The Gothic Interplay between Realism and Fantasy

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The Gothic Interplay between Realism and Fantasy

The Gothic – Interplay between Realism and Fantasy

The purpose of the imagination, I believe, is to offer us solace and shelter from situations and life passages which would otherwise prove unendurable. The imagination which so often kept me awake and in terror as a child has seen me through some terrible bouts of stark raving reality as an adult.

( Stephen King Nightmares and Dreamscapes : 8 )

This quote from one of America’s leading writers’ highlights one of the most important reasons for the use of fantasy in gothic fiction. Fantasy cannot only create terror but can mentally protect us from real life horrors which we don’t want to acknowledge – not necessarily a good thing as much gothic fiction has shown.

I will study the interplay between the elements of realism and fantasy via the use of the following texts: Angela Carter’s’ The Bloody Chamber focusing mainly on “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Lady of the House of Love”. Stephen King’s The Shining, there will also be references to Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining and Wes Craven’s modern gothic film The People Under the Stairs.

The most obvious use of the fantasy/reality interface in gothic fiction is the fact that the fantasy almost always exists within the reality. On a basic level this means that the stereotypical gothic castle where the story ( a fantasy ) unfolds is always in a real place. Dracula is fantasy but takes place in the “real world”, The Overlook Hotel and the things that go on there in The Shining are pure gothic fantasy but the hotel is set in a real region of the Colorado Rockies and is near real towns such as Sidewinder ( named after a real pass through the Rocky Mountains that really does get dangerously snowed-in in winter ). I could go on for hours but you probably get the point by now. It is very rare that a gothic text is set in a purely fantastical world – modern sci-fi gothic can be an exception. You also find that the writer very rarely begins the story in the gothic setting, it is introduced via the real world. In The Shining we travel through Colorado to get to the Overlook for instance. This helps make the distinction between real and fantasy even clearer, we have seen what is “normal” and this heightens our perceptions of what is “abnormal”. There is also a more simple reason which explains why horror writers favour using this technique; fear.

It is scarier if horror takes place within the real world as for the whole of the novel we have the nagging thought that these perverse little gothic worlds are existing within our own safe environment. This in turn leads to the inevitable “well, maybe something like this could really happen. Oh God! What if something like this is happening right now, maybe in the house next door!” The last part of this thought is becoming even more appropriate nowadays as modern gothic texts are being set in perfect suburban neighbourhoods. All of this is null and void if the gothic fantasy is set in an entirely alien world, the story might be scary but that’s about it. However, evil in close proximity to us is always a frightening thought and one that gothic writers will exploit to it’s full potential.

The Shining and both of the Carter stories exhibit a slight blurring of the boundaries between the “real” world and the gothic worlds. By this I mean that the gothic is not confined solely inside the castles or hotel. In each story the scenery and feeling becomes more and more gothic until it culminates when the central setting – “a microcosmic arena where universal forces collide” ( Malin cited in King Dense Macabre : 315 ) – is reached. “The faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate” ( Carter “The Bloody Chamber” : 13 ). “…The great bulk of the mansion above them, whose façade loured over the village.” ( Carter “The lady of the House of Love” : 99 ).

The whole valley floor was spread out below them, the slopes they had

climbed … falling away with such dizzying suddenness that she knew to

look down there for too long would bring on nausea and vomiting.

She could see the highway clinging to the side of this cathedral spire.

Further up, seemingly set directly into the slope itself she saw the

grimly clinging pines … and in the middle of it … the hotel.

( King The Shining : 63 – 64 )

One of the ironies here is that whilst the Carter stories seem on the surface to be the most “gothic” and The Shining to be more of a horror novel, it is in fact The Shining that has the highest quota of gothic ingredients. Out of the three it has the most sublime, yet inhospitable, scenery – which Kubrick’s film demonstrates excellently. It has apparitions who seemingly come to life and exist within rooms. There are the famous topiary animals in the grounds of the hotel which seem to chase characters. Also it has the most gothic storyline – murder of family members, madness, supernatural visions etc. It also employs what Irvin Malin – cited in King’s Dense Macabre – calls “the new American gothic” where the gothic setting “functions as an image of authoritarianism … or confining narcissism … a growing obsession with ones own problems; a turning inward” ( King Dense Macabre : 315 )

It should be pointed out that this is not always the case, especially in more modern gothic. Nowadays the central gothic setting is becoming increasingly concentrated in one small space with no blurring of the boundaries. Take Wes Craven’s film The People under the Stairs as an example. In this case Malin’s microcosm is a normal looking house in a suburban neighbourhood. Here the difference between the “real” world and the gothic fantasy is clearly defined – a simple step in or out of the front door. Once inside the house is gothic to the extreme, there are traps, secret passages, imprisoned children and incestuous relationships. Here the gothic world is not only somewhere inside the real world, Craven hints that it could be right next door, invading and permeating our safe suburban realities without out us even knowing. Where the film does begin to exploit the interplay between the real and the fantastical is in its deliberate subversion of the gothic monster. At first we think that the villains are the children referred to in the title, they look horrific and we get a sense that they are somekind of supernatural beings who torment the people who live in the house. This is not the case, the real monsters are the couple who have imprisoned and torture the infact innocent children by locking them in the cellar and depriving them of food thereby causing their horrific appearance. The male, simply known as “Daddy” likes nothing better than to dress in an all-over leather bondage suit and go hunting in the house, blasting the walls with a shotgun trying to kill one unfortunate boy who has escaped and now live in-between the walls. This has become known as “socially responsible gothic”, the villains are no longer fantastical beings but real people just like us, in-fact they could be living next door and we would never know. Here the realism/fantasy interplay not only heightens fear in the audience but also puts across a powerful social message – the real monsters are in society.

The same sort of technique seems to be evident in “The Bloody Chamber”. The “monster” is the husband with a penchant for disposing of his wives in imaginatively gruesome ways. The castle whilst being gothic in its appearance and its secret rooms is not a hotbed of fantastical activity. The fantasy comes from Carter’s style of writing, which I will come to shortly.

In “Lady … Love” however there is a proper gothic monster, a vampire. She lives in a fantastical world of nocturnal killings, tarot cards, and seemingly is under some sort of curse to live up to her ancestors. But, yet again with modern gothic, all is not as it seems. The “real” world, far from being kept out, positively invades her fantasy existence in the form of a young soldier. “This being [the soldier], rooted in change and time is about to collide with the timeless gothic eternity of the vampire” ( p.97 ). It is if he is the hero of a Boys Own adventure who has stumbled into the wrong genre. He is not swept up in the fantasy, we are told he is rational and when in the house all he can think of is getting the lady out and curing the disease he thinks she has. In the end reality, in the form of daylight, breaks through and shows her castle to be in disrepair and her to be nowhere as beautiful as we as readers thought, and without her beauty she is powerless. In the world of realism and rationality, she no longer has impact or meaning and dies. Whilst this is mostly a metaphor for Carter’s commentary on the genre of gothic itself it is also an original take on realism/fantasy interplay.

Meanwhile, back at the Overlook Hotel, realism and fantasy are blurring not only for the reader but also for the protagonists. Even little Danny Torrance, the boy who “shines”, is having trouble convincing himself that his fantasy visions aren’t real, consequently so is the reader. Jack Torrance is completely overwhelmed, for him everything is real as his world turns inward and the ghosts of the hotel appear to him and begin to control him. Witness the scene in Kubrick’s film when Jack is in the empty bar evidently speaking to no-one, but switched to Jacks point of view and the bar is full of people. It is so real to him the alcohol he is drinking in the vision is intoxicating him in the real world. The reader remains unsure as to whether this simple madness on the part of Jack and an over-active imagination on the part of Danny. Or is the hotel really coming to life and creating the visions to get Jack to do its bidding? This question remains throughout in the film version although King’s book clearly takes the side that the Hotel is somehow alive and evil – this, some critics have suggested is the books only failing and puts it in the category of “horror” rather than the more respectable “chillier”.

Interplay is also evident in the language and narrative style of the books, especially Carter’s. “The Bloody Chamber”. Based upon the tale of Bluebeard it is the least fantastical in terms of story but is made into fantasy by Carter’s dreamlike writing quality and visual imagery. It is achieved in part by telling the story in first person from the point of view of a young, and slightly wistful, girl. When it suits Carter’s purpose her style does change. Take “Lady…Love” there is constant discord between styles; they try to invade each other. The Vampire has the trademark dreamlike quality around her. “Her voice is filled with distant sonorities” ( p 93 ). When daylight floods in this changes into realism when we see the setting for what it really is…

Now you could see how tawdry it all was, how thin and cheap the satin,

the catafalque not ebony at all but black painted paper. …In death, she

looked far older, less beautiful and so, for the first time, fully human

( p 106 – 107 )

Carter also uses allusion as part of her style. Indeed since the stories are retellings of old fairy tales they could be seen as one giant allusion. This seems like a technique to anchor the stories to the real world as well as giving them depth. For instance, given the dreamlike quality and isolated settings the stories at times feel like pure fantasy. By alluding to works that most people have heard of, that exist in our “real world” – The girl in “…Chamber” trying to clean the key alludes to Macbeth’s wife for instance – she puts across the feeling that the story too is occurring in our “real world”. This allows her to use her command of languge to the full without compromising the feeling of gothic being a fantasy inside our reality.

King uses allusion for the opposite purpose, he gets his scares by being as realistic as possible in his writing style. So when he wants to create fantasy he utilises allusions, in this instance to Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”. Central to Jacks visions is a masked ball and King alludes to Poe’s masked ball to create the dreamlike yet sexually debauched quality of his own. He often quotes directly from the story. An ornate clock – much like Poe’s – in the hotel dining room makes Danny think “As the clock struck midnight there was a terrible silence and the Red Death held sway over all”. Cries of “Unmask, unmask” in Jacks vision of the ball are used as a metaphor for the hotel showing it’s true face. So to anyone who has read the Poe original it makes the ball seem discordant from the rest of the story in a disturbing manner, almost as if there are forces in the hotel that even the author can’t control. It also creates yet another fantasy inside a reality. Not only do we have the fantasy of the Overlook inside the realism of our world we have the fantasy of the ball in what the characters consider to be the realism of the hotel.

In conclusion we can see how important interplay between realism and fantasy is in gothic novels. Whether it is just for scare purposes or as an integral part of the story. A gothic author will take us into a fantasy world disturbingly close to our own and then try to convince us that it is real. They will also try as hard as possible to blur the boundaries so much that we becomes so disorientated that we will no longer be able to tell the difference between what is real or not. Much like the gothic castle, a gothic novel will try to imprison and command us and lead us down those passages where we know we shouldn’t really go.


Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber. London: Vintage, 1995

Craven, Wes. The People Under the Stairs. New Line Cinema, 1991

King, Stephen. Dense Macabre. London: Warner Books, 1993

King, Stephen. Nightmares and Dreamscapes. London: New English Library, 1994

King, Stephen. The Shining. London: New English Library, 1991

Kubrick, Stanley. The Shining. Universal, 1980

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