“The Lumber-Room” by H.H. Monro (Saki) is one of the short stories from Beasts and Super-Beasts, published 1914, though it was first published in a newspaper. He died two years later in the war. Significantly for this short story, Saki was gay.
There’s something very Peter Rabbit about this short story for adults. Peter Rabbit was widely read to children at the time Saki’s story was published. It’s conceivable that the fictional adults in “The Lumber-Room” believed all children (as proxy rabbits) want to get up to mischief in gardens because they had read Beatrix Potter’s tale over and over.
STORYWORLD OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”
Saki’s stories are set in upper-class Edwardian England.
A lumber-room is a room in an upper-class English house where items are stored when not in use.
Jagborough is a fictional seaside resort but has a likely-sounding English name.
Nicholas wants to go into the deepest, most secret part of the house (rather than outside in the garden) to see what’s there. This is his inner-world, his imagination, his subconscious.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”
“The Lumber-Room” is a carnivalesque story, or certainly would be if it were written for children. A child goes on an adventure, has fun without adult supervision, then returns to the safe but restrictive adult world by the end of the story. Except in this one, there’s no return to safety. The child main character of Saki’s short story understands that adults can’t be trusted. This is not a message you typically (or ever) see in picture books for children, unless it refers specifically to ‘adults can’t see the same magic’.
Notice that the aunt manufactures a ‘carnivalesque’ adventure (‘something of a festival nature’) for the other children, but this is unlikely to be fun in the slightest. We can deduce this because the girl-cousin hurts herself getting into the car and cries loudly. When supervised and arranged by adults, especially in the spirit of punishment for the ostracised, carnivalesque adventures are nothing of the sort. Sure enough, we learn the other children had a terrible time. The boy’s boots were too tight (his conservative, mainstream life too constrictive), and the tide had been up, leaving no space for play.
Saki opens “The Lumber-Room” in an interesting way, by telling us a self-contained story in the first paragraph. This mini story describes why Nicholas is in disgrace. Hitchcock might have called the frog in the bread-and-milk a McGuffin — we never hear about the frog again, but it kicks the real story off. This initial micro-story lets Nicholas have his Anagnorisis upfront. The story now progresses with a wiser, more knowing, less trusting child, because Nicholas has learned that adults can turn a blind eye to what’s right in front of them, insisting things are one way when they decidedly are not.
Nicholas is your classic trickster — very intelligent but believably so. Readers love tricksters. We identify with tricksters immediately.
Nicholas’s Shortcoming is that he is a child. This is true for almost all children in stories, because their freedom is severely limited.
Not only that, Nicholas is a misunderstood child. We know from this particular episode of his life story that he wants to look at a narrative tapestry while the adult assumes he wants to get into the gooseberries, but this must only scratch the surface of all the ways in which he is misunderstood.
Nicholas is an aesthete rather than an athlete — the two main types of man as decided in the 19th century. He likes to walk around and look at nice things, inhaling their scent, considering the stories behind them.
Nicholas might therefore be considered a proxy for a gay adult man living in the Edwardian era. This man is expected to like ‘gooseberries’ but is in fact drawn into the hidden, secret pleasures of the locked room, which contains many beautiful treasures.
Nicholas wants to get into the forbidden lumber-room and explore all the wonderful things hidden to him.
The off-the-page gay man can’t necessarily explain why he loves the forbidden treasures so much, but he does love it and takes every opportunity to go there. When he does go there, he hurts no one. And the things that are in there are off-limits for no good reason.
The aunt-by-assertion was one of those people who think that things spoil by use and consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them.
This is not a story of someone who is acting in the world, where there is danger, but someone who is content to watch on, which is bearable so long as he understands his own inner self.
There’s something very fairytale about the Battle scene, in which Nicholas knows full well the ‘aunt’ stuck in the tank is exactly who she says she is, but he makes us of superstition and folklore to pretend naïveté, cracking on that he really believes she’s a changeling of some sort.
As mentioned above, this story structure is a bit unusual because the mini-story upfront gives Nicholas his revelation.
The big reveal for the reader is that Nicholas is not interested in gooseberries, but in the more adult, less understandable pleasures of the treasures in the lumber-room.
Nicholas didn’t know what he’d find inside this forbidden room, but once he entered it, the pleasures were more than he could have imagined, especially when he found the book of beautiful birds.
Before that he observes a tapestry meant as a fire screen. Saki describes it for the reader. When writers describe a painting or photo within a story this is known as ekphrasis, which was a popular Greek pastime. Short story writers make use of it even now, and the tapestry in “The Lumber-Room” seems to function as an indirect way of arriving at a character’s Anagnorisis.
What does Nicholas understand by looking at the hunters and the stag?
A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some remote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow; it could not have been a difficult shot because the stag was only one or two paces away from him; in the thickly-growing vegetation that the picture suggested it would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag, and the two spotted dogs that were springing forward to join in the chase had evidently been trained to keep to heel till the arrow was discharged. That part of the picture was simple, if interesting, but did the huntsman see, what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were coming in his direction through the wood? There might be more than four of them hidden behind the trees, and in any case would the man and his dogs be able to cope with the four wolves if they made an attack? The man had only two arrows left in his quiver, and he might miss with one or both of them; all one knew about his skill in shooting was that he could hit a large stag at a ridiculously short range. Nicholas sat for many golden minutes revolving the possibilities of the scene; he was inclined to think that there were more than four wolves and that the man and his dogs were in a tight corner.
