Open weekend thread: #PandemicReads

Happy Friday, friends. Most of us are approaching weeks 2 or 3 in isolation at this point, and I’m curious. What are you reading, watching, and listening to in order to get through this? Comment below because I NEED RECOMMENDATIONS.

Among other things, I’ve been mainlining a very goofy, very tender anime. Cool points if you can name the anime from without reverse image-searching.

(I’m stealing the idea of Friday Open Threads from Sarah Gailey and Amal El-Mohtar—subscribe to their newsletters if you don’t already, they’re very worth it).

View 19 comments →

Plotting the Unthinkable

Uncertainty is way cooler in comics, huh

This tab has been sitting open on my laptop for the past ten days or so. I don’t really need to say why, right? Most of us have been watching world events unfold in unfathomable geometries to here and now: a weird, unimaginable, simultaneously over- and underwhelming present.

We have arrived at our future, and most of us would like to ask for a refund. 1/5 stars, two thumbs down, do not recommend.

I’ve been struggling with my own anxiety over the past ten days. About a third of my friends are suddenly unemployed. (Nibs and I are fine, for the record, and were already working remotely when this happened.) Friends and family who work in medicine are bracing themselves for overcrowded hospitals, protective equipment shortages, and the likelihood of infection. Voluntary quarantines and social distancing are sad and nerve-wracking. And everyone is anxiously saying, “Can’t complain, it could be worse,” with the full understanding that worse things are probably coming.

Meanwhile, I’ve been sitting on an essay about plot twists and tragic irony in The Wicked and the Divine. It took me ten days of agonizing and what is even the point-ing to realize: shit, wait, this is actually super relevant and not just indulgent. So here we go: an essay about what we do when confronted with ground-shaking uncertainty, in narrative and (sigh) in real life.

The Wicked + The Divine

The Wicked and The Divine, co-created by Kieron Gillian and Jamie McKelvie and brilliantly colored by Matt Wilson, has been running since 2015 and recently ended its final arc. It’s a huge, sprawling narrative that constantly pulls the rug out from its readers’ feet, and never in a way that feels cheap, sensational, or smugly clever.

The premise: every ninety years, twelve gods are reborn into the world. They make art, they inspire, they fight, they fuck, they occasionally have psychotic breaks or megalomaniacal ambitions—and within two years, they’re dead.

In 2015, the gods are being reborn as pop stars in London.

On its face, this is a story about Laura, a fangirl who gets pulled into Pantheon politics when she witnesses Lucifer kill two failed assassins with a flick of her thumb. Shit gets exponentially worse when everyone witnesses Lucifer kill a judge the same way during her trial. Ananke, an ancient, seemingly-immortal god that acts as a guide and an advisor for the Pantheon, cannot help Lucifer out of the trouble she’s made for herself. Laura decides to pull a Nancy Drew and get to the bottom of the story, but it’s a much more ambitious ride than she, or any of us, would guess from the outset.

There are hints sprinkled throughout the first ten issues that Laura’s a little more than human. While navigating her relationships with the Pantheon, she keeps finding small signs of what seem to be her own divinity. Our suspicions are proved correct when Laura is transformed into Persephone. Persephone opens her mouth and begins to sing—

—and then Ananke kills her. Her family too, for good measure.

The wild part is, that’s not even the biggest or strangest plot twist in the story. It’s just the first. This isn’t just a story about hot gods and hapless fangirls; it’s a story about youth, and old age, and creation, and offering your life up on an altar we call art—or maybe power.

Anatomy of a plot twist

Plot twists and cliffhangers are usually derided as being cheap, manipulative narrative tricks. And they are! But let’s be real: the difference between tricks and technique is negligible at best. It’s down to execution; you’re either mad about the manipulation, or you exalt in it.

Cliffhangers and plot twists are considered a hallmark of lowbrow storytelling: daytime soaps, 24, paid-by-the-word penny dreadfuls. Emily Nussbaum put it candidly in a New Yorker article: “They are sensational, in every sense of the word. Historically, there’s something suspect about a story told in this manner, the way it tugs the customer to the next ledge. Nobody likes needy.”

