Focus on the Frightful – The Gothic and the Horror

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The Gothic and The Horror Genre: Uneasy Bedfellows

I’ve been poking around the edges of books like We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Picnic at Hanging Rock for awhile now. These are books (along with others I’ll get to, including movies) that seem to fall into a catch-all category known as Horror first and Gothic Horror second. Our guest post Sunday by David Michael Williams put part of the problem very succinctly.

“I can’t agree with the stance that a story should be penalized because it doesn’t fit snugly inside the box of one sub-sub-sub-genre or another.”  – David Michael Williams

I agree completely. The Gothic book used to have a very clearly defined description as Mr. Williams mentions in his post and which you can also find in a previous post by us here. Now it seems to be either a catchall for the Romance genre or they get thrown into the horror genre. They are much more closely aligned with horror than any other genre but they are also done a huge disservice. It just seems that publishers don’t quite know what to do with them. As always there will most likely be spoilers for these books specifically – We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Picnic at Hanging Rock,  The House Next Door and…Twilight.

So What’s the Difference?

Gothic Romances are generally focused intensely on one heroine or family and their odd family goings ons. They can be melodramatic, over-the-top and also introduce elements of the supernatural, overtly and covertly, thus muddying the genre waters even more. I’m going to focus solely on the Gothics and focus on more modern productions. So, don’t worry, you won’t see a deconstruction of Wuthering Heights here. Don’t sigh in relief just yet…I love the book so it will probably be popping up on A Focus on the Frightful sometime or other. Unfortunately hard as I tried it turns out I will be talking about Twilight. Sigh. There are four books in particular that I would like to mention specifically in regard to this and you guys will probably have very different reactions to each (and may not have heard of at least one of them). For the synopses please hover on the covers: 

Books
We Have Always Lived in the Castle  (our discussion of it here) – 1962
Picnic at Hanging Rock – 1967
The House Next Door – 1978
Twilight – 2005

 

The Books

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I’ll start with We Have Always Lived in the Castle since that is the book that seems to create the most confusion. As I put forth in my previous post (see above) it seems as though it is shelved under Horror, much to its detriment. I believe it gets put there because of The Haunting o Hill House, which I will contend has more in common with the Gothic genre than horror as well. Many of the criticisms leveled at it are “not scary”, “not horror” and “boring”. Boring is subjective and up for debate but I’m not here to force anyone to like it. I would like to address the charges of “not scary” and “not horror”. Being shelved under Horror people come to it with the expectation that it is horror. That it will be scary and are very disappointed when it’s not overtly horror. A lot of the horror is subliminal and you really have to read between the lines a few times to really understand just where the horror comes in. Again, I’m not saying those who don’t like it are not “deep” enough to get it. It’s just that being stuck in a confining genre people come to it with a preconceived set of expectations and are not satisfied when it doesn’t meet them. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock is another book that often gets put into the Horror category but there’s not much ‘horrific’ doings going on. At least, on the surface. A finishing school for the well-to-do ladies in training that live in Australia, run by a woman who sees it as little more than a business venture. On a Valentine’s Day picnic to a nearby feature called Hanging Rock three girls and a teacher disappear, never to be seen again. The book was put out at the time as “Based on a True Story”. However, this seems a marketing tactic as the research of readers has not come up with a matching case. Much of the book revolves around the search for these girls (the search for the teacher seems incidental) and the consequences on the school itself. One of the girls is found a week or two later but the mystery only deepens as she has only minor cuts and bruises with no sign of dehydration or starvation after two weeks in the broiling Australian outback. The true horror comes in the mental breakdown of the headmistress and her tyranny over the one student who has no family of ‘name’, just a benefactor. The final denouement only makes it all the more tragic. But is it really horror? Not really. Is it Romance, True Crime, an Unsolved Mystery so…into the Horror category it goes. Although the book seems to fall into the Mystery category as well. The mystery was eventually (bizarrely) resolved in an end chapter released later but there is some question of whether it was actually written by Joan Lindsay herself, or not. She refused to have it published while she lived and those that have read it (it’s insanely expensive for a single chapter) claim the writing style seems different and Ms. Lindsay always insisted that the mystery should not be solved. The movie is very much categorized as Horror which does seem to baffle some people. However, Peter Weir’s directorial style and the cinematography gives it such an eerie, slightly off-kilter feel to it that it passes a little better under the Horror section. 

