Category Archives: Gothic

Why Brave is an Important Movie

I tend to lightly toss around terms that are meaningful to me, but may seem odd to outsiders, such as “archetypes” or “gothic”. To others, I may even sound more than a little obsessed. Focused on particular ideas would be more accurate, however. My entry into the world of the gothic corresponded with my studies of the British Enlightenment and, although archetypes can be found in stories dating from ancient times, my fascination with these tropes grew with the gothic monster. The gothic is and was a study of the shadow archetype of mankind; this appeals to my human core, to my understanding that I have a shadowy side to my persona that I fear and desire to keep hidden. I don’t want to acknowledge this side of me, but neither can I deny it. Denying it is, in fact, dangerous because it means I’m no longer in conscious control of it.

To exemplify this archetype, as well as some others, I’d like to discuss a movie of the past year I considered to be both well-done and important, albeit often misunderstood: Pixar’s Brave. To feminists, the brave female Merida is not a symbol of feminine power. To others, the lack of the typical romantic ending is a form of trickery [this response I read in forums–critics wouldn’t dare to complain about a lack of someday my prince will come]. And to those on the cultural fringe, such as the Botkin sisters, Merida is hardly a female worth emulating because she creates yet another “unhealthy stereotype” for girls to follow–too feminist, in other words. Frankly, as a female, I find these opposite and varied reactions to be false, or even worse, to be obtusely missing the point.

The heroines that make up our post-feminist culture generally follow two models: women desiring to fill male archetypes–most notably the warrior archetype–or women discovering themselves through princes who rescue them. Both of these models imply a worship of the male and a degradation of the female. But ironically, the male idolatry we involve ourselves in has created a counter-phobic reaction against men because, ultimately, women will never be men, no matter how hard they try. And so we find ourselves at this strange cultural crossroads of reviling the feminine and masculine alike, rather than discovering the ways in which the sexes may mutually benefit each other in this modern egalitarian patriarchy we currently live in.

In Merida, we see a young woman who is consumed by the worship of the masculine. She’s wild; she’s a warrior; she resists all attempts her mother makes to cultivate her into a feminine princess. While her mother works behind the scenes to bring about a marital alliance that might save the clan, her father encourages his daughter to be as rough and tumble as her three little brothers. The masculine, or the animus, as Jung would put it, is ruling Merida’s person.

To run through the story very quickly–Merida turns to a witch for magic that will change her mother’s mind about forcing Merida into an arranged marriage. The magic, of course, takes a strange and dangerous turn when her mother transforms into an enormous female bear. Meanwhile, the plot of the hateful masculine is formulated through a warrior who has transformed himself, using the same magic, into a giant black bear. At some point in the past, this bear warrior has left Merida’s father as a one-legged warrior. Those of you who are familiar with archetypes probably already see where I’m going with this–the enormously dangerous male bear is Merida’s shadow. It threatens to consume Merida after she falls into its lair (subconscious, anyone?); it has already left her father as half a warrior, or half a man, in a sense, limping along on one leg. As a young woman who doesn’t want to be one, Merida doesn’t approve of men any more than she approves of herself or her mother. This hatred is demonstrated through her ridiculous male suitors. Are men really as foolish as these cartoon buffoons? No, but they’re certainly foolish as viewed through Merida’s mental filter.

This movie could have gone in any direction. Merida’s family could have produced a prince for her to marry. Merida could have become a female warrior, thereby fulfilling the deep feminist longings of women wanting to be men. But, no, the story writer chose to uphold the feminine. Merida’s mother, as the big black she-bear must defeat the warrior bear spirit that’s threatening to consume her daughter. After the mother accomplishes this, she changes back into her human form. Merida then has a renewed relationship with her mother, which also represents the feminine in Merida’s soul. At the end, the buffoons sail away, and Merida and her mother ride their horses off into the sunset, so to speak, and they’re together–united. Merida has been united with the feminine.

Will Merida ever marry? No doubt, if her parents present a worthwhile man, she will concede that the clan needs her to marry. But that’s speculation. Not every female is meant to marry, and that isn’t what Merida’s story is about. It’s about the restoration of the feminine in a girl who’s being ruled by her masculine side. It’s about the rightness of females and the beauty of being one. And it’s not about filling a personality stereotype or denying who one is at core. The mother acknowledges this–Merida is a female, but she’s a female unlike her mother. Still, a woman, of any personality, possesses a feminine spirit, and who would want it any other way?

Too many people would like it to be different, actually. And so, here we are, shuffling uneasily at this bizarre cultural crossroads in which we have learned that women are to be despised because they aren’t men, and that men are to be despised because they are naturally men. I applaud Pixar for defying the cultural norms and giving us strong women who are naturally women. Brave’s archetypes resonate with me, and they prod me forward and away from the crossroads, into the gothic forest of the subconscious, where my shadow waits–that female inside me that’s still waiting to be discovered.

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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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Mike Duran’s The Resurrection: A Beautiful Blending of the Gothic

On Gothic fiction: The Brits, being the master novelists that they are, created this genre of literature in the 18th C. Unless I’m mistaken, Horace Walpole was the first author to pen a work of Gothic fiction in his Castle of Otranto. Walpole set the standard, in any case: a setting that is alive with darkness and mystery, where the supernatural looms largely–and, yes, I do mean largely. There is no mistaking the supernatural in Walpole’s work.

