Lewis, Beth K., ed. The New Gothic. Stone Skin Press, 2013. ISBN: 9781908983053.
I’m a sucker for gloomy moors, craggy manor houses, and the errant spectre flitting through echoey halls, so I was pretty excited to read The New Gothic. In the introduction, the editor describes her own obsessions with this literary mode, which include a love of Wuthering Heights and works that display a commitment to emotional intensity. What marks this anthology as one to watch is indeed its focus on fear and how each plays with this and other very human emotions to highlight the concept of Gothic as pervasive, regardless of creepy mansion or madwoman in the attic.
As with any anthology, there are clear stars. One of these is the first story in the anthology, “Dive In Me” by Jesse Bullington and SJ Chambers. A huge fan of Gothic literature set in the southern United States, I was drawn into the “kudzu-veiled lot of the Hoggly Woggly” right away. The landscape here is just as sinister and, I’d argue, as symbolic, as the Gothic castle or church. The tone is deeply authentic, modern, easy and near languid, and tinged with a nostalgia for the underground culture of the mid-1990s that never becomes saccharine.
The reader is inside the mouths and ears of three teenaged girls in backwater Florida. Instead of feeling pushed out of a space we might not know, we are invited in by adolescent vulnerability (in the guise, of course, of toughness), and speech that gives texture and characterizes without gimmick. In this way, the story has a great deal in common with the work of Flannery O’Connor, whose masterful use of dialect gave what she aptly termed realism, not grotesquerie, to her characters.
Imagination is powerful in Bullington and Chambers’ story, as it is in many other pieces in the collection. What we imagine is scraping the floorboards is always greater, in some way, more terrible than what we actually find. Ramsey Campbell’s “Reading the Signs” is a testament to the ways in which fear and dread can be suggested and sustained over the course of a narrative (no easy feat). The premise of getting lost, already quite nerve-wracking in itself, coupled with a dark February sky and a journey through near abandoned streets and motorways, leaves the reader anticipating any number of horrors. This tension is heightened as the reader is able to see what the protagonist, Vernon, cannot, when he picks up a man and boy hiking along the roadside.
The real triumph of this story is the way in which the dialogue is crafted. The conversation in the car between the three passengers starts out banal, yet the banter quickly becomes anything but quotidian. The result is almost unbearably creepy as the reader is able to suss out double meanings (and later, warnings of what is to come), that the protagonist simply cannot see.
Unlike other stories in the collection, in “The Death Bell” by Laura Ellen Joyce, fairy tale motifs are used to make the reader lean in and anticipate some archetypal characters and relationships. One passage between a great-aunt and a small boy is fraught with such familiarity, mirroring both Little Red Cap and Hansel and Gretel:
“Where’s my special boy? Where’s my big strong Adam? She picked him up and growled. “Mmm I eat tasty boys like you, yum yum yum.” She pretended to bite Adam’s face, nuzzling him and finally giving him a big kiss on the forehead.”
Of course, the story diverges from what many readers may expect due to the proliferation of sanitized versions of these fairy tales in our cultures. And while many retellings are out there, few go this deep into the darkness of desire: desire for death, desire for life, and, of course, the desire of the monster to consume.
Check this one out. Just be sure you light a candle first.