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Modern Fiction Studies 46.3 (2000) 725-746

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Parodied to Death: The Postmodern Gothic of American Psycho

Ruth Helyer

II. Gothic Popular Forms

The Gothic Heritage

The Gothic genre is a unique combination of the repulsive and the compulsive. Its ability to provoke both fear and fascination ensures that it generates media and scholarly attention and considerable wealth for the commercial worlds of publishing and entertainment. Seventeen centuries ago the word "Gothic" was used to describe tribes living in Northern Europe whose behavior caused their name to become associated with anything deemed brutish, offensive, or repulsive. By the fifteenth century, Renaissance critics felt justified in using the word to describe the vast gloominess typical of the architecture of the time. Consequently, the term developed connotations of medieval gloom, decaying properties (with ramshackle fixtures and fittings), and untamed landscapes. As any description necessitates some "other" against which a comparison may be drawn--Gothic's "other" was always the aesthetically more pleasing; that which was capable of satisfying (rather than offending) the widely accepted social norms relating to common sense and ethics. The inference [End Page 725] is clear that classical styles are considered to be safer and therefore more acceptable. Appearances and activities diversifying from this accepted course are suspect, and potentially dangerous; they should always be viewed and handled with a high degree of caution. According to Fred Botting, "Gothic novels frequently adopt this cautionary strategy, warning of dangers of social and moral transgression by presenting them in their darkest and most threatening form [. . .] tortuous tales of vice, corruption and depravity are sensational examples of what happens when the rules of social behaviour are neglected" (7). Classic examples of Gothic literature deal with characters' fears of the forbidden and their repression of unauthorized urges. They warn against extremes of pleasure and stimulation, which are seen to dull the capacity to reason, and encourage the transgression of social proprieties and moral laws. Archetypes of "civilized" society are used in the narrative to justify the condemnation of unacceptable acts, and likewise to feed into our conception of reality. Literature termed as "Gothic" began to appear in the late eighteenth century, such as Horace Walpole's Castle of Otrano (1764) and Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). These were followed by countless others, including stories by Edgar Allan Poe and the Brontë sisters. The darkness of the mental realities presented within these founding texts is usually metaphorically illustrated by the physical location of the action, which tends to be remote and deserted (or semi-ruined), and takes place in castles, churches, and mansions. It is not only the dim and eerie interiors of such buildings that unsettle the reader, but the secret passages, cellars, and attics. The narratives frequently linger over bleak industrial cityscapes, complete with dark back alleys and swirling smog, as in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886). Doors creak and staircases wind out of sight, creating an air of mystery around what the surface aesthetics of setting and characters are hiding, and more crucially, what can be construed about their inner capacities.

The creepy surroundings, paradoxically unknown, yet familiar from what the genre represents, provide the backdrop for the narrative's transgressive characters. Typically, they are dark, brooding, and silent aristocrats, with guilty secrets and unpleasant habits. These mad or evil people, occasionally the monstrous undead, present us with "doubles," the other side to the traits respectable society has chosen to uphold. Instead of development, honesty, and credibility they represent regression, deceit, [End Page 726] and untrustworthiness. The Gothic genre offers a narrative form in opposition to the inflexible modern middle classes. On a more personal level this translates as an iconography capable of giving expression to the repressed desires of the unconscious.

Histrionic Excess or Psychological Astuteness? From the Stately Ruins of the Eighteenth Century to Contemporary Manhattan

Many theorists of Gothic conventions, such as Allan Lloyd Smith, have commented on the "[s]triking parallels between the features identified in discourses concerning postmodernism and those which are focused on in the Gothic tradition" (6). Both...


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