by Heidi Elaine
Contributions of female writers to the Gothic genre
Contemporary Gothic Women Writers
29 April 2008
The Unique Contributions of Female Writers to the Gothic Genre
The gothic genre of literature has been characterized by horror stories infused with romance, suspense, violence, and the supernatural. It is also characterized by the fancy settings, the amount of decay, and the dangerous love that occurs between two people, and often includes a female character in distress. Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, Elizabeth Kostova, and Patricia Briggs are contemporary writers of gothic fiction, and each bring a different aspect of the gothic, as well as their own creative insight to the gothic literature genre. An analysis of the novels studied in our Contemporary Gothic Women Writers class shows that each of the authors studied, as well as each of their separate novels, contribute unique elements of content and style to the gothic genre of writing.
Joyce Carol Oate’s Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? and Female of the Species do not deal with the obviously preternatural creatures that the other novels deal with, the content and style of her novels are characteristic of the gothic genre, but add elements to it that the other novels cannot. The content in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? deals with ambiguous subject matter, filled with different cryptic allusions that could mean a number of different things. The style uses symbolism to make allusions to the Devil in the character of Arnold Friend. The Female of the Species is in depths look at the lives of different female characters. These characters redefine the female in distress character and are capable of committing horrible and violent crimes.
There has been a lot of speculation about Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? The story’s ambiguity is matchless; critics often argue over the allusions, the allegories, and the symbolism. While other gothic novels spell things out by the end of the story, or leave open ends for a sequel, Oate’s story leaves readers with the implication that Connie will be raped, but there is no way to be sure. Included with the novel are quite a few different essays that try to explain the possible meanings of Oate’s story. Many critics have argued that the whole scenario was a dream that Connie had after drifting off to sleep. Other critics have even said that fairy tales are alluded to throughout the story. One even compared Oate’s story to Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” None of the other novels studied in class have had so many different interpretations, but this is most likely because of the ambiguity with which Oates wrote the story.
The character of Arnold Friend is considered by many to be a Devil figure. He seems to be a normal person, but the insinuations given by Oates imply that he represents much more. His omniscience about Connie’s family has been compared to the Devil. According to one critic, “The drawing of the magical sign, a sign of ownership over her, suggests control over her own private consciousness” (Gillis 68). This can be seen as her having accidentally “sold her soul to the Devil” so to speak, by her previous actions in the story. The way Friend slides out of the car suggests the serpent form of the Devil, and when “one of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it” has been compared to the Devil’s cloven hoof (Oates, Where 42).
The Female of the Species tells a plethora of short stories where the main character in each is a female. Most of these stories include a female in distress, but Oates gives a new twist on this character, by causing the women to take matters into their own hands, and this ends up in murder in most of the stories. The decision to make a collection of short stories as opposed to a long narrative works well in that Oates is trying to use many different female characters from many different walks of life. Not only do the females in these stories refuse to stay in distress, but one description of the book suggests the characters reflect feminism; “with wicked insight, Joyce Carol Oates demonstrates why the females of the species—be they six-year-old girls, seemingly devoted wives, or aging mothers—are by nature more deadly than the males” (Celestial Timepiece).
The violence committed by the women of The Female of the Species is extremely graphic and haunting; especially in the short story “Madison at Guignol.” The story’s title pays homage to the Grand Guignol theaters of Paris, which showed horror shows. The back room at Sabine’s is cluttered with disgusting bodies, and while Mrs. G is a female victim, it is also a female Madame Tikki who brutally and viciously attacks and kills her in front of the other employees. Many of Oate’s females are also not quite right in the head. For example, Doll, from “Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi,” is apparently far older than she looks, and she has a disturbing relationship with her father, who whores her out to clients, which she kills from time to time. The style of Oate’s novels is unique, because it is so out there compared to other authors.
Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and The Witching Hour brought to the table many gothic elements that were unrivaled in her time through her content and style in the novels. The powers that her vampires possess have been used as a reference for other contemporaries and the powers possessed by the Mayfair witches and Lasher are unique as well. The sexual implications and inappropriate sexual relations in both books are one of a kind. The Witching Hour also has allusions of Lasher being like a Christ figure.
