Somewhere on the web I found a definition of the characters required for a gothic novel: the maiden, the hero, the villain, and an older, foolish woman. In my book The Ghost of Helen Addison, these would be, respectively: Helen Addison (and Eva Whitton), Leo Moran, the killer, and the hotelier Shona Minto.
I have myself identified other sub-elements to the gothic, some of which appear in my forthcoming Leo novel, The Shadow of the Black Earl (out September 2018). Sometimes there is a portrait of a deceased individual (used, for example, in the short story The Lost Stradivarius by J Meade Falkner, The Hound of The Baskervilles, and the movie The Innocents based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), which is usually seen before or after the protagonist has seen the ghost of that individual. Also common are framing devices – stories within stories, often told through lost and found old manuscripts telling of some ancient evil. For example, the Hound of the Baskervilles features such a document, and James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is partly comprised of the presentation of a found document from the previous century. Other sub-elements I have identified are musical boxes, haunted attics, glimpsed figures at windows or on battlements, stormy weather, and physically deformed or curiously ugly characters. There are also thrawn (RL Stevenson used this wonderful Scots adjective in Thrawn Janet, a gothic short story), canny and disdainful or even hostile locals. The hero is usually a visitor, the innocent abroad or perhaps the noble idiot. The locals close off secrets to him, and he doesn’t understand rural ways and might unwittingly give offence.
Gothic is currently enjoying a renaissance in Scotland. For example, there is the excellent sequel to the most iconic of all Scottish Gothic novels, RL Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, entitled Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek. It was written by the talented Anthony O’Neill and brilliantly evokes the tone of the original. The grandfather of all Scottish Gothic, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is clearly an inspiration behind Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016.
The Ghost of Helen Addison is an accidental successor to Margaret Oliphant’s gothic tome The Wizard’s Son . It was spooky to realise how many similar elements there are within both books, despite my never having heard of it, let alone read it, prior to writing Helen Addison. First of all, both novels are set at a fictionalised version of Loch Awe (which she renamed Loch Houran, I renamed Loch Dhonn). Both of us were inspired by Kilchurn Castle at the top of Loch Awe, which became the keep on my island of Innisdubh, and the Castle of Kinloch Houran in Mrs Oliphant’s tale. In both books, a flawed protagonist (Leo Moran in my book, Walter Methven in Mrs Oliphant’s) arrives from outside, and by similar means, by train and then coach/taxi, and both books record the protagonist’s first impressions of the place. The protagonist then leaves only to return again. In both books there was the element of a wicked ancestor (in my book the thirteenth Baron Caradyne, in Mrs Oliphant’s the Warlock Lord of Erradeen), a magician who seeks to bring riches and/or power to his line. The gothic often encompasses religious themes, and in both books there is a female object of the hero’s romantic affection; Eva in my novel and Oona in Mrs Oliphant’s. Both women’s names were chosen consciously to evoke a religion theme: Eva evokes the Edenic theme of my book, whereby idyll of Loch Dhonn is shattered by terrible sin. Meanwhile Walter is redeemed by Oona Forrester; Una means lamb, evoking the Christ sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
Another novel which contributes to this revival of the Scottish Gothic is Jane Harris’ superb Gillespie and I , featuring the unreliable narrator Harriet Baxter, and set at the time when a neo-gothic Glasgow was under construction. Unreliable narrators are common in the Scottish Gothic, as are changes in the narrative voice, for example the story being told through different statements and letters, by people with different motivations or biases. These novels therefore reflect on the nature of truth, and ask whether objective truth can exist, and we often don’t know for certain what happened or why, or are left to project our own interpretations onto the text. I myself indulge in this by having two possible explanations for events in my Leo Moran novels: a supernatural one and an entirely ‘rational’ one.
This notion of projecting different interpretations on the same text brings me to the classic feature of the Scottish Gothic novel: it is marked by duality, tension or conflict between opposing ideas. This is the ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’ coined by Professor George Gregory Smith and expounded in an essay by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. In my experience, the Caledonian Antisyzygy can refer to many tensions or conflicts lurking within the Scottish nation or consciousness.
