By request, the paper I presented at Readercon:
“Thesis and Antithesis, but not Synthesis: The Gothic in post-Frankenstein, pre-Wells 19th century Science Fiction”
In this talk I’ll be exploring, briefly, the influence of the Gothic form on science fiction published in the United States and the United Kingdom after Frankenstein’s publication in 1818 and before the beginning of H.G. Wells’ career in 1893.
But before I begin to discuss the influence of the Gothic it’s necessary to define the Gothic—no small task for a genre as complex as the Gothic was. The following is a bit long, but “Gothic” is a term much thrown about without actually being accurately understood or described, so a more lengthy definition is necessary.
The Gothic began in the 18th century as the synthesis of a number of diverse pre-existing elements: a rise in scholarly and popular interest in antiquity; the horror-inflected and horror-producing graveyard poetry of earlier in the century; the rise in Jacobinism, the propaganda of the French Revolution, and the philosophy of the rights of the individual; Romanticism, especially its defiance of authority, whether political or literary, its reaction to neo-Classic rationalism and logic, and its avoidance of death and decay through an artificial control of the unexpected; the influence of the Burkean aesthetic of the sublime and the picturesque; sentimental literature, the Cult of Sensibility, and the German Sturm und Drang; conservative nationalism and Protestantism reacting to developments on the Continent, including secret societies, Catholicism, and the movement for Catholic emancipation in England.
All of these elements fed into Gothic literature, which more or less began in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. A few novels written in the 1750s have substantial Gothic elements, but Otranto is the first true Gothic novel, and it provided a blueprint for the genre. But although there were a number of imitations of Otranto, especially in women’s periodicals, the reading audience’s appreciation for the Gothic genre did not become a craze for it until the 1794 publication of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. The publication two years later of M.G. Lewis’ The Monk provided writers with the second of two models which would dominate the genre: the Radcliffean, female-centered, rational Gothic, and the Lewisian, male-centered, supernatural Gothic. The Gothic novel was the dominant genre of the late 1790s and early 1800s, which were chaotic years in which domestic unrest and fears of invasion from abroad shaped political and cultural life, and the literary market was flooded with a mass of fiction which rejected direct engagement with the activities of contemporary life in favour of geographcally and historically remote actions.
Production of the Gothic novel peaked around 1810. What followed was a decline in production, the occasional pointed satire, and a final late efflorescence in 1820, with Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. By 1830 the Gothic novel, as created by Horace Walpole, was dead, killed by the historical novel and changing literary tastes. The motifs and themes of the genre diffused through mainstream literature, in novels like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and appeared overtly in other genres like the Sensation novel of the 1850s and 1860s, but novels specifically in the Gothic mode were few. There was a temporary revival in the 1830s following Harrison Ainsworth’s imitation Gothic Rookwood, and a smaller one in the penny bloods of the 1840s, but it was not until the final decades of the century that the Gothic returned, reinterpreted for the fin-de-siècle by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson (in Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Bram Stoker (in Dracula), and Oscar Wilde (in The Portrait of Dorian Grey).
The Gothic quickly developed a set of stock devices, motifs, and settings. These included: ancient architecture, usually a castle, usually supposed to be haunted; inside the castle were hidden passageways, sliding panels, trap-doors, deserted wings, darkened staircases, and paintings of great significance to the central mystery of the story; beneath the castle were dungeons and claustrophobic tunnels; weather operated either as omen or as the objective correlative of the protagonist or villain; messages were delivered in dreams; high-pitched emotions abounded, including swoons and fits. The supernatural terrifying was an accepted part of life; the clergy, nearly always Catholic, was corrupt; patriarchal figures were revealed to be tyrants; a device, from birthmark to miniature, was crucial in the resolution of the plot. Innocent heroines were pursued by evil men intent on rape and/or murder, action took place at night and in remote, archaic locations, the past returns to haunt the present. The common tone of the novel was of suspense, emotional, intellectual, and physical. Confrontation with the taboo, a form of the Romantic sublime. The pathetic fallacy, chiaroscuro, and foreign exoticism. Wild mysterious landscapes such as bleak moors and mountainous locales as allegories of the main male protagonist. Men: inherited powers or status; solitary and egocentric; flawed w/deep psychological problems; obsessive; anti-hero who appeals yet repulses. Motifs of transcending boundaries (barbaric/civilized, mortality/immortality, order/disorder, pleasure/pain, inside/outside, dream/reality); fear, foreboding, and tension to evoke pleasurable terror in reader; multiple narratives; the Faust motif–forbidden knowledge or power; the tension between scientific and supernatural. Within the antiquated or seemingly antiquated space or a combination of such spaces are hidden some secrets form the past, sometimes the recent past, that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise. Obsessive doubling between characters, scenarios, milieus and events.