The content of Rice’s novels includes themes of inappropriate or unusual sexual relationships. In Interview with a Vampire, Lestat and Louis’ relationship is sometimes called homoerotic. Rice even addresses this, “On the homoerotic content of my novels... It is difficult for me to see the characters in terms of gender. I have written individuals who can fall in love with men and women. Obviously, my attitudes toward androgyny and erotic love of all kinds influence all of my novels” (Anne’s Bookshelf). When Lestat makes Louis a vampire, we see this homoeroticism, “I remember that the movement of his lips raised the hair all over my body, sent a shock of sensation through my body that was not unlike the pleasure of passion” (Rice, Interview 19). Louis’ relationship with Claudia also seems awkwardly sexual at times. At first, their relationship seems strictly father and daughter, but as they grow closer over the years and Claudia’s experience is that of a woman, their relationship gets more and more intimate. When Claudia is angry that she is stuck in a child’s body, she even asks Louis “But tell me one thing, one thing from that lofty height. What was it like… making love?” (Rice, Interview 209). The relationships in The Witching Hour are even more disturbing, as incest follows them through their lineage. Not only are the Mayfair witches products of incest, but they also have sexual relationships with Lasher. Rowan’s relationship with Lasher is described in great graphic detail, and critics have said of Rowan that “her pride blinds her to her lust, and in this way Lasher is able to distract her, pacify her, and gain time and strength” (Kinsella 88).
The powers of Rice’s characters in both novels are imaginative and innovative. In Interview with a Vampire, Rice gives the vampires unconventional powers. While fire and sucking blood after a human is already dead can kill the vampires, crucifixes can be looked upon, and when the boy asks about the stake through the heart as a method of killing, Louis replies “Bullshit” (24). They also can move extremely quickly, so that humans only catch a confusing glimpse of them. There is only one exception to these rules; the old world vampire Louis and Claudia encounter in Europe, who is not as powerful or intelligent as the rest of the vampires. In The Witching Hour, the Mayfair family members have many different powers, the witches’ powers being stronger. Many people in the family can read minds, whether or not they are the designated witch of that generation. Lasher has his own powers as well; he can cause a storm or can bring them money from around the world. This is not completely out of the normal for the gothic genre; supernatural and preternatural creatures often have powers of some sort, but Rice also gives the character Michael, a normal human character, the power to touch anything and have visions.
Although Lasher is said to be a demon throughout The Witching Hour, there are many allusions that are a seeming reference to a Christ figure. Michael talks a lot about memories of Christmas, including a memory of the Christmas when he first saw Lasher as the man at the church. Rowan and Michael also decide to name the child “Christopher if it’s a boy, and Christine if it’s a girl” (Rice, Witching 850). The juxtaposition of the actions of Lasher and story of the real Christ make it very haunting that Lasher should be considered a Christ figure.
Laurell K. Hamilton’s The Lunatic Café and Bloody Bones bring us a completely new set of characters. First of all is the main character, Anita Blake, who doesn’t have your average day job, or night job, for that matter. Anita Blake is a first; of all the previous female main characters mentioned in the paper, she is the first one who is really independent and able to help out and do some good in the world around her. While vampires are not new to this genre, Hamilton presents them in a new light; in her novels vampires are legal citizens who have rights like everyone else. Hamilton also introduces us to a completely different breed of lycanthropes or shape shifters. Hamilton’s stylistic choices have popularized this new kind of novel. Anita Blake gives the novels a sarcastic tone that is uniquely hers.
Anita Blake’s job is to raise the dead for different purposes, but mostly to obtain important information from them. She also works part time as a vampire executioner. Her job requires her to be in close contact with vampires, although she is not a vampire herself. This is a change of pace from the other novels that have been mentioned. Vampires have now become legalized citizens, as opposed to having to lurk in the shadows in other gothic literature. An interview with Laurell K. Hamilton describes the rights of vampires in her novels, “One of the problems with making vampires legal citizens is that you can't kill them on sight anymore. You can't kill them… If a vampire has killed enough people, you can get an order of execution for them” (George). The order of execution that is needed to kill vampires makes them more careful of who they kill, they cannot go on killing sprees like Lestat or Louis were able to go on in Interview with a Vampire. This also makes Anita sort of a policeman for vampires.
Hamilton also introduces us to a new form of lycanthropes, humans that can change into pretty much any animal, not just the standard wolf or bat. In The Lunatic Café we meet werecats, wererats, and even werebirds. Not all of the were-creatures are evil, but they all have animalistic tendencies in their were-form, which can cause them to kill. The Sheriff and other lycanthrope hunters at the end of this novel intend to use the inability to control the were-tendencies against Anita and Edward. The lycanthropes do not follow the stereotype that one must be bitten to become a lycanthrope. Richard became a werewolf when he received a bad vaccine, and Kaspar from The Lunatic Café became a wereswan because a curse was put on him.
Romantic ironies are prevalent in the Anita Blake novels because of a reoccurring theme in both novels. Both novels address the issue of what should be and is considered evil, and Anita sees vampires as evil, regardless of how they may seem. In The Lunatic Café, Anita sees Richard’s true form as a lycanthrope, and has a hard time dealing with his animalistic side. Anita likes to see herself as the absolver of evil, however; the irony is that Anita is dating both a werewolf and a vampire by Bloody Bones. Anita usually considers humans relatively innocent by nature, but despite her relationships to the preternatural, she has no romantic ties to any human.
