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The Gothic Genre In Literature

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The gothic genre, largely developed during Romanticism in Britain, has been associated with the combination of mystery, the supernatural, horror and, at times, romance. Starting with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, the gothic genre gained its popularity during the Victorian era, with writers such as Stoker and Stevenson continuing to develop stories in the late 19th Century. In more modern times, King and Rice have continued to adapt gothic conventions by merging them with contemporary fears and anxieties. Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and King’s Salem’s Lot (1975) both follow the traditional norms of gothic literature, despite their different publication eras and audiences. The basic essence of horror and mystery are further emphasised by gothic conventions and motifs. The two novels are grounded in a similar storyline, with a key focus on vampires and the clash between good and evil, as well as the exploration of reality, duality and madness.

In both Dracula and Salem’s Lot, the writers adhere to the traditional norms through the use of eerie, isolated settings. In Dracula, Harker originally describes the counts castle as having “a sea of green tree tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm” and there are “silver threads where the river wind in deep gorges through the forests”, but straight after concludes that when he explored further there were “doors, doors, doors everywhere and all locked and bolted” and that “the castle is a veritable prison, and [he is] a prisoner”. This juxtaposition between the overpowering free landscape and the trapped castle is effective in creating tension for the reader as an uneasy atmosphere is created. A contemporary reader questions as to who exactly the count is, which would have added to the underlying fear during the Victorian era of the supernatural, and what he wants. The ominous repetition of “doors, doors, doors everywhere” helps to demonstrate the frightful tone in Harker’s narrative which highlights the gothic nature of the castle, and how it is a “veritable prison”. Harker’s description of the castle is strongly suggestive of the idea of entrapment and evil, which assists in building an atmosphere for dread and fear.

Additionally, the dark, poorly lit rooms of Lucy’s crypt, Dracula’s castle and Dracula’s abode in London take advantage of the human fear of the unknown, the darkness foreshadows the supernatural horrors the characters see. Furthermore, Stoker uses pathetic fallacy in the weather to create a suspenseful atmosphere. For example, in Mina’s journal, she describes “the waves rose in growing fury, each overtopping its fellow, till in a very few minutes the lately glassy sea was like a roaring and devouring monster”. This is effective in creating a mood of eeriness as the description adds fear in the readers mind, the simile “like a roaring and devouring monster” mirrors the villain in the play, Dracula, and how his presence affects all elements of life as nothing is safe from his wrath. In Salem’s lot, King implemented the gothic style into a small town – the novel would not be the same without that as it helped place an emphasis of things are not always what they seem.

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Drawing on inspiration from Dracula, the small-town atmosphere provided a place for fear to grow in the minds of the reader and helped the reader form a connection with the characters in the novel. In particular, the use of the “haunted” Marsten house as a safe house for the supernatural villains is key in this novel. It acts as a motif for the eeriness of Salem’s lot. Its “witch grass grew wild and tall in the front yard” – the adjective wild gives it a sense of untameable evilness, this is emphasised by using ‘witch’ as an adjective as witches have been seen as links to the devil throughout history. King uses a traditional characteristic of ruined and abandon buildings but adds a modern twist to it; “the paint had been weathered away//windstorms had ripped many of the shingles off”. This is effective as it highlights King using norms of gothic literature despite the differences in eras. Moreover, much like the vampires, the Marsten House is a symbol of evil. Hubie Marsten was a horrible man who killed many, many people, and the novel suggests that that evil lives on after him, that all of his unspeakable acts left a ‘dry charge’. This shows that while King’s target audience was more modern then Stokers, both use conventional gothic characteristics of eerie, isolated settings to add suspense and horror in their novels.

Additionally, to emphasise the horror by using traditional norms, Stoker uses the conventional characteristics of gothic evil spirits and bad omens; specifically vampires that embody the dead. The beginning and end of Dracula is set in Transylvania, Romania, which is far from London as a centre of civilization. Along his journey to meet the Count, Jonathan Harker notes that he meets some Transylvanian locals. When they learn of his destination, they cross themselves to ward off the ”evil eye” of Dracula, and one woman even gives him her rosary. Harker assumes this is merely superstitious. Here we see the romantic elements of the remote and the unfamiliar – a reoccurring theme of gothic novels. This allows the reader to question who the count actually is and foreshadows the horrors that happen later on in the book. Later on, when Harker firsts meets the Count, we learn that he is ‘a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.’ This description is effective in highlighting the juxtaposition of Dracula. While he appears as a typical Victorian gentleman with a “clean shaven long white moustache,” Harker recognises that he is “without a single speck of colour”. This connotes him with the dead and being ghostly – his true identity.

Some critics have recognised this as mirroring the duality of the Victorian society, as some Victorian gentlemen often had a more sinful side to them, just like Dracula. Furthermore, Harker describes the Counts hand as “cold as ice – more like the hand off a dead then living man”. This shows the clear sinister side of Dracula, as both a modern and contemporary reader feel fearful as it touches on the supernatural. Dracula is easily angered but also maintains a both haunting and strangely charming façade. He becomes representative of both the old-world value of superstition and mystery surrounding the supernatural, whilst also maintaining a threatening presence as he embodies many aspects of evil and commits sinful deeds. However, some more modern perspectives argue that what makes the character of Dracula unconventional is that, when he escapes from Van Helsing, he insinuates that he has an ulterior motive, perhaps the longing for a return to the glorious past centuries and this illustrates him to not be a creature of pure, fathomless evil but instead a more human character who wishes for a return to power even if that means subjecting people to his own dark vision and following his urges. This shows the difference in audiences as more modern readers are understanding of Dracula compared to a more religious, conventional Victorian society, but also how this story follows traditional norms of gothic literature. However, in Salem’s lot, King uses supernatural villains such as Kurt Barlow (the vampire) and Richard Straker (his human familiar) to create fear in the small town in Maine, but ultimately uses them as an extended metaphor to highlight the evil within the small town with or without vampires.

The novel follows showing the true personalities of many characters and it helps the reader understand the inner evil people have – similar to the message in Dracula regarding the duality of Victorian gentlemen. The deeper meaning, while still using characteristic of gothic horror, is arguably more fearsome due to the reality of the situations. Barlow himself states that “they’ll spill each other’s blood with great vigour” in reference to small town Americans. This is also key in recognising Kings attitudes to American politics at the time as 1975 was the year that the Vietnam war ended, the message in this novel is about Americans self-destructive behaviour. Kurt Barlow still acts as a catalyst for the fear in the book, this is clear in his letter to the vampire hunters where he promises to castrate Mark where he declares “I am not a serpent but the father of serpents”. The noun “serpents” has immediate connotations with the devil, opposing god and holiness and embodying evil. Barlow is in fact pure evil – the way he turns the characters slowly into vampires with him and robs them of innocence adds to the horror of the novel. King successfully uses traditional gothic conventions of supernatural villains in his story to aid with his hidden message that everyone has evil inside them, and to add suspense to the characters in question. On the other hand Stoker uses supernatural villains to highlight that fear and horror is created by the devils’ creatures.

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The Gothic Genre In Literature. (2021, August 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-gothic-genre-in-literature/
“The Gothic Genre In Literature.” Edubirdie, 31 Aug. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/the-gothic-genre-in-literature/
The Gothic Genre In Literature. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-gothic-genre-in-literature/> [Accessed 1 Dec. 2022].
The Gothic Genre In Literature [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Aug 31 [cited 2022 Dec 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-gothic-genre-in-literature/
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