The Origins of Gothic Fiction: From Ancient Ruins, to Vampires, to Frankenstein.

by Nigel Watson

Prof Nick Groom. Plymouth Literature festival. Nigel Watson

Prof Nick Groom. Plymouth Literature festival. Nigel Watson

In the darkened ruins of the Athenaeum, lightning streaking down on the audience like remorseless daggers, Prof. Nick Groom (aka the ‘Prof. of Goth’), illuminated by the flickering glow of candlelight, held forth on the history of Gothic fiction and how it has steadily infiltrated and influenced our perception of the world and continues to fascinate our tortured minds.

In the cold light of day, the lightning, the candlelight and the ruins are figments of my imagination inspired by Gothic tradition. The Goths sacked Rome in the 4th Century and came to be regarded as murdering savages bringing down civilisation, yet even the Romans had a grudging admiration for their purity of spirit and respect for liberty.

A century later the Anglo-Saxons, derived from Germanic origins, built-up semi-mythical histories from literally the ruins of the past. In the medieval period great Gothic cathedrals were erected as statements to our mortality and the inevitability of death. The Gothic style swept Europe, deriving this name because it was regarded as unrefined and vulgar compared to Classical architecture and aesthetics.

The English Reformation in the 16th Century, with the destruction of Monasteries and churches, brought about the creation of more ghostly ruins across our landscape. Another powerful influence, was the fascination with blood sucking vampires in the 18th Century. Science took an interest in these old folkloric stories and it was wondered whether such creatures were real. Even though there were witness testimonies supporting their reality, across Europe scientists tried explaining this phenomenon in terms of mass hysteria, the product of bad diets, disease and drug usage. Whatever the possible solution, it did make scientists speculate if the dead really could come back to life or not.

Prof Nick Groom. Plymouth Literature festival. Nigel Watson

Prof Nick Groom. Plymouth Literature festival. Nigel Watson

Prof Nick Groom. Plymouth Literature festival. Bram stoker Dracula cover

Bram stoker Dracula cover

This background of history, art and politics helped fuel Gothic fiction that used the fascination with the macabre, darkness, the supernatural, wild nature, mythology, folklore and the nature of reality to drive their narratives. The first Gothic novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ was penned by Horace Walpole in 1764. Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus’ in 1818, established much of the trappings and concerns of Gothic fiction with her examination of what it takes to be truly human. Another significant milestone was Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ in 1897 that heavily draws on Vampire legends and has the aristocratic villain originating from Transylvania.

In the 19th Century, Gothic novels provided the perfect material for the new art of cinema. The German Expressionist movement embraced the unreal, insanity and the subjective as opposed to the realistic narrative structures of Hollywood. They used exaggerated shadows, lighting, props, costumes, settings and trick photography to dramatise these unconscious fears about our existence. An outstanding example is Fredrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 ’Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror’ (‘Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens’), which is loosely based on Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ novel.

This Gothic ethos went on to inspire the Hollywood, Universal Studio portrayals of Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula in the 1930s to 1940s, and by the British, Hammer Film studios in the 1950s to 1970s.

Prof. Groom underlined the point that Gothic fiction does not just look back at the past, it is also very much concerned with the price of progress. In this manner, such films as Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ is very much in the Gothic tradition with replicants (bioengineered beings), that are modern-day versions of Shelley’s ‘monstrous’ creation, who grapple with understanding whether they are human or not.

It was a fascinating lecture that covered a wide spread of history and insights into how we deal with, and perceive, our own existence through the Gothic imagination. Afterwards, there was a half-hour-long question and answer session that covered the role of the Gothic in Shakespeare’s plays, cyborgs, cathedrals, good Goths, the beauty of imperfections versus machine-made products, aspiration and fallibility, Gothic music, the relationship between Gothic monsters and the landscape, Tolkein and H.G. Wells. Then, the lightning resumed firing upon the collected body of humanity and we had to venture forth into the foggy, gaslit streets of Plymouth.