Hollywood Gothic

Don’t be fooled. I’m still reading Tim Powers’ Medusa’s Web and Old Hollywood plays a major part in the Gothic sensibility of the novel. To discuss all the films with a Gothic flavour that the great Hollywood studios put out over the years would require at least a couple of chapters, if not an entire volume, all to itself. Here, I just want to look at the lure of old Hollywood, and how Tinsel-Town came to have a dark side that was all its own. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy of Hollywood Babylon, you’ll see what I mean.

Hollywood in the 1920s was rife with wild parties – if you could get in – starlets, drugs, sex and drink galore. Probably no different to the 1970s, except that the spangles were real and for the majority, it really was another world. Even a feel-good musical like Singing In The Rain hints at this – Cathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) has come to LA to become an actress, but starts off as a chorus girl entertaining guests at a studio party. Her acting career stutters after she upsets the studio’s big star, Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen), who then resolves to make sure Selden “never works in this town again”. The crucial part of the film’s plot deals with Selden protecting Lamont’s career by sacrificing her own, ghost-singing and speaking Lamont’s lines in the early talking pictures. Marni Nixon made a similar career, lending her singing voice to Deborah Kerr in The King and I (amongst other films).

It wasn’t easy being a film star in those days.

Even today, Los Angeles is the City of Dreams; the film industry creates dreams, and everyone wants to be in the business. Virtually every waitress or coffee shop barista has an audition coming up or a script they’re working on. There are more people than there are roles, and even my (just about scraped) pass at Economics A Level knows that supply is far outstripping demand. The studios are ruthless, hearts get broken and illusions are shattered. Hollywood is, after all, about illusion – nothing in the cinema is real, it’s all smoke and mirrors in the end.

It’s intriguing to me that this notion creates a very gothic sensibility, particularly with some of the older black and white movies. I love the old Universal horror movies, some of which are still quite terrifying because they allow the imagination to fill in the gaps – which is how good horror works, after all. And I really like how Powers weaves this into his novel. The old bits of film set that are scattered around the house render it more sinister than I suppose it is – but then I find circuses creepy too, and that’s a whole other story entirely! The references to the caption screens on silent films that Claimaine and Ariel quote to each other starts has a distinct edge to it, hinting at hypnosis, a Svengali relationship, that probably doesn’t otherwise exist. Indeed, a minor character informs Ariel that “doing spiders” was a big thing in Hollywood studio parties in the 1920s – hinting at the decadence of the period.

It’s always been known that there was a dark side to the film industry, but it’s interesting to see it being used as a Gothic motif.

Addicted to the Occult

One of the themes Powers looks at in his novel is addiction; the reader is told in the early chapters that Scott is an alcoholic and Ariel has been “clean” for four years – although clean of what is not initially very clear. What she – and Clairmayne are addicted to is magic, in particular the momentary time travelling afforded by the “spiders”, monochrome occult symbols which transport the viewer back into the body of any person who has previously viewed it. It’s quite clear that Powers considers it more than possible to become addicted to magic – much like Willow in Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and that this addiction has significant physical effects.

It would be easy – and perhaps slightly banal – to suggest simply that all the reader needs to do is swap “spiders” for “heroin” and it would be the same novel; it wouldn’t, by a long haul. The fact is that the magic contained in the spiders is central to the story and the human addiction to it is simply a sideshow. There is much, much more to the story than that.

But it’s interesting that two very different (and separated by a good decade) texts, for want of a better expression, should latch onto the idea that magic is addictive. I suppose it’s the power trip, isn’t it – the idea that you have power that other people don’t have, or power over other people, and that power becomes seductive until it controls you rather than the other way round. Unfortunately the only power I have seems to be guessing which contestants on University Challenge are Australian – I’ve got a 100% record on that so far. Must be the safari suits.

Anyway, I digress. There is certainly an idea that dabbling in the occult is addictive and that this is a good reason why it should be avoided or conducted only by people with iron discipline – which is not many, to be fair. Perhaps this is why the Jedi counsel against the temptation of the Dark Side; they know it’s a slippery slope.

Oh well, there’s another theme for me to pick up again in my reading – the occult as addiction. Who’d have thought that a novel could be so much fun?

