here be monsters

Sep 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Since the stores are already decking themselves in Halloween finery, it seems appropriate to indulge in a little monster talk.   More appropriately for this venue: monster-versus-scientist talk.  By way of gothic literature.

Gothic lit emerges in the late 18th century, morphs eventually into what is often labelled horror, then splinters into many subgenres. Conventions, motifs, and tropes of the gothic include the following: wild landscapes; remote or exotic locales;  dimly lit, gloomy settings (contrast of light and dark); ruins or isolated crumbling castles or mansions (later cities and houses); crypts, tombs, dungeons, torture chambers, dark towers, hidden rooms, secret corridors/passageways; dream states or nightmares; found manuscripts or artifacts; ancestral curses; family secrets; damsels in distress; marvellous or mysterious creatures, monsters, spirits, or strangers; enigmatic figures with supernatural powers; interest in evil, its origins;  specific reference to noon, midnight, twilight (the witching hours); use of traditionally “magical” numbers such as 3, 7, 13; unnatural acts of nature (blood-red moon, sudden fierce wind, etc.); murder, suicide, torture, madness (especially persecution and paranoia), lycanthropy (werewolves), ghosts, vampires, doubles and doppelgängers, demons, poltergeists, demonic pacts, diabolic possession/exorcism, witchcraft, and voodoo.  So, to sum up: scary stuff.

In gothic lit, there's typically a battle between reason and unreason, which can manifest as some sort of tension between science and the supernatural.  (See?  I was getting to the science part.  Thanks for bearing with me.)  In some cases, the division between the science fiction (or speculative fiction) genre and the gothic genre can seem thin indeed.  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein is hailed as one of the first important examples of both science fiction and gothic fiction, which makes sense given that Dr. Victor Frankenstein uses his scientific knowledge to build the Monster from "parts" in a lab.  And those parts?  Come from dead people.  (Think of the plethora of horror films we have today that would never have existed without such a blueprint.)

But wait!  There are more scientists in gothic lit!

Sometimes scientists are the heros, sometimes they are the catalysts, and sometimes they are the monsters.  But no matter which character role they inhabit, they are always interesting.  The desperate characters in Bram Stoker's Dracula turn to Dr. Van Helsing when the vampires have made it impossible to ignore their blood-thirsty mayhem any longer.  In H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, the invention of the time machine by the enthusiastic scientist protagonist is what brings him face to face with a pack of (hungry) subterranean Morlocks.  (And in Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, it's the doctor himself performing vivisections that becomes monstrous.)   Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" focuses on a scientist insistent upon removing his wife's birthmark in order to make her perfect, which leads to [*spoiler alert*] her death because, of course, no one can be perfect.  In Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, a scientist determined to try out his own "elegant concept" leads to worldwide catastrophe.  And we musn't forget Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevensons's cautionary tale about using the self as test subject.

Even in many gothic texts that aren't focused on science, per se, the protagonist takes a rather scientific approach in studying some kind of terrifying phenomenon.  Fantastic events are observed empirically.  For example, in Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing," a group of men try to reason out the actions of an invisible force through the paper records left behind by one of its victims.  In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," a woman forbidden to do anything (oppressed by the "rest cure") becomes obsessed with analyzing the pattern on her wallpaper.  Finally, Ursula K. LeGuin's "Schrodinger's Cat" demands that we readers do the scientific thinking ourselves; we must entertain the possibilities of quantum mechanics in order to make sense of the story itself, which is a sort of postmodern gothic apocalyptic scenario.


To my way of thinking, gothic's persistent use of science seems fitting because gothic texts--like science, in my humble opinion, though correct me if I'm wrong--are all about pushing boundaries, crossing borders, challenging the status quo, and forcing us to question our perceptions in powerful and profound ways.

Which leaves me with the following questions: If you read gothic texts, what did you make of the "science-esque" qualities?  Or, more generally, do literary representations of science hold any interest for you, and if so, what sorts of reading are you drawn to?

8 responses so far

  • Arlenna says:

    I am a scifi junkie... It is my primary type of book consumption--and I guess I kind of like techno-nearfuture-dystopias the best. My absolute favorite book is The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. I also like his book Snow Crash. I need my scifi to either be extraordinarily technically accurate/possible and/or creative, or in a field that I don't know enough about to know what would be accurate but with an author that can fool someone who knows just enough to be dangerous. I just finished State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and I just did not buy the science in that (it had to do with drug discovery in a niche ecology in the Amazon, fertility and malaria). It was too vague and highly improbable, and as a medicinal chemist/chemical biologist I was really "meh" about it. That ended up making me feel "meh" about the whole book, even though it had some really compelling elements.

  • scicurious says:

    This is interesting. Do you know what role, how popular these books were at the time of their release (I mean, among those who could read, obviously). Were these reserved for "geeks", or were they generally popular? Nowadays the gothic genre is much more subcultural, and I'm wondering how the association of "science", with "spooky" and "unnatural" might impact the way people then and NOW look upon science.

  • Namnezia says:

    @Arlenna Haven't read any Neal Stephenson but have been intrigued/intimidated. Which is the best one to start with?

    • Arlenna says:

      Either Snow Crash or Diamond Age--they are less epic and historical than the rest, and in my opinion a lot more entertaining. I actually couldn't get through the big, more recent series (the one that's kind of historical fiction). Cryptonomicon was also more readable to me, but those two are the fastest-paced and very realistic possible near-futures.

  • Ink says:

    Arlenna: You might like Oryx and Crake if you haven't read it. I think it's Atwood's most sci-fi-esque book (though she doesn't label it as such), and she's a such a fabulous writer. Snow Crash has been really popular in two of my other classes (postmodern lit and development of american novel)--he is an incredible writer! I have to add The Diamond Age to my must-read list. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Scicurious, that's such an interesting question. Now most of those texts are firmly fixed in the "canon" of "great books" but early on, they were seen as NOT "high culture" reads but rather low culture because of their sensational elements. We recognize the artistry in retrospect but they were rather mocked by non-fans at the time (one reason that Jane Austen parodies gothic texts in Northanger Abbey).

    Thanks for commenting!

    • scicurious says:

      Heh. I love Jane Austen's take on gothic romance in Northanger Abbey, but one of the reasons I like it is because, while it does parody the style, it also highlights the reason WHY young women loved these books. The books gave them excitement and romance and adventure in a world that was incredibly devoid of these things (think of how boring Catherine's courtship would have been WITHOUT the gothic elements she tried to put into it). The gothic books were able to provide interest and imagination in a world where those things were not encouraged.

  • Tideliar says:

    I must admit i'm a sucker for Gothic, but also Lablit nowadays too. Although I'm biased seeing as I write for them...

    The Lablit genre was basically founded by Jenny Rohn (Mind the Gap at Occam's Razor). They have a list on the website that is worth checking out for good reads. To be lablit it needs to feature science and scientists as the main characters not plot devices. So, good Gothic works for sure


  • Hello, you used to write wonderful, however the last a number of posts have been kinda dull... I miss your great writings. Past several posts are only a bit out of track! come on!