The House Next Door

Although Anne Rivers Siddons is a prolific Southern writer her book The House Next Door, her one and, as far as I know, only, foray into the Horror genre was largely ignored by horror fans until Stephen King’s Danse Macabre showcased it. Which, to me, was questionable. It’s a capable ‘haunted’ (‘cursed’ might be a better word) house novel but there are many that do a much better job with the haunted house novel. What she does do, however, is bring out the daily horror of the scandal, the gossip and the side-long glances of a small well-to-do suburban subdivision of Atlanta. What qualifies this as more settled in the Gothic genre is that we are in Colquitt’s head (the main character) the whole time. We are privy to every single thought and emotion that she plunges into. She’s dramatic and vain and although she’s on the general outside of the house’s shenanigans she is also drawn into each one by dint of being neighbors with the House Next Door. The house is not ‘haunted’ in the traditional Southern way. There are no plantation belles wailing about, no dueling brothers to re-enact every anniversary. Bad things happen there. Small in size at first but gradually growing until one terrible night that destroys the neighborhood and Colquitt and her husband decide to burn the bastard down after trying to warn people away (through an article in People magazine, no less). But our sympathies, such as I can muster, are generally with them as friends ditch them and talk behind their backs. This is given almost equal weight on the scale of ‘terribleness’ that the house also dishes out. Again, though, it being listed under straight up Horror makes people think they’re in for, perhaps, a gory good time instead of the sedate and almost sanguine prose of Colquitt’s narration.

Twilight

Twilight is often shelved under Horror…because vampires of course! However, since much of it focuses on Bella and Edward’s ‘”Oh-so-intense” feelings for each other I think it qualifies more as a Romance than Horror. If you were to take out the vampires and add in a little more stalking and a little more insultingly described BDSM you’d have a Romance. And if you want to argue the point I shall direct you to Fifty Shades of Grey. This has got to be one of the most cannabalistic series I have ever read. The Paranormal Romance has much more in common with the Romance genre than either the Gothic or Horror. The only justification for these books to be flooding the Horror genre is the presence of some supernatural creature or another. My tone might be a little condescending but I promise I’m not trying to put down the Paranormal Romance genre as a whole. My disgust here is aimed mainly at Twilight and its love-child Fifty Shades of Grey. I will argue, however that they simply do not belong in the Horror genre just by dint of a supernatural love triangle (or quadrangle).

Ok, Just What the Heck Am I Getting At, Exactly?!

Some books just can’t be defined by a single genre. Horror, especially crosses into so many other genres you could go on forever subbing genres into eternity. Perhaps that’s some poor librarian’s purgatorial punishment. However, as any horror fan who has desperately searched through an endless list of Fantasy/Science Fiction (looking at you Amazon, would it kill you to add a Horror category?) the defining genres can be a blessing.

While I do agree in part with the thrust of Mr. Williams’ argument that sometimes genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres can ultimately hurt a book by confining it to one area and people might not be willing to veer outside of their comfort areas to try new genres. It seems a fifty-fifty split on the pro/con side. For those that like one particular genre it can be very helpful to be able to find precisely what they like. However, if you are looking to get outside your chosen genre for a little exploring the hundreds of sub-genres can feel like a maze as difficult to navigate as the hedge maze in The Shining,


So let me know what books you have come across that seemed to be Horror but weren’t? Or, vice versa, you went looking for a different kind of book and ended up with something completely different. Were you happy or pleased? Do you find them helpful or tedious? Let us know down below!

5 thoughts on “Focus on the Frightful – The Gothic and the Horror

  1. Ah! For once I’ve read every book in your post. And the two with the strongest case for NOT being horror to me are “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Twilight.” But here’s a thought for you: I’d put “Picnic” and “We have Always Lived in the Castle” together as “books of wonder,” where what is going on and how it affects people is so intriguing it can hold your interest even if you’re not sure what’s what.

    “Twilight” is a problem. It’s got vampires. Well, so do “Vampira” (aka “Old Dracula”) and “Love at First Bite,” to offer two movies with vampires. The former is likely to make you shriek in horror at its clumsy treatment of race, the latter will make you groan in horror at some of the jokes, but HORROR? Horrors!

    I only got through the first four or so, but the “Sookie Stackhouse” books (“True Blood” is another matter) always struck me as more gothic than horror. I mean, werepanthers. No. Really, no. You’re telling a story of small town society, excessive inbreeding and miscegenation there that’s not that much different from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear,” albeit with recreational sex.

    Hey, that gives me an idea for a cool gothic-horror mash-up. Let’s pit Robert Patterson’s Edward Cullen from “Twilight” against Nastassja Kinski’s Irena from “Cat People.” I mean, face it: Bella is a boring timid thing. Edward needs a challenge. And in Irena, boy, oh, boy, he’d get one. We’ll see who’s giving who lessons!

    1. I think you’re right. ‘Wonder books’ is a very good name for books like Picnic and WHALatC. They’re not quite mysteries because even though there are technically mysteries in the book they are secondary to the main human action taking place.

      I was also going to mention Crimson Peak as well. It seems like most of the people who don’t like it are people that feel they were ‘tricked’ because of it being marketed as a horror when it really wasn’t.

      I haven’t really watched True Blood. I did read one Sookie book at my friend’s request but I can only take so much of the “You’re interested in little ol’ me?” stuff so long, lol. I will say at least that Sookie is a much more fun narrator than joyless, suck the fun out of everything Bella (no pun intended, lol).

      I have yet to see The Cat Peope (either the original or the remake) but I really, really want to. I think I’m going to have to break down and order them since Netflix doesn’t seem too keen on putting classic horror movies on their streaming service.