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?

Come Dine With Me, Andronicus Style

This is the feast that I have bid her to/And this the banquet she shall surfeit on. (Titus Andronicus, Act 5, Scene 2)

I want to try and avoid too many references to Game of Thrones in this post, and it’s just as well I’m looking at the climax of the play because it allows me to explore another controversial series which is unbelievably popular with its fanbase – Hannibal. I think you’ll see why when we get to the end.

I’ve said previously that this play has two scenes for which it is justifiably notorious – Lavinia’s rape and mutilation at the hands of Tamora’s sons in Act 2, and the final dinner party in Act 5. Like Hannibal (arguably a modern-day counterpart) Titus considers himself quite a chef and insists on preparing the banquet himself. It’s easy to see why when all is revealed in the course of dinner. He has invited everyone (all the main characters are present, except Aaron, who is kept offstage as Lucius’ prisoner) and serves the Imperial party himself, before dropping the first of his bloody bombshells.

In the middle of the main course, Titus murders his daughter – who has spent the majority of the play in dumbshow – in front of all the guests. If that wasn’t enough, he then points out to the Empress that the pie she has just eaten contained the corpses of her two sons, whom he had murdered while she was off getting changed. In the chaos that ensues, everyone except Marcus, Lucius and young Lucius are dead. Even the stage directions suggest the level of mayhem:

He kills Saturninus. Uproar. (Stage Direction, Act 5, Scene 3)

It does beg the question of whether everyone has to die; but I think they do and it’s an entirely necessary scene. There wasn’t really anywhere else for the story or characters to go; this final, brutal dinner party offers the audience a sense of catharsis from the relentless cruelty inflicted throughout the rest of the play. In amongst all the bloodletting and cannibalism, a sense of justice has emerged. Unlike Hannibal, this isn’t killing for pleasure or for the sake of it, but to redress the universal balance – the cruel are punished and the just are allowed to live. Titus has done wrong, partly in killing Tamora’s son but also in killing one of his own sons – and he also dies. Lavinia’s death is itself couched in controversial terms which would have rung true for a 16th century audience but perhaps do less so today. Tragic as the play is, there is a glimmer of hope at the end that civilisation has prevailed.

I do find Titus Andronicus to be a wholly underrated play. Many people can’t see beyond the blood, gore and brutality to the actual story underneath – which is sad, and tragic, but not without hope and it’s certainly not boring. It’s also quite a short play, which helps if you have a slightly limited attention span. I hope that in this age of Game of Thrones and Hannibal it gains a new, appreciative, audience – or at least one that has a stronger stomach.

A Charitable Murderer

‘Tis present death I beg, and one thing more/That womanhood denies my tongue to tell/O keep me from that worse than killing lust/Amd tumble me into some loathsome pit/Where never man’s eye may behold my body/Do this and be a charitable murderer. (Titus Andronicus, Act 2, Scene 3).

Lady Macbeth is rightly considered to be one of Shakespeare’s finest female characters, but I think Tamora, Queen of the Goths from Titus Andronicus is often forgotten. Both women are in positions of power and given to murder and manipulation to sustain their status – and lose it, alongside their grip on reality. Unfortunately, because Titus Andronicus is such a highly controversial play, Tamora is often overlooked, and I think that’s a bit unfair. For a female actor, it’s a terrific part to get one’s teeth into – and much more fun to play than Lavinia.

Tamora is always set up as the arch villainess, as she uses her sons – and at her lover’s instigation, her husband – to wage something of a vendetta against the Andronici, as the family of Titus are clllectively known. The reasoning behind this is set out in Act 1, when Lucius demands of Titus (and gets) Tamora’s eldest son as a blood sacrifice at the interment of two of his brothers after wars against the Goths. Her subsequent elevation to Empress of Rome – mainly by making sure she catches the eye of the histrionic emperor, Saturninus – puts her in a position where her vengeful fantasies can become reality.

