Gothic Fiction and The Transgressive Supernatural, or, The Sword and Sorcery Protagonist Has a Sword!
by Jason Ray Carney
Sometime around 1790, something intangible happened. Trying to settle on any single definitive event is like trying to determine exactly when a pot of water began boiling. It can’t be done. The most we can do is point to a few bubbles: Immanuel Kant boldly defended the scientific method with his Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781; Edward Cartwright invented the steam-powered loom in 1785; starving peasants marched on the Bastille in 1789, and four years later the revolution executed King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette; and don’t forget Edward Jenner discovered vaccination in 1796. To put it mildly, the 1780s and 90s was a wild time: superstition began to give way to science, agrarian mercantilism to industrialization, monarchism to constitutionalism, and quackery to medicine. In the words of the sociologist Max Weber, the world had become “disenchanted;” the middle-earth of angels and demons overseen by a God judging creation had become an absurd ball of clay peopled by not-quite-animals who groped awkwardly for survival.
The Western Mind was reeling, unsettled from its previous sureties, and so thrown into a thrilling disorientation perhaps epitomized by Caspar David Friedrich’s beautiful painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818). The Westerner was that wanderer, gazing into the uncertain future. Though Feudalism did not completely give way to Constitutionalism, theology to the scientific method, agrarianism to industrialization, a new world was undeniably rising out of the mists. Not only had the world changed, it was continuing to change, and the pace of change was accelerating. We have a convenient catch-all name for this process: modernization. Around 1790, the Western World became modern.
Something else happened around 1790, but in the realm of art and culture. Like modernization, it is hard to pinpoint when this event gelled. We might see the first symptoms of it with the popularity of the so-called “Graveyard Poets,” such as Thomas Gray (1717-1771), who rendered graveyards, tombstones, and decaying bodies as precious reminders that time is running out. We might glimpse it in architecture, in edifices like Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House, a 17th-century villa he transformed into a faux medieval castle complete with crenellations and decorative suits of armor. Or, we might see it in Walpole’s literary hoax, The Castle of Otranto (1764), a faux-medieval manuscript about a haunted castle and a family curse. But there is no denying that by the 1780s and 90s the “the Gothic” had arrived with the novels of Anne Radcliffe (1764-1823) and M.G. Lewis (1775-1818). With Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Lewis’s The Monk (1796), and many more, a new Gothic tradition of literature was born: haunted tales of shadowy castles, bloody nuns, licentious monks, devils, torture chambers, and spectral music. At the same time, the Western World was looking into the future, basking in the light of science, constitutionalism, medicine, and engineering, there was a group of writers who retreated hissing into the shadows, and, curiously, “modern” readers loved them and their dark novels.
Like Sword and Sorcery, the Gothic is a backward-looking literary tradition that is obsessed with the premodern and is acutely aware of the passage of time, decay, and change. Like Sword and Sorcery, it is a literature of tombs, crumbling castles, feudalism, superstition, and dungeons. If we accept that the typical Western reader of the 1790s was living in a rapidly modernizing world, then it might be safe to claim the typical entertainment literature of the period was symbolically resisting and refuting modernity, in a similar way that interwar Sword and Sorcery symbolically refuted the economic depression. Gothic writers enthralled modern readers with tales of a haunted medieval past. Current events seemed to be disenchanting the world, putting the ghosts of the past to rest, and illuminating the world with sterilizing reason; Gothic novels, meanwhile, enchanted readers, provided them with labyrinthine, confusing plots of skullduggery, murder, sexual profligacy, and supernatural thrills, the literary equivalent of a Gygaxian, monster-haunted maze.
Like the premodern worlds of Sword and Sorcery, a keynote theme of Gothic literature is the transgressive and offensive nature of sorcery and the supernatural. The Gothic was a literature that deployed the supernatural as “gross out” sensationalism. Indeed, Gothic writers had learned from and were responding to a prior literature of Realism. In the early 1700s, “Realist” writers were in vogue, novelists like Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), and Henry Fielding (1707-1754). With their realistic novels of rogues, lucre-seeking entrepreneurs, and class-jumping servants, they censured the previous Medieval Romance of damsels, dragons, and knights; they taught Europe that “the ordinary,” a zone avoided like the Black Plague by medieval writers, could be rendered vividly, and even made interesting and dramatic. The life of the everyday, “quixotic” person was not the stuff of dragon hoards and knightly roundtables. Indeed, there were no dragons on Crusoe’s deserted island; no vampires plagued the pious Pamela Andrews, only a lovestruck master; only the threat of a bad reputation haunted Tom Jones. Nevertheless, these bourgeoisie, class-jumping protagonists had a propensity to “level-up.” They refuted the class-static world of feudalism and demonstrated how individuals might find drama in the rapidly disenchanting world perhaps epitomized by Robinson Crusoe’s island of despair. With the ascendancy of Realism and the defeat of Medieval Romance in the early 18th-century, who could have seen the Gothic coming, that literature of the transgressive supernatural?