But when a cliffhanger or twist is done right? It’s Ned Stark’s death at the end of A Game of Thrones. You’re off-balance and awake, because the impossible just happened. You’re off the map of a familiar, well-trodden narrative. Here there be dragons: anything can happen.

Cliffhangers and plot twists are where the readers’ suspension of disbelief grows the thinnest, and the constructed nature of a narrative is at its most evident. A generous audience that’s already bought into the story will politely ignore the obvious signs of construction or, the best case scenario, revel in it, the way an audience loves a magic trick they know is fake but executed flawlessly.

It’s a collaboration between the performer and the audience; the audience has to believe they understand what is going on and allow themselves to be led where the performer needs for them to go. Magicians and writers both have to lay a path that the audience is willing to follow, while working in the background to set up surprises down the road.

WicDiv’s misdirection is often centered on the Pantheon; the gods that have been reborn into a bunch of horny, angry teens-to-twenty-somethings and given two years to live. The Pantheon in WicDiv are pop stars AND gods, and are accordingly larger than life. As the story goes on, we’re able to see the frailty and humanity behind their fronts, but that vulnerability is revealed slowly.

The characters embody godhood in familiar ways; when we hear a character is named Lucifer, we’re primed to understand that they’re rebellious, self-centered, and somewhat amoral. But all of the characters in WicDiv have huge personalities, with correspondingly huge character flaws. The construction of this tragedy feels organic because someone gave a whole bunch of young fuckheads divine powers and told them to go nuts. McKelvie and Gillian are following are a very classical playbook, straight from Aristotle’s Poetics, and it’s intensely satisfying to see it modernized so well.

Image

But Gillian and McKelvie’s brilliant character work is only half the trick; the other half is in implicating the audience.

In discussing plot twists in short stories, Florence Goyet wrote:

The basic result of the trick ending is to magnify the already powerful effect of the tension created earlier in the story. And when rereading a story such as this one, our feeling for the drama will be intensified and the antithetic tension will be deepened. Rereading produces the tragic irony: the tension is increased because we know from the outset that all these efforts, described with such force and detail are in vain. We have in mind the two poles and we see them clash constantly.

We, the audience, are the ones who hold all the cards. None of the characters have as much information as we do. With each new revelation, the audience still has to watch characters that we’ve grown attached to struggle in ignorance, manipulated by others. Subjectivity plays a big part in tragedy and irony as literary techniques: who knows what, who is ignorant, who’s pulling the strings, and who is complicit.

It puts the audience into a terrible place; watching someone you like do something stupid is hard enough. Watching them do something stupid because they don’t know the things you do is gut-wrenching. It’s why nearly every horror movie has a shot showing an unnoticed killer or monster sneaking up on their unsuspecting victim. You want the audience to shout oh my god, run! get out of there! turn around, he’s right there!

The future: the twist we never see coming

The final reveal in The Wicked and the Divine is that the guiding premise of the book is, in fact, a lie. Every ninety years, Ananke finds twelve young people and sells them a story: “You are of the Pantheon. You will be loved. You will be hated. You will be brilliant. Within two years, you will be dead.”

But here’s the thing: they are gifted, but their godhood is a trick. Their divinity and miracles comes at the price of their lives, but it doesn’t have to. They can be brilliant for no more than two years, or they can work for a lifetime to create a future worth living in.

All of us, but especially artists, are sold a seductive story about the shelf life of brilliance. We love tragic stories about lives cut short in youth, about artists consumed by their own flaws, mental illnesses, or addictions that started as coping mechanisms: Amy Winehouse, Jean-Michel Basquiat, River Phoenix. We mourn the lost potential, but rarely talk about the conditions that lead to such brilliance becoming short-lived and self-consuming. There are very few ways to have a full-time creative career that don’t encourage, if not require, burnout.

