October 20, 2018

The Centrality of Gothic Fiction in Modern Genre Fiction

Question: To what extent are the "weird" genres--supernatural horror, science fiction, and fantasy--distinct" genres? Or, are they truly separate and autonomous traditions? Should we write histories of supernatural horror, science fiction, and fantasy? Should be categorize works along those lines? Should literary critics and fans discuss their differences?

Or, are these genres they part of the same tradition?

Many would say swiftly and categorically provide answer: "they are distinct."

J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, and Stephen King are clearly qualitatively distinct writers writing in different traditions and genres that treat different plots, characters, and conflicts. Right? What does Bilbo's quest to Erebor have to do with an investigation into the Cthulhu cult? What do the three laws of robotics have to do with Uruk-hai? How is Arkham relevant to the Foundation?

I would agree that the modern weird genres are distinct, but I have some essential conditions. Although, at this point, due to several causes, these genres have become separate and distinct, they are, and importantly so, connected, and most likely share an origin point.

Beginning as literary genres, they all emerge from the same deep and variegated cultural stream, which is literary history, of course. But such a flaccid, generalizing claim is not so interesting. So, let's get more specific.

I think there is a compelling case to be made for the idea that supernatural horror, science fiction, and fantasy emerge from the tradition of "Gothic" fiction in the late 1700s.

What is "Gothic" fiction? Let me spend the rest of this brief post giving a general overview of "the Gothic."

First, what does that word, "Gothic," even mean? It is one that changes meaning with context. In its earliest use, it referred to "the Goths," a quasi-historical group of Germanic people who were, at least in the popular imagination of 18th century Europe who were intrigued by them, responsible for the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.

Thus, when the adjective "Gothic" is used in English in the 18th century to describe architecture, art, and literature, the actual Germanic tribes who are referred to by the Goths had been homogenized in the European imagination.

I don't want to go into the complicated ancient historical distinctions here. Let it suffice it to say that there were several types of "Goths," and the two major strains who played an important role in the establishment of the culture of the middle-ages were referred to by by historians as the "Visigoths" (western Goths) and "Ostrogoths" (eastern Goths). To summarize, "Gothic" refers to the aesthetic style of the "the Goths," which was already a shorthand for a people who had been homogenized and mythologized by the European imagination.

So, when the adjective "Gothic" is used by 18th century Europeans to describe architecture, art, and literature, it is a very loose reference, which means non-Roman or even "Medieval," i.e. from the middle ages. But the theme that gave this reference power, I think, was time.

The Gothic, as a loose tag, referred to something outside of time.

Here are some undeveloped speculations and questions:

To what extent is science fiction a literature unfettered by time? It often focuses on the future. To what extent is fantasy a literature unfettered to time? It often focuses on the cultural past and myth. How about horror and its relationship to time? It channels elements of both fantasy and science fiction to the extent that it dramatizes the destruction of the ordinary, the order, the natural law, and so renders a violation, a transgression, and often of time, i.e. the past returns, erupts into the present. That which is dead doesn't stay dead.

Could these "Gothic" genres, these "weird" genres, thematize the destruction of the ordinary. I think they do indeed trouble the orthodoxy of now.