As the millionth bus drove past me with an advertisement for the latest installation of the Twilight saga (though this term seems generous as “saga” might usually imply a sustained plot line with a broad scope), my thoughts this morning turned to our recent obsession with vampires. Perhaps in contrast to some, I’m not all that opposed to the so-called Goth movement. I think that there is a great deal of honesty in people’s, often teens, dissatisfaction with this generation’s superficial notions of beauty and substance. What I’m not quite so sure about is the new flood of gothic romance novels (and now movies) which seem to have exploded on the shelves of my local bookstore.
This 21st century focus on ‘gothic’ fashion and sensibilities parallels some aspects of the earlier movement in 18-19th century modern literature which brought us such classics as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Following the new ‘Romantic ‘ focus on emotion, feeling, and the potential that we might find some glimpse of the sublime in the extremes of feeling, these authors sought to explore the contours of terror. Strangely enough, John Muir’s appreciation of the experience of standing before the extreme majesty of a mountain range arose out of the same basic interest which compelled the writers of gothic fiction to imagine the horrors of ghosts, phantasms, and monsters.
Yet there is a contrast to be found, at least with respect to Frankenstein, in the posture towards monstrosity. Monsters in the earlier gothic sense were hazy and impressionistic. Frankenstein was the name of the inventor who made the horrible creature which bore no name. Our monsters now seem rather less monstrous and much more human. In a strange way, the two categories (human and monster) which the gothic writers mobilised with such success have begun to converge in the contemporary imagination. While those 19th century writers sought to produce an extreme state of fear, (which was thought to have a positive result in the long run) these contemporary monsters seem so much more pathetic and lonely. This sort of monstrosity offers a mirror by which we can look at ourselves, though the extremes of violence and capacity which they represent are not in the end extremes at all.
This is where I wonder whether the contemporary gothic movement might do with a bit more careful construal of its purposes. To be sure, false impressions of beauty are horribly deceptive, and deserve unmasking. Similarly, monstrosity can be a useful trope by which to examine our own capabilities and proclivities. But have our societies just grown comfortable with the fact that we’re monstrous on some level, and given up acting in protest against the violence, brutality, and ugliness which lies at the heart of monstrosity? This seems to me to be some of the more sinister message behind the characters’ persistent quest to sleep with a Vampire. Isn’t the purpose, at least as those older gothic writers saw it, to unmask monstrosity? To identify its otherness?