocker! I am by nature iconoclastic and have always been drawn to art that’s considered extreme, radical, subversive, and transgressive. The kind of subjects that appeal to me, as both a storyteller and an academic, tend to be outsiders. My current book (The Opium Eaters) is about drug use and creativity in the long 19th century, held together by the life of that great literary pariah, Thomas De Quincey. Before that, I wrote about the 19th Century Underworld, so: gamblers, beggars, bare-knuckle fighters, pornographers, prostitutes, revolutionaries, thieves, and murderers. In my fiction, my protagonists tend to be a similar type, not criminals necessarily, but social outcasts. I’m also, rather obviously, drawn to the Gothic in pretty much everything I write. It’s just how I see the world.
AC: And will we be seeing more of such subversive thoughts from you soon, either in fiction or non-fiction?
SC: Again, I hope so! There’s the Opium/De Quincey project to finish and I was supposed to be writing another Shark Alley novel… You know how it is, though. The day-job can get in the way of the big projects. What I really want to do – and have been working on and off on for years – is write a historical novel about the rise of Spiritualism, which is a subject that fascinates me. My late mother was one I and grew up around meetings and seances. The idea is to show how an entirely false narrative can create absolute religious certainty, and how the early prophets tend to get destroyed by it. The plan is to make it gothic but not at all supernatural. So, wish me luck on that one…
AC: Yes, good luck with everything you've got brewing Stephen. And thank you for this most erudite exploration of all books and movies Gothic.
To explore Stephen's writing about the Gothic, do have a look at here.
And if you're writing anything Gothic and want knowledgeable, supportive and incisive feedback, do contact him here.