A Writting of Excess

Gothic is a writing that depends on an excess of emotion, stimulating an imaginative frenzy through the use of terror and the "Sublime". The novels tend to focus on irrational and immoral behaviour, and despite the conventional moral lessons and piety of the endings, there is a definite concern with the dissolute and evil side of the human psyche. The unrestrained appeal to the imagination, and the improbability of Gothic plots, mean that it is a genre that provides a counter-narrative to 18th century rationalism and the neo-classical insistence on order, clarity and symmetry of design. Whereas Enlightenment literature sought to instruct and cultivate its readers, the Gothic replaces harmonious rationalism with uncertainty and shifts in tone. Imagination is released from the restraints of reason and a more primitive form of excitement is explored, supported by the interesting fact that many Gothic writers, including Walpole and Shelley, claimed to have been inspired by dreams.

The excessive emotion utilised in Gothic fiction has aspects of the Sublime. Burke, in his influential treaty on the Sublime, claimed that whereas beautiful objects were small, smooth and ordered, Sublime objects were vast, magnificent and awe-inspiring, a force unable to be fully comprehended by the rational mind. Sublime emotions were stimulated by the natural grandeur found in landscapes such as the Alps, and also medieval architecture: both settings central to the Gothic mode. Gothic writers such as Radcliffe used the Sublime as another way to provoke an emotive rather than a rational response, for the moments of terror in Gothic novels are uplifting and pleasurable in the same way as a sublime landscape is for a romantic poet.

Two key terms in the discussion of the Gothic are terror and horror, which may at first seem synonymous but in fact have quite distinct connotations. Terror involves an imaginative expansion based on suspense, while Horror is the moment of realisation and recoil from the situation in fear and disgust. Horror is that which shows you something that repulses you or scares you; Terror meanwhile just hints that something horrific may happen and works on your fears. A good illustration of the variance of these techniques is the difference between Radcliffe, who depends on terror that is a product of the mind, and Matthew Lewis whose method is the horror of concrete events that disgust the reader and spectres that cannot be explained away (notable both authors were very popular in their time). In The Monk, horror is evoked by the lurid encounters with physical mortality - Antonia's hand plunged into a worm-ridden corpse - that deny the imaginative transcendence of terror and so create an inverse, or negative Sublime. In modern cinematic terms, the difference is that between Ridley Scott's film Alien (1979) and James Cameron's sequel Aliens (1986). In Alien terror is created by dark corridors and silences: fear comes from the viewer's sense that something bad is going to happen at any moment. In Aliens, horror is created by the clear visual representation of blood, gore, and death. As such, horror tends to be a lot less frightening to read than terror but a lot more unpleasant.

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