It’s been my experience that periods of my life have apparent “themes,” and topics tend to come in bunches. It happened more than once in college, when I would be learning about the same topic in two or three different classes, unrelated to each other, for no apparent reason. When this happens, I do my best to pay attention and try to elucidate what it is I’m supposed to be picking up on. Currently, I’ve been swamped with The Gothic. I’m not exactly sure the significance of this, but as it’s all I seem to come into contact with lately, I thought I’d share some Gothic goodies with you all.
Harry Potter and the Gothic Imagination
I have the privilege and the pleasure to be currently rereading the Harry Potter series under the capable guidance of Dr. Amy H. Sturgis, a really fantastic historian, and scholar of fantasy, science fiction, and gothic literature. In this reread (who’s keeping count anymore?), I’ve been struck by the fact that my two favorite books in the series, Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix, are perhaps the two most thoroughly gothic works of the whole (rather quite gothic) bunch. While using many of the same tropes (haunting secrets, mistaken identities, battles with despair and depression to name a few) it’s amazing how different the two books are. In fact, they seem to each play up a different aspect of the gothic, using it to unique effect.
In Prisoner, we get (besides the archaic castle-setting, present in every book of the series) the suggestion of the wide, lonely wilderness so central to books like Wuthering Heights. The reader is very much aware of the grounds of Hogwarts in the book, particularly as Harry is not allowed outside (hence the amount of time he actually spends on the grounds!). While not set on a moor, per se, we do get the snowy trek to Hogsmeade with the Shrieking Shack looming on the hill, and the entire climax involes the characters running around the grounds everywhere from Hagrid’s Hut to the Forest, down to the lake and under the Whomping Willow. We know that the Marauders traversed this ground in their youth in their beast-forms, leaving behind them rumours of werewolves and grims that haunt Hogwarts even to Harry’s time there. Prisoner also features classic fear-producing monsters such as dementors, boggarts, werewolves, the black dog, etc., all kicked off by Hagrid’s Monster Book of Monsters. The film, the first of the seven to be shot on location in the Scottish highlands, invokes this setting beautifully and uses it to its full effect. It is cold, rainy, wet, windy, lonely and absolutely stunning.
In contrast, Order is set almost entirely inside. Apart from a brief excursion into the forest to lose Umbridge among the decidedly un-gothic centaurs, Harry & co. barely spend any time out of doors. When not at Hogwarts, they are invariably found in that most wonderful of decrepit mansions, The House of Black. Whereas Prisoner evokes the gothic stories set out in the wide, isolated countryside, Order sets itself in the tradition of more urban gothic tales, stories of the Picture of Dorian Gray or Sherlock Holmes flavor. The House of Black itself fulfills all the expectations of a neglected and cancerous old house which reflects the decline and corruption of its owners, a la the House of Usher. Even the horrible portrait of Mrs. Black suggests Dorian Gray’s own portait: Like Mr. Gray, Mrs. Black has found a way to perserve herself eternally (if not attain immortality), to perpetuate her hateful character and burden her only remaining relative. Once again, the film version got the setting down perfectly. In fact, the House of Black may be my favorite set of all seven films. The peeling wallpaper, dim lighting, and impossibly narrow corridors are all done brilliantly. I wish we’d got a lot more of it. Once again in contrast to Prisoner the focus is on the psychology of terror rather than external fears. It’s not the monsters without that Harry battles but the potential monster within: His self-indulgent moodiness and sudden anger, the violence he imagines and the terrible possibility that he might have attacked Mr. Weasley, the sneaking suspicion that he might be turning into the enemy. This is psychological fear at its best.
For those interested in gothic themes throughout the seven books, I recommend Travis Prinzi’s talk on the subject from a few years ago. Spoiler alerts for those who’ve been living under a rock for the past 15 years.
Padfoot: The Hound of the Baskervilles?
Speaking of Harry Potter and the gothic, I also just finished my first read-through of Arthur Conan Doyles classic The Hound of the Baskervilles. I can’t take credit for the fortuitous timing, but as I happened to read it concurrently with The Prisoner of Azkaban I couldn’t help but be struck by the image of Padfood staring back at me from the cover of the book. Google image “hound of the baskervilles” and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve done a bit of poking around online and asked Dr Sturgis to comment, and it seems that both Rowling and Conan Doyle drawing on a surprisingly common motif in the folklore of the British isles: the Black Dog. Apparently, Britain has a bit of an infestation problem with the things. Rowling conflates two branches of the tale: the Grim and the Barghest. Grims, often called Church Grims, are spirits of animals (or sometimes people) who have been sacrificed on church grounds and act as parish guardians. These are actually quite benign, if a little tragic, and evoke Sirius’s role as Harry’s godfather and protector. The Barghest, however, is dangerous, an omen of death, and it’s this effect that Rowling uses in her initial portait of mass murderer Sirius Black and Harry’s constant “hounding” by death. The Black Dog has many names depending on where he is found, but one of the most prominent is the Wakefield Padfoot, as in Mssrs. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot & Prongs.
Like Rowling, Conan Doyle draws on the death-dooming barghest for his ghostly black hound. Set on the Devon moors (what is it with English gothic writers and moors?!) and featuring a few creepy old mansions, not to mention a rapidly dwindling and cursed family line, it uses many of the same motifs as Rowling’s stories. His hound is not a guardian but both the portent and the cause of death. I can’t help but wonder if Hermione’s rationalistic, Sherlockian comment that Ron’s Uncle Bilius was merely frightened to death by the spectre of the hound wasn’t a direct tip of the hat to Conan Doyle’s tale and the highly logical Mr. Holmes.
The Woman in Black
I also spent last Friday night sitting in the dark watching Daniel Radcliffe get the pants scared off him in yet another creepy old mansion. The Woman in Black features lots of ghost children (always good for effect) and, while not set on a moor precisely, a large and uncrossable marsh that isolates the hero from the town and sucks its victims down like quicksand, not unlike the Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles. While the “jumps” became a little predictable at times, the movie was effectively unsettling, a too-easy happy ending was carefully averted, and the finish was oddly satisfying. Recommended for your next dark and stormy night.
Finally, we come to he whom Dr. Sturgis calls the best living exemplar of gothic fiction, Neil Gaiman. At Dr. Sturgis’ recommendation, I read Gaiman’s short story “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire”, which can be found in the collection Fragile Things. If you want a good laugh and a good think, as well as a reminder of why we read this stuff (and indeed why we read at all) check it out.
Finally, due to the proliferation of gothic stuff I’ve been encountering lately, I was reminded of my long-standing desire to read Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, a children’s book that takes the concept of The Jungle Book and thrusts it into the gothic setting. While I do not need to have another to-be-read book sitting on my shelf, it is nice to have something to listen to while you’re folding laundry, and so I am going to work my way through Mr. Gaiman’s own recorded reading of the book which is available here for free. As it recently won the Hugo, Newberry, and Carnegie Medal awards, I have high hopes.
I hope this post has helped to spread the love of all things dark and creepy, and I’m looking forward to learning more about a genre I’ve really just met. It’s a shame the weather’s been so warm and sunny, though. As Tolkien said, “Dark for dark business!” is definitely best.