The Prevalence of Gothic Fiction in Children’s Literature

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer


“Sunny, funny nonsense for children — oh, how boring, boring, boring” (Gorey cited in Schiff 2001, p. 147) The prevalence of Gothic fiction in contemporary children’s literature (Jackson et al. 2013; Howarth 2014; Buckley 2018) means that it is timely topic of discussion. Since the new millennium, Snicket’s macabre tragedy A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006), Gaiman’s psychological thriller Coraline (2002) and Rowling’s death-centric Harry Potter series (1997-2007) have all had widespread success and popularity, suggesting that the culture of children’s literature has shifted from its historic moral optimism (Nikolajeva 2005).

Furthermore, as children’s literature has seen a shift, arguably so has the Gothic form. As Spooner notes, “Gothic has adapted and changed with the times […] why should this now end?” (2017, p. 10). The popular Young Adult novel series The Hunger Games (2008-2010) and adult TV series Black Mirror (2011-present) demonstrates that Gothic themes can exist in narratives set in a technological age. However, contemporary children’s Gothic literature has not yet seemed to have adopted similar standards. Harry Potter’s boarding school and castle setting, with quills and blackboards, reflects a Britain of yesteryear, whilst Unfortunate Events has a distinctive neo-Victorian aesthetic.

The Wretched Machine (TWM) is a collection of illustrated short stories and poems for children in the ‘tween’ demographic, specifically ages 9-12. Each story uses a different aspect of digital technology and cyberspace as a lens through which to address fears that children may have in contemporary times. Research into the history and role of the Gothic mode will form the foundation of this research, with further attention drawn to the intrinsic link between the Gothic form and children’s literature. Furthermore, as the anthology will be illustrated and include a few short poems, the aesthetics of the Gothic mode will be a necessary point of focus. The rationale will finally discuss the role of ‘The Gothic Child’, an often-present figure in Gothic literature but also as a reader and consumer of Gothic writing and how this relates to contemporary childhood fears surrounding digital technologies. By drawing on the above research, this creative project seeks to explore and adapt Gothic aesthetics and themes for narratives set in a contemporary age and suitable for contemporary children.

Gothic: From the Enlightenment to the Digital Age

The origins of Gothic writing are often placed at 1764 with the publication of Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto, originating many of the characteristics associated with Gothic fiction in popular culture; haunted castles, mystery and suspense and supernatural forces. Nevertheless, Gothic is suggested to be a fluid literary form, not a genre but an “ensemble of themes and elements” (Kelly 2016, p. 49) and open to reinvention (Warwick 2007) and thus, not tied to strict literary devices. This makes it difficult to define, as Armitt notes “if Gothic can be ‘Anything’, it is actually ‘Nothing’” (p. 84).

Prior to starting work on TWM, it was crucial to determine the fundamental qualities of Gothic writing, as it would serve as the foundation for the rest of the project. Botting (2005) suggests that Gothic is both transgressive and excessive. Historically, Gothic writing characterised the barbaric and superstitious nature of the Middle Ages (Herman et al. 2010) and was created as a reaction to the logical and rational mentality of a post-Enlightenment society. This transgressive nature meant that Gothic fiction was given a low status, considered melodramatic and written for the marginalised only (Crawford 2013). However, it served a necessary function as it reintroduced “virtues and qualities that the ‘modern’ world needed” (Punter and Byron 2004, p.8). Therefore, the excessive emotions of terror and laughter remain essential facets of Gothic fiction. Horner and Zlosnik (2012) describe the “comic turn” in Gothic writing, whereby the humour helps to counteract some of the more disturbing passages of text. Its excessive nature means that it can often be self-parodic and over-the-top. In TWM’s Grandma for example, the passage in which Grandma is found stroking a duck is a humourous and absurd paragraph within a largely sad and distressing passage and was written for this purpose.

