The Gothic: Horror or Mystery?

It’s been a rough week for us here, as our oldest cat, Lena Bell, has crossed the Rainbow Bridge. She was seventeen, a full-tilt diva, and my snuggle buddy. She curled up next to me while I drafted Carmilla’s Ghost, which I am currently editing. And it’s that editing process that got me thinking about where we place gothic fiction in contemporary classifications. Sure, it’s easy to assign the gothic to horror, given the monsters and the supernatural elements. That said, I want to make a case for assigning the gothic to a different genre of fiction: the mystery.

Now, I am not discounting the terror and fear that the monsters and supernatural elements evoke when I say that the gothic belongs to the genre of mysteries more than it does to the genre of horror. In fact, I think that this estimation enhances their import. What I want to explore briefly in this blog post are the nature of the crime to be uncovered, the symbol of the monster, and the importance of the setting.

The Crime to be Uncovered

If the gothic is a mystery, then it stands to reason that there must be something hidden to be uncovered. With most mysteries, we have a detective searching for evidence of who committed a specific crime. The gothic shifts the criminality from the legal realm to the spiritual realm. The detective in a gothic novel does not seek knowledge of a committed crime but of a committed sin – a sin that has damned one or more people (or that will damn one or more people) eternally. In a traditional mystery, innocent people (bystanders, victims, etc.) cannot be saved until the criminal is apprehended. In a gothic mystery, innocence and innocents cannot be redeemed until the sin is uncovered and the sinner punished.

And I think that’s where the “horror” of the gothic falls flat – especially when contemporary readers turn to traditional gothic novels and expect a fright fest like modern cinema. The “sin” of the gothic is inextricably linked to the morality of the time in which it was written. Using La Fanu’s Carmilla as an example, the discovery of the “sin” of lesbian sex doesn’t arouse the same horror and shock today as it did in the early decades of the nineteenth century. And so it fails as “horror,” a fact that numerous student essays have confirmed.

However, when we treat it like a mystery, the tale opens into a world of the fantastic that reveals the fears and insecurities of an age better than if it were a horror tale. It also makes sense, given that the point-of-view character in Carmilla happened to be a detective. La Fanu’s other works happened to be mysteries. Early gothic novelist Horace Walpole is often credited with saying that “the Gothic is mystery in which God himself is the detective.” I cannot verify the quote; although, I have often seen it attributed to him in literary collections and textbooks. So, take the attribution with a grain of salt, but consider that original gothic tales have been linked to the mystery genre from their inception.

The Symbol of the Monster

If we take that the gothic is a mystery where we seek to uncover a hidden sin that has brought, or will bring, about damnation, then we must look to the monster as a symbol and not a literal entity. From the Latin monstrare, meaning “to uncover, monsters have long been studied as symbols representing the fears and negative aspects of society. Monsters revel in those things that a “polite” society wishes to keep hidden.

This is why they work so well in the gothic, especially when taken as a mystery. The monster gives a symbolic manifestation of the hidden sin. Ghosts represent the guilt that haunts the sinner. Vampires represent the obsession and addiction that plagues a sinner. Lycanthropes represent the bestial nature that one struggles to keep hidden. Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein’s Creature represent the arrogant folly of mortals who seek to claim the powers of the gods.

For a monster to be effective in a gothic tale, the interpretation must be continually updated to reflect that which a society wishes to keep hidden. Perhaps that is why Dracula continues to fascinate more than Carmilla. Western society, save for a few antiquated holdouts, no longer sees lesbianism as a damnable sin. Dracula, however, presents a vampire who attempts to appear suave and seductive but who is, in fact, a violent, abusive, narcissist. Pair that with current political events, and it becomes easy to see why vampire films become more prevalent when Republicans have control of the U.S. federal government, as vampires often represent the excesses of the 1%. In a similar vein, scholars have long noted that zombie films often represent mindless consumerism gone amok. The monster must represent a terrible truth that society wishes to keep hidden, lest society be damned by its uncovering.

The Importance of the Setting

If the monster provides a clue to the sin to be uncovered, then the setting provides a clue that something is troubled. The setting in a gothic tale is, in many ways, a sentient character in its own right. Consider the traditional “haunts” of a gothic tale: an ancestral home where a once-noble bloodline lives in disarray, a cemetery, a once-proud but now ruined castle, an isolated village surrounded by fog. The setting in the gothic truly embodies the ancient belief that the exterior is a reflection of the interior (similarly, the monster’s wretched appearance suggests a spiritual wretchedness). If the exterior, the setting, shows so many signs of decay, then the interior must be rotting at a great pace.

The setting exists in a state of sympathetic vibration to the great sin that must be uncovered. The deterioration of the setting clues the reader into the fact that something is amiss. The setting can even change depending on the actions performed in the narrative. Consider Dorian Grey and his portrait. As Dorian becomes more wanton in his sinning, he remains beautiful and youthful, but his painting ages and grows more wretched in appearance.

The setting in the gothic provides plenty of opportunities to symbolize fault, flaw, sin, depravity, and darkness through seemingly inconsequential details like torn curtains, the color of paint, the squeak of a door, and the sounds that go “bump in the night.” Just as a detective in a traditional mystery seeks clues to the crime in the setting: footprints, finger prints, a fired gun, a bloody knife, or even dirt on the bottom of a boot, so too does the detective in a gothic tale seek out clues in the setting.

The setting, like the monster, needs to be continually updated to resonate with the society to whom the tale is told. The traditional haunts of the gothic can easily read as cliche and “hokey” to today’s audience. Empty shopping centers, decaying urban spaces, small towns devastated by a hurricane and abandoned are places that could provide settings for a contemporary gothic tale.

In conclusion, while there is fear and terror, I think that the gothic tale benefits from being read – and written – as a mystery. The challenge of the gothic mystery is that writing it well requires a keen understanding of one’s society and social situation. That said, I think understanding and working with the gothic as a mystery could move the tale and the genre into a place of greater respect in literary circles.

And, as a reminder, Liam’s Doom goes on sale 9 March 2021 at all major and minor retail outlets from Amazon to Barnes & Noble to I request that you support, as their site supports local and independent bookstores.

Photo by Veit Hammer on Unsplash