Dark Times: On the 21st Century Gothic

By Mark McGurlSeptember 22, 2012

Dark Times: On the 21st Century Gothic

Gothicka by Victoria Nelson

BEFORE WE CAN BEGIN to take the measure of Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and The New Supernatural, Victoria Nelson’s vivid, compendiously learned study of recent developments on the dark side of popular culture, we need first to agree that there is no God. This might seem like a lot to ask in the first sentence of a book review, but I’ll need even more from you: a further agreement that Satan, witches, angels, fairies, zombies, ghosts and vampires don’t exist either. Okay? From God on down, it’s a cavalcade of fictional characters, figures, figments, tending either toward the “darkness” or the “light,” but none of them, in the conventional sense, real.

That it’s necessary to play the dogmatic-materialist-killjoy card in advance of any consideration of Nelson’s thesis about the Gothic is a testament to the weight of the evidence she offers to prove it: centuries of novels, high art fantastic literature, pulp fiction and film, and now reams of sexy vampire romances she knows well enough to interpret with admirable subtlety and sophistication. First offered at the outset of her award-winning 2001 book The Secret Life of Puppets and now updated to account for some of the Gothic bestsellers and blockbusters of the new millennium, her argument is that we discover “our repressed religious impulses by looking at the supernatural in fantastic novels and films [. . .] We can locate our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul by looking at the ways [fictional characters] carry on their roles as direct descendents of graven images.”

Nelson is not the first literary intellectual to demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the lowly cultural materials floating in what she calls the “sub-Zeitgeist,” but she is certainly among the bravest in coming so close to speaking as a fan, and among the boldest in laying out a Total Theory of what it all means. By the same token, re-stating the fact of the matter about the supernatural — that it is fictional — suggests a Great Wrongness in that Total Theory, a misinterpretation of what the Gothic tradition in culture actually betrays. To be sure, the incompleteness of the historical process of secularization has been a longstanding theme in theories of modernity, from Max Weber to Otto Rank to Charles Taylor, and Nelson’s reading of the Gothic fits nicely within that tradition. But I think she misses what makes the Gothic so interesting as a particular instance of that incompleteness.

For starters, a phrase like “our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul” rests on some unacknowledged assumptions. To buy it, we have to agree that “we” are repressing our religious impulses as opposed to, say, imposing them on others, as has been common enough throughout secular history and remains a constant irritation, even now, to strong religious skeptics. Consider the outlandish things you can believe and still be elected president of the United States, for example, and consider, too, the unlikelihood of electing an unashamed atheist to that office. Perhaps you have seen the statistics about how many Americans believe in God (82 percent) and the devil (62 percent); who reject the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution (82 percent) and believe the earth is between six and 10,000 years old, etc. When speaking of — or to — inhabitants of the United States, that’s who “we” predominantly are. But the implied readership of Gothicka — not unreasonably for a book published by Harvard University Press — is a highly specific secular-academic elite, a group it would make sense to lecture to about their repressed religious impulses. In Gothicka, the pronouns “we” and “our” are portals to an entire missing dimension of the argument, a sociology that would patiently map the rise and relation of various communities of belief and unbelief (and disbelief!) over the course of modernity, insofar as they have mattered to Gothic literature and film.

But this is not my real problem with Nelson’s book, which unfolds a lot more entertainingly than a patient sociological study ever could, giving itself over, along the way, to the substance and detailed texture of the novels and films themselves, from Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu to Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, William P. Young’s The Shack and the lesser cinematic works of Guillermo del Toro. Many of these are likely have escaped the serious reader’s attention, and yet, for that same reader, part of the fun of the books is watching how the artifacts of mass culture emerge from longstanding cultural traditions. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of Camille Paglia — but with the gadfly impulse turned down a few notches, and with death replacing sex as the chief preoccupation — Nelson ranges freely across centuries of cultural history in a way it’s tempting to call “undisciplined,” but in a mostly admiring sense. Nelson is in fact a somewhat unorthodox scholar, having written a “how-to” book on dealing with writer’s block, a memoir of life in Hawaii, and a slim volume of short fiction before hitting upon her great theme. Her eclecticism is associated here with a fearlessness one rarely encounters in more specialized academic souls.