Furthermore, the form of terror present in Gothic fiction is quite specific to the form. Though often miscredited as horror, they are not interchangeable concepts. Whilst horror is said to be a physical reaction to shock, terror is the mental reaction to fear or anxiety (Radcliffe cited in Townshend 2014). TWM utilises this interplay of the emotions, for example in Jenny and Hector; “About the only thing it can’t do is bleed the radiators”. I heard Dad say. Radiators don’t bleed, I thought. What an odd thing to say.” It is a humorous concept if taken literally and Jenny is already questioning her parent’s sanity by this point of the narrative. This idea arises again later in the story, this time used for terror.

“In the flickering light, I could make out red liquid oozing from the radiators.” Freud’s idea of the Uncanny, which involves “nothing new or foreign, but something familiar” (1919, p. 429) is often the force behind the terror found in Gothic fiction. It is this strange, unexplainable familiarity that causes anxiety and fear in the reader. The fluid nature of the Gothic form means that it can play on the contemporary cultural anxieties of any given time (Bruhm 2002), and thus using the contemporary concerns surrounding technology to evoke fear in TWM seemed logical. Further research demonstrated that there is a strand of Gothic that already addresses similar concerns, referred to as the Cybergothic. Alexander discusses the idea that the internet is a haunted space, one with “inhuman tyrants […] imprisoned innocents […] and doubles” (2013, p. 149), concluding that technology itself is uncanny. Therefore, the concept of TWM would appear to fit into the paradigms of this branch of the Gothic form.

Botting proposes another integral element of the Gothic form as depicting the “return of pasts upon presents” (2005, p. 1). As TWM is set in a contemporary age, this was difficult to navigate. Reflecting the notion that the Gothic style of humour is often self-parodic, it was decided that it would be useful to not depict past eras but to metaphorically pay reference to historical Gothic tropes for example, in The Wretched Machine poem describing the pixelled children as being ghost-like and in Jenny and Hector, comparing the queue of people to a colony of bats.

Similarly, the title of the collection, The Wretched Machine, was chosen to pay homage to the origins of the Gothic form and early Gothic texts. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, widely considered a key text in the Gothic literary canon, the eponymous character uses the word ‘wretched’ to describe the monstrous “Other”, his creation. In TWM, digital technologies are the positioned as the ‘Other’, and the ‘machine’ references influence of the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment on the origins of the Gothic form.

Gothic Children’s Literature, Fairy Tales to Dahl

Though the Gothic’s transgressive nature may be deemed as being antithetical to the traditional, didactic and moralistic values credited to children’s literature, Jackson (et al. 2013) surmises that the existence of Gothic as a mode within adults’ literature was a strange development of the 18th century, as it had always been for children. Indeed, stories that would now be considered to be part of the fairy tale canon existed before Walpole’s 1764 novel and could be deemed to portray typically Gothic elements. Furthermore, Gothic had permeated popular childrens’ literature from early on.

In this sense, the Gothic stories featured in TWM could also be considered as modern fairy tales. The Wretched Machine poem itself draws inspiration from Alice in Wonderland for example. in consideration of fairy tales there appears to be many common elements that would later become synonymous with the form. Furthermore, as an extension to fairy tales, Bettelheim (1976) suggests that children have an inherent need to explore issues that can affect their lives and uses fairy tales as an example of fiction with this purpose. Similarly, the purpose of the Gothic is to address social and cultural issues which further suggests the relationship between the two. “Art for children should be scary. The fairy tales of and cautionary tales such as Steyelepter certainly seem toc arry Gothic weight. Nikolajeva suggests that the children’s book often “maintains a myth of a happy and innocent childhood” (1991, p.4), free of adult worry and concern and has a moralistic and didactic purpose. It perhaps comes as no surprise that authors who adopted a Gothic style of writing have faced criticism for the appropriateness of their work. The target audience of TWM is pre-adolescent children, or tweens, between the ages of 9-11. At this age, fears and anxities about creatures under the bed change and there is more concern with real-life issues that may affect them.

