When I sat down to write The Ghost of Helen Addison, my intention was simply to create a crime novel. However, after it was published I found it was often being described as ‘gothic’, and indeed I was recently invited to speak at three ‘gothic’ literary events, so I feel as though I inadvertently have a foot inside two literary camps. I think we all have a sense of what ‘gothic’ is, but I wanted to investigate more precise academic definitions of the term to measure the extent to which Helen Addison was a gothic novel.
I realised that there were several gothic literary influences on the book. Prior to writing it, I had read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (which I have discussed in a previous blog), which belongs to the Southern Gothic sub-genre. Furthermore, its antihero IJ Reilly (who helped inspire my detective Leo Moran) yearns for a medieval ideal, which chimes with the way that the gothic novel evokes the medieval. I had also read the entire collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, again an influence on Leo, and apparently Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s little masterpieces are also considered to be gothic in terms of atmosphere, setting, suspense and dalliances with the supernatural (or rather with people’s fears of the supernatural, because of course Holmes is a man of the Enlightenment, of science and method). I had also read several collections of classic gothic ghost stories, by Sheridan Le Fanu, MR James and Rhoda Broughton. Setting is perhaps the most important element to the gothic, and the final influence I’d like to mention wasn’t literary, it was an actual location: Loch Awe in Argyll (see previous blog), which the Loch Dhonn of my book is based on. I first visited this place in the late autumn, a landscape brooding in the shortening days, summer’s greenery withered and brown beneath louring skies and looming mountains.
Anyway, so much for influences – what about definitions? The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of gothic is: ‘redolent of the Dark Ages; portentously gloomy or horrifying.’ The literary vogue was initiated in England in 1765 by Horace Walpole’s immensely successful Castle of Otranto (I haven’t read it, but an audience member at one of my gothic events informed me that it isn’t worth the effort!). The gothic novel incorporates a prevailing atmosphere of mystery, terror, horror, fear, death, and gloom. There are also romantic ingredients such as nature, individuality, high emotion, and (often unreturned) love. To relate this to The Ghost of Helen Addison, there is obviously a death – the murder of a young woman. As for horror, there is a ghost – as the title suggests; that of the victim’s restless spirit. While she is a benign ghost, the encounters between her and Leo are nonetheless chilling. There is an occult (also horror) element to crime, and there are suspenseful and frightening passages (terror, fear), some taking place at night. There is a romantic focus of Leo’s affections – the artist Eva Whitton – and it is an unreturned love.
The writer Lyn Pykett said gothic novels ‘share a preoccupation with the monstrous and supernatural, and make frequent use of dreams, visions, hallucinations, metamorphoses of various kinds.’ Well, my detective Leo Moran experiences visions which pertain to certain crimes, and which inform his investigations.
Gothic fiction is so named because its imaginative impulse was drawn from medieval buildings and ruins, which by the Renaissance were being described as being of gothic architecture (presumably because by then people considered it primitive, and used a barbarian pejorative). Gothic literature started at the same time as the revival in the appreciation of gothic architecture (mid-18th century, notably the highpoint of the Enlightenment and therefore perhaps a reaction against its raw materialist impulses) and indeed its replication in neo-gothic buildings. Many artists were soon longing for a lost past, for example the great polymath William Morris and the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, while certain High Anglican churchmen and theologians at Oxford pined for a pre-Reformation religion. Gothic novels commonly use settings such as castles or monasteries or ancient houses equipped with subterranean passages, dark battlements, hidden panels, and trapdoors. Often the wing of an old house is empty or closed off. The setting, especially a building, can itself be considered as an actual character, a sense of it being alive, as having its own personality and secrets. Examples would be the house in Conan Doyle’s Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Baskerville Hall in his Hound of the Baskervilles, Wuthering Heights in Emily Bronte’s classic, Satis House in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Incidentally, these novels suggest a broader definition of Gothic as a tone and style encompassing works that don’t necessarily have a mystery at their heart, or at least, the mystery is more a secret or an ancient malevolence than a crime. Often the buildings are old, dilapidated, decaying and might be set within gloomy, lifeless, fear-inducing landscapes. The gothic novel and indeed movie are now so embedded in our consciousness that this gloomy and frightening backdrop sets the scene for what the reader/audience comes to expect. The surrounding Highland landscape in The Ghost of Helen Addison is beautiful and grand but morose and at times oppressive in the winter gloom, which embodies the legends and foul deeds which abound in the locale.
Gothic settings can be inhabited by supernatural evil or a building might conceal secrets or be a refuge of a malevolent, frightening or threatening character. Examples are Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, the influence of du Maurier’s Rebecca at Manderley, the tyrannical Dr Grimesby Roylott who lives at Stoke Moran in Conan Doyle’s the Adventure of the Speckled Band, and, classically, Bram Stoker’s Dracula in his castle. In The Ghost of Helen Addison there is a strange person, The Grey Lady, who lives in a lonely old mansion, Fallasky House. She doesn’t socialise with the villagers and holds with the old faith. Her butler/lover Bosco is also a mysterious character. Initially, we only hear tell of him and his reputation as a peculiar fellow of immense physical strength. There is also the dastardly baron of Caradyne and his henchman Kemp, although they are less enigmatic as we meet them quickly and in full view during daylight. We never visit their house, although we do glimpse a creepy former Caradyne residence, Ardchreggan House, on the opposite bank of the loch. Further gothic settings in The Ghost of Helen Addison would be an eerie church, St Fillan’s, where a terrifying moonlit episode takes place. The island of Innisdubh is the main locus of evil in the book. It has a dark past. There are strange druid stones and it is suspected that human sacrifice took place here in ancient times. There is a ruined tower where a medieval tyrant the Green Lord was hanged and disembowelled. There are various graves, including that of the Green Lord and the thirteenth Baron of Caradyne. The latter incorporates weird occult symbolism –allegedly he did dire deeds in Edwardian times.
In my next gothic outpouring, I’m going to consider sub-elements of the genre, and also the Scottish Gothic.