Two years to create the huge, towering, world-changing art; to be wealthy, loved, famous, talked about, important—with the small price to pay of dying at the end. It’s the world’s most tempting shortcut.

For most of my youth, I was haunted by the fear that I would run out of time, and be unable to write something that really mattered before… I’m not sure what. Before the world ended, or before I did. I saw the same thing when teaching an undergraduate fiction writing class last year as well. My brilliant, wonderful students were consumed by the anxiety that time was running out for them to do something brilliant.

To be fair, our fears are grounded in the realities of the world we live in. I graduated high school two years into an as-yet-unended war, escalating police militarization, and then graduated college into a global recession. They’re coming of age with climate change, white supremacist fascists in power, and what will surely be a global economic depression. The world we knew, the story we believed we were in, has ended. We’re hanging on the edge of a cliff.

Hard as it is to believe, I was at C2E2 just over three weeks ago, along with 90,000+ other people. Just typing that made me want to wash my hands.

I sat on a panel with Michi Trota, Maurice Broaddus, Suzanne Walker, Ada Palmer, and Gabriel Vidrine to talk about revolutionary futures. One of the things we discussed is that right now, it’s difficult enough even imagining any future, never mind one that we’d want to live in. I mentioned that I know so many people my age who joke about being unable to save for retirement—that they’re literally counting on either the world or their lives to end before they’d need to. There was a sort of laugh-groan in response; uncomfortable agreement.

It’s a terrible indictment of the present. But not the future; the future is, and always will be, a blank page. For an artist, especially a young one, that’s uniquely terrifying.

So how’s this for a plot twist: what if we survive? What if we live for another fifty, sixty, eighty years?

What if we stop assuming that there are only two options: catapulting to fame, or languishing in unfulfilling obscurity forever? And on a larger scale: what if there are solutions beyond the binary of a quick and successful revolution, or extinction?

None of this is probably news to people who are no longer in the early springtime of their youth. Or maybe you’re from people whose world has already ended this same way; whose ancestral memory includes one or two or multiple apocalypses, and everything that came after. When we think of sacrificing ourselves to causes—revolution, liberation, art—so many of us think in terms of immediate martyrdom. It’s less thrilling to pledge the next fifty years of your life to the same thing you imagine heroically sacrificing yourself for.

So here’s the real question. When this is over—this pandemic, this emergency or the one that will come after it, this year, this fucking sham of a presidency, and yes, all of these things will end—what will we do? And after that, what next?

We’re off the map, we’re in the territory of dragons, we have fallen into a blank page. It’s terrifying and it’s strange, but it belongs to all of us.

Take as much time as you need to mourn the story you wanted to be in right now; whether that was an awesome end to your senior year, being a child prodigy, a Sanders/Warren whoever nomination. An easier path. But when your grief abates enough, please: take a breath, confront the terror of the blank page, and start imagining. Then pick up a pen (or your weapon of choice) and get to work making it happen.


If you like what I write, please consider buying one of my booksHomesick is a collection of short speculative stories centering queer and trans characters, while FINNA is a novella about queer heartbreak, working retail, and wormholes. You can also support me on Patreon or buy me a ko-fi.

a list of disaster movies that have nothing to do with epidemics

can i offer you a shitty dad redemption arc in this trying time?

This week is bad for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. I have about 95% of a newsletter written about the amazing plotting in The Wicked and the Divine. It’s great. I quote Aristotle AND Emily Nussbaum, along with two or three academics because I went overboard on my research (again). I was planning on posting it tonight, but honestly: would anyone read it? Getting into the nitty-gritty of what constitutes tragic irony isn’t the greatest distraction from the news.

I’ve seen a lot of folks mentioning amazing books that feel eerily prescient (Song For a New Day and Infomocracy) or examine how societal infrastructures bend or break under the pressures of pandemics. Ling Ma’s Severance comes to mind, and Nisi Shawl just wrote an excellent roundup of such stories for The Seattle Review of Books, which happens to include a short review of my novella FINNA, along with a delightfully scathing review of using teleconferencing technology to listen in on a panel, which Shawl describes as “suboptimal; they [fellow panelists] sounded as if they were talking through the anuses of dead frogs.”