There are plenty of interpretations, but here’s mine:
‘It would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag’ and it would not be difficult for heteronormative society to work out what’s going on right under their noses if only they were to look.
But when they do look, it is very dangerous for the stag.
It is pleasurable in this forbidden room but it is also dangerous. Perhaps danger is part of the pleasure itself.
There’s no easy way to win the big struggle when you are the stag.
Nicholas’s secret is now a safe thing. He comes up with a way the story on the tapestry could end that could be all right. Will Eaves, on the Neuromantics podcast says this crops up a lot in Greek myth: How can these sexually irresponsible labile figures have an effect in the world that ends up restoring balance? (Myth is very important to Saki’s literary world. A lot of the macabre stories have roots in green man figures and whatnot.)
The aunt who is — significantly — not Nicholas’s own aunt doesn’t really know him. So she is obliged to believe that perhaps he was naive enough to think that she had been swapped out by some evil witch. We don’t get to know of any further consequences for Nicholas but we can extrapolate that the aunt has either got the measure of him now (that he is much smarter than he cracks on) or else much dumber. I bet she’s keeping a close eye on him, to work out which of those it is.
The gay man sort of gets away with entering the metaphorical lumber-room because people simply assume he wants something else entirely. While they are assuming that, they aren’t looking for him in there. But he doesn’t get away with it entirely. Others know something is up. They know that he is tricking them in some way, though can’t quite get the measure of him, in a society where sexuality and orientation isn’t discussed. People don’t even have the language to discuss it. In that way, the adult gay man is similar to a child — children know things, but are often ill-equipped with language to describe these things.
Credit goes to Episode 3 of the Neuromantics podcast for alerting me to the gay subtext of this story. I’d otherwise have missed it. (At 29 minutes) The Neuromantics talk about “The Lumber-Room” in a discussion about people’s inner-world. Nicholas’s inner world is so much more important and satisfying to him than anything else.
Header painting: John Dawson Watson — The Collector’s Home
This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at another wordless picture book, this time by Shirley Hughes: Up and Up, from 1979.
STORY STRUCTURE OF UP AND UP
Up and Up is a carnivalesque portalfantasy, and the portal is the huge chocolate egg.
The story opens with the following wonderfully detailed Where’s Wally-esque opening spread, with foreshadowing of the big balloon partially hidden behind a tree:
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
The girl in Up and Up doesn’t have a name, though she may be one of the characters from another Shirley Hughes book. Hughes’s characters all have a similarity to them. Children are drawn like sprightly little old people, somehow.
When characters in children’s books don’t have a name, this turns them by default into The Every Child.
WHAT DOES SHE WANT?
The girl wants to fly like a bird. We see this from the opening spread. A bird flies past; she stands up to watch it leave. At first we don’t know if she’s just interested in bird watching or perhaps feather-collecting, but the following spread cements that wish.
Her natural opponent is gravity, but gravity does not make for an especially interesting opponent. We can’t care about gravity — whether it wins or loses. Gravity just is.
Like many children who go off on carnivalesque adventures, her parents don’t pay attention to her. I guess this is a universal feeling children have, no matter how much time parents have.
Her main human opponent is introduced a bit later — the old man with the telescope, who is the most hellbent on bringing her down. He’s a mad scientist archetype, and so keen to arrest her that he even uses his hot air balloon which he has in his backyard.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Shirley Hughes utilises the rule of threes during the opening sequence, giving the girl three separate plans to fly like a bird.
Run and leap (trips and falls)
Make wings out of paper and jump off a ladder. (I have personally done this as a kid, though I didn’t have enough faith to actually make the leap!)
Inflate balloons and float up into the sky. (Gets stuck on a twig.) At this point the story has already crossed over into fantasy realm. First, the girl blows up the balloons with her breath, but these are behaving like helium balloons. Second, there’s no way 9 balloons would lift a girl up into a tree.
All of her plans fail so she goes home in a grumpy mood. She’s standing in her entrance hall when something amazing happens. A massive chocolate egg is dropped off by the postie.
The ‘portal’ takes the girl back into the mundane world rather than into a parallel world. The chocolate egg is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, and to be honest I’d never even realised any connection between my chocolate eggs at Easter and the fact that eggs normally house baby birds.
Though these pictures are simple black and white line drawings, I imagine this is the part in ‘Wizard of Oz’ where everything turns technicolour (or perhaps the colour has been seeping in since the balloons fantasy page). What follows is maybe a dream, or maybe it’s real within the world of the picture book. Picture book fantasies generally work like that — they can often be interpreted as the young child’s inner world fantasy.
The Big Battlein this story is preceded by a chase sequence in which people on the ground are chasing the girl to see this amazing spectacle. There’s a large dose of showing off involved here — the wish fulfilment in this fantasy is ‘everyone looks at how amazing I am and I am briefly the centre of attention’.
So we can predict she will defeat the old man chasing her. It’s all part of her own fantasy of being a hero.
You know from the beginning if a character is going to have a anagnorisis because there will be something wrong with them. They might not appreciate someone, or they might be lonely, or they might not treat their friends well. In those stories, the character will almost certainly have changed by the end.
But in a carnivalesque story the point is to escape the mundane world and have fun for a while. That’s it. The carnivalesque story structure has more in common with comic structure than with dramatic structure. Though more ‘fun’ than ‘funny’, there is nothing to be learned except ‘that was really fun’ or ‘so that’s what fun looks like’.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The point of a carnivalesque story is that it will actually be the same as before… with one small difference. Now the girl knows what it is to have real, unfettered fun. The scene at the end where she’s eating a boiled egg and toast shows the mundane nature of her everyday life. (Boiled eggs are quite often used in fiction to show ‘ordinary’, though less so these days. I think kids are eating fewer boiled eggs in general.)