Indeed, Nelson’s theory does not stop with the claim that our dormant religious impulses are expressed in our love of over-the-top, unrealistic literature and film. This would leave the deep gloom and terror characteristic of the Gothic supernatural unexplained. And so The Secret Life of Puppets sketches the whole story of how, together, the scientific and Protestant revolutions gradually drove the real-life miraculous to the margins of respectable belief. This process gave us the “rationalized, intellectualized Christianity that is our culture’s official gatekeeper to the other world,” but it also gave us the stories we call Gothic (or “Gothick,” as Nelson calls them, adding the “k” to distinguish the cultural-artistic tradition from the historical Teutonic tribes). After the Age of Miracles had officially been deemed closed, the really wonderful stuff could only appear either at the safe, gauzy distance of sacred history or in the safely fictional form of demon-obsessed novels. And yet, as Nelson puts it, in the “mass migration of former citizens of the territory of believe into the new territory of imagine the disinfection process was anything but complete.” Nelson is not much for sociology, but she does work with a fairly robust post-Freudian psychology, one that envisions the mind as an economy of drives, the drive to believe in supernatural agency very much among them. For many that drive has been inhibited, but in fiction it scratches toward the light.

According to Nelson, the relative cultural balance of religion and mass culture has been shifting in the modern world: whereas art once had to seek within religion for inspiration, these days we see religions springing forth from mass culture, as what Nelson calls “Secondary Belief” — the kind of intense play-acting one associates with groupie fandom — shades off into “Primary Belief,” which no longer sees fiction for what it is (fiction). This boundary is worried to the point of collapse in phenomena like real-world Cthulhu cults, in the soft-focus spiritualism of the Twilight-inspired “fanpires,” and, of course, in Scientology, a global religion that sprang from the imagination of a pulp science fiction author. It is a phenomenon related to what Nelson calls the “New Expressionism,” where a formerly internalized, chastely psychological relation to the supernatural is projected outward (ex-pressed) as a fully material presence: “Against the twentieth century’s extremes of subjectivity and internalization [. . .] our new century is witnessing a complex aesthetic move back to objectivity and externalization.”

What’s more, after centuries down in the cellar with the dismembered bodies, the Gothic in the new millennium is beginning to “turn toward the light” in the moral sense. This is the emphasis of the new book, in which we are treated to informative renderings of the weakly feminist “faux Catholicism” of Dan Brown, who always contrives a happy ending, of the trajectory of Anne Rice from sleazy vampire queen to devout Christian and then part of the way back again, of the crypto-Mormonism of Twilight creator Stephanie Meyer, of the gradual softening of the figure of Satan into the likably heroic Hellboy, and on and on. Nelson seems to approve of this moral turn, although she readily admits that the tendency to lighten up the genre is countered by the persistence of the Gothic in its more purely negative form. As against Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, one might point to Christopher Nolan’s relentlessly bleak Dark Knight movies, the most recent of which was made the occasion for the “expression” of an actual impulse to mass-murder. But the brightening of the Gothic that Nelson detects is undeniably there amidst all the sparkly vampires, friendly devils, and cute Cthulhus, and makes a lot of sense in her scheme. For her, the darkness of the Gothic was only ever situational, the historical byproduct of the monopoly on the good supernatural claimed by the Church.


But doesn’t our fascination with Gothic darkness spring from sources both deeper and more specific than our suppressed religiosity? I think it does, and this is why Nelson, despite her tremendous erudition, may have ultimately gotten the Gothic wrong. In fact, I think the Gothic springs from more or less the opposite kind of suppression: it is a symptom not of our suppressed religiosity but of our suppressed realism. The Gothic is one way of managing our intuition that the material world, writ large, may be utterly indifferent to human ends, so indifferent that it might as well be malevolent. This is a truth that began to force its way into human consciousness upon the advent of scientific modernity, although it had been granted formal recognition as early as ancient Epicurean philosophy. In a sense it has always been there, noticeable on any occasion when life reveals itself as objectively and irredeemably unfair. It has had highly various effects on different social groups, ranging from the furious pursuit of technological and biomedical melioration, on the one hand, to the modern phenomenon of anti-modern religious fundamentalism on the other.

