30 October 2015

What Is... The Gothic?

This is a question I've been thinking about recently, because I'm reading a book about "Gothic science fiction," but I'm not convinced that I have the world's strongest grasp on what the Gothic is, beyond a genre where vaguely spooky things happen.

That's not quite true. Like many things literary, I was forced to confront its nature by teaching-- though I prepped a discussion on the Gothic that I didn't actually end up teaching, because my class turned out to have plenty of other things to say about Frankenstein, and so we didn't get to it. But on my PowerPoint slides, I wrote stuff like "Elements of the supernatural" and "Wild and desolate landscapes, ruined abbeys, feudal halls, medieval castles with dungeons" and "Refuses to resolve contradictions or settle ambiguities; leaves the contradictory and paradoxical, finding only unresolvable moral and emotional ambiguity" and "Renegotiates the line between 'good' and 'evil'." (I suspect a lot of this is probably derived from The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, which has turned out to be quite a useful investment as a teacher of literature.)

Interestingly, when looking up my Frankenstein slides, I also found where I discussed science fiction, and let me tell you, these two definitions of sf seem a little strange juxtaposed against one another:
“…[L]ess congenial to SF is the fantasy (ghost, horror, Gothic, weird) tale, a genre committed to the interposition of anti-cognitive laws into the empirical environment. …[T]he fantasy is inimical to the empirical world and its laws.” --Darko Suvin
“Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.” --Brian Aldiss
The emphasis here is mine. There's a very big divide there as regards the interaction between science fiction and the Gothic! Something to ponder in my review of this Gothic science fiction book, perhaps.

Anyway, the real problem is that it's just a genre I haven't read very much of; a look of the top items tagged "gothic" on LibraryThing, for example, reveals a mix of books I haven't read and books I think are more Gothic-influenced than outright Gothic. I've never read The Castle of Otranto or The Monk or any of those V. C. Andrews novels where a woman's face appears through a cutout on the cover. (I think my mom owned a number of these.)

What I have read, though, is comics. Specifically the complete run of The Sinister House of Secret Love, a short-lived DC comics series of Gothic romance tales from the 1970s. It lasted for four bi-monthly double-sized issues from Oct./Nov. 1971 to Apr./May 1972 before being retooled with issue #5 as Secrets of Sinister House. That version actually lasted until issue #18, but from #6 onward it was a pretty generic 1970s horror anthology comic, featuring a number of eight-page stories in each issue. It's those first five issues that are something special:

Such glorious covers! They're real treasures of 1970s comics, with art by heavyweights such as Tony DeZuniga, Dick Giordano, and, best of all, Alex Toth. They all draw such lush imagery, dripping with atmosphere. (And, of course, the ladies are all good-looking, and typically end up experiencing adventures in their flimsy nightgowns.)
from Secret House of Sinister Love #3
script by Frank Robbins, art by Alex Toth & Frank Giacoia
courtesy The Alex Toth Archives
You gotta love those 1970s fashions! (Surprisingly, I think, for the Gothic, I'm pretty sure all the stories are set in the present day, despite the present scarcity of ancient families inhabiting medieval castles.) This is actually the first time I've seen one of these in color; the reprints in Showcase Presents The Secrets of Sinister House were in black and white, and probably all the better for it-- Toth and Giacoia have amazing linework that really stands on its own without the colors.

These Gothic romance comics have very same-y plots: a young woman travels to a distant location, usually on a promise of romance and/or to get a job (typically as a governess). Something sinister is secretly going on-- usually the romantic figure is evil. There are minor variations; for example issue #4 takes place in India, and I have a vague memory that in one of the stories, the innocent girl is actually a reporter who knows a fair bit more than she's letting on. What makes them so worth reading is not the stories, but the artwork. I'd love to own these, but even at its cheapest, a single issue is at least $10, if not $30 (and, of course, the Alex Toth one is nigh-unavailable).
from Secret House of Sinister Love #4
plot by Mary DeZuniga, dialogue by Michael Fleisher, art by Tony DeZuniga
courtesy True Love Comics Tales
Do these stories have "Elements of the supernatural" or "Wild and desolate landscapes, ruined abbeys, feudal halls, medieval castles with dungeons," or do they "Refuse[ ] to resolve contradictions or settle ambiguities; leaves the contradictory and paradoxical, finding only unresolvable moral and emotional ambiguity" or "Renegotiate[ ] the line between 'good' and 'evil'"? Kind of. These definitely have the former of those: all the stories imply the supernatural even when natural causes are revealed in the end. I don't think they really feature the project of the Gothic genre, though, just the features: they're pretty, well, generic.

