Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 4

Goth 101: An Overview of all Things Gothic

 

GOTHIC BY DEFINITION

What exactly does the term "gothic" mean? Is it a style of architecture, a tragic and supernatural genre of literature, or a state of mind? The English language being as ductile and inclusive as it is, the term gothic encompasses all the above and much, much more. It suggests the fierce Germanic Visigoths who laid siege to the Roman Empire eighteen centuries ago, and it suggests the magnificent cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame. Dracula may be the most enduring Gothic 'hero,' and he keeps company with the passionate lovers from Wuthering Heights and the bizarre madmen from Poe's tales. Gather all these gothic personages together and let them dance and they'll no doubt find the brooding rhythms of The Cure and Bauhaus to their warped liking. Gothic means darkly romantic with sinister overtones and a touch of the otherworldly. For the uninitiated, let this be your introductory map to the dark geography of the gothic world.

AN EMPIRE IN RUINS

Emperor Valens, his army in shreds in Adrianople and himself on the verge of becoming yet another wartime casualty, could only look at a map of the western Roman Empire of 378 A.D. and be consumed with doubt and remorse. It was his idea to allow the barbarian Visigoths into Roman territory south of the Danube River. More healthy bodies under the protection (not to mention the whip) of Rome meant more people to tax, more soldiers for the army. But the Visigoths, already stinging from persecution by the Huns, weren't about to be led around like a typical cowed, conquered foe. Roman authority, never very subtle or lenient, proved to be too much for them. They revolted, and Valens now had dead commanders on his hands and a Roman province, Thrace, in a state of rebellion. The Empire was coming apart.

Who were these Visigoths who were strong enough to rattle the world's most dominant military power?

They were actually just half of the Gothic kingdom, the other half being the Ostrogoths. During the third century, the Visigoths settled around territories north of the Danube while the Ostrogoths controlled lands north of the Black Sea. Both halves of the kingdom seem to have come from Scandinavia. Little is known about their early culture and religious practices; tribal societies such as the Goths tend to be secretive. There is evidence, however, that one of their deities was a god of the sword, and ancient Goth chronicler Jordanes even suggests there was an ominous element to their religious practices... human sacrifice. Over time, though, the Goths eventually distinguished themselves as the first Germanic people to become Christianized.

The Goths had blossomed into a formidable power by the third century, making incursions into Roman lands of the eastern portion of the Empire. Although the Ostrogoths were conquered (at least temporarily) by the Asian Huns, the Visigoths still had enough fight in them to chip away at the heart of the Roman Empire in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The king of the Visigoths, Alaric, led an invasion of Italy and laid siege to Rome not once but twice (he wasn't defeated either time, merely paid large sums of money to back off, which is probably why the name Alaric will never be uttered in the same breath as Caesar or Alexander). Alaric finally captured Rome in 410 A.D., stealing and defiling everything in sight, although churches were left untouched. The plundering Visigoths were Christians, after all.

The Ostrogoths wrenched themselves from the Huns by the mid-fifth century and conquered northern Italy, but by then the Roman Empire had long since ceased to be the mighty, cohesive world power of the Caesars. It had been fractured into two virtually independent mini-empires. Even Rome had changed. One was just as likely to hear strange, foreign dialects on the streets of Rome as one would the Latin of Cicero's time. The carcass of the Roman Empire had been set upon by immigrants and invaders, and they weren't about to leave.

THE ARCHITECTURE OF FAITH

It is a regrettable part of human nature to hate and fear anything new or foreign, and in the wake of the Roman Empire's collapse there was much that was new and foreign. Those traditionalists of the sixteenth century art world who looked upon the classical architecture of Greece and Rome with nostalgia could feel only bewilderment and contempt for an odd but popular style of architecture that had taken Europe by storm beginning in the twelfth century and still showed no signs of fading. This style differed so much from the harmonious, rigid, geometrically basic Romanesque temples of old that it seemed almost obscene. Every affront must have a name, and the traditionalists found one for this bizarre architecture in the pages of history. Who was responsible for the crumbling of the glorious, harmonious Roman world? The barbarian Goths, of course. And so that odd architecture became known by the disparaging term Gothic.

The Gothic style is best seen in medieval cathedrals. These magnificent edifices of stone and stained-glass are considered among the most impressive feats of architecture ever constructed.

In a customary Gothic cathedral, support columns soar several stories into the air where they blossom outward in curving ribs which divide the ceiling into arched sections made of masonry. This immense vaulted ceiling exerts a punishing amount of pressure upon the thin walls, so stone support arches known as flying buttresses attached to the exterior walls serve to absorb much of this pressure. Pointed arches, spires, stained glass windows and ornately carved reliefs featuring religious motifs dominate the building. Menacing stone gargoyles adorn exterior ledges and parapets, warding off dark spirits. While the cathedral's exterior may seem like some immense, coiled dragon, arched and curved and winged, the interior exudes an ethereal lightness, as if you are standing at the grand entryway to heaven itself.