His Castle was followed by many works of Gothic fiction, in which authors competed to create the scariest, darkest, or most bizarre works of fiction. This was a breathing time for the Brits, in which they could forget for just a moment how the enlightenment had dampened them, and live again in a world where mysticism and the supernatural could exist–generally in fantastical Catholic realms, otherwise known to them as Mediterranean countries.

Then along came the more feminine Gothic. Writers such as Ann Radcliffe used the same motifs of darkness and evil, of crypts and ghostly encounters in Mediterranean countries, except with one vital difference–these authors relegated the supernatural to the unbelievable. Their enlightenment thinking got the best of them; natural forces explained all hints of the supernatural. Morality and even, perhaps, underlying feminism took hold of their texts.

On the modern Gothic: I read Mike Duran’s book The Resurrection a couple of weeks ago. I must admit that I was prepared to enjoy it because I’ve enjoyed Mike’s blog for about a year now. He’s smart. He doesn’t shy away from controversy. And I knew he would soon debut a work of supernatural fiction, which to me is just another name for Gothic literature, one of my pet subjects (plus, if you must know, I also write supernatural fiction). Then he wrote a truthful but discouraging article disparaging reviewers that hand out five-star ratings like candy. I felt trapped. I wanted to review his book; in fact, I had to because I had won a copy off his blog. How could I give it a good review after that? Honesty is one thing–but how does he know one way or the other whether I’m honest? Suddenly, I found myself in the damned if you do, damned if you don’t arena of book reviewing.

I’m not a particularly nice person, all in all. I’m a critic at heart, but I know when it’s good for me to shut my mouth. I’ve learned this after many hard lessons. So instead of reviewing Mike’s book here on my blog (I had already given it a 5-star review on Amazon), I turned my attentions elsewhere. I picked up another–secular–book of Gothic fiction, Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. The beauty of the language captured me. I was utterly, soulfully lured into a London ghost story with the classical style of writing that I crave. I fell for it–until the end, in which I discovered that it wasn’t a classical novel after all. It was, in fact, a modern novel in which nobody wins–not the good, not the evil. It just ends. The supernatural is rendered into impotent god-like ghost figures who can’t save themselves, let alone anyone else. Her story, ultimately, was thoroughly unbelievable. I sank under a weight of depression and returned to The Resurrection, which still sat on my bedside table awaiting review. I knew at that point the reason I had given Mike’s book a 5-star rating.

Finally, the novel I’m meant to review: The Resurrection blends the Walpole aesthetic of the supernatural with the feminine Gothic, except with the modern American twist, in which the supernatural exists in the Protestant world of the here and now. His book is a modern adaptation that utilizes every facet of the genre: his setting is dark and mysterious, his heroine broken–a crippled kind of Jane Eyre, and his supernatural is larger than life. And maybe it’s just me, but I found the romance between the heroine and her construction-worker husband extremely sexy. I’m not much into eye-probing and rakish stares; I’ve been married for 17 and 1/2 years to my own fire-fighter type of heroic man, and that’s the best kind of romance there is–one of devotion between a husband and wife.

Mike Duran’s writing style is more matter-of-fact than poetic, but it works. It’s believable. His ghost story is creepy, cold, and left me jittery–and, yet, I believed in it. Add to that a satisfying ending, in which the supernatural guides the main characters to fight their battles and actually prevail against darkness, and the story is complete.

I have a few criticisms of the novel, and since the author wants them, I’ll deliver:

*The beginning is abrupt. It lets the reader in on the story right away, which is a plus in today’s publishing world, I suspect. One of the main protagonists, Ian Clark, witnesses the ghost who haunts him. The other main protagonist, the crippled heroine I already mentioned, experiences her first vision. But these scenes were terribly rushed and left me a little breathless because I felt pulled along by a plethora of overly active verbs. The writing calms down after that, and I don’t mean that it slows down. It calms down.

*I’m not a big fan of scenic fiction, I have to admit, but I also realize that today’s readers wants their fiction to mimic the art of cinema, and so be it. I don’t like it, but I’ll deal with it. Mike’s novel is no different than any other modern scenic fiction. His writing is more intelligent than most, and for that, I give him kudos. In today’s world, calling a work scenic is not criticism.

*The author doesn’t want to traverse the path of fear very far. This may be an honest criticism depending on what the reader expects from the story. Personally, I don’t want to have nightmares. To me, the author goes just far enough, such that the supernatural is tangible, but not horrifying.

*The worst part of the novel, for me, is the afterword. Yes, I realize, it’s not technically part of the plot. Apologetics have a long and illustrious history in Christian writing, but I don’t want to read them after I’ve finishing a novel that gives me satisfaction in and of itself. Plus, I have more disagreements with the theology in the afterward than I do with the theology in the novel. I can almost guarantee that wasn’t the author’s intent.

My rating stated boldly: I give this book five stars, and not simply because I want to bolster the genre. Go ahead and argue with me, if you want, Mr. Duran. And don’t worry. I’m expecting an even better second book. I love the supernatural genre, otherwise known as the Gothic, and I can’t get enough of it. Keep delivering it, already!

Buy The Resurrection HERE. Discover more about the author HERE.

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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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