Personally, though? I think I’ve maxed out my pandemic intake. It’s all over my social media; the majority of my friends are in either the medical field or education, with large portions of sci-fi writers, hospitality and retail industry folk, and journalists rounding out my timelines. Today, for some reason, felt like the day that shit REALLY hit the fan.

So yeah: I need a distraction from this particular doomsday scenario by joyfully wallowing in OTHER doomsday scenarios.

This is how my brain works. Maybe it’s how yours works as well. If so: feel free to enjoy this list of four terrible disaster movies, followed by one good one. None of them have anything to do with infectious disease.

Image result for independence day 1996 poster

1) Independence Day (1996)

ID4 was the gold standard for pre-9/11 disaster movies. It was mindlessly patriotic, it had Will Smith, it had a shitty dad redeeming himself by flying a F-16 up the butthole of a spaceship while shouting “Up yours!” It saved the dog! (ALWAYS SAVE THE DOG.) It also had one of the kindest gay jokes I’ve ever seen. Everything I knew about New York City as a tween, I learned from Harvey Fierstein’s and Judd Hirsch in this movie.

Image result for Deep Impact

2) Deep Impact (1998)

Somehow, this isn’t a porn parody of Armageddon. It’s just the better version of it that includes, among other things:

  • Elijah Wood as an astronomy nerd who also knows how to ride a dirtbike

  • Tasha Yar! Or at least, the actress who played her.

  • Another shitty dad redemption arc! (can’t have a disaster movies without a disaster dad)

  • A guy calmly reading a newspaper and wearing a bowtie while ignoring a mega-tsunami bearing down on him, which is certainly SOME kinda commentary

    Image result for deep impact man reading newspaperImage result for day after tomorrow movie poster

3) The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Apparently, this one is based on a book by Whitley Strieber, whose other books populated the “Paranormal Studies” shelf at my local Borders Books when I was a teenager. His Wikipedia entry is a fun read, and he and Roland Emmerich are a dream team for what is basically the Platonic ideal of a blockbuster disaster film. It’s got the requisite shitty dad, an extremely awkward romantic subplot, ESCAPED WOLVES OH NO, and New York being flooded and then frozen over, because tsunamis were no longer enough. Oh, and Americans have to escape to Mexico, which is just like, “sure come on in I GUESS.”

4) 2012 (2009)

Film poster showing a Nepalese monk on a mountain watching as tsumani waves coming over the Himmalyan mountains, with the film's credits, title and release date in the bottom and tagline above

I have to give 2012 kudos for a truly “hold my beer” plot. It’s got solar flares! Earth’s core is heating up! Polar shifts! Something about the Mayan calendar! (Remember how many white people were really into the Mayan calendar in the late 00’s?) And then literally every continent except Africa explodes or falls into the ocean.

Image result for 2012 movie gif super volcano

As I remember, the chain of events is like, Yellowstone supervolcano explodes —> West Coast gets dropkicked into the Pacific —> Hawaii melts —> nobody cares about Europe —> mega-tsunami engulfs the entirety of Asia, including Mount Everest —> rich people are the real humanitarian crisis, shocker.

5) The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

PoseidonAdventure.jpg

Jaws may have scared people out of the water, but The Poseidon Adventure put me off cruise ships forever. It somehow manages to be that rarest of creatures: a celebrity-studded disaster blockbuster that is actually… mostly good? And was generally well received by both critics and audiences? My theory here is that Poseidon Adventure isn’t relying solely on effects to keep audiences’ interest. Instead, it dives face-first into theology, peppering personal conflicts with philosophical digressions, all while leaning into its extremely claustrophobic set design and excellent action sequences.