Where did this building style originate? History is sketchy on the subject, but author and researcher Graham Hancock (The Sign and the Seal) has a startling but plausible theory. Gothic architecture emerged in the 1130s with the cathedral at Chartres, an edifice heavily influenced by the input of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Construction began right on the heels of official Church recognition of the secretive, elite Knights Templar, and Bernard was instrumental in obtaining this official sanction. The Knights Templar were active in the Holy Land around this time, excavating the site of the Temple Mount for hidden treasures and ancient knowledge of the Jews. Hancock suggests that some of this ancient knowledge they unearthed may have concerned radical, even divinely inspired, construction techniques. In exchange for official backing by the Church, the Templars may have given Bernard the keys to the Gothic style of architecture. Maybe this is the only way to explain why the Gothic style was such a magnificently alien departure from the state of the art of the time.

When Bernard tried to define God, he said that "He is length, width, height and depth." Perhaps this was a veiled confirmation of the ancient, sacred origin of the Gothic manner.

THE LITERATURE OF THE GROTESQUE

"I looked upon the scene before me— upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain— upon the black walls— upon the vacant eye-like windows, upon a few rank sedges— and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees— with an utter depression of soul, which I can compare to no earthly sensation..."

So observes the unnamed narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." His sentiments would be right at home in any work of gothic literature. While Gothic architecture evokes a complex spiritual grandeur, gothic fiction strives to create an atmosphere of mystery and foreboding.

The gothic genre began in earnest in the mid- eighteenth century with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. He and like-minded writers (including Jane Austen) found the mysterious, unsettling beauty of Gothic architecture to be irresistible, so they began to set their tales in rambling Gothic castles and mansions full of secret passages and crypts. Such grotesque venues demanded characters and plots of equal grotesqueness; in short order readers were introduced to the stormy, passionate lovers of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, the suave but deadly Count Dracula, and the frenzied psychotics of Poe's stories. The fascinating strangeness of Gothic architecture is reflected in the strange psychology of gothic characters. Nowhere is this better expressed than in Stephen King's modern gothic classic, The Shining, in which Danny Torrance's 'imaginary' friend warns him that "this inhuman place makes human monsters."

Human monsters dominate the genre, and it is no surprise that for many people the word gothic is synonymous with horror. Poe's tales are a good introduction to gothic horror as they offer a grisly cross-section of the kind of people one is likely to encounter in the gothic world: from the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" who is driven to madness by the glazed eye of an old man to the vengeful Montresor who walls up a pompous acquaintance in a wine cellar in "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe's characters are uniquely gothic in their grandiose displays of barbarity and their often unfathomable psychologies and passions. The reader can never be quite sure what makes them tick. Poe loved mystery and unpredictability in his plots as well as his characters, and in addition to being the father of the modern horror story he is also regarded as the progenitor of the detective story thanks to tales such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

If mystery and madness are the towering pillars of gothic fiction, then the supernatural is the vaulted ceiling which they support. The blood- drinking undead, be they Bram Stoker's original castle-dwelling vampires or Anne Rice's later innovations, belong squarely in the gothic tradition. Most haunted house tales, too, are throwbacks to the early years of gothic literature; though the Overlook Hotel of Stephen King's The Shining and the titular house of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House are not strictly Gothic in their architecture, they are as menacingly ornate and full of spiritual turmoil as any medieval castle festooned with gargoyles.

Indeed, virtually any supernatural horror can trace its lineage back to early gothic works. There is an unseen world beyond the physical one, says the gothic tradition, a world that is chaotic, monstrous and dangerous. It is a world H.P. Lovecraft hinted at in stories like "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Haunter of the Dark," stories which chronicled the intrusion of awe- inspiring Elder Gods into quaint New England normalcy. Lovecraft seemed to apply the principles of Gothic architecture to the mythos of his Elder Gods in order to create beings that were unimaginably massive, complex, overwhelmingly strange and dangerous to frail human sanity. It is unsurprising, then, that Lovecraft never shed full light on these entities, preferring instead to offer us quick, tantalizing glimpses. Any more than that could be fatal.

THE MODERN GOTH

When Hollywood began resurrecting gothic literature for the silver screen, the visual style of films such as the 1931 versions of Dracula and Frankenstein were works of eerie artistry. But gothic imagery was used for little more than horror film backdrops and Halloween decorum during the next fifty years.

In the mid 1980s, rock bands like Misfits and Bauhaus were making their mark in the underground music scene. Their sound was a derivative of the punk style that defied popular music trends, and the bands began incorporating gothic imagery into their stage show. As the underground alternative movement progressed steadily forward, the new wave scene of the 80s gave way to the darkwave scene of the 90s, and a new breed of Goths arose.

This misunderstood and maligned brood reveled in the celebration of things gloomy and mysterious. They found solace in the shadows of culture, and with their passionate appreciation for music, art and literature came a creative form of self-expression. They emerged from the subterranean realms with pale skin and black hair, donned in the prerequisite black attire, to prowl the night. Their clothing was a resurgence of romantic and sensual fashions that were a stark contrast to the popular, disheveled grunge look of the day.

In 1994, the landmark movie The Crow opened the flood gates for the gothic movement, releasing it into the mainstream. The term gothic was being applied to a broad spectrum of music that varied from acoustic ethereal to electronic dance to industrial metal.

While goth acts such as The Cure and Nine Inch Nails boldly invaded the domain of popular music, bands such as Faith and The Muse, Switchblade Symphony, and This Ascension remained firmly rooted in the underground.

Today the word gothic can best be defined as an artistic expression that embraces the melancholy and the mysterious. It is a mixture of the elegant and the eerie, a wondrous and sinister beauty that may only be appreciated by those with a thirst for the dark side.