The duality can be expressed within character (most famously Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or setting. Perhaps the structure of Confessions of a Justified Sinner reflects this too; the rational ‘editor’ and the superstitious Robert Wringham representing the rational and superstitious components in the Scottish consciousness. In The Ghost of Helen Addison, my detective Leo accepts a metaphysical explanation for events, while the policeman DI Lang, a typically pragmatic, logical, Lowland Scot, prefers the rational.
Confessions of a Justified Sinner demonstrated the influence of hard-line Calvinism on the ‘wild’, ‘romantic’ or ‘passionate’ Scottish psyche, but I’d contend that the most significant mover behind this Scottish dualism is the troubled relationship Scotland has with England. Professor David Punter of Bristol University, an expert on the genre, pinpoints the idée fixe of the gothic as a concern with history, especially the myths and fabrications upon which a nation is based. The Scottish Gothic is therefore haunted by Scotland past. In many ways, Scottish national identity was crystallised by opposition to England, and even though the Act of Union brought peace between the countries, there remains an uneasiness to this arrangement in the Scottish mind.
The Scots are often referred to a Jekyll and Hyde people. It is a country influenced by the light of reason – quite literally Enlightened – which produced much of the philosophy, science and engineering that shaped the modern world. Conversely, the Scottish soul is also romantic, superstitious and subject to often self-destructive passions. This split could once have been considered roughly geographic; the gentler country of the south inhabited by the staid, better-educated, English-speaking (inasmuch as Scots is a dialect of English), Presbyterian population who typified the values of the Enlightenment, the Union and the Industrial Revolution. While the rugged, forested Highland country of the west and north was inhabited by the Gaels, the people of poetry and song and doomed causes and ancient honour codes and blood loyalties and uisge-beatha. I reckon the Highlands reflect a further dualism. It is an uncommonly beautiful realm, an inspiration to artists and a backdrop for tales of heroism, romance and adventure. When the sun shines on a Highland landscape it lifts the spirits. Yet in the winter’s dark, in the rain or beneath a scowling sky, the very same terrain can – often very quickly – take on a melancholy and even sinister aspect. Within such shadow it is not hard to comprehend why ours is a country rich in a darker romance, in tales of ghosts and witchcraft. Loch Awe – or in my case Loch Dhonn – typifies this alternation, and the novel takes place at the hinterland between winter and the beginning of spring. Therefore both versions of Scotland are present in the novel, the pretty and romantic/the dark and foreboding.
The journey north is another gothic trope, and the Ghost of Helen Addison begins with Leo travelling north by train from Glasgow to Loch Dhonn. Night journeys are common in the gothic, and Leo’s second trip northwards when he returns from his banishment is on a wild night. The Highland/Lowland divide is enshrined by these journeys as the protagonist moves from the urban, ordered, civilised cradles of Scottish Enlightenment (Glasgow in Helen Addison and Edinburgh in The Wizard’s Son) to the rural, backward, untamed and superstitious northern realm. I like setting my books (largely) within the countryside as I feel it is a timeless place, where getting by is still more trying and where business still proceeds according to seasonal rhythms. In a sense the country is therefore an anachronism, a trip back in time from the modern, hi-tech city of convenience and easy conveyance.
Gothic reflects a more general duality of human nature, usually expressed as an inner struggle between good and evil, with variations such as human versus animal, and civilization versus barbarism. The gothic allows for a conflicted, complex character such as Leo Moran. He is a conservative Catholic but has left-wing politics, a proud Scot but of Irish descent, a genteel, polite man but a heavy drinker, a socialist who lives in opulence and idleness, a kind-hearted and principled man but also a sharp-tongued and unforgiving person, a sociable and overtly confident man but also an individual who is emotionally wounded and who too often craves isolation.