I've been possessed by a fascination with the British writer Susan Hill. She's the author of an ungodly number of ghost stories and darkity dark dark mysteries, including the wildly successful Woman in Black, an international bestseller and long-running play in London. She perfectly captures the elements that make up the traditional English ghost stories, with a moodiness and bleak attitude all her own.
Hill is also a conservative Tory who believes that charity begins at home, loves the Royals, is married to a Shakespeare expert, etc. She also honestly believes that some people are essentially evil, something that socialists would categorically deny (the "evil" accusation is almost medieval, given the accepted "social context" approach to wicked acts or people).
I'm reminded of something that Stephen King once argued, that horror was ultimately conservative. It deals with frightened people banding together to exclude the hated "Other"; basically a mentality that rejects anything foreign or unknown. The fact that this theory was dreamed up by a guy who would normally consider himself "liberal" makes his argument that much more confusing.
And this where the delineation between the Gothic and the horror story begins. Gothics may focus on the tragedies of the past, but the genre itself is far more progressive, both in content and creators, than, say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Cujo.
Gothic fiction and ghost stories have been largely the province of a great many progressive people, particularly women - Mary Shelley, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Isaak Dinesen, Shirley Jackson and many more come immediately to mind. There is something about the claustrophobia of the domestic life that women have historically captured brilliantly.
As a syllabus, the Gothic genre includes a variety of outlets, ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Dracula and its various permutations, ghost stories in general (The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House in particular), Ambrose Bierce, Angela Carter, the film version of The Shining and so on. What differentiates this pack from its knuckle-dragging cousins in the mainstream horror genre is atmosphere. The idea is to aim at the creeps, a sense of terror and unease, rather than balls to the wall gut punch revulsion. Probably the best descriptor of the Gothic is “a sumptuous aura of eerie decay.
A more appropriate descriptor would be an aura of aristocratic decay. It’s been argued that the early Gothics were the result of Protestants’ fascination with the decline and degeneration of the Catholic aristocracy, and while we’ve come a long way, baby, it’s not difficult to pick up on subversion in later fiction. From the feminist, dark re-telling of faerie tales in The Bloody Chamber, to the attack on Victorian femininity and domesticity in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, all the way up to Rosemary’s Baby and its masterful treatment of pregnancy and the crazed gender roles still propagated in the twentieth century, Gothic rt cleverly skewers and attacks predominant but outdated norms.
But does a socialist emphasis on materialism and a rejection of ignorant "superstition" (including Christianity) require a move away from spooky tales of the past?
One glaring example that the Gothic is not bound by the superstitious is the existence of an entire sub-genre called Southern Gothic. In a nutshell, it is Gothic fiction hailing from that particularly antiquated, backwards part of the Deep South in America. And most importantly, it almost never incorporates the supernatural to create that terrifying, unpleasant atmosphere that is the hallmark of the Gothic canon. Real monsters exist, and they don’t need cloven hooves to invoke menace.
The South has not in fact “risen again” following the end of the American Civil War and the subsequent rollback of slavery. This has not prevented the perpetuation of Southern aristocracy, although it’s safe to say that decline and fall is nearly complete. While share-cropping effectively replaced outright slavery, and while the KKK did its utmost to maintain a terror state for African Americans, the white gentry has been on a long slow decline, degenerating, mutating into something altogether not wholesome. The best way to view this process is to think of a swamp, a festering bog which is in a continuous process of degeneration and regeneration (one of the key players in Southern Gothic, William Faulkner, once referred to the deep South as the “groin of the world”. The sexual undertone should be noted). This was an aristocracy, as barbaric and medieval as the Catholic one in Europe. And it too is prone to bizarre fits of fancy.
You don’t need ghosts to create a haunting atmosphere. People are troubled and unhinged on the past and the creepier elements of the present without needing face-eating aliens or graveyard ghouls to round things out. It’s the atmosphere that matters, and that creates a wide-open playing field for anyone wishing to write dark, possibly subversive fiction.
I'll leave you with a humorous excerpt from the introduction to the Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, one of my most prized books. Read and enjoy and ponder.
"There is a very familiar model followed by many ghost stories in English from the early twentieth century: this usually begins with an assembly of gentlemen gathered at a dinner table or a London club, debating the existence of spirits. Then a nervous-looking member of the company pipes up with his first-hand account of the inexplicable occurrences at the country house he has rented for the weekend, where the spooky goings-on have reached the point at which the servants have given notice. At the close of his narrative, the materialist doubters are silenced, and some moralizing is made to the effect that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in the narrow secular philosophies of Bolsheviks, suffragettes, and the other democratic do-gooders of this rational age." - Chris Baldick