The American Gothic Tradition in Short Fiction

April 27, 2014
Title card from the first season of TV show

Title card from the TV show “American Horry Story” (Wikipedia).

America’s rich gothic tradition developed between the 1780s and the early 20th century and continues into modern times. From Puritanism and witchcraft, to swamp terrors and horror tropes, Abby Goode explores American Gothic short fiction in her summer class, “The American Gothic in Short Fiction”. We visited with Goode to find out more.



WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about your class?

Goode: This lecture and discussion-based class will focus on challenging traditional notions of the gothic. It will reconceptualize what we mean when speak of an “American gothic.” The class rests on the assumption that the gothic is a broader and more important part of American literature than we think, and that it is a foundational dimension of American literary history. We will explore reader responses to the gothic, such as fear and dread, as well as tropes in gothic literature, and major themes of gothic texts. Placing a broader tradition within a specifically American context, we will discuss how the concept of the “New World”–and its accompanying concepts of race, nation, gender, religion, and histories of colonialism–penetrate this genre that we most commonly associate with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). We will read unexpected and myriad American Gothic texts, texts explore themes such as Puritanism, witchcraft, colonial encounters, historical memory, rationality vs. irrationality, domestic dramas, psychological fragmentation, racial ambiguity, urban underworlds, social degeneracy, hybridized, diseased, and monstrous bodies, and the ecological terror of swamps and the wild American frontier.

WIH Reporter: In what ways has the gothic affected modern culture?

Goode: The gothic definitely reverberates in contemporary culture, especially in TV and film. Stephen King thrillers use tropes, themes, and settings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts and our class will touch upon this lineage between early American gothic and contemporary gothic modes. A recent example of the gothic’s effect on modern culture is the series American Horror Story: Coven (aired October 9, 2013 to January 29, 2014), which chronicles the experiences of a coven of Salem descendants living in a New Orleans boarding school. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but suffice it to say that the series deploys themes of sexual violence, torture, degeneracy, and ghosts. One of the more explicit references to nineteenth-century American gothic histories is the appearance of the character Madame Delphine LaLaurie (played by Kathy Bates), a Louisiana-born socialite and serial killer known for her torture, mutilation and murder of slaves. Coven is thus the most explicit contemporary articulation of intersections of gothic violence and vexed histories of gender and race that extend from Puritan New England to New Orleans. Critics also turn to the twentieth-century Southern gothic as a renowned and distinct tradition of the gothic that extends into modern times. Another modern form of gothic manifests itself in horror films, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Stephen King’s The Shining(1980). The latter carries distinct resonances with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839); both take place in a creepy ancestral home that seems alive and affects the mental state of its inhabitant, until he deteriorates completely.

WIH Reporter: What impact did the literature works read in this class have in its time compared to now?

Goode: There are myriad answers to this question but two distinct examples come to mind. The first is that the gothic affected the portrayal of religion in literature. For example, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), one of the first U.S. gothic novels, represents religious fanaticism as deeply corrupting. More specifically, the gothic often intersected with portrayals of Catholicism in nineteenth-century American literaturewhere sexual violence and horror emerged  in Catholic convent settings. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), a gothic and sensational account of sexual exploitation, narrated by former nun seeking to expose the atrocities of the Catholic convent system, provides a case in point. The second example of how the gothic affected the culture in its time is its association with the possibility of slave revolt, and more specifically, the Haitian Revolution. Throughout the antebellum period, the late eighteenth-century slave revolt in what was then called Saint Domingue hung like a shadow over the entire hemisphere, haunting the master class and slave traders as a horrifying possibility. Fictionalized accounts of this revolution, such as Leonora Sansay’s Secret History(1808) include sensationalized moments of psychosexual horror, violence, and mutilation. Widely distributed at the time, they claimed to tell the truth and provide inside information into the horrible affair of the revolution. Although one might argue that we have traces of these cultural impacts in our own time, it seems that the gothic retains the themes of sexual violence and atrocities but has become entrenched in other, more historically relevant contexts in our time. Consider, for instance, the throng of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films and shows that seem to deploy the gothic, as well as suspenseful and sensationalized crime fiction. These contexts reflect the anxieties of contemporary culture.

WIH Reporter: What fueled  your interest in this subject?

Goode: I am writing a dissertation chapter on the gothic and its intersections with human reproduction and ecology. This chapter takes up Sansay’s early American novel, a series of fictionalized letters originally written to her ex-lover Aaron Burr (that’s right!), and compares its portrayal of creole women’s fertility with its portrayal of land crab fertility in the West Indies, as the protagonist travels from Saint Domingue to Jamaica to Cuba, and then back to the U.S. It sounds wacky, but it has fueled a larger interest in the gothic in nineteenth-century literature and how it affects cultural portrayals of reproduction– a broader scholarly interest of mine. This might be a second book project for me after the dissertation. I’m particularly excited for this class because it will allow me to explore this corpus of fascinating and wild literature to see what kinds of readings emerge. I’m always delighted to find unexpected aspects of texts as I teach them, and can’t wait to see what we discover!

Goode’s 6-week class begins at 10:00 a.m. on April 29, 2014. For more information, click here.