This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Frog Went A-Courtin, a Scottish folk song from the 1500s, which was turned into an iconic picture book for children written by John Langstaff in 1955. There’s a brief history of the ballad included in the picture book which explains how the words of songs change and evolve over time. This case study is interesting because there is no true main character. This story is about a group of characters.
The illustrations are by Feodor Rojankovsky, who emigrated from Ukraine to America just as WW2 was cranking up. By that stage he’d already been a soldier in Ukraine and taken prisoner in Poland. If you’re familiar with Little Golden Books you’ll have seen his work elsewhere.
Frog Went A-Courtin won the 1956 Caldecott Medal.
First, a note on frogs in children’s stories.
Just so you know, in a picture book, frogs are the speedfreaks & grizzly bears are the stoners.
Frogs and Aesop
Unless you’ve got a really unusual animal like a naked mole rat, when animals appear in children’s stories, you pretty much need to go back to Aesop’s Fables and then you’ll see why these characters are the way they are. Frogs don’t feature heavily in Aesop’s tales, but there are a number of them. Unlike foxes, which are always cunning, or hens, which are always naive and vulnerable, frogs have no clear personality archetype. In Aesop’s fables featuring frogs all of the following can be said:
Frogs have no natural ruler, unlike creatures of the jungle, who are ruled by the lion.
Frogs are quite vulnerable because they are obliged to stay near water.
Frogs can do silly things that lead to their own demise, but they are not natural tricksters.
Frogs are capable of doing good deeds. They can also be stubborn, brave, timid and mendacious.
Aesop used frogs when he wanted to set a story in or near a pond or in a well.
Amphibian frogs exist in contrast to mice, who live on land and are about the same size.
On this last point, the Scottish folktale Frog Went A-Courtin is therefore a direct descendant of Aesop, setting mice up to contrast with frogs. Or perhaps humans naturally see frogs as the ‘inverse’ of mice, Aesop’s cultural influence aside. Humans think quite differently about animals when we don’t have a formal (or cultural) education.
Bear that in mind as we get to the ‘opponent’ part of the story.
STORY STRUCTURE OF FROG WENT A-COURTIN
Story in a nutshell: Frog courts a mouse. No one says that anymore. Frog woos a mouse? No one says that either.
Mouse must ask male relative for permission to wed frog, as she is considered chattel. That’s how women were treated in the 1500s and in many parts of the modern world.
Mouse seems happy about it anyway. Mouse recounts her wedding plans to Uncle. Uncle Rat gives consent. The wedding itself doesn’t go exactly to plan, as a variety of creatures turn up. This creates a carnivalesque and cumulative story within the wrapper story of the courting. Finally the baddie turns up — the cat.
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
Is Mr Frog the main character? The title suggests so. Mr Frog is a male bachelor amphibian whose life will not be complete until he has found a wife. So at first glance this looks like a romance, but in fact frog’s shortcoming (he needs to find a wife) only starts the story. He’s like a McGuffin character. (I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a McGuffin character, but we’ll go with it.)
In a true romance/love story, the finding of the bride/groom lasts the entire length of the story and the story stops at (or just before) the wedding. The MAIN part of Frog Went A-Courtin is the wedding itself, which makes this story a madcap farce. There is no true main character. This is an ensemble cast.
What is wrong with the ensemble? (What is their biggest shortcoming?)
I have to get something out of the way. I’m not sure if we’re meant to think this as we’re reading, though it’s inevitable to an adult, modern reader: This is a cross-species relationship. Also, how is a mouse related to a rat? They can’t breed with each other. Okay. Let’s ignore that for the sake of the story. We’re not supposed to consider these characters animals. They are humans in animal form, to lend the story a bit of madcap comedy. (Turning people into animals always lends a bit of madcap, though we’re so used to this now it’s no longer really funny in and of itself.) As for the frog in this particular frog story, he is heavily anthropomorphised. In other words, he’s basically a human. Man as frog simply gives a story a touch of madcap humour. This frog is the Every Man.
However! When we get to the big struggle scene (see below) we can no longer ignore the animal-ness of the animals, because that is integral to the plot. The cat would not be dangerous to those smaller creatures if it were not a cat.
To cut a long story short, in stories starring animals, sometimes the animals are people, sometimes the animals act as animals. Authors and illustrators use animals how they wish at any given time in order to suit the plot. That can happen. I do think it happened more in earlier eras of children’s literature. Olivia the Pig is always a little girl, for instance. She never goes rolling about in mud. Then again, Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat is a contemporary story, and he is both humanlike (as a highway robber) and ratlike (as his punishment, cleaning crumbs from the bakery floor).
Here’s another point about animal characters: When animals act like human and are then required to act like their animal selves, that means everything’s gone to pot. Something’s gone wrong. Someone’s being punished. When humanlike animals behave like animals suddenly, this will only happen from the Big Battle onwards, not before. This is a different take of Masks in Storytelling. All along, the animals were only sort of pretending to be genteel like humans. Then something bad happens and their untamed, wild side emerges.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER ENSEMBLE WANT?
They want to have a fun time at the wedding party.
No one, until the cat turns up! A cat is the natural enemy because it is a much larger hunting animal.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
There is a sequence where Miss Mouse tells her Uncle Rat how she would like the party to go. This makes it funny when the wedding party does not go like that. Planning a wedding is a bit like planning a birth — it’s impossible to plan everything to the last detail because events will take their course!