Hamilton popularized this new modern style of writing with her first novel, and even Patricia Briggs husband gives her praise, “While she wasn't the first person to write a book of this style, she popularized it, and established it as a genre” (Frequently Asked Questions). Anita Blake’s sarcastic tone and willingness to stand up to big bad men throughout the novels is like laughter in the face of the female in distress cliché of the genre. In Lunatic Café, she almost gets shot more than once for mouthing off to Sheriff Aikenson, “I’m tired of looking down the barrel of your gun, bitch” (Hamilton 264). Her wit comes in at inopportune times, but always lightens the mood in the story. For example, in Bloody Bones, while Anita and everyone else is in the torture chamber amidst the disgusting scene that Jason has to go through, Anita comments on one of the vampires “She was a natural blond. Why was I surprised?” (Hamilton 232). In such a circumstance, this comment is completely inappropriate, but not at all out of character for Anita.
Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Historian, contributes unique content to the gothic genre through her themes and subject matter, as well as a different style, through point of view, symbolism, and allusion. The theme of history going hand in hand with evil is something new among the books studied for this class. In all the other novels we have studied this semester, the vampire slayings are done according to Western tradition, and in this novel we experience an Eastern European slaying, as well as come across Eastern religion and traditions we have not seen in previous novels. The point of view in this novel is original in that it is written through letters from the point of view of different characters. The symbolic nature of the dragon throughout and the allusions to Dracula that have appeared throughout time are also unique to this novel. The setting is one of a kind, because every place the characters visit leads them to another place, and a lot of the places, people, and events are historically accurate with the fiction mixed in. Kostova delivers a matchless gothic experience with her novel.
Kostova’s distinctive use of content includes the theme that history and the future are connected and that in the quest for events of the past, one will inevitably come across evil; also, Kostova’s subject matter includes Eastern European religion and customs, and she uses actual historical events and people in her novel. At the end of the novel, Dracula and Rossi converse about the relationship between history and evil. Dracula comments that “History has taught us that the nature of man is evil, sublimely so. Good is not perfectible, but evil is” (Kostova 617). After Rossi has been bitten by Dracula, he has a new desire for knowledge of the past, “Every historian knows the thirst to see the reality of the past, but this was something new, a different sort of hunger” (Kostova 620). When Turgut slays Mr. Erozan, he uses an Arabic slaying kit, “it was a vampire-hunting kit similar to the one he had given me in his study more than a week earlier, except this one was a finer box, ornamented with Arabic writing” (Kostova 456). Turgut also calls on Allah as he is forced to slay his dear friend. At the celebration of Kiril and Methodii at Stoichev’s home in Bulgaria, we see more of the Eastern European customs as the music begins to play “It is an old song, very old- I think at least three or four hundred years” (Kostova 516).
The point of view in The Historian is constantly changing. The story is ultimately from the narrator’s point of view, long after the events in the story have happened, but contained within the story are letters written by Rossi, Paul, Helen, Brother Kiril, as well as other historical documents copied down by the narrator. Writing from this many voices must have difficult for Kostova, in an interview she discusses the difficulty of using a male voice in her work; “I find it very hard to compose in a male voice, and I’m never sure my male characters are completely successful, although I have male readers critique them as often as possible” (Kostova Reading Group Guide 4). The symbol of the dragon is prevalent throughout, in the books that Rossi, Paul, Bora, James and Stoichev find, on various artifacts and religious icons, and on the skin of one of each of the generations of the Getzi family. The dragons are supposed to be associated with the Order of the Dragon, “This is very much like many images associated with the Oorder. I’ve seen a similar dragon on pieces of jewellry” (Kostova 402). The continuous allusions to Dracula throughout the novel, in various historical forms, are distinct to this novel. The setting of the novel leads us across Europe in search of Dracula, each new place giving a new clue to another place. A lot of the places in the novel actually exist, for example, the Bachkovo monastery is a real place. One critic comments on how the author’s tone reflects the actual history that the novel is surrounded by, “Thus, Kostova brings the legend to contemporary life, but not in a sensational way. There is no hint of that, or of camp, anywhere in the novel” (Sawyers). The other novels may take place in real settings, but they do not follow real historical people or events as closely as Kostova’s novel.
Patricia Briggs Blood Bound is very reminiscent of the Laurell K. Hamilton novels, but her character, Mercedes Thompson, is unique in that she is seemingly more lower class than the other characters in previous novels, and she is a walker, a type of shapeshifter that has not been seen in the other novels. Mercy’s personal connections with various preternatural creatures enable her to be of help in situations where boundaries are usually impassable from one group of creatures to the next. Although a small detail in the novel, Brigg’s style includes a new kind of symbolism, a new guard against vampires that none of the other novels has mentioned, and Mercy’s book has a much less sarcastic tone than the Anita Blake novels.