For Nelson, the big secret is that “we” are really religious, and our mass culture is what gives us away. But surely the deeper and darker secret is that we have no real grounds for being religious other than our fear of what a world bereft of supernatural agency entails. Let’s start with our fear of death: a death which is real death, something from which we do not return, and the first step toward being utterly forgotten. This is true for most individuals, of course, who, if they’re lucky, will be remembered on fleeting occasions by their grandchildren and then not at all. But it is also true for the human race in toto. On the astrophysical timescale our species has barely existed and will be gone momentarily, taking the faculty of memory along with it. This is the sort of cosmic pessimism that informs the pulp horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, about whom Nelson has many interesting things to say; but the cosmic horror also routinely comes down to earth, where so-called natural forces — entropy, for one, which is slowly pulling you apart — can be seen waging an endless, merciless war on human dignity.

The Earth is also is where we find politics, another dimension of the Gothic largely absent from Nelson’s theory, but clearly important to the genre’s history as a place to stage the lingering horrors of pre-modern, pre-democratic social institutions like the Catholic Church and the aristocracy. Just recently there has been much discussion of the politics, left or right, of Nolan’s Batman series, but perhaps what the films really betray is a sense of the sheer nastiness and corruption of the political sphere as such, which, in an election year especially, is content to reduce itself to the Gothic science of “going negative.”

Nelson is not wrong to see religious impulses in postmillennial Gothic culture, then; she is only wrong in giving those impulses the last word. It is after all true that people will find all sorts of ways not to ponder the ultimate truth of the matter — of materialism — which is indeed an incredibly unhelpful, even mal-adaptive truth. Nelson is certainly not alone, among intellectuals, in downplaying this truth, although it was not always so. The radical negativity of nature was, for instance, central to the broader psychoanalytic and existentialist intellectual culture that thrived through most of the twentieth century, working in the spirit, if not to the letter, of Freud’s “reality principle.” As late as 1976, this tradition could still produce a Pulitzer-winning work called The Denial of Death, in which Ernest Becker insisted that pretty much everything we do contributes to the “Vital Lie” that keeps the horrible truth of our mortal and needy corporeality at bay. Starting out in a different place entirely, Becker arrives in the land of Lovecraft: “As an animal organism man senses the kind of planet he has been put down on, the nightmarish, demonic frenzy in which nature has unleashed billions of individual organismic appetites of all kinds.” Perhaps it was the rise of postmodernism that eclipsed this existentialist tradition, convincing intellectuals all too well that “there is nothing outside the text” — not even death? If reality is “constructed” — only a series of gravity-defying representations —then maybe a religious representation will do as well as any other, feeding the fantasy that we can live forever.

The Gothic is on the far end of a continuum of ongoing psychological and cultural responses to the indifference of the material world, ranging from the wholly positive, as in a nauseatingly treacly TV show like Touched by an Angel, to the starkly nihilistic, as in a work like Carleton Mellick’s cult novel Satan Burger, which is nauseating in a completely different way (more intentional, and involving completely different fluids). What’s really interesting about the Gothic, in this context, is the extreme negativity that is its most distinctive trait, which seems to run at cross-purposes to the Vital Lie. In fact, though, the very uselessness of the dark knowledge on offer in the Gothic is the ultimate source of its beauty. This is evident in the hysterical artificiality of the genre, all its baroque, faux-Catholic trappings, which have convinced Nelson that it is at base simply more religion. But while it’s true that the Gothic cannot seem to let go of traditional religious symbols, it typically inverts their meaning. In the Gothic, a priest is not a human conduit to God, he is a rapist, and his church a kind of torture chamber. And if we ask “what about that inversion?” we are led eventually to its origin in the real. That becomes clear when one looks at the original wave of Gothic novels of late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, like Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. Far from believing that the Age of Miracles has come again, they are in fact rigorously realistic in taking care to reveal the natural devices that explain the seemingly magical events they portray. All it would take is an intensification of this drive to “keep it real” for things to get very strange again. What could be more disturbing to the complacency of ordinary realism than the world viewed as modern science was just then beginning to scale it, opening knowledge up to the seethingly small and gapingly large?