The Gothic novelists wrote in the shadow of Realism (the specificity of this metaphor should be borne in mind). The Gothic novelists learned from their Realist progenitors how to use language to render the real and the ordinary. Their innovation, their genius stroke, was to dramatically destroy the ordinary, like a Buddhist monk who paints a mandala only to symbolically sweep it away, a gesture saturated with spiritual significance. All the Gothic novelists sought to destroy the ordinary, to render the supernatural as a spectacle. Importantly, though, they didn’t do it in the same way.
Horace Walpole rendered weird spectacles–giant suits of clanking armor, sighing paintings, ghostly voices–but he never revealed to his reader if these offenses to reason and sobriety were but fever dream imaginings of overtaxed brains or actual hauntings. Anne Radcliffe rendered disembodied music, animated skeletons, and ghostly nuns, but, in good taste, she explained these bogeys away as embarrassing misunderstandings, shameful results of overactive imaginations. That ghostly music was just a screeching window, that animated skeleton was just a corpse settling in decay, and that ghostly nun the protagonist saw: she was just a cloud of dust puffing from a bed that needed a good cleaning. Contra Walpole, Radcliffe conventionalized the “supernatural explained” with her novels. The supernatural explained made the Gothic, for a brief time, respectable to middle-class readers. This didn’t last. Matthew Gregoy Lewis scandalously broke the convention with his hellraiser, The Monk (1796). There is no supernatural explained in this novel of terror. Visualize the typical 19th-century reader arriving at the end of this demon-haunted tale, when the devil himself appears, throws the lascivious monk, Brother Ambrosio, off a cliff: our young reader turns the page, tentatively waiting for her lesson about how one’s imagination needs to be controlled. She turns another page. Another. She is confused. She is expecting this supernatural event to be tastefully explained away. Was the horned one just a man in a costume? If we listen closely, we can almost hear M.G. Lewis’s puerile laughter. The book ends. The supernatural is left unexplained, and our poor reader wrinkles her nose… for the smell of brimstone lingers.
Later Gothic novelists played with the supernatural, and always an undertone to their thematic treatments was this question: how to treat the supernatural? Should it be left ambiguous, suspended in artful tension? Should it be explained away to preserve good taste? Or, should it be emphasized, even accentuated, this transgressive, offensive supernaturalism? Writers like Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft found clever ways of solving the problem: what appears to be the supernatural is merely supranatural; Viktor Frankenstein’s strange alchemy is what we might term biomedical engineering; there are vampires, demons, and gods in Lovecraft’s worlds, but they are but unfathomable aliens, safely materialistic. Poe, arguably, side-steps this reality debate altogether by transferring the site of the supernatural from the world “out there” to the skull-sized, claustrophobic prison of the mind. Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, M.R. James, and others modulate their approach, sometimes rendering the supernatural, other times rendering the supranatural.
Where does Sword and Sorcery fit into this story? While not all Gothic fiction is Sword and Sorcery, it is not too much of a broad stroke to say that all Sword and Sorcery fiction is Gothic. Gothic fiction, like Sword and Sorcery, is a modern literary tradition; both literary traditions are responses to the disenchantment of the world. Both traditions use narrative language to give readers brief hallucinations of the supernatural. The Gothic tale, like the Sword and Sorcery tale, is an artistic technology for retreating into the past, the shadowy realm of pre-modernity, where demons play, spirits give hoarse whispers, and sorcery works. We crave the supernatural, even though it scares us; in this way the Gothic and Sword and Sorcery resembles a kind of hallucinogen: it is mind-altering, and the visions it renders are not always pleasant. Compared to the Medieval Romance, the modern genres of the Gothic and Sword and Sorcery cannot but view the supernatural as a transgression against the ordered, the order, and the ordinary. With the narrative black magic of Anne Radcliffe, M.G. Lewis, Robert E. Howard, and Fritz Leiber, we alienated readers are transported to a premodern world where sorcerers summon demons, monsters dance around fires, and the deepest dungeons hold unspeakable secrets and formless dreads from a time before humanity.
There are important differences between the traditions beyond the scope of this brief essay. For example, here’s a rich vein: if the Gothic is the Medieval Romance processed through disenchanting modernity, then Sword and Sorcery is Medieval Romance processed through the Gothic. This needs to be unpacked, for sure, but at another time. In any case, this literary historical perspective perhaps begins to explain the family resemblance between the two traditions, but leaves unaddressed their biggest difference: unlike the Gothic protagonist, the Sword and Sorcery protagonist wields a sword…
Jason Ray Carney, Ph.D. is a lecturer in popular literature and creative writing at Christopher Newport University; he is the author of the academic book, Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft (McFarland 2019) and the sword and sorcery anthology, Rakefire and Other Stories (Pulp Hero Press 2020). He co-edits the academic journal, The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies and is the editor of Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Pulp Sword and Sorcery. He is the area chair of the “Pulp Studies” section of the Popular Culture Association. He blogs at spiraltower.blogspot.com.