If you do end up watching any of the first four films on this list, The Poseidon Adventure makes for an excellent palate cleanser. The disaster is small, contained, and terribly intimate. There are weird and interesting characters, and the tension is equally derived from their conflicts as well as the ocean trying to murder them. Most importantly, there are NO shitty dads in this film, unless God counts, and God does not get redeemed by the end of the film.


If you like what I write, please consider buying one of my books: Homesick is a collection of short speculative stories centering queer and trans characters, while FINNA is a novella about queer heartbreak, working retail, and wormholes. You can also support me on Patreon or buy me a ko-fi.

Artifice and Architecture: A New Gothic Revival, Part II

Quick reminder: if you like my thoughts about the nature of stories, you might also like my fiction. You can buy my short story collection Homesick or preorder my novella Finna on my website.


If there’s one Gothic trope that most of us recognize, it’s the big house. 

The past is omnipresent in Gothic fiction. It erupts into characters’ lives to cause chaos. And it often forms the very landscape of the story: a sprawling mansion, a decrepit castle, a crumbling ancestral home. 

Knives Out David Crank

In the Gothic, a home is a locus where forces from the past meet pressures from the present. It’s a site for power struggles: between generations, insiders/outsiders, the living and the dead. Both sides engage in a struggle to control the narrative of the past and present, and to understand the truth. 

That truth often reveals the constructed, artificial nature of what we think of as “the past.”

Artifice and fakery are embedded in the earliest roots of the genre; Horace Walpole claimed that he had discovered and translated a 1529 manuscript titled The Castle of Otranto rather than written it, and even used a pseudo-archaic prose for added persuasiveness. Walpole also built a pseudo-medievalist castle that ushered in the Gothic Revival style to Britain; a building created to suit Walpole’s desire to live in a facsimile of history.

The houses at the centers of these Neo-Gothic revival movies all share a similar sense of constructed history and grandeur. They all contain hidden rooms, stairs, and passageways. And all of them conceal the unaired secrets of the people that live in them; the buried pasts, the hidden selves, the darkness, the lies, the violence. The beautiful facades of these houses, their grandeur and status, hide the rot at their cores the same way the present creates a rose-tinted picture of the past. 

Parasite

It blew my mind when I (embarrassingly recently) learned the house in Parasite was a set designed for the film, as was the Kim’s basement-level apartment. (I’m not the only one! Apparently, a bunch of judges on the Cannes jury were fooled too.)

It was a genius decision; unlike Ready or Not and Knives Out, all the scenes set in the Park’s family home were filmed there, and there’s a permeability between the interior and exterior scenes that feels organic and natural. Despite that, the house is very much set up to have numerous levels, a hierarchy based on altitude — which has been brilliantly illustrated in various poster designs for the film.

Image

Stairs figure prominently throughout the set, with characters having to navigate the different worlds that they allow entrance into. The entire set design reflects different kinds of class status: the amount of light, of green space that a family is privy to, whether the space is closed-off or open, the expectations of privacy.

In one long, wonderfully shot sequence, we follow the Kim family after they narrowly avoid being uncovered by their employers. They retreat back to their basement home in a working-class neighborhood in a driving rain, only to discover that water is pouring into their home and the whole neighborhood is flooded.

It’s important that the characters are moving down, but what’s more important is that water is moving with them: Water is flowing from top to bottom, to the rich neighborhoods to the poor ones, and these characters they have no control over it. (Bong Joon-ho)

The title of the film has its own layers: the Kims, and the workers whose jobs they stole, are parasites living on the corpus of the Park family home. The beautiful, minimalist, spacious home hides the desperate families, who are torn between maintaining their secrecy and demanding to be seen and heard, even in the most coded ways.

Ready of Not and Knives Out

One of my favorite lines in all three of these movies is from near the end of Knives Out, where one of the Trombley’s tries to kick a now-meddlesome detective Benoit Blanc out of their “ancestral home.” Blanc laughs and points out that their father bought the home from a Pakistani businessman in 1988.

American history, almost from its outset, denied its own constructed nature. Rather than a cultural palimpsest, it was an untamed wilderness, an edenic land that was ready to be conquered. This mythology is rooted in the idea of a break away from history. You still see this trope in rhetoric about the American experience; America as a land of new beginnings, a blank slate. 