Far from being a matter of merely theological dispute, Nelson’s ultimate turning away from the negativity of the Gothic has consequences for her readings of specific works of literature and film. Above all, it forces her to discount the dogmatic-materialist-killjoy aspect of the genre at every turn. This is most troubling in her readings of Lovecraft, who is treated at length in both of Nelson’s books on the Gothic only to have his constantly reiterated contempt for religion poo-poohed as the mask worn by an essentially religious writer. It’s true that Lovecraft’s stories are populated by lots of “gods,” who tend to be more powerful than any creature known to science. However, it is a crucial feature of Lovecraft’s grotesque Old Ones that they are utterly indifferent to the hopes and dreams of humans, whom they hardly seem to notice except to flick them away like insects. Insofar as these monsters are consoling in a quasi-religious sense, it is only in how they convert pure, objectless anxiety — the emotional background radiation of our mortality — into tangible, and even entertaining, objects of horror. So, sure, one can bust on Lovecraft for his less-than-consistent attachment to scientific truth — one can even call him “religious” — but only at the cost of missing what’s most interesting about him as a writer. The same could be said of Dan Brown. Brown himself may or may not be religious, and his fictional conspiracies are undoubtedly half-baked concoctions from the historical archive, but The Da Vinci Code is impeccably realist in its core thesis that Jesus Christ was a mortal man.

It’s no surprise, then, that the weakest chapter in Gothicka is the one on zombies, who would seem to be anything but Jesus-like in how they rise, en masse, from the dead. Nelson accurately notes that these beings, who have been giving vampires a run for their money in recent palpitations of the sub-Zeitgeist, seem “unique among twenty-first-century Gothick subgenres in actively discounting the supernatural and any kind of spiritual framework.” The zombie “apocalypse” is, furthermore, a patently secular re-envisioning of a religious genre: it springs not from divine retribution but from environmental and epidemiological disaster, from the fact that accidents happen. “But this begs the question that man-eating corpses do not walk the world we live in,” Nelson demurs, and thinks it fair to ask “what exactly, at the level of spiritual problem, does a zombie apocalypse signify?”

And yet it’s also fair to ask what the “spiritual problem” itself signifies. The zombie apocalypse — not to mention the many other versions of the apocalypse on offer in today’s popular culture, surely one of its most distinctive traits — is only a spiritual problem because it is, at base, a real, or at least a realistic, problem. As an allegorical figure, the zombie is almost too useful, a stand-in for so many things that it can be hard to keep track of them. I have argued elsewhere that zombies are most important as the opposite image of the rich and evolving fictional characters we find in the realist novel; that is, they are the flattest of flat characters, human beings reduced to the greedy firing of synapses. But I’m equally persuaded by Evan Calder Williams’s reading of the zombie, in his book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, as the “standing reserve army” of the unemployed, who, in keeping labor costs low, give capitalist vampires a permanent (and in our time growing) advantage over workers. To me, both of these secular interpretations are preferable to one, like Nelson’s, that makes the zombie a religious figure after all.

Prophets of doom are rightly mocked when their precisely dated predictions for the end of the world do not come to pass, and any given fictional scenario of that end is likely to be, in its details, wildly wrong. But as a matter of fact the world will end someday; the prophets and the zombie novelists are completely right about that. And in the meantime people will continue to be cruel to one another in ways too horribly real to contemplate in the light of day. This fact, and not our repressed religious faith, is why we can be confident that the Gothic will be around for as long as we are.


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LARB Contributor

Mark McGurl is Professor of English at Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and Rise of Creative Writing.


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