Embedded within Gorey’s texts are particular popular notions of the nineteenth century. One of the wonders of childhood, after all, is surely its intrinsic naivety. In contemporary children’s literature, however, this does not seem to be the case. Whilst Townshend (2007) has suggested that on the surface children’s literature and the Gothic should be considered as opposites, it has often been discussed that the themes and motifs of the Gothic genre owes a great debt to early fairy tales therefore drawing attention to the genre’s connection to children’s fiction.

Abbrascuto (2014) however claims that fairy tales have lost their Gothic connection. If the purpose of the fairy tale is as an educational tool, to teach children about the world around them and to prepare them for the trials and tribulations of life then this has been lost somewhere in time. We do however see evidence of the Gothic in the popular works of Dahl and Snicket for example, so it is a genre very much alive in children’s literature. Despite their popularity with the audience, they have faced criticism from adult gatekeepers, however.

Humour is Often Sardonic

Furthermore, poetry plays a significant role in older Gothic works by the likes of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey. It is said that poetry helps to solve the issue of dealing with potential;y taboo subjects. Thogh questions have surroudned the appropraitness of both authors for children, Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies srves as a large inspiration. In light of this, I have constructed poems that are more graphic in their depiction of child death and fear as it has this ability.

Contemporary Children’s Gothic

It is perhaps no surp. Closely analysing contemporary examples of children’s Gothic literature is a vital. The neo-Gothic A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket has been credited with propelling the Gothic to the forefront of children’s fiction (Cross). The success of these stories, as well as the works of other contemporary authors such as Neil Gaiman and, demonstrate that the Gothic does have a valued place in contemporary children’s fiction.

Due to their often macabre nature, certain books and authors have been deemed as inappropriate for children such as the likes of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and many of Dahl’s novels (Rudd, 2008). It has been said that adults could fear the “anarachic power” within children (Stallcup, 2002, p. 130) if exposed to ‘real’ aspects of life via stories. This could be a reason behind the supposed Disneyfication of fairy tales, whereby the studio ‘misplaces the sweetness and misplaces the violence, and the result is like a soap opera, not really related to the great truths of life” (Sayers, 1965). The fact that Disney has softened original fairy tale elements has meant that adults are less likely to accept novels that deal with themes prevalent in the Gothic genre. The Gothic is valuable to a child audience in modern fiction as it can replace the gap left by the traditional fairy tale (Coats, 2013).

Disneyfication- softens the original tales. But kids can cope with the macabre elements of the gothic genre. As we see in popularity of dahl, snicket etc. its an adult fear. How does humour help to alleviate this somewhat. Does it act the same as romanticising it? Soften the blow. Parents satisfied – probably not been controversial. Dual audience. It has been noted that contemporary Gothic, or post-modern Gothic, has lost its impact due to the prevalence of horror in popular culture.

The Aesthetics of Children’s Literature and the Gothic

Illustrations and poetry are common elements found both in Gothic and children’s literature. Punter suggests that the poetic sense of pattern, through rhythm and rhyme reflects the ‘paranoia, déjà vu and the uncanny’ of the Gothic. Poetry is essentially a more aesthetic version of prose. “The illustrations of Gothic novels show little interest in realistic detail” The illustrations in TWM were inspired mostly by the works of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton. Furthermore, the illustrations commonly found in the works of the authors mentioned (Quentin Blake in Dahl’s work, Brett Helquist in Snicket’s and Gorey and Burton producing their own) is of the “extreme aesthetics of the pen and ink drawings” that “deprive the gruesomeness of Illustrations are effective at suggesting a particular mood for a text. Spooner notes that the Gothic aesthetic is just as vital as the stories it tells, and so the often seen dark lined, the way this is tied up is that.. suggested that the aesthetic of these illustrations can likely be placed with Penny Dreadful. These relied on grotesque, wood carved images and were heavily featured in the texts to compliment the stories told. In children’s literature, illustrations “reflect an adult decision that pictures will attract and hold children