However, it must be stressed that thematically there are two different types of Gothics, not one, and that to describe them as being one way, as “Gothics in the Monk Lewis and Mrs. Radcliffe tradition”–is both incorrect and, worse, unhelpful.
Traditionally critics have attempted to divide the Gothic into binary/oppositional categories. The most common interpretation of the Gothic is that stories in the genre can be divided into “male” or female.” (Though this judgment is often based on the sex of the writer, it is no postmodern critical gimmick: even during the 18th century the Gothic was thought of in sexual, gendered terms). Many of the Gothics’ writers were women, and the genre had a large female readership. During the mid-18th century the novel was thought of as the province of men, but the Gothic changed this perception, so that before the rise of the historical novel in the 1820s the novel was thought to have been feminized by the Gothic. But for many decades Gothics were classified as male or female, usually depending on the sex of the story’s author, although a simplistic classification of the Gothic into male-vs-female based on the sex of the author quickly breaks down. Radcliffe, responding to Lewis, wrote a male Gothic, The Italian, with Vincentio, the novel’s protagonist, as the subject of the coming-of-age story. Other female writers wrote male Gothics while male writers wrote female Gothics. Although most female Gothics were written by women and most male Gothics were written by men, this was by no means a constant.
The female Gothic is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story for the female protagonist, with Sensibility–the superiority of emotions and emotional responses to logic and rational thought–as a dominant concern and with a male authority figure as the story’s villain. Conversely the male Gothic puts a male figure at the center of a story of social, sexual, and/or religious transgression and usually reduces the heroine to the status of object, to be sexually and physically threatened, rescued, and married. In the words of critic Mary Ellen Snodgrass, the male Gothic “often victimizes and graphically brutalizes heroines as a source of titillation and voyeuristic fascination. In contrast to the male preference for wantonness, the female Gothic reflects concern for the powerlessness and male domination of heroines within the rigid gender restrictions of society and church.” Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho was one of the earliest and was the most influential of the female Gothics. Lewis’ The Monk was a powerful response to Udolpho and is the quintessential male Gothic. The male Gothic came to dominate the genre, after Lewis, and it is the male Gothic which most critics describe and privilege, as more daring and experimental, but the female Gothic persisted until the genre’s end, and offered a marked alternative to the male Gothic. So an equivalence of the male Gothic with the Gothic itself is in error.
This binary categorization of the Gothic into male and female is important to keep in mind when discussing the influence of the Gothic on 19th century science fiction. Both types of Gothics were influential on science fiction—see Brian Aldiss’ argument that science fiction is “is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.” But which type of Gothic needs qualifying. Frankenstein–one of the foremost male Gothics–has, obviously, been heavily influential on the science fiction which followed it in the 20th and 21st centuries. But Frankenstein was not influential on 19th century science fiction. Nor was the male Gothic–which is what Frankenstein is. It was the female Gothic which was primarily influential on the science fiction of the 19th century, until the appearance of H.G. Wells.
Now, science fiction during the 19th century can usefully be separated into three periods: the pre-Frankenstein years of proto-science fiction, up to 1818, which aren’t relevant here; 1819 to 1862, from the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the advent of Jules Verne; and 1863 to 1893, from the publication of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth to the beginning of H.G. Wells’ career as a science fiction writer.
