Category Archives: 18th C Gothic

The Importance of What-If Questions in Christian Fiction

Nobody can agree on the purpose of Christian fiction. I suspect this is just as true in the arena of the speculative. But I’ll hazard a guess that most speculative authors are asking “what if” questions, meant to ponder the meaning of life, science, philosophy, and humanity’s place in the universe.

When applying these questions to a Christian model, heated debates inevitably ensue. I don’t know the reason for it, but Christians often insist that the answers to these questions are black and white and, furthermore, many Christian writers tell tales as if they already know the answers to these what-ifs. Therefore, how dare an author ask them in the first place and, conversely, how dare a reader venture down those shaky roads of what-if questions that don’t have obvious or clear answers. But maybe, just maybe, those what-if questions are just as important for the Christian message as having all the answers.

For the purpose of my venture into the speculative, I’d like to go all the way back to the British 18th C Gothic. I’m going to quote from two classic works from this time period, Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Gothic literature was an English creation. They created it at the height of the Enlightenment, at the pinnacle of philosophical and scientific thought, and during a turbulent period of history. They used the Gothic as a means of imaginative escape into a world where anything was possible, and, what is more, they used it as a means of balance. They balanced virtue with vice, sublimity with beauty, and, ultimately, science and rational thought with the supernatural, just as current speculative fiction balances the terror of the unknown with reality.

Consider this quote from one of the heroes at the end of Romance: “‘Call [my thoughts on the afterlife] not the illusions of a visionary brain,’ proceeded La Luc: ‘I trust in their reality. Of this I am certain, that whether they are illusions or not, a faith in them ought to be cherished for the comfort it brings to the heart, and reverenced for the dignity it imparts to the mind. Such feelings make a happy and an important part of our belief in future existence: they give energy to virtue, and stability to principle’” (275).

Although La Luc is speaking about his dead wife and his faith in an afterlife, there is a secondary meaning that emerges, here, at the conclusion to the novel. Radcliffe is telling her readers that the incredible events of her story, the depth of evil, and the hints of the supernatural, are not necessarily illusions. Believing that the world is evil also leads to a belief in goodness, which becomes a kind of imaginative faith. This faith leads to happiness, but more than that, it energizes those most important Christian notions of virtue and principle.

Even Jane Austen, in her novel that mocked Radcliffe’s, Northanger Abbey, has her heroine, Catherine, concede that Radcliffe’s type of evil isn’t tolerated in England–and yet, even though there are no purely evil villains, no vampires or monsters, nor any thoroughly pure heroines walking around in “‘[Henry to Catherine] a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such footing;’” even so, Catherine responds this way: “among the English, [Catherine] believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad” (Austen, 157-8).

Perhaps the depth of depravity in Radcliffe’s novels could never have occurred in a rational country–although I would beg to differ with Henry on that one–but evil does exist in the world. Allowing the mind to imagine clearer, stronger notions of these opposites can motivate a person to act more virtuously. That is part of Catherine’s point and, by extension, Austen’s. In imagining horrible scenarios, Catherine may have got her facts wrong, but she didn’t get them wrong in principle. Her imagination helped her understand the true character of her imagined villain. 

The what-if questions of speculative fiction bring balance to Christian fiction because they force us to step out of reality in order to understand it better.

Gothic fiction may not be the beginning of the speculative genre, although Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often considered the first true science fiction novel, but it is integral to understanding the purpose behind Christian supernatural fiction.

But I have one BIG question: why is this genre** not popular in the Christian market? Are we frightened of the questions? Are we afraid the answers won’t line up with our preconceived notions of God and his interactions with mankind?

**Editing to say that I used the term “genre” last night when I was tired. I really meant “spec fic”, which is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple genres–Gothic being one of them.

p.s. I quoted from these editions:
Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey 1818.  Longman Cultural Edition 2005.  Ed. Marilyn Gaull.

Radcliffe, Ann.  The Romance of the Forest 1791.  Oxford University Press 1999.  Ed. Chloe Chard.

p.p.s. painting by Salvator Rosa

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The World is Sublime When Humanity Disappears

The mountains are ecstatic…None but…God know how to join so much beauty with so much horror.–Thomas Gray

We’re lost in it. We’re lost in a world of deep canyons, tangled forests, and high, craggy peaks. We’re lost in a maze of civilizations, modern and ancient. Our own edifices tower over us, not to mentions God’s.

Where are we? We’re specks at the base of the peaks. We’re ghostly images at the opening of the tombs. We’re stones gazing at the cosmos, at the pinpricks of light more massive than we are, light years away from us. We’re astronomers examining the images in heaven we can’t begin to comprehend.

We’re lost.  The beauty of the world is horrible. With our senses, we expect to ascertain the world, but we can’t. We’re blind, deaf, dumb, w/o taste, and numb. The enlightenment woke us, then put us to sleep. The age painted our figures in its picturesque, diminished us, rendered us meaningless–as ghosts.

The world is not sublime when humanity disappears. The purpose of speculative fiction is to find humanity. I propose that Christian speculative authors begin to pay attention to their purpose. Stop preaching. Slide the figures into prominence, pull them from their obscure spots, repaint them so we can see, hear, feel them. Don’t give us oblivion. Give us truth.

How do authors write truth? I’ll repeat myself: Stop preaching. Slide the figures into prominence, pull them from their obscure spots, repaint them so we can see, hear, feel them.

Because in the daylight, the tomb is empty, and the ghost has escaped, reentered the world. And where will we find him?

Paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, taken from Olga’s Gallery 
Quote from Picturesque

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On the Supernatural in Poetry, by Ann Radcliffe

“Where is now the undying spirit,” said he, “that could so exquisitely perceive and feel?–that could inspire itself with the various characters of this world, and create worlds of its own; to which the grand and the beautiful, the gloomy and the sublime of visible Nature, up-called not only corresponding feelings, but passions ; which seemed to perceive a soul in every thing: and thus, in the secret workings of its own characters, and in the combinations of its incidents, kept the elements and local scenery always in unison with them, heightening their effect . . .” (Radcliffe)

Ann Radcliffe is one of my favorite 18th C Gothic authors. When I was sifting through old files, I found references to her discussion On the Supernatural in Poetry. Literally, she writes it in a fictional way, as a conversation between two people. It’s a beautiful and telling conversation, to say the least. It tells of Radcliffe’s own aesthetic as an artist and hints at how she desired to use scenery and character to create distinct moods in her books. You can read the entire work at the link I posted in paranthesis. You can also read it at litgothic.com, which is one of my favorite sites. They are very particular about others copying the manuscripts they put up, so I copied the above paragraph from a university link. Oh, come on, I try to give credit where credit’s due! Besides, Radcliffe’s work is surely not under copyright any longer.

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