The Thin Line Between the Gothic and the Absurd


Dr Polidori wrote ‘The Vampyre’ perhaps the earliest British vampire story, for the competition set by Shelley and Byron and for which Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’.

One of the great problems with the Gothic genre, and horror and ghost stories generally, must be the danger of the horrific so easily descending into the ludicrous, just as drama can so easily become melodrama, and pathos become bathetic.

I used to be frightened in my early teens by the horror stories of HP Lovecraft (which I found in a series of some old paperbacks belong ing to my parents, called, I think, ‘The Fontana Book Great Ghost Stories’; there seemed to be lots of these) . In tales such as ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ the alarming theme of covert alien invasion and mind control used to give me a real sense of horror.

In one, however, the ominous suddenly degenerated into farce.

In this story, a boy born to an unnatural mating between one of these aliens and an unfortunate human girl was breaking into a library where a version of ‘The Necromican’ was held under lock and key (too bad for him there wasn’t any Amazon back then).

He was attacked by a watchdog, which tore his trousers (how humiliating, as if he was a post worker or common burglar) and inflicted fatal wounds. He was discovered by the staff, gradually turning into a pool of goo, but the lower half of his body (visible through the said ripped trousers) was truly inhuman.

This made me laugh so much that these dismal stories’ nightmare world of an encroaching, seemingly irresistible threat never perturbed me in the same way again.

A fellow blogger has pointed out to me that these stories were often published in ‘pulp magazines’ and the editors often changed text as they felt like it.

No doubt this accounts for the bathetic ending to this particular story, but is a fine example of how the alarming can easily degenerate into the absurd.

This is sometimes the case with classic Gothic literature, for instance, ‘The Monk’ ‘Varney the Vampire’ and the first vampire story of all, ‘The Vampyre’ by no less a person than Lord Byron’s then personal physician, Dr Polidori (this story is often wrongly attributed to Byron himself).

I personally think that Byron and his friends were too dismissive of the originality of Dr Polydori’s contribution to the contest which lead to Mary Shelley creating ‘Frankenstein’ but it has to be conceded in that piece, the high flown, florid style is so solemn that it leaves itself open to satire.

There are unintentionally funny bits in those two classic Gothic tales ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’, and if that flawed masterpiece ‘Wuthering Heights’ can be classed as Gothic, for sure the melodrama sometimes turns into bathos, as when Cathy in a fit of temper with Edgar writhes on a sofa, ‘grinding her teeth as though she would turn them into splinters’ (as someone once said, I paraphrase freely).

As I love a laugh above anything, I make a point when writing Gothic myself of depicting the terrifying and grotesque as also horribly ludicrous. Fear and laughter, the sad and the comic are anyway often so closely related that I have never found it possible to ‘write straight faced’.

Then again, I can’t resist having the characters sometimes commenting on the Gothic nature of their own adventures.

Lord Ynyr (to his ex chef, who has just tried to convince him that his favourite cousin Émile has turned into a Man Vampire): I have to remind you, Lucien, that we are not now in a Gothic novel.

Lucien: That is hard to remember, Your Lordship, down at Plas Gwyn.

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