Most histories of science fiction gloss over the period between Shelley and Verne. But as a brief investigation shows, there was science fiction published during those decades: over seventy novels and short stories, with a further thirty-six Lost Race novels and short stories. While dwarfed by the amount of science fiction published from Verne to Wells (over 500 novels and short stories from 1863 to 1893) it is still a decent amount of data to base conclusions on.
During this time period, to quote from the Clute Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “the main elements which eventually, in varying proportions, became melded into sf are as follows: (1) the Fantastic Voyage; (2) the Utopia (along with the Dystopia); (3) the conte philosophique, or Philosophical Tale, and Satire); (4) the Gothic; (5) the Technological and Sociological Anticipation, especially as it developed into the US tradition of the tale of Invention in the dime novels. As with sf, these constituent genres are not generically pure.” (As an aside, note that with the exception of the Gothic these elements, and the stories with them, do not demonstrate the lack of influence of Shelley or Poe; what was being created during this time period were works influenced by earlier literary genres and movements–including the Gothic itself).
As Brian Stableford wrote, “The fantastic voyage is one of the oldest literary forms, and remains one of the basic frameworks for the casting of literary fantasies. Of the prose forms extant before the development of the novel in the eighteenth century, the fantastic voyage is the most important in the ancestry of sf.” And one of the central elements of the fantastic voyage, whether in proto-sf, or Vernean voyages extraordinaire, is the “sense of wonder,” the effect of a fictional, transcendent conceptual breakthrough on the reader. The notion of the “sense of wonder” is a 20th century one, adopted in the 1940s by science fiction fans and applied initially to pulp science fiction. But the sense of wonder is present in much 19th century science fiction as well in the Fantastic Voyages, albeit perhaps not the conscious intention of these writers. The readerly sense of wonder surely was aroused by stories of utopias, of fantastic voyages, of technological anticipations. The authorial intent was most likely impressionismus, the quality in art of evoking emotions and impressions in the eyes and minds of the readers, with a sense of wonder being one of several desired emotions aroused in readers. The sense of wonder may not have been articulated by writers or readers during the 19th century with regard to science fiction–and indeed the use of the phrase “sense of wonder” only takes off in the 1860s, during the advent of Verneanism–but it was surely there, even and especially during the Verne years.
The sense of wonder takes its cues from the Gothic and the Gothic’s Burkean sublime. Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and philosopher, wrote in 1757 A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, a treatise on aesthetics. In it he separated the sublime and the beautiful into two separate categories: the beautiful being the aesthetically well-formed and pleasing, the sublime being that which arouses in us the heights of emotion. This idea of the sublime was not original to Burke; it was part of an 18th century debate about the impact on readers and viewers of certain dramatic or powerful manifestations of nature–towering mountains, storms, avalanches, etc–or the supernatural–demons, angels, ghosts. Writers and philosophers during the 18th century were increasingly interested in how minds work, and these discussions of aesthetics were another way of talking about the operation of our minds.
Burke’s contribution to the debate was to link the sublime, and its concern with powerfully affecting phenomena, to terror–the sublime was an awe-inspiring grandeur which overwhelms the senses. Anne Radcliffe, the most influential of the Gothic novelists for her The Mysteries of Udolpho, would take Burke’s idea of the sublime and use it as a basis to categorize Gothics. She divided the Gothic into the Terror Gothic and the Horror Gothic. The Terror Gothic made use of the Burkean sublime, and “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life;” the Terror Gothic is what Radcliffe saw herself writing. The Horror Gothic, by contrast, what Radcliffe saw as the types of Gothics written by Matthew Lewis of The Monk, takes those faculties and “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”
“Expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.” Radcliffe, via Burke, intended this sensation to arise from terror. But you can see how the sensation of exhilaration, of the soul expanding and the senses reaching a high degree of life, can also arise from the sense of wonder. The sense of wonder, in other words, is the Burkean sublime, but arising from non-horror/terror literature–from science fiction.
