Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Gothic Gotham [Guest Post]

As promised, occasional guest-Adventureblogger GW Thomas is back. He's actually sent in a couple of posts that I wanted to have up before now, but needed to figure out how to fit in with Countdown to Halloween. Not tone-wise, but just schedule-wise. Having to post a couple of times a day for the last couple of days helped me figure that out though, so this morning we have GW on the importance and influence of gothic literature (very timely for the season!). Then this evening I'll talk about another horror movie. Enjoy! And thanks to GW for the great piece! -- Michael

In 1764, a bored English peer, no longer active in politics, builder of a fairy tale castle in the middle of Twickenham, came up with a strange idea for a book. He wanted to tell a modern story but with elements of days gone-by. You know the kind of thing: ghosts, violent sword-fights, secret doors, family curses, desperate adventures. The only problem was he lived in the Age of Reason. Nobody wrote that kind of silliness anymore. Man had Intellect. He had Science. Books were for instruction, logic and improvement. Why would anyone want to read such an anomaly, such an anachronism?

But he wrote it anyway. And published it under a pseudonym. It was a bestseller. For the second edition, he revealed his authorship and some felt it was a cheat. For he had presented it as an old manuscript, not a new story. Others didn't care and wrote more stories just like it. The book was called The Castle of Otranto (published in 1765). It was the first Gothic novel and it's importance (or perhaps more importantly the Gothic's importance) is only now being truly revealed. Horace Walpole's tale of lost heirs, gigantic armour, family curses, fleeing through tunnels, improbable plot twists and operatic dialogue seems quaint by today's standards, but its legacy drives all the most popular media of today.

The Gothic is the fountainhead from which all genre fiction springs. Its inspiration of the Horror genre is pretty easy to see. It's not that far from Otranto to Dracula. From the dreams of a young woman, Mary Shelley, it became Science Fiction. From there it sprang, through the genius of Gothic master, Edgar Allan Poe, into the Mystery and Detective genre. The mainstream toyed with the Gothic for a while, taking in and then kicking it out again, but not before such writers as the Bronte Sisters, Sir Walter Scott and Henry James borrowed from it for "serious" novels. From these it became the less serious Gothic Romance. Blending with mythology and fairy tales, it became Sword-and-Sorcery and Modern Fantasy. The daring-do of the Gothic inspired flamboyant heroes as far apart as the Scarlet Pimpernel, Captain Blood and Allan Quatermain. It was the Pimpernel that would grandfather Jimmy Dale, the Gray Seal, (by Frank L. Packard) the first of the Masked Avengers, siring the Pulp heroes from the Shadow to Phantom Detective. And it was only a very short bus ride from there to the Comics.

Let's skip ahead 174 year after Otranto to 1939. A young artist named Bob Kane teams up with writer Bill Finger to produce a new, stranger kind of detective to stand out from the crowd of Superman wannabes. Masked (of course) but winged as well, he was Batman (first appearance Detective Comics #27, May 1939). Not since Superman started leaping tall buildings in a single bound had a character caught the public's fancy so strongly. But unlike the Man of Steel, Batman is dark, creepy and utterly Gothic. Where Superman is an alien from another planet, Batman is just a man tortured by loss, the Heathcliff of superheroes. Where Superman gained powers given him by his birthright, Batman has to rely on his own inventiveness to create new gadgets. Superman faces forces from outer space, while Batman deals with insane criminals of a more earthly nature.

I was struck by all this recently while watching the pilot of the new Gotham series. Even though the detectives mentioned things like DNA and used computers, the feel of Gotham is so close to Bill Finger and Bob Kane's original dark vision. The fun of the show for some is the old "Year One" effect. In other words, let's see where all these heroes and villains came from. And in this way I did enjoy it too. But it was actually the Gothic effect that really made me watch. The driving force of Gothic is the past trying to destroy the future. The death of Bruce Wayne's parents begins a course of action that will lead to everything that will happen to Batman. Like a good Noir novel (a very Gothic enterprise, indeed), the tragedy that makes Bruce Wayne the Batman pulls in two directions. It makes him a superhero, more than an ordinary man, but it also consumes him, robbing him of any kind of ordinary happiness. It is this conflict that makes Batman so enduring. It is this frisson that keeps us watching even when the plot lines get convoluted and (let's be honest) so improbable that we could not possibly buy it if presented any other way. The Castle of Otranto has this same goofy logic that has earned it the hatred of the Reasoners, those scientific Rationalist who poo-pooed the Gothic back in the 1700s (Jane Austen's Northhanger Abbey hinges on this contempt and the idea that reading Gothics ruined young women's minds.) It was the same hatred that Fredric Wertham presents in Seduction of the Innocent (1954) and for the Senate Committee on Juvenile Deliquency (and I would extend that even to the vitriol heaped upon Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s. I have almost forgiven Tom Hanks for being in Mazes and Monsters (1982). Almost.)

I have often thought humanity divides pretty easily here. Let's call it the Otranto Line. For some the world of facts, ledgers, evening news, sports, DIY and all things seeable, proveable. On the other side: Walpole's camp, are the dreamers, the LARPers, the fanboys, those who stood in line for hours to see The Lord of the Rings first, who see that this season we have Arrow plus three other DC shows and cry tears of joy. These are my people. They are the Children of the Gothic. Those who dwell upon the unseeable, the unproved. Who felt a little chill the first time Michael Keaton said "I'm Batman!" Long live the Gothic!

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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