BIG BIG STRUGGLE
Obviously this is the part where the cat turns up. With no words, the pictures show us the cat creates havoc. The small animals scatter.
WHAT DO THE CHARACTERS LEARN?
Frog Went A-Courtin is not a complete narrative because the ending is left up to the reader. Or rather, the reader is invited to participate in the story to create a full narrative of our own. I believe the ending is left off because it would not be interesting.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
Either that, or Miss Mouse got killed and eaten by the cat. Maybe that’s why the ending was left out. Jon Klassen did a similar thing in This Is Not My Hat. We surmise the little thieving scoundrel fish was eaten up by the big fish.
Let’s not dwell on this sad ending. Let’s say Mr Frog and Mrs Frog-Mouse lived happily ever after? And had beautiful frog-mice babies between them?
SOME MORE STORIES WITH FROGS IN
Because Aesop invented many uses for the frog, when you meet a frog in a modern children’s book you don’t know who you’re going to get. Frogs can be quirky and funny. They have the endearing habit of extending their tongue and catching flies.
On the other hand… frogs extend their tongues and catch flies. This is disgusting.
Frogs seem to have great fun. It’s fun to leap and jump like a frog, which is part of flight symbolism.
Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.
Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman.
The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).
The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.
When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is an unhelpful, outdated word for what is actually a collection of disparate conditions. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.
Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.
These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame to one side. Even in children’s literature, the opponent web is more complex. Even if a story contains an out-and-out villain, there will be other more nuanced opponents. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The ‘innocent’ victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral shortcoming, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.
Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.
Everyday Usage of The Word ‘Gothic’
Modern readers and critics have begun to think of “Gothic literature” as any story that uses an elaborate, opulent setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent main character. The contemporary understanding of ‘gothic’ has widened to include a variety of genres, such as “paranormal” and “horror.”
Natalie Wynn succinctly describes gothic as ‘ruined opulence’, and speculates we may soon see the gothic in abandoned shopping malls.
Raison d’être Of Gothic Stories
Classically Gothic settings (falsely) reassure us that ‘monsters’ are inhuman, and can be recognised quite easily. In reality, monsters are not so easily recognised:
You don’t find [monsters] in gothic dungeons or humid forests. You find them at the mall, at the school, in the town or city with the rest of us. But how do you find them before they victimize someone? With animals, it depends on perspective: The kitten is a monster to the bird, and the bird is a monster to the worm. With man, it is likewise a matter of perspective, but more complicated, because the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognised by the naked eye.
Gavin de Becker, The Gift Of Fear
The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new in the 19th century.
Gothic stories are more popular in some eras than in others. Patricia Murphy has said that, “A truism of critical commentary holds that the gothic emerges in literature during times of cultural anxiety.”
The Gothic releases forces which are usually repressed. Anarchy is loosed and contained at the same time. In Gothic, we have the return of whatever’s been repressed. Our enjoyment is visceral. We enjoy the cracking of bone and the snapping of backs and the spilling of blood. The appeal has something to do with lack of restraint, transgression, the overturning of normalcy. Taboos are broken. In this respect, the Gothic is related to the carnivalesque.
The Gothic is also a form known to examine our fear of desire.
Common Features Of Gothic Stories
There is lots of parody within the gothic genre, including parodies of parodies. Authors send up other work by writing a supernatural gothic romance. Ironically, later audiences assume they were meant to take these old parodies seriously, and subsequent authors make parodies of that ‘original’ parody.
The Gothic is basically ‘paranoid‘. But only if you immerse yourself too much in it, succumbing to its fears. Modern mass media itself might be accused of being Gothic, with its emphasis on the macabre.
The Gothic is also often described as ‘sublime‘, which you may realise means something slightly different when it comes to literature. In everyday English, sublime might mean ‘really wonderful’ but in literature it refers to work which provokes terror and pain in the audience. Terror and pain are the two emotions considered most powerful. Unlike the terror and pain of the real world, however, when experienced via story the audience enjoys it very much. The sublime is a feature of romantic work.
‘Uncanny‘ is another word you’ll hear in reference to the Gothic. The uncanny is a psychological concept which refers to something that is strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. The emotions evoked in a work of Gothic fiction will be familiar to you. You may not have seen an actual ghost, but you will have experienced horripilation — that feeling of hair standing on end.
Typical Character Archetypes
Here is the basic cast of characters for those original Gothic stories:
Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. These heroines tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (As you can see, modern stories such as Harry Potter borrows from the genre. We don’t think of the Grimm fairytales as Gothic, but a lot of them follow this exact plot.)
Older, foolish woman — or the Madwoman, or the Old Wife. Interestingly, British culture consistently associated ghosts and children with the oral tradition in storytelling. These stories were delivered by a greatly misunderstood figure: The Old Wife. The Old Wife was the woman in your community who dished out advice and help to do with childbirth, herbal remedies and so on. She lost a lot of respect, as well as her place in her community, with the emergence of modern day science. This coincided with a growing distaste for people who believed in ghosts. Shakespeare himself poked fun at the Old Wife who believed in ghosts. You can see him doing just that in Macbeth, The Winter’s Taleand The Tempest. Women, ghost stories and oral stories were linked. When one lost status, so did the others. Even in the gothic stories themselves, the Old Wife character (who told these very tales) was made fun of.
Hero — innocent, plunged into a weird situation.
Tyrant/villain — With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women. This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader’s pathos. Even today, crime fiction focuses heavily on victims which are young, attractive, female (and white). We seem more interested in their deaths than in deaths of different demographics.