Utopias pre-exist the Gothic, of course, and the utopias of the 19th century, both pre-Verne and those appearing during the Vernean years, were hearkening to an earlier tradition. Utopias are both good places, and ideal societies, yet at the same time ones that do not exist—desirable but unattainable. In utopian fictions this is reflected in the society’s location, almost invariably remote or well-insulated from the actual world to which it proposes an alternative. Dystopias, meanwhile, are a much more recent development, one which became common in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and usually involve a critique of existing social conditions or political systems highlighted by the visit of an outsider.
The Gothic is not usually understood to be a part of the utopian genre—if anything, the Gothic, with its pre-present setting, might be seen as a contra-utopia or anti-utopia. But the utopia and its negative counterpart, the dystopia, play an important part of the Gothic, and in their way are influential on the later utopias and dystopias of the century.
In the male Gothic, the dystopia is common—it is any setting in which the author portrays in Brian Stableford’s words “a hypothetical society containing images of worlds worse than our own.” In the male Gothic, these hypothetical societies worse than our own are the Gothic structures, the crumbling castles, the convents, the towers or dungeons, each a cyst-like enclosure in reality filled with its own awful inhabitants, rituals, and torments for the female protagonist—the outsider who visits and critiques the society. In the female Gothic the utopia is common. These ideal societies are not structures but places: “smiling Edens,” rural pastorals, or desert islands. The female Gothic, as a bildungsroman, forces the female protagonist to leave the utopia as part of the coming-of-age process, but the protagonist, and the reader, is always aware that a return to utopia is possible, even with the protagonist’s maturation and loss of innocence.
In a broader sense, both the Gothic and the utopia or dystopia offer a break from reality, what Gothic scholar Patrick Brantlinger calls “a radical disjunction from the actual.” The utopian and dystopian break from reality is obvious; both are showing what could be rather than what is. The Gothic uses a set of literary conventions that subjectify events, emphasizing their own break from reality: frame-tale narrations, the use of unreliable narrators, the doppelganger or ghostly, demonic alter ego; and metaphors that liken events to demonic possessions or to lunacy. These are the conventions of the inward journey, in which the Gothic romance becomes an analogue for a nightmare or a delirious dream vision. Of course, in the male Gothic, the protagonist does not awaken from his dream and does not escape from dystopia; the awfulness of the nightmare becomes the protagonist’s reality. In the female Gothic, the protagonist does ultimately awaken, to a better reality if not a return to Utopia itself.
The conte philosophique, the Philosophical tale, is the genre of 19th century science fiction with which the Gothic has the least to do, both as source material and as influence. Philosophical questions are out of place in the Gothic, which both male and female has a strong philosophical, religious, and/or moral underpinning, one which is acted upon and followed or defied rather than debated. There is no room in the Gothic for a questioning of good and evil; not only is there no time for questioning in the story, but to call the definitions of good and evil into question is to hold up the assumptions of the story to examination, and thereby weaken or even ridicule the story’s finales and conclusions.
And satire, the holding up of vice and follies to ridicule, is something that is turned on the Gothic rather than used by the Gothic. The most famous case of a satire of the Gothic is of course Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, written in 1798 and 1799, but published in 1817; in Northanger Abbey the conventions of the Gothic, from the female protagonist to Gothic enclosure, are satirized and, in the gentle Austenian way, used as a source of humor.
Tales of technological and sociological anticipation were common in 19th century science fiction, both during the pre-Vernean years and during the Vernean years. As in 21st century science fiction, 19th century tales of technological and sociological anticipation varied thematically, although interestingly Mary Shelley, so influential on 20th century tales of technological anticipation, was not influential on 19th century tales of technological anticipation. I realize that by saying this I’m detracting from the prestige of and negating the influence of Readercon’s special guest, but it is true. If anything, it was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales of scientific experimentation and technological anticipation–“the Birthmark,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” “Rappacini’s Daughter”–which were influential on later writers of the century.
Throughout the century these stories stressed the rational, stressed cause and effect and experimentation and the scientific method.
Now, it might be thought that–despite the existence of Frankenstein–the Gothic and science fiction are fundamentally at odds. Science fiction’s stress upon the rational, and the Gothic’s assertion of the irrational over the rational, take two fundamentally different positions. But, once again, there are two kinds of Gothics, the male and the female, and it is the male Gothic, with its triumphant supernaturalism, which asserts the irrational over the rational. The female Gothic resolutely reveals its purportedly supernatural events as having a logical, materialist origin. (This, by the way, is why Scooby Doo is ultimately a female Gothic).
