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The Permanent Platform of Atomium Culture brings together some of the most authoritative universities, newspapers and businesses in Europe to increase the movement of knowledge: across borders, across sectors and to the public at large.
La plataforma permanente Atomium Culture reúne a las universidades, periódicos y empresas más prestigiosos de Europa para promover el flujo del conocimiento más allá de fronteras, entre sectores y hacia el público en general.

Formulaic Horrors: The Modern Gothic Romance

Por: | 13 de diciembre de 2012


By Brigita Jeraj, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich

If you think of “Gothics”, the image of darkly dressed young adults with pale faces and poor music taste may come to your mind. Gothic in the literary context is something different, although traits of this image can be found there as well—for example, in the appearance of vampires in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga.

Both the modern subculture and the literary genre have some commonalities: they are shocking and fascinating at the same time. Meyer’s bestsellers are modern Gothic fiction; these horror stories have captured mainstream media attention because of their popularity. It is surprising that the genre is popular again nowadays, as its origins date back as early as to the 18th century. Can the genre’s resurging popularity be explained by its treatment of love and fear in an entertaining way? Or is it because the books in this genre always follow the same plot structure? An orphaned, beautiful young woman, often struggling with her identity, comes to a mysterious house (her new home), where she faces danger and evil. She may encounter obstacles, another woman, and many dark secrets. In the course of events, the heroine becomes more and more confident and eventually finds herself. In the end, there is a marriage or the heroine is at least rescued by someone who is good-looking and strong.

As simple and dull as this patterned plot sounds, Gothic literature also deals with everyday problems of life, mainly problems inherent in the lives of women. This is why mainly women read those books and why such literature is called the “female Gothic”—fiction written by female authors for women and about women. In 1984, Janice Radway (Reading the Romance) concluded, after analysing interviews concerning the relationship between audience and text, that women read romance because they want to escape their everyday routines.

Gothic romances are like soap operas: you can skip several episodes or read pages with less attention and yet know what is going on. Not many people read scholarly books on a morning subway ride to work, unless they have to. More likely, these readers grab a newspaper or a work of literature that follows a distinctive formula, such as crime fiction or romance. John G. Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery And Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (1976) provides a theory for such formulaic stories (and for Gothic fiction). Even before you buy such a book, you know what to expect because of the characteristic cover design. The title pages of Gothic romances always show a beautiful woman, running from a house in a stunning but—because of the stormy weather—rather unsuitable dress for such conditions. Gothic romances definitely play to the reader’s expectations. The French structuralist Gérard Genette described in Paratexts (1987) that a literary text barely appears in its naked state, but is surrounded by elements like a title, a cover or material supplied by editors and that this can change the reception of a text.

In the 1960s, there was a boom of Gothic romances in the paperback market. In the US, Phyllis A. Whitney and Michael Avallone were among the most popular writers. For marketing reasons, Avallone pretended to be a female writer by using pseudonyms like Dorothea Nile, Edwina Noone, and Priscilla Dalton for his “Gothics”. Both writers published in various fields of literature and thought a lot about the process of writing itself. Avallone once said: “A professional writer should be able to write anything from a garden seed catalogue to the Bible and everything that lies in between” (The Little Times Jan 27, 1982). Avallone’s and Whitney’s literary remains and unpublished correspondence surely are worth exploring in the Gothic context, not only because of the newfound popularity of the genre but also because of the particular handling of gender and emotion in and apart from the text. Despite the fact that many of the valuable resources like manuscripts, letters and newspaper articles are accessible in an archive in Boston, they have not yet received much attention. One of my main research questions is to determine if there is a notable difference between the writing of a male writer pretending to be female and the writing of a female writer, especially when both of the writers address their fiction primarily to a female audience.

My project also seeks to connect Avallone’s and Whitney’s work to Daphne du Maurier, by whom they are most likely influenced. Du Maurier was a British writer who revived Gothic fiction in the 20th century. Her novels Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and the short story “The Birds” are more commonly known as Hitchcock movies. Du Maurier picks up Gothic conventions and requisites like gloomy houses, desolate landscapes and villainous heroes. She then uses this conventional Gothic style to confront the reader with contemporary problems in society. If you evaluate du Maurier’s work against the classic female Gothics of the past centuries as well as the paperback romances of the 1960s, she turns out to be the connection between “popular” and “elite” literature.

Most notably, du Maurier modernized the Gothic heroine by playing with male/female doubles and reversals: Mary, Marda, and Rebecca are no passive puppets but women who perfectly combine stereotypical male and female features. In contrast, John Baxter, the main character of du Maurier’s short story “Don’t Look Now”, struggles throughout the story with his feminine side, laughs off several warnings, and therefore loses his life. There are strong women characters in modern Gothic fiction, a genre that presents itself in a formulaic outfit that suggests rather old-fashioned gender roles. However, the books (and movies) provide a dreamscape where the heroines also face horrors of a modern society; in this dreamscape, threatening situations and fears are played off. The reader can safely test his or her own emotional limits and identify a spectrum of possible solutions. The Gothic genre nowadays is more visible because it has become a popular style, but its attractiveness also lies in its special treatment of gender relations. The next time you pick up a classic Gothic story, see if you can discern the distinct elements of its horror-filled formula.

Brigita Jeraj
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich

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