I was surprised to recently come across an instance of the genre recently, however, in the pages of the 1972-73 Marvel series Night Nurse. Night Nurse was another short-lived, four-issue series, this one about three nurses from diverse backgrounds trying to make it in the big city. It's basically exactly what you'd imagine: lots of melodrama (usually with men telling the nurses they can get married... if the women give up their careers) and hostage crises. In the 2000s, one of the nurses was repurposed as a character running a free night clinic for injured superheroes, which inspired an appearance by Rosario Dawson in a similar capacity on Netflix's Daredevil series.

"This is Daredevil, Matt Murdock. This is serious. We don't have time for jokes!"
I guess because of this, Marvel released a reprint volume containing all four issues of Night Nurse, plus one of the modern issues of Daredevil where the character appeared. Imagine my surprise, though, when after three issues of hospital drama, issue #4 turned out to be a stereotypical Gothic romance comic!

In issue #2, Christine Palmer-- who gave up a life as a Midwestern debutante to be a nurse-- fell in love with a gifted surgeon who turned out to be an alcoholic and was stealing drugs to pay off a debt and committed a hit-and-run on the daughter of his best friend, the police commissioner and botched the surgery that should have save her life. Also her jerk dad turns up and pressures her to come home even though in issue #1 he said he'd let her do her own thing. In issue #3, Chris is nowhere to be seen; one of the other nurses mentions she disappeared after all the brouhaha of issue #2.

In issue #4 you find out what she did: answered an ad for a live-in nurse at a creepy seaside manor! She has to walk there in a storm because none of the locals will come close; there's a sexy heir in a wheelchair, a creepy aunt, and a creepier butler; mysterious lights blink at night; and did that seaside railing just happen to collapse... or is someone trying to kill her!? It has very little to do with nursing, but is a perfect example of the Gothic romance comic. (Though Winslow Mortimer is not quite the right artist for the project. It's hardly his fault; his clean linework and straightforward style was really well-suited for the naturalistic tone of issues #1-3. He does manage to work in the obligatory gratuitous nightgown shot.)
from Night Nurse #4
script by Jean Thomas & Linda Fite, art by Winslow Mortimer
courtesy Sequential Crush
I don't know why this issue exists. Was it a desperate attempt to save a sinking series? Night Nurse #4 came out in May 1973, long after the retooling of The Secret House of Sinister Love ought to have shown there really wasn't a market for this kind of thing! And would sales figures for issue #1 even have been in before production of issue #4 began? Maybe scripters Jean Thomas and Linda Fite just really liked Gothic comics and thought they were a logical inclusion in a series about urban nurses?

If anything, it's even more generic than those issues of Secret House of Sinister Love, but its very incongruity contributes to it being a delight. The other Gothic romance comics I know of have never been collected: DC's The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love (1971-72) and Charlton's Haunted Love (1973-75). I hope that happens, and I hope I come across other Gothic tales as unlikely as that of Night Nurse.

Also I hope I figure out exactly what the Gothic actually is someday.


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  2. A few critical tidbits that might be of use regarding those nifty comics (from later critics summarizing two seminal works on the Female Gothic, rather than the works themselves):

    --When Ellen Moers first used the term ‘Female Gothic’ in Literary Women (1976), she thought that it was easily defined as ‘the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called “the Gothic.”’ A definition of ‘the Gothic’ was, she admitted, less easily stated, ‘except that it has to do with fear’ (90). Moers’ analysis of Female Gothic texts as a coded expression of women’s fears of entrapment within the domestic and within the female body, most terrifyingly experienced in childbirth, was extremely influential.--

    --the Female Gothic mode [is] a form that is generally distinguished from the traditional Gothic mode as it centers its lens on a young woman’s rite of passage into womanhood and her ambivalent relationship to contemporary domestic ideology, especially the joint institutions of marriage and motherhood. As such, the Female Gothic deploys the supernatural for political ends. As Eugenia C. DeLamotte explains in her incisive study of this genre, Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic, “[t]he ‘fear of power’ embodied in Gothic romance is a fear not only of supernatural powers but also of social forces so vast and impersonal that they seem to have supernatural strength” (17).--