It is in this respect that the Gothic was influential on 19th century stories of technological anticipation. Much science fiction of the 20th and 21st century is fundamentally irrational, about a rejection of or a symbolic putting to sleep of reason, which fits the male Gothic–both are forms of apocalyptic nightmare fantasy characterized by themes of demonic possession and monstrous distortion. But 19th century science fiction didn’t follow that approach. As mentioned, fantastic voyages and utopias and philosophical tales and technological/sociological anticipation were the common forms in 19th century. These stories were Gothic-like assertions of the rational, the scientific, the material, over the supernatural–the scientist as exorcist rather than mad scientist. There were some mad scientists, to be certain, but even with the popularity of Frankenstein, mad scientists from later in the century often carried his influence lightly and were much more influenced by the genres in which they appeared. The mad scientist who detective Tom Fox captures, in John Bennett’s casebook (proto-police procedural) Tom Fox; or, the Revelations of a Detective (1860), has the broad outlines of a Frankensteinian mad scientist, but his experiments on cats, dogs, children, and prostitutes are more indicative of insanity than mad science and also show Bennett’s concern for the effects of poverty on the poor. Lord Manningtree, the mad scientist in Charles Ross’ penny dreadful Fanny White (1865), is Victor von Frankenstein’s opposite: an insane, wicked, lust-filled obsessive who poisons dogs as a way to perfect his toxic formulae. Manningtree is an almost archetypal Depraved Dreadful (the explicit, gorey penny bloods or penny dreadfuls) villain rather than a Frankensteinian Gothic anti-hero. But much more common were scientists in the century who had rational, moral philosophies, just like the female Gothic.
The last common form of pre-Vernean science fiction, as defined in the Clute Encyclopedia, is the Gothic. As mentioned, it is the female Gothic that was primarily influential on Gothic science fiction during these years, with three aspects of the female Gothic being particularly reflected in science fiction: the treatment of the individual, the state of consciousness, and science fiction’s necrophilia.
The individual is contested domain in the Gothics. Indeed, the Gothics, both male and female, can be seen as one long argument about the French revolution and its stress on the rights of the individual. The male Gothic, with its hero-villain overreachers, condemns the latter notion, while the female Gothic–though generally seen as more conservative than the “transgressive” and “experimental” male Gothic–ultimately do not punish challengers of authority. The male Gothic is the story of a male protagonist’s social transgression–in Frankenstein’s case, transgression against the laws of both man and God–and of the protagonist’s punishment for these transgressions, and his extermination for the transgression or his reversion to socially accepted norms. The male Gothic punishes the individual for his acts of individualism. But the female Gothic is usually a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, about a female protagonist, and her individualism is tested but ultimately proved sound by the events of the story, which usually ends with a happily-ever-after. The female Gothic, in other words, validates the individualism that the male Gothic condemns.
Much of 20th and 21st century science fiction does not condemn the individual so much as portray it as being threatened with eradication, by industrial technology and the institutions of mass society. There is a definite strain, dominant at times, of the anti-Promethean, the anti-utopian, the pessimistic, the anti-scientific. But this is not the case with 19th century science fiction, which follows the model of the female Gothic in validating individualism. Mary Shelley’s fictions express a reaction against the Promethean radicalism of her husband, and of her father and mother–William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft–as well. The fate of Shelley’s “modern Prometheus” is the reverse of the fate of the mythological liberator depicted in Prometheus Unbound. But the fiction of Verne, and of Poe and the other major science fiction writers of the era, emphasize the individual’s triumphs and importance, whether as scientists or, in Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, witnesses to dystopias.
