Gothic Defined, and a Portal to a Mysterious Place

Gothic is an interesting word.

You know who the Visigoths were: those unsophisticated, crusty and crude pre-Germanic types who swooped down on the slothful, stuttering remains of the Roman Empire in the fourth century and gobbled them up. They were fairly illiterate victors, so they’ve gotten a bad rap in history. (Pardon me if I’m a little defensive. You know that my cultural/ancestral totem is Viking Barbie, yes?) They remain unpopular to this day.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, the most recognizable use of the word was connected to architecture. Think the cathedral of Notre Dame, all pointed arches and flying buttresses. Medieval (roughly 500-1450 CE) European castles and monasteries may also come to mind. When folks were building these magnificent edifices, they didn’t identify them as “Gothic.” That came much later, around the Renaissance (roughly 1350-1600 CE), when light and life returned to the earth, superstition was (almost) banished, and the artists and intellectuals rediscovered classical (read: Roman and Ancient Greek) architecture and ideals. The word “Gothic” was, in effect, a dis upon those benighted times. If those buildings from the Middle Ages hadn’t been built to withstand the Apocalypse, I daresay they would’ve all been knocked in disgust. (Read more about Gothic Architecture here. But do it later, okay?)

How far that little word has come, and what a delightful change of fortune it has had. Sort of.

The phrase “Gothic Literature” conjures thoughts of ghostly encounters, mystery, and a general air of dread. Possibly romance, as well. I blogged about the original Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, at some point here at the Handbasket–but I must have left tags off, and I’m way too lazy to go back through hundreds of posts. That novel was more horror-driven, and definitely lacked romance. (It’s worth a read and certainly in the public domain.) There was a long period in the 19th and 20th centuries where Gothic novels were decidedly equated with spooky romance–dark stories, but not particularly horrific.

Gothicism seems to have come full-circle, though. In the contemporary vernacular Gothic is all about the scare. Horror stories are called Gothic with impunity. And there are those who relish the physical trappings of the genre: black clothes, indoor (even ghostly) pallor, grim manners. (I’m teasing of course. I think Goths are cute.) There’s mystery, yes, but it’s of the dark and/or supernatural type. Once again Gothic refers to The Other, or The Outsider. They who must be despised or feared.

We never wander far from history, do we?

Okay, history lesson over! Time for something more fun, less educational, and not a little self-indulgent.

One of my favorite people in the lit business, Janet Hutchings, the editor Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, invited me to contribute to their blog, Something Is Going to Happen. She let me choose the topic, and I chose Gothic fiction. Not just because I’m working in the genre these days, but because it’s one of my favorites.

Please come by Janet’s blog and comment and look around the place. If you love mystery, you’ll be right at home.

Here’s the post: For Love of Gothic: When Home is the Most Mysterious Place of All

Leave a Reply