Bandits/ruffians — less powerful opposition than the main tyrant/villain.
Clergy — always weak, usually evil. In Medieval times, Monks often were pretty evil. They were rich, pampered, sequestered funds for themselves (while amazingly often managing to bankrupt the abbey by doing stupid things with money), and sometimes even harboured criminals. They were supposed to live simple lives, but found ways around every rule, including the invention of a sort of sign language to get around the rule of no communication over mealtimes. It’s easy to see how the clergy became figures of fun. By early modern times, people had learned to put far more faith in nuns, who were more likely to behave properly according to the church.
American Gothic in particular tends to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters. An early example is the novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown. Two characters slowly become more and more deranged.
Likewise, the modern antihero (or hero-villain if you prefer) comes from the Gothic tradition. However, in gothic stories morality is clear. Good is good, evil is evil, even if it is attractive. Evil is not simply misunderstood, it is inherent. Evil cannot be assimilated into everyday society and must be expelled. That’s not how modern stories about anti-heroes typically play out. Viewers were encouraged to understand Walter White and Tony Soprano. Thinking individuals are much more yin-yang about people these days. Less nature, more nurture — even if you’re a nature over nurture sort of person, you probably admit that Tony Soprano’s life would have panned out differently had he not grown up in the mafia.
Other Stories About a Descent Into Madness:
Sunset Boulevard — Since Boulevard’s original film release, the role has become famous for its tragic, hysterical femaleness, and is for that reason vulnerable to one-dimensional renderings of empty, and even harmful, stereotype. SunsetBoulevard subtextually warns that a woman’s ambition, creativity, and desire for sexual fulfilment are the causes of unhappiness and undoing.
Fatal Attraction — While Norma of Sunset Boulevard is an artist, the madwoman of Fatal Attraction is a professional.
Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews
The Shining by Stephen King — Isolation is used as a vehicle for madness. (Used again more recently in Shut In.) The main character is Jack Torrence, played by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. With his family he looks after an empty hotel one winter, partly to concentrate on writing his novel. But he is haunted by visions and descends into murderous madness.
Carrie by Stephen King, which promotes anxiety and thereby encourages conformity. A good example of ‘suburban Gothic’, making use of Gothic features such as witch-hunting.
Misery by Stephen King
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was herself diagnosed with hysteria and commanded never to touch pencil and paper again.
Shut In — Naomi Watts plays a widowed child psychologist who lives in isolation in rural New England with her son, who is comatose and bedridden as a result of an automobile accident. Snowed in and withdrawn from the outside world, Watts’ character descends into a desperate existence. It soon becomes difficult for her to distinguish the phantasms of her imagination from the reality of the creepy goings-on in her apparently haunted house. Click through to read more about the psychological reasons for why we think we see ghosts and phantoms.
As we learned from Misery, the story of the woman who holds a man captive can never be a glamorous one. Over the course of Stephen King’s 1987 novel, we’re led to understand that Annie’s insanity—her insecurity, her obsession—is inextricable from that which makes her unlovable, a given long before she ever stumbles across the luckless object of her affections, her favourite writer, in the wreckage of his car. Dowdy and deranged, Annie forces him to rewrite his final novel according to her whims, crooning, “I’m your biggest fan,” over his tortured body.
And indeed, what could be beautiful or romantic about a woman with the violent upper hand, the muse forcing herself on the artist—never mind that the gendered inverse (see: Scheherazade’s dilemma) is the stuff of literature? A story about woman holding a man against his will, especially if she seeks to exploit his creative labor…Well, that’s just crazy. And for women, crazy, as we all know, is not a Good Look.
from Davey Davis writing at The Millions
Davis is writing about the gendered nature of craziness:
Humanity is not something the crazy woman is typically afforded
This ‘madwoman archetype’, or the idea that a woman who desires (what she doesn’t have; what she shouldn’t want; what is inconvenient or dangerous for male authority) must be institutionalised, silenced, or worse — is deep in the bedrock of our culture.
Even now, the two attributes of women most feared (by the dominant culture and by women ourselves) are ugliness and craziness. (Infertility is linked to ugliness, which is linked to old age.)
Settings Of Gothic Horror
The setting of the Gothic novel is a character in itself. The setting not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
The term “Gothic” originates with the ornate architecture created by Germanic tribes called the Goths. It was then later expanded to include most of the medieval style of architecture. The ornate and intricate style of this kind of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary style, one which concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition.
This building will have secrets of its own, and can therefore almost be considered a character in its own right (with psychological/moral needs and desires).
Other settings may include caves or the wilderness.
Plot Structure Of A Straight-up Gothic Story
WEAKNESS: A female character is an innocent, unwitting victim with no particular moral shortcoming but she is weak in general owing to her position/station in life.
DESIRE: She (perhaps subconsciously) wants to be saved from her ordinary life. This is the same wish-fulfilment as modern dark, paranormal romances, and is easy to mock until you understand that this desire is borne of a need to escape, because adolescence is terrifying for a girl whose body is suddenly attracting the attention of much larger, stronger men, some of whom will not leave her alone.
OPPONENT: She is the victim of some sort of external malevolence.
ALLY: A rescuer arrives from outside.
BIG STRUGGLE: There is a climactic encounter between the forces of evil and the forces of good.
Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people.
Evil characters are also seen in Gothic literature and especially American Gothic. Depending on the time period that the work is written about, the evil characters could be characters like Native Americans, trappers, gold miners etc.