I mentioned earlier, in discussing utopias, the Gothic literary conventions that make reality subjective and emphasize the Gothic’s own departure from consensus reality: frame-tale narrations, the use of unreliable narrators, the doppelganger or ghostly, demonic alter ego; and metaphors that liken events to demonic possessions or to lunacy. The Gothic scholar Patrick Brantlinger writes that the “central message of the Gothic romance form” is “internal disaster, the disintegration of a mind, the coming loose from the real world that is madness or death or both.” Like so many other male critics Brantlinger makes the mistake here of assuming that the male Gothic is the only Gothic; what he says is accurate of the male Gothic but not of the female Gothic, in which the mind, threatened with disintegration by the trappings and plot machinery of the Gothic, is ultimately reintegrated, re-secured to the real world, and healed by the extermination of the illness that is the male antagonist.
Brantlinger’s statement is in regards to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which he sees as no less science fictional than Ray Bradbury’s story “Usher II,” and he goes on to say that Poe, Shelley, and Wells, “have in common…the conventions of Gothic and also Goya’s paradox, or the perception that at some extreme limit reason turns into its opposite; into nightmare, delirium, ruin.” True of Roderick Usher; true of Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Moreau; but not true of the numerous scientists of the pre-Verne and Verne years to whom reason, at its limit, is simply more reasonable–that experimentation does not lead to an extreme limit of madness but simply to more vivid results. The male Gothic mind, like the most famous fictional scientists of the 19th century, disintegrates on contact with the imagination–a trial by fire survived by the protagonists of the female Gothic and by the far more numerous but less well-known colleagues of Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Moreau.
The German social psychologist Erich Fromm defined necrophilia as “the passion to destroy life and the attraction to all that is dead, decaying, and purely mechanical” and linked it to Poe’s fiction. A common critical response is to broaden this and to identify necrophilia in this form to Gothic fantasies. Brantlinger–him again–writes that “in common with Gothic, science fiction is a form of fantasy that expresses necrophiliac impulses in various ways. Often–in dystopias, for example–science fiction issues warnings about these tendencies (dehumanization, destructive technology, ecological catastrophes). More often it just expresses them without exploration of their meaning and hence without criticizing them.”
Once again, this is true, as far as it goes, about the male Gothic and about 20th and 21st century science fiction–Brantlinger specifically mentions Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind–but not about the female Gothic or about 19th century science fiction. The female Gothic is not necrophilia, but biophilia; the protagonists of the female Gothic strive to survive the threats posed by the male antagonist, to exist, to ultimately conquer and become adults. In the female Gothic that which is dead, decaying, and purely mechanical is loathesome, not attractive–and the supernatural does not exist; that which is dead and decaying pose no threat to the living, only the living do. Again, here is the difference between the horror Gothic, which provides dread, contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates the intellect, and the terror Gothic, which is based on actual physical realities (rather than supernatural ones) and which provides an elevating sensation.
As for 19th century science fiction, well, Brantlinger writes that “the diabolic hero of the Gothic himself exhibits vampiric or necrophiliac traits, and that the mad scientists and technicians in science fiction often do so as well, though the necrophiliac tendencies of the genre are more widely evident in the pattern of subordinating people to machinery, the organic to the inorganic, life to death.” True, again, of Frankenstein and Moreau; not true of their colleagues, who shackle science to the cause of life and whose purposes are biophiliac, not necrophiliac. These necrophiliac tendencies are irrational or even actively anti-rational and regressive–but pre-Verne science fiction is generally progressive and pro-rational. Mad scientists and examples of intellect as danger are few and far between; progressive scientists, those whose thoughts and experiments provide advances, are common.
So far, so good about the Gothic’s influence on 19th century science fiction. But then we come to the Verne years, when the influence of the Gothic waned, only later being picked up by H.G. Wells. These are the years of the antithesis of the Gothic of my talk’s title. There are nine basic categories of science fiction during this time period: the View of the Future, tales of Scientific Experimentation, Fantastic Voyages, Future Wars, Trips Into Space, Utopias, Lost Race, Edisonades, and miscellaneous. As Peter Nicholls writes, “despite the comparative lack of well?remembered names among the authors of sf in that period, it is now clear that the last three decades of the nineteenth century were the seed?bed for the modern genre. Wells did not spring from nowhere; he refined an existing tradition.” But by this time the existing tradition was so varied–and remember that in these years appear works as diverse as Dorking’s Battle of London, Rosney’s “Les Xipehuz,” and Hudson’s A Crystal Age–that the influence of the Gothic on science fiction was lessened and in some cases minimal. The science fiction of this era would draw on different and newer traditions than the science fiction of the pre-Verne years, and address different concerns. The Gothic and the Future War story have little in common, nor does the Lost Race story and the Gothic. It isn’t until Wells in the mid-1890s that the Gothic would again be influential–but this time it would be the male Gothic rather than the female Gothic.