She starts by framing two of Titus’s three surviving sons for the murder of the emperor’s brother, Bassianus, and having the last one – Lucius – banished from Rome for life. She then permits, if not actively encourages, her sons to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia in ne of the play’s most infamous scenes. At no point does Tamora make secret her aims, going so far as to tell her new husband in an early aside:

I’ll find a day to massacre them all/And raze their facton and their family,/The cruel father and his traitorous sons/To whom I sued for my dear son’s life. (Titus Andronicus, Act 1, Scene 1).

Unfortunately for Tamora, power quickly goes to her head and – anticipating Lady Macbeth’s own descent into madness – she starts to fudge reality with her own murderous fantasies. In part, the birth of her son (fathered by her Moorish lover, Aaron) reinforces the tenuous nature of her position but in attempting to rid herself of the Andronici completely she loses everything. I’ll discuss this point in a later post, so I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say that I can’t see any emperor of Rome tolerating being quite so openly cuckolded.

Titus Andronicus is quite an early play and the nuances of character are not so well developed as they are in his later masterpieces such as Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Hamlet. Even so, Tamora is a meaty role that allows an actress to play a wholly unrepentant villainess confident in her sexuality and quite at home with her cruelty. If she reminds me of anyone, it’s Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones – and there are a few people who would say that wasn’t a bad thing at all.

Gothic Shakespeare – Titus Andronicus

Don’t ever tell me that the great Bard himself didn’t know Gothic when he saw it. This play – one of my favourites and still more than capable of shocking a modern audience, which isn’t bad given that it’s about 400 years old – is about as Gothic as they come. It’s got real Goths in it, for a start. I think the only one that really comes close is Macbeth, and that’s mainly because it’s got witches in it.

What does surprise me is how an audience who happily watch programmes like Game of Thrones – which is actually a really good example – turn up at the theatre and then can’t cope with the storyline. Yes, it’s brutal and violent and (in a couple of places) really gory, but then so is Game of Thrones. There are two episodes in the play (which I will discuss in detail in future posts) which stand out but on the whole, I expect George R R Martin would not be unfamiliar with this early work of the Bard.

And it is an early work, written around 1592, when Elizabeth I was still the monarch and I suppose Shakespeare was still learning his trade. It’s not a classic tragedy, unlike Macbeth or Hamlet but – as its full title explains – it is a lamentable tragedy. Pretty much everybody dies at the end and the survivors have basically lost everything. It’s pretty bleak but then again, when it was written, I expect quite a few people had other things to worry about, plague being the one that first springs to mind.

I honestly believe that if you like Game of Thrones, give this play a try next time it’s on – or watch the film, starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role. I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy – and even more to talk about afterwards.



This is an old case from the mid-1800s but is interesting because it raises quite a few questions about what constitutes a defence to murder. It also continues a theme I have previously broached on here, which some people may find offensive. It doesn’t bother me much as I don’t eat meat anyway.

After a shipwreck in the mid-Atlantic, Messrs Dudley and Stephens found themselves adrift in a small boat with the 18 year old cabin boy, Richard Palmer (there was a fourth man with them, but he played no part in what happened next, so I’m ignoring him). After a week, they had run out of food and had minimal fresh water left, and there was nothing on the horizon to indicate that there was a chance of rescue. So they decided to draw lots on the principle that the loser would be murdered and eaten, to give the others more chance of surviving. No prizes for guessing who drew the short straw.

So, Dudley and Stephens promptly slit the poor lad’s throat and proceeded to live off him until they were finally rescued about three weeks later. They were near to death when they were picked up and freely admitted what they had done, but claimed they had killed the boy “out of necessity.” Unfortunately, the Court disagreed that it was ever necessary to kill anyone, so Dudley and Stephens were found guilty and hanged.

Now I was thinking about how this principle applied, especially since many years later, the survivors of an air crash in the Andes were acquitted of the same charges in very similar circumstances – but then the penny dropped. The Andean crash survivors hadn’t killed anyone. They survived by eating people who had already died, so they hadn’t committed murder and consequently could not be liable.

Clearly, it seems to be the Court’s way of thinking that in such a situation, a person would simply have to starve, unless they can show that the person they are eating died without their assistance – which could be tricky, given where most of the evidence will end up. That said, it’s worth bearing in mind in case you ever find yourself stranded on a life raft with someone you don’t like very much and you’re miles from the nearest takeaway.