Omens — or portents, visions, etc. — often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams.
Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise.
An element of fear is another characteristic of American Gothic literature. This is typically connected to the unknown and is generally seen throughout the course of the entire novel. This can also be connected to the feeling of despair that characters within the novel are overcome by. This element can lead characters to commit heinous crimes. In the case of Brown’s character Edgar Huntly, he experiences this element when he contemplates eating himself, eats an uncooked panther, and drinks his own sweat.
Psychological overlay is an element that is connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. An example of this would be if a character was in a maze-like area and a connection was made to the maze that their minds represented.
Revelation & Gothic’s Relationship To Mystery
Revelation is the basis of much plotted fiction, especially any story containing a mystery—and that includes far more than detective or mystery fiction. Much gothic fiction is founded on a central mystery. When a story’s main dynamic is to have the protagonist find out something, or realize something that’s been true for some time, the story’s narrative drive comes from the finding out, not in the discovered fact itself. More similar to a ‘whydunnit’ mystery than a ‘whodunnit’, in other words.
Often the framework of this kind of mystery/revelation story will be very simple: a quest or journey which involves meeting people, getting into one situation after another, each demonstrating the story’s central theme but otherwise unrelated to the others, each supplying some new information on the story’s central mystery.
Jane Eyre —Mr. Edward Rochester keeps his violently insane wife Bertha locked in the attic of Thornfield. All the while, Rochester is romancing Jane. The story is Jane’s gradual discovery of the unchanging but hidden state of things. Except for the secret — the mystery — the story would be quite static.
Likewise, Rebecca, whose plot is the disclosure of dead Rebecca’s real nature and how her widower, Maxim, actually felt toward her. Rebecca is a more modern Bluebeard story.
Stranger Things, the Netflix TV show, also features a ‘girl in the attic’ trope in Eleven. Stranger Things is indeed a gothic story:
One of the most interesting aspects of this show is how it’s reminiscent of gothic fiction. A lot of early gothic is set in some kind of remote past yet reflects contemporaneous issues. With Stranger Things we have a 21st century TV show set in the 80s, which I guess for young people is a remote past, but speaking to our contemporary moment. We are thus looking at Stranger Things not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a text that speaks to current issues like surveillance culture and the modern family. In short, it is interesting how the show turns to the past to speak to the present.
Gormenghastseries— three novels by Mervyn Peake, originally published between 1946 and 1959. Follows the life of Titus Groan, left to fend for himself in a crumbling kingdom he will one day inherit. He is surrounded by bizarre family members. He survives his neglectful childhood, grows up, survives attempted murder. The ending is thought to be pretty poor. Peake never bothered finishing it himself — it’s supposedly finished off by his family, which explains a lot.
Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald — these stories influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
The horror classic film Freaks
The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is probably the most famous example of pure gothic fiction. The combined elements of terror and medievalism set a precedent for an entirely new, thrilling genre. This story was already a pastiche and self-consciously parodic send-up of the genre that it itself established.
The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe — a good example of a paranormal scheme against a helpless young woman. Bourgeois heroine Emily St. Aubert endures all kinds of struggles. She loses her father to supernatural experiences in an old castle. Jane Austen was influenced by this book. The heroine continuously disavows her own foolish predisposition towards superstition by projecting it onto her servant girl, Annette.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817) is actually a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Jane Austen parodied the genre but also seemed to really enjoy reading it herself. She continued to read gothic romance for years, even after parodying it.
The History of the Caliph Vathek(1786) by William Thomas Beckford
The Monk(1796) by Mathew Lewis — Lewis was 19 when he wrote this novel of ecclesiastical debasement. It is stuffed full of love, murder and immorality.
Frankenstein(1818) by Mary Shelley — Don’t forget that Frankenstein is the doctor (not the monster). Dr Frankenstein creates a creature from body parts culled from graves at the local cemetery.
Melmoth the Wanderer(1820) by Charles Maturin
Salathiel the Immortal (1828) by George Croly
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame(1831) by Victor Hugo
Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula(1897) by Bram Stoker — Vampires, haunted kingdoms, blood.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — a philosophical work about getting old and indulgence. The main character becomes so obsessed with stayng beautiful that he sells his soul. He occasionally goes up to the attic to watch his portrait grow old.
The Woman In Black (1983) by Susan Hill — A best-seller from the 1980s. A spooky visitor haunts a small town in England, warning that children are going to die. It’s been adapted for stage and is a hit in West End.
Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice — Written as an interview between a reporter and a vampire called Louis de Pointe du Lac, who recounts the last 200 years of his life. He is full of regret.
The Tell Tale Heart(1843) by Edgar Allan Poe — the murderous main character is haunted by the sound of the beating heart of his victim, hidden in pieces under the floorboards.
Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte — Set on the moors, this story is about class, survival, prejudice and is highly atmospheric.
Gothic children’s literature emerged in response to the adult Gothic romance. However, even children in the 18th century probably preferred the scary tales over the didactic ones they were supposed to read, which were heavily didactic. There was an effort by the gatekeepers of this time to keep Gothic stories away from children. This fear has never subsided. There are always cultural critics worried about the effect Gothic stories have on the tabula rasa of children. In earlier eras children were thought to be entirely innocent. Rousseau was partly responsible for that. These days stories tend to play with the idea that children are somewhat complicit in getting themselves into trouble. This is why children’s stories, too, quite often give a moral shortcoming to the main character. This affords children more agency, in fact.