Unlike the Mayfairs, Paul and Helen, or Louis, Lestat, and Claudia who are rich enough to travel the world and so as they please, and unlike middle-class Anita Blake, Mercy Thompson works as a mechanic and lives in a trailer in Blood Bound. She is seemingly lower class than the other characters that have preceded her in the genre. Her humility about her life and where she lays her head is unique in comparison with other gothic novels. She is simple, “I threw on clothing: jeans, yesterday’s T-shirt complete with mustard stain, and two socks with only one hole between them” (Briggs 2).
Mercy is also a walker, “I’m not a werewolf, not a were-anything. I’m not a servant of the moon’s phases, and in the coyote shape that is my second form, I look like any other canis latrans” (Briggs 2). A walker is not something that has not come up in the previous novels. Mercy was raised by werewolves, but she cannot do magic and she is not evil. Unlike the other female characters that were human with some supernatural powers, Mercy is one of the preternatural, which means she vehemently defends herself when it comes to the reputations preternatural creatures have. She supports this claim when she helps to defeat the evil around her.
Mercy has ties to every different kind of preternatural being in her world, where Anita Blake does not seem to trust that anyone can be good besides humans, and sometimes even they can’t be trusted; Mercy has friendships with all the different kinds of beings, including humans. Because she was raised by werewolves, she is automatically included as a part of the werewolf pack, even though some of the werewolves are reluctant to accept her. Throughout the novel, she is developing a romantic relationship with the Alpha werewolf, Adam. At the shop where she works, her mentor is a fae. She has the ability to see ghosts and has befriended a ghost named Mrs. Hanna. One of her good friends is a vampire named Stefan, who has more than friendly feelings towards her. In this novel, the groups of preternatural prefer to stay separate, but they must come together to defeat Littleton, and this is where Mercy’s connections come into play, and help her unite everyone against this evil.
Mercy mentions her religious beliefs in Blood Bound and notes how she would rather not use a crucifix to ward off vampires, but rather she uses a lamb necklace. A crucifix is one of the major symbols people think of when they think of protection against vampires. Briggs destroys this stereotypical symbol by introducing the lamb necklace, which actually works against vampires to the reader’s surprise. Also, Mercy has a sort of sympathy for every kind of person or preternatural being she comes in contact with that may be in trouble; Patricia Briggs writes, “Her hunt for the monster will lead her deep into the realm of of the vampire -- where she will discover more than she wanted to about herself and the people she loves” (Author’s Comments). Mercy does whatever she can to help those in need, but subtly reminds herself who might be evil. Unlike Anita Blake, who goes on the defense every time she’s near a preternatural creature, Mercy has compassion for the preternatural world, most likely because she is a part of it.
Each of the five authors discussed in this paper have brought something unique and creative to the gothic genre of literature. With variations in content and style, the women have proven themselves worthy competitors in gothic writing. In a world where violence and horror are stereotypically regarded as more masculine than feminine, these five authors have shown amazing attention to detail as far as the graphic content of their novels. Stylistically they all have something different to offer, whether it be a cliffhanger ending, mixing history with fiction, using common symbols associated with the supernatural, or throwing the normal aside and making up their own world, these women have worked hard and made successful contributions to their genre.
“Anne’s Bookshelf: The Vampire Chronicles Interview with a Vampire.” AnneRice.com The Official Site. 30 April 2008. <http://www.annerice.com/Bookshelf-Interview.html>.
“Author’s Comments.” Hurog. 30 April 2008. <http://www.hurog.com/books/bloodBound.shtml>.
Briggs, Patricia. Blood Bound. New York: Ace Books, 2007.
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Gillis, Christina Marsden. “’Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ Seduction, Space, and a Fictional Mode.” Studies in Short Fiction. 18.1: 65-70
Hamilton, Laurell K. Bloody Bones. New York: Ace, 1996.
Hamilton, Laurell K. The Lunatic Café. New York: Jove, 1996.
Kostova, Elizabeth. The Historian. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005.
Oates, Joyce Carol. The Female of the Species. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1994.
Rice, Anne. Interview with a Vampire. New York: Ballatine Books, 1976.
Rice, Anne. The Witching Hour. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
Rout, Kay Kinsella. “The Least of These: Exploitation in Anne Rice’s Mayfair Trilogy.” Journal of American Culture. 19.4(1996): 87-93.
Sawyers, June. “Dracula dead? Not Exactly…” SFGate home of the San Francisco Chronicle. 30 April 2008. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/06/12/RVGIDD39EP1.DTL&type=books>.
.“The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense: Dust Jacket Blurb.” Celestial Timepiece: A Joyce Carol Oates Home Page. 30 April 2008. <http://jco.usfca.edu/works/stories/female.html>.