      A movie that I was debating about putting in the list was The Beguiled (original). I ultimately decided against iit because it’s not ‘horror’ but it is Gothic feeling. It’s also one of the few movies where my opinion changed over time watching it. The first time I watched it (around thirteen or fourteen years old, I guess?) I was on the women’s side but watching it as an adult I didn’t really see the character of McBurney as evil. His actions were pretty understandable. Have you seen it? I don’t want to go all spoilery on you with my reasons if you haven’t, lol.

      1. I saw “The Beguiled” probably at about the same age as you, and certainly on TV, which means some of it was no doubt edited out. If I recall my reactions at the time correctly, I was no doubt on the side of the Union soldier, ’cause they were the good guys! Was there a gender-based preference there, too? Quite possibly. It’s one of those movies from back then I should probably see again, this time unedited.

        I saw the 1940s Cat People movies by borrowing the DVD from the local public library system. I don’t know where you live, but it’s worth checking out library holdings if you want to save the cost of a rental.

        Now I did miss Crimson Peak; add to list. As for True Blood, the soap operish elements came into play even faster than in the novels, so I never got past season 3. When everyone’s got a guilty secret and everyone is double-crossing everyone else, I check out of there.

        1. Anyone following this discussion and don’t want the Beguiled spoiled faster than milk in the sun better close your eyes, lol.

          Re-watching The Beguiled made me think a bit more. He’s in a home with all women, on opposite sides of a war. They could turn him in at any moment so what would be the most important thing to do, survival wise? Try to make everyone like him, at least week enough so they’re not going to hand him over to Confederate troops. I do think he loved the teacher, thought the ten girl was hot but wasn’t going to mess with that and flirted with the headmistress because ultimately she’s in charge. He ends up with the younger girl for a night after she threatens him with the soldier signal (I believe a handkerchief in the gate). After being caught and falling down the stairs I honestly think the headmistress takes his leg out of spite. It is plausible that she’s telling the truth but it’s one of the many things to keep you guessing. Afterwards, he’s ticked, who wouldn’t be??

          I think it’s Eastwood’s acting that makes him seem scarier but what does he really do? He gets drunk, tosses off a couple of threats and kills a turtle…for which he’s instantly remorseful. If he were a brutal maniac I don’t think that killing a turtle would have stopped his rampage but it does. Then, just as he’s about to leave…they poison his ass. Yeah, I knew, again they plant a doubt that *maybe* they didn’t but c’mon, they did.

          I think what takes it fully into Gothic territory though is the weird sub-plot about the relationship between the headmistress and her brother. Which she seems fully onboard with until he attacks their slave/servant (I assumed servant because the South but I’m nut sure. She seemed very equal with the headmistress). I think part of the purpose for that bizarre backstory (why wasn’t he at war? he was certainly the right age) was to show A: How few men were around at the time, B: To show that the headmistress was more sexual than she let on and C: She had no problem skewering an unfaithful lover. The murder scene is a bit uncomfortable in more ways than one. The attempted rape of her servant/friend but she also looks mightily ticked that he’s with another woman at all.
          I think The Beguiled is another that could fall into the ‘wonder’ category as well. It, just like Picnic and WHALitC, has the suspense of how it will ask turn out (though you’re pretty sure that it’s not going to be pleasant for someone, lol) and it ends on a slight mystery that we will never really know the answer to for certain.

          To sum up a very long couple of paragraphs it’s a movie with a lot more going on than people give it credit for. Thanks for letting me ramble! I don’t get to talk about some movies very much just because not many people have seen them (like Love at First Bite!! I still have that on VHS, lol)

          Like True Blood most tv shows that seem to abandon their original premises in favor of !Drama! trend to make me lose interest. That’s why I stopped watching Supernatural, after a while Sam and Dean got quite…whiny.

          I will have to check my library but I kind of doubt they’ll have The Cat People. The big one in the next town over might have it but I’m rather afraid I might see a Wanted for Booknapping poster there with my name on it. Not that…you know…I would ever do that, lol.

          I hope to see you week after next, I’ll be doing Picnic at Hanging Rock, book and movie. I’m curious to know your thoughts on it. This Friday there will be blood in the water…Snark Attack!

          1. Woo-hoo! A lot of thoughts on “The Beguiled.” And since at least one of those sub-plots doesn’t ring a bell, the TV version I saw was clearly seriously censored. I’m going to have to try to track down a copy of the movie to watch again.

            The brother might have been exempted from service. Recognizing the dangers of a slave rebellion, the Confederacy exempted a certain percentage of able-bodied men to keep the slaves in line on the home front.

            So, I have done book, movie, and alleged solution to “Picnic.” Hope I can say something insightful when you tackle it.

            Sorry that the library idea doesn’t work that well for you. My city’s library is networked with something like 40 other municipal and college libraries, so I can borrow from any of them and the system will actually deliver the book or DVD to the nearby branch library for me to pick up.

            And, last thought: you and Lilyn do this blogging as a passion as well as being a regular commitment. Given how much passion you just showed in analyzing “The Beguiled” (maybe as much passion as some of the female characters in it, n’est pas?), maybe an occasional retro review feature is in order. I can just see it now: “Race to the bottom: how ineptitude can make vampires funny!”

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