Of course, believing this requires erasure of the actual facts of the past. The untamed wilderness and the frontier are carefully constructed fictions; America was already populated by millions of people, with a diverse breadth of cultures, well-established societies, trade routes, technologies, etc. The ideals that America was founded on — liberty, self-determination, rationalism, plurality, all that good shit from the Enlightenment — are completely at odds with the actual history of its construction, and the reality of the millions who were murdered and/or enslaved as a colonizing project. 

We recreate this mythology all the time, the same way Walpole created a pseudo-historical artifacts in both his home and his writing. America is a pretty Gothic Revival mansion that’s built over a very haunted graveyard, and all its ghosts are bursting out of the expensive flooring and imported wallpaper.

Ready or Not and Knives Out address this, though they take different approaches, each appropriate to their genre. Ready or Not blends survival horror and the occult with class critique. Grace, played by the amazing Samara Weaving, is willing to play nice with her new husband’s rich, fucked-up family, despite the fact that most of them are actively repellent, dripping with the privilege and derision befitting their class. The turn comes when she realizes that one of their quaint family customs—playing a game on the wedding night with the new couple—is actually the prelude to murder, mayhem, and demonic sacrifice.

Knives Out similarly unmasks the polite fictions that its characters hide behind, the myths they tell about themselves. Throughout the story, the pleasant, self-righteous facades that the characters present to the world are shredded over and over again. 

Eldest daughter Lynda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) image as a self-made woman is rudely exposed as someone who used her father’s wealth to start her own company, while her cheerful husband is confirmed as a philanderer. Middle child Walt’s timid personality disguises his racism (even more present in his wife and neo-nazi son). For all her woke politics, all of Meg’s talk of allyship is ultimately hollow. And then there’s Ransom, whose blunt assholery (always celebrated in rich, white men) disguises his actual sociopathy: he murders two people and attempts to kill a third just to keep his wealth and status.

Both films end triumphantly for their outsider heroines, for the most part. In Grace’s case, surviving her deadly wedding night has the added bonus of causing all of her would-be murderers to explode, since they didn’t fulfill their end of a deal with the devil. (That’s one way to redistribute wealth.) Ana uses everyone’s expectations of her as a good, honest-to-a-fault girl to trick Ransom into confessing to murder, then pukes in his face. (BLESS.)

These films don’t follow the normal trajectory for Gothic protagonists caught up the machinations of the rich, unhinged assholes, who squat like spiders in a web of ill-gotten wealth. Most Gothic heroines either lose their minds, or marry into the family — ostensibly losing their freedom in exchange for status and stability. Grace and Ana turn the artifice of the rich against them, adapting quickly to the ever-changing rules of the games, and winning them.

You could say that the house (oh god i’m so sorry) doesn’t always win.

Image result for my house my rules my coffee gif knives out"

Enjoyed this? Please support me on Patreon or ko-fi. Broke but still want to support me? Share it or subscribe.

A New Gothic Revival: Part 1

OR: I really loved Ready or Not, Parasite, and Knives Out, and am ready to talk about my feelings

(Hi! It’s been a while! November was consumed by doing a book tour for Homesick, and December was a necessary recovery month. But I’m back now, and will try to be writing regularly here again.)

The first half of 2019 was a year of lukewarm genre films for me. Some of these films I only saw out of a sense of completionist duty (Avengers: Endgame, It 2), friends’ excitement (Detective Pikachu, Spiderman: Far From Home, Captain Marvel), nostalgia for source material (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Pet Semetary) or because I assumed it would deliver two hours of cathartic destruction (Godzilla: King of Monsters -- which, in my opinion, was ruined by the annoying human family drama; ether give me a less trite subplot or give me more death-via-kaiju). 

Image result for gif godzilla king of monsters human drama

(There are literally bigger things to worry about than a shitty dad redemption!! GOD.)