Maryrose Wood uses this historical attitude in her gothic parody The Mysterious Howling when she writes:
[Penelope the governess] had chosen Dante because she found the rhyme scheme pleasingly jaunty, but she realised too late that the Inferno’s tale of sinners being cruelly punished in the afterlife was much too bloody and disturbing to be suitable for young minds. Penelope could tell this by the way the children hung on her every word and demanded “More, more!” each time she reached the end of a canto and tried to stop […]
Penelope had begun reading poetry to the children in the belief that it would improve their English faster than lists of spelling words ever could. Besides, she personally found poetry very interesting, and since her students [literally raised by wolves] were more or less blank slates when it came to literature, she felt she might as well do what she liked. (As you may already know, the Latin term for “blank slate” is tabula rasa, a phrase the Incorrigibles would no doubt be exposed to a little further on in their educations.)
The Mysterious Howling, book one of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place
Recently we have those fears directed towards the Twilight series, in which the passive heroine basically waits around to be saved by a creepy, much older male monster. The fear is that girls in real life will hope to emulate this as a script for their own romantic lives. (I admit, I have some sympathy for this view myself, if girls are reading dark, paranormal fiction widely but not critically. Then again, who’s to say they’re not critical of the very stories they enjoy?)
Children’s stories have always been gothic. In fact, gothic stories belonged to children all along. The Gothic romances for adults actually came out of fairytales told while these adult readers were still children.
There was a lot of playing with Gothic conventions in the latter half of the 19th century, especially by woman writers, who were presumably reading gothic romance/horror themselves for pleasure.
Another three 18th century woman writers started writing partly in order to combat what they considered worrying trends in contemporary children’s fiction. These women were Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth. Bear in mind that each of these women used Gothic features in their writing for children but it wasn’t actually Gothic because they didn’t want to expose children to ghosts. Also, each and every one of them wrote Gothic stories for adults in a different part of her writing career, exposing a double standard. We love the Gothic and find it entertaining, but not for children, whose minds are easily corrupted.
Influential male writers have said they loved to read Gothic chapbooks as children. These men include: Boswell, Johnson, Carlyle, Goethe, Lamb, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Yet chapbooks were never culturally approved. (Chapbooks were magazine type products sold door-to-door — an important means of cultural dissemination before people could afford books.) Chap books were considered trash fiction.
A very easy definition of Gothic children’s literature: Gothic stories are everything ‘quality’ children’s literature is not, in any given era. When a literature emerged for the middle class white child, ghosts were firmly erased.
Fear (or the pretence of fear) is very popular right now in children’s literature. This is the modern take on ‘gothic’.
Examples Of Early Gothic Children’s Literature
Mary Louisa Molesworth (A Christmas Child, A Christmas Posy, An Enchanted Garden and so on)took the gothic tradition and domesticated it.
A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T. Meade is a vivid and detailed description of college life among a perfect bevy of young misses in the old English university town of Kingsdene. It follows the fortunes of a young Devonshire lass who goes away to college and finds herself among entirely different conditions of life and points of view than those that prevail in her own narrow village. L.T. Meade was perhaps the first to transform the school into a gothic place.
The Secret Garden has the madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a little boy, not a mad-woman. There’s also the haunted house and grounds. The Secret Garden is the most obvious example of Gothic children’s literature.
C.S. Lewis used The Woman In The Attic trope in his Narnia Chronicles — The Magician’s Nephew to be exact. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe begins in a big old scary mansion and a scary, remote owner who is basically a hermit, probably with secrets of his own.
The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, who writes macabre rhymes. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…”In response to being called gothic, [Gorey] stated, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.” — Wikipedia entry on Edward Gorey
Emily series by L.M. Montgomery (who wrote Anne of Green Gables) — Montgomery plays with Gothic conventions, as well as in some of her stand-alone novels and short stories.
If you’re wondering about Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice is not Gothic literature. There are plenty of Gothic features without it adding up to actually Gothic. Alice is absurdist instead.
Features Of Gothic Children’s Literature
What does the Gothic look like in children’s literature? Gothic motifs in general are very well-suited to exploring adolescence, and the way identity seems to change from day to day. With the menarche, girls face blood — another Gothic motif (wayward fluids, murder). Elements include:
Hobgoblins, dwarves, trolls, witches, werewolves, vampires and other folkloric creatures
Bugaboos such as chimney sweeps, Wee Willy Winkies and other creatures from urban folklore. (Bugaboos come in the night.)
Ghouls — The ghoul is the classic Gothic monster. They frighten us and transform the familiar into the strange and threatening.
Ghosts, spectres, phantoms, apparitions and general hauntings
Schools are often the proxy for haunted mansions and castles. The schoolyard is the forest.
Irony and parody is very gothic, so anything meta in the style of Lemony Snicket borrows from the Gothic tradition. There’s a lot of parody of Victorian settings.
The Gothic is to do with transgression, lack of restraint and the overturning of normality. For example, Gothic villains break taboos, as do young children, by not doing as they’re told. See again The Carnivalesque, which is a tradition with a long history in children’s literature. No wonder Gothic features so heavily in stories for the young.
A lot of Gothic stories have a ‘jump’ ending. Take the oral versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, in which the storyteller grabs the listener as if she is about to get eaten by the wolf. A number of modern stories for young children are also designed to be performed as much as read.
The Gothic warns readers of the dangers mysteriously close to even the most familiar places. The Gothic tells us that the world is not safe. How many children’s stories teach that? Quite a number. Pretty much any story that’s not pastoral is teaching children that same lesson: Be vigilant, be smart, stick with your friends, know friends from enemies.