However, there was one category of science fiction in which the Gothic was influential: the Edisonade. Indeed, the culmination of the 19th century’s interaction with the Gothic came with the publication of the Edisonades in the 1880s and 1890s. The Edisonade, coined by critic John Clute after the Robinsonade, can be defined simply enough: it is a story in which a young American male invents a form of transportation and uses it to travel to uncivilized parts of America or the world, to enrich himself, and to punish the enemies of the United States, whether domestic or foreign. The Edisonades were almost entirely an American creation and appeared in dime novels as serials and as complete novels. They were the single largest category of dime novel science fiction and were the direct ancestors not only of 20th century boys’ fiction characters like Tom Swift but also of early 20th century science fiction, especially in the pulps. (The Edisonades are also among the most morally reprehensible works of fiction of the 19th century, on a par with the dime novels the Confederacy published to glorify slavery).
In every significant way the Edisonades are the anti-Gothic–are the culmination of the Vernean antithesis to the Gothic–the reaction of science fiction to the Gothic by becoming a negative image of it.
One of the primary motifs of the Gothic is the intrusion of the past into the present, whether in the form of family secrets, crumbling castles, ancient secret societies, or of traditional supernatural figures. This intrusion is true of both female and male Gothic, and holds equally true across national boundaries–something not always the case with Russian and German Gothics as opposed to English and American Gothics. The past holds the present in thrall, until either the protagonist is defeated (in the male Gothic) or the protagonist liberates herself from the peril of the past (in the female Gothic).
In the Edisonade, the present intrudes into the past: the male inventor–very much the modern, post-Verne figure of the engineer/inventor–uses modern technology, in the form of fantastic steam- and electric-powered vehicles and weapons, to pillage the past. Edward S. Ellis’ Johnny Brainerd kills Native Americans and mines a lode of gold. Philip Reade’s Tom Edison, Jr., helps an Indian prince recover his family treasure, a quest that takes him to ancient locations in Scotland, India, and the Ugandan Mountains of the Moon. Luis Senarens’ Frank Reade, Jr. finds a Lost Race of “original Hebrews” and loots an Aztec temple.
The Gothic is about violence and the wilderness lurking beneath the veneer of civilization. In the Edisonade the engineer/inventor expands the civilized frontier, wiping out the frontier’s uncivilized inhabitants, dispatching the wilderness, and quelling its violence. In Peter Nicholls’ words, the Gothic “was probably given impetus at the beginning of the nineteenth century by science itself becoming remystified through all the work being done on the strange forces of electromagnetism.” The Edisonade uses demystified science, in the form of steam and electricity to work wonders; the majority of the Edisonades were written after Thomas Edison enabled the standard delivery of electricity to customers. The male Gothic is about the male protagonist’s social transgression; the Edisonade is about the male protagonist’s expanding the rules of society (in the form of modern exploitive capitalism) into areas where the rules hadn’t applied before. The female Gothic is about the pursuit of a female figure by a sexually or physically threatening male figure; the Edisonade is almost always a male figure, almost always the one doing the pursuing, almost always the master of a situation rather than a potential or real victim of it. The Gothic is about the alien and the monstrous bursting in on us from the outside. In the Edisonade it is the protagonist who is monstrous and doing the bursting.
As the Edisonade was gathering steam, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared, and by the mid-1890s, with the work of Oscar Wilde and H.G. Wells, the male Gothic had become influential again, and would remain so throughout the next century. But it was the female Gothic which reigned supreme in the 19th century, and which still provides an alternative vision of what the Gothic can be.