My partner Nibs and I had pretty much written 2019 off as a year of disappointing tentpoles and horror. Then came Ready or Not, Parasite, and Knives Out. This trio of films saved 2019 for me. 

Plenty of other people have written about what made these three films so delicious to watch. They’re excellently plotted, completely unpredictable and with genuine twists. The characters are memorable, complex, and pushed to their limits in organic, un-forced ways. And the writing, GOD, the writing. So many films feel stale and forced to me, because they’re written by a committee to specific formulae. Dialogue is there to deliver plot, or to set up the action sequences that punctuate films’ narrative. These films--Parasite and Knives Out especially--have their creator’s fingerprints all over them. They show signs of life instead of artifice. (Not that there’s anything wrong with artifice--you can create something beautiful according to a formula. It’s just that most films don’t seem to bother.) 

They also speak very clearly to the present moment; of growing wealth disparity and resentment towards the rich, of how poverty limits our options, of generational wealth and its privileges. They also deal heavily with history: the weight of the years and generations that preceded us, the longstanding consequences of choices our predecessors made, and how that influence trickled down.

After watching the final one of these films, I thought to myself: Sweet, I guess it’s time for another gothic revival. 

The Gothic, as a named genre, has been around for a few centuries. The general consensus holds 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole as its earliest defining work, with writers like Ann Radcliffe later refining and popularizing the genre. The first Gothic revival in art, architecture, and literature was a counterpoint to the Renaissance’s neoclassicism, its emphasis on rationality and logic, and the idea of a coherent, mechanical universe. It celebrated mystery instead, sublime terror as a reaction to the unknown or divine. The Gothic is also saturated with history; its stories proliferate with relics, Medievalist aesthetics, ghosts, moldering castles, ancestral curses, and buried secrets. The Gothic is a progenitor of a lot of contemporary genres, particularly speculative ones: it helped birth (at least in Europe and North America) mysteries and detective novels, science fiction, and horror. 

Related image

Though I haven’t done enough research to really confirm this, the Gothic’s popularity seems to correlate—or be responsive—to periods of unrest and upheaval, and it’s fun to track how that manifests in different centuries and decades. Its early novels in the mid-to-late 18th century coincided with the French and American revolutions, the early fracturing of European empire, and the genre is littered with relics of dissipated power: castles and estates, centuries-old curses. In the 19th century, you see the rhetoric and aesthetics of the Gothic employed by abolitionists, particularly by formerly enslaved authors in writing autobiographical “slave narratives”: brooding plantations built on the blood and bones of the enslaved, tyrannical white masters and mistresses, forgotten graveyards, restless spirits. There was a boom of Gothic Romances in the post-war period, which centered (mostly white) women’s journeys from naivete to understanding and sometimes power, sometimes madness or death; I think of Eleanor’s end in The Haunting of Hill House, which seems to promise all three. 

All three of these films also employ the symbols and motifs that are familiar to the genre: particularly large houses with architectural oddities and secret passages, whose history play surprising roles in the plots. There’s an insider/outsider dynamic, with wealth, status, and family acting to shore up dynamics of power. Confrontations with power, the past, and oppression are threaded through the bones of the Gothic--this makes it an especially relevant genre right now, and I think the reason why we’ll probably be seeing more of it, especially situated in the present day. 

That’s why I’m calling this a neo-Gothic revival; there’s been a number of paint-by-numbers Gothic Romance stories and films in the last few years, but this approach feels distinct. These stories don’t just borrow the aesthetics of previous generations; they reckon with the consequences of those generations’ choices.

Rather than attempt to cram all of my thoughts about these films into a single newsletter, I’m going to break this up into a few different parts. Next week, I’m going to write about architecture and artifice. After that, wealth, privilege, and the “unreliable” narrator. I honestly could probably squeeze another newsletter out of this topic -- maybe on parody and humor? Maybe on gender? If there’s a topic you’re really burning to know more about, feel free to yell at me on Twitter or the contact form on my website

Loading more posts…