Gothic children’s literature often takes the form of fantasy. If the Gothic is about fear of desire, fantasy is a great genre to explore that because fantasy teaches the reader to desire.
A lot of children’s stories use the trope of the Explained Ghost. Basically, there’s some sort of supernatural happenings in the world of the story which is later revealed to have been just the over-workings of a foolish mind. This trope is used to teach the reader that there is no such thing as ghosts and whatnot, and to always dig deeper for the truth behind our fancies. Nevertheless, even the Explained Ghost tropes themselves rely upon Gothic motifs and traditions. That’s not to say traditional Gothic stories themselves didn’t make use of the Explained Ghost. Ann Radcliffe herself used it, though perhaps to a different end (to show up rational thinking by later subverting it).
Unlike in Gothic romance for adults, child heroes are mostly given something to fight back with. They don’t wait around to be rescued, except in the odd parody. This is in line with the general advice when writing for children: heroes must be proactive and basically get themselves out of their own predicaments. They may ask for help from a mentor, but no one’s coming to save them.
The writer must be familiar with gothic motifs and tropes and settings — familiar enough to parody them, and to manage whether readers will find something scary or funny (or both).
Writers can take gothic motifs and transplant them to a new setting. This creates a kind of neo-Gothic (to borrow from the term neo-Western). For example, writers may take the labyrinthine qualities of a castle and reuse them in a dystopian city or in a setting inspired by cyberspace.
Gothic stories tend to do one of two things:
They can either suggest subversive possibilities to readers
They can scare children into submission and ensure conformity.
Be clear with yourself: Are you achieving the former? If not, you’re writing didactic, 19th century work.
Examples Of Modern Gothic Literature For Children
Flowers In The Attic was the Twilight of my generation (teenagers of the 1990s). It features children locked in the attic of a big, mean castle of a house and a wicked grandmother. Also incest.
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl — This is the first of The Caster Chronicles. It is YA fiction about a main character called Ethan, who has lost his mother and feels trapped in a tiny town.
Roald Dahl — Dahl’s work is popular partly because stories preserve the innocence of the child and retains the level of evil of the villain, but gives the child the means to save themselves. Daniel Handler has continued this tradition.
Anything Gothic for children these days tends to be compared to Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, even if there’s not much else really in common.
An example often compared to Lemony Snicket is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, set in the mid 1850s.
J.K. Rowling uses the madwoman in the attic trope in Harry Potter, more than once, and many other elements from Gothic fiction, being the master borrower and remixer of tropes.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — chronicles the life of Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. The story is a series of loosely connected stories about Bod’s life and what he learns about life/death.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman is another middle grade novel from the gothic tradition, with its large house, bizarre characters and supernatural goings-on.
Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman is a picture book, with a title reminiscent of The Rats In The Walls, and is similarly gothic in tone.
Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson — a picture book about a ghost called Leo who lives alone in a deserted house.
The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen — a picture book set in a big, scary, empty, dark house. In reality the house is probably an ordinary one, replete with a mother/father, but the representation of the house on the page is how the boy feels about it.
Ghostlight by Sonia Gensler — An American Gothic tale including an abandoned haunted mansion, spooky movies, imaginary games, film-making (a popular device in ghost stories).
Doll Bones by Holly Black — A coming-of-age novel about a boy called Zach who plays with dolls. His father throws his creepy porcelain dolls away but this isn’t the last we see of them.
The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black
The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
Gothic Hospital by Gary Crew
The Devil Latch by Sonya Hartnett
The Seventh Tower by Garth Nix
Thirsty by M.T. Anderson — the main character can’t join in his culture’s hatred of the monstrous because he has discovered it within himself. He has to find a way of living which is neither killing himself nor accepting his fate.
Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz — As Kate de Goldi said in her RNZ interview review, the author uses Victorian Gothic really skilfully in her books. It’s a great playground for children’s writers at the moment: Writers don’t have to wrestle with technology in the story and this historical setting is dark and mysterious and very colourful, and lends an air of fantasy. This is a really good story. There are big things being talked about women’s place, about exploitation at all levels of life. The author looks very interestingly at disability and writes really tenderly about unusual friendships about people who are marginalised.
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz — The things that Schlitz did well in her first novel were done equally well in this one. (There are two titles for this book depending on the continent.) This is a fantastic adventure about two orphans who work for an Italian puppeteer. They live in poverty. This is a fable, of sorts. Names of characters are really important in this: Clara (light) Wintermute (she can’t speak). In her house she’s been silenced by the grief of her parents. Four of her siblings died in the cholera epidemic but she survived and has the guilt of a survivor. While the plot may sound a bit hokey, the writing is very beautiful. The music, the rhythm of the words… We learn a huge amount of detail about Victorian London. Something Schlitz does without any shrinking is show the evil capacity of ordinary adults. It’s quite frightening the way the adults have buried sexual desires which are under the surface of the text. Having said that, this is very much a children’s story. The end is elevating.
Then there are books which are not obviously Gothic, but influenced by the tradition. The labyrinthine computer game stories set in cyberspace calling to mind the structures of Gothic castles, are one example, as mentioned above. Themes in common: double consciousness, metafiction, moral disintegration. In this way, 19th century Gothic fiction has a lot in common with ultra-contemporary speculative work.
With regard to children’s gothic, Anna Jackson recently edited a collection titled New Directions in Children’s Gothic: Debatable Lands. It’s a good start for getting a sense of the type of scholarship that is going on in the field. Also, anything by Chloe Buckley, who has what sounds like a fascinating book on children’s gothic coming out November 30.