A Distinctly American Gothic?

I’m reading Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers at the moment. It’s a creepy read with lots of weird and wonderful things going on to keep me interested. It’s set in a crumbling old house in the Hollywood Hills, constructed (and in part held together) by pieces of old film sets, where the reclusive occupants find their peace interrupted by the enforced arrival of estranged cousins after the death of a relative… does all this sound a bit familiar? If I’m honest, it reminded me an awful lot of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle – which featured a crumbling old house, reclusive occupants interrupted by the arrival of a more worldly cousin after the death of a relative – and this made me wonder if there was a style of Gothic that was distinctly modern American.

Now before there are any claims of plagiarism levelled against Mr Powers, I have to stress that his book is totally different to Jackson’s – it’s about three times the length for a start, and as far as I can tell, nobody murdered their entire family by lacing the sugar bowl. It’s just the background premise was so striking, I simply had to mention it – and this made me wonder if it was a distinctive aspect of the Gothic sensibility that isn’t shared across the Atlantic.

American Gothic is not new – and I’m not referring to the Grant Wood painting either. Edgar Allen Poe, HP Lovecraft and Nathanial Hawthorne each did their bit to create a particularly American style of terror. What Jackson and Powers are doing is quite different and seems to share similar, classically Gothic themes but with a definite twist. The damsels in distress in this story either don’t seem to care or seem to actively want to stir up the supernatural rather than be rescued from it. In Jackson, the supernatural seems to hardly make an appearance at all – Merrikat seems quite happy to conduct her sympathetic magic, but she’s the only one who believes in its effectiveness and she has to take practical steps to achieve her aim of removing her cousin Charles from their lives.

Many classics of American Gothic feature the crumbling house – the Bates Motel of Psycho being another example – which is considerably too big for the number of inhabitants it houses. The house often in considerable disrepair, with the occupants reduced to a handful of rooms, or sharing occupation with a variety of itinerant guests. It’s also quite isolated, either by vast grounds or by fencing and gateposts (as in Jackson’s story). This creates the necessary seclusion to allow the Gothic elements of the story to develop, without unnecessary intrusion from the real world.

The outside world (i.e. outside the confines of the house) intrudes briefly in the form of former inhabitants (Powers), estranged members of the family (Powers and Jackson) or paying guests (Psycho). These intrusions form the catalyst for the apparently supernatural elements to take place. In fact, only Powers has overtly supernatural elements in his story, but this doesn’t detract from the overall sense of Gothic in Jackson and Psycho. And yet, despite this, I can’t imagine any of these stories being set in England. I simply don’t see how they could work.

I want to explore some of the ideas that Powers follows in his novel further but I do think that there is a distinct American Gothic that would merit a bit more exploration in the future. Perhaps I can use it as the basis for one of my occasional series?


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