Gothic was named after the Visigoths, the barbarian European tribes who defeated and sacked Ancient Rome.
The eighteenth-century European enlightenment looked to Rome as a model of order and refinement.
The Visigoths were seen as crude and irrational –their world-view grounded in romance and folklore.
Horace Walpole, whose 1764 novel “The Castle of Otranto” ushered in the new Gothic movement, claimed: “It was not so much my intention to recall the exploded marvels of ancient romance, as to blend the wonderful of old stories with the natural of modern novels.”
The old castles and overwhelming landscapes in the story became Gothic conventions. There was a loss of control to irrational, uncontrollable emotion – to terror and wonder.
It was a breakdown of the objectivity and reason valued by the enlightenment.
In America Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 novel “Wieland” tried to replace the “puerile superstitions and exploded manners” of European Gothic with “the perils of the American wilderness.”
His characters were at the mercy of seemingly uncontrollable adversity – a challenge to the optimism and enlightenment ideals of the young republic.
Critics dismissed Brown as vulgar – and would have been happy for the genre to disappear. But writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe were indebted to him.
Stephen King, Ann Rice and Joyce Carol Oates are still using Gothic tropes to explore contemporary America.
In King’s “The Shining” the ancient castle is the Overlook hotel. The Colorado mountains provide the haunted landscape. Repressed conflicts and traumas engulf Jack Torrance’s family.
Despite continued dismissal the Goths are still sacking Rome.
An audio version of this blog is available here:
“The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410” by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (1890)