The Thin Line Between the Frightening and the Ludicrous in Gothic


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 'Frankentstein'.
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 ‘Frankentstein’.

Dr Polidori wrote ‘The Vampyre’ perhaps the earliest British vampire story, for a competition set by Shelley and Byron and for which Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’. Given the competition the unfortunate medic had to take on, and the fact that they all seemed to conspire to regard him as a figure of fun, it was brave of him to enter at all, and I believe only he and Mary Shelley completed their stories.

When the others ridiculed the lurid prose of ‘The Vampyre’, they had a point; but Byron and Mary Shelley can hardly escape the same charge in their own work, albeit much less crudely presented.

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.  Even so skilled a writer as Elizabeth Gaskell, with her love of the dramatic, often falls into that trap.

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 belonging 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 the above Dr Polidori, Lord Byron’s then personal physician (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 Polidori’s contribution to this contest which led 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’. In ‘Dracula’ I found that the scene where Jonathan Harker sees the Count carrying out the ‘low task’ of setting the table absurd, when clearly it is meant to comprise a moment of horrific recognition on Harker’s part – that he and the Count are in fact alone together in the inaccessible castle.

If that flawed masterpiece, ‘Wuthering Heights’ can be classed as Gothic, 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).

These tales make wonderful reads, particularly on a dark winter’s night, if possible with an open fire, schooner of sherry and hot mince pie to hand (but a radiator and a cup of tea will do just as well). I remember my delight on first discovering them.

Yet, just as writers can learn from these classics strengths, so they should from their weaknesses. Writers of Gothic are a little more aware of the thin nature of that line between the terrifying and the ridiculous today.

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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5 thoughts on “The Thin Line Between the Frightening and the Ludicrous in Gothic

  1. “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’.”

    I love this. It says EVERYTHING. Great article. I hope you don’t mind it I share it with my blog family and my writing friends (and everyone who feels like one must seriously suffer for their art.)

  2. Lovely article, Lucinda. I adore the Gothic genre, as you know, but it certainly does have a tendency to almost become a parody of itself at times. Your comment about “Dracula” made me smile, too – the thought of the Count making beds and pottering around in the kitchen making dinner always struck me as utterly absurd, and ruined some of the “fear factor” for me. Modern writers are not immune from this, either; Some of Stephen King’s novels start off so well, and develop so frighteningly, that the end – the unravelling, if you like – often seems like a disappointment. If a top writer like King can fall prey to this particular malady, then I’m not sure that there’s much hope for the rest of us!

  3. Thank you, Mari;
    Ha, Ha, about the fearsome Count pottering in the kitchen. Perhaps that’s why in the film versions they tended to give him a bestially stupid and devoted toady? It is always a problem about the unravelling; one of the most terrifying ghost stories was called just that ‘Ghost Story’ by Peter Straub, b ut I suspected the hand of King, somehow (I think it was a joint effort). I was a little disappointed by the ending, though it did seem to emphasize the massive power of the female.
    Well, I do find your tales of terror spine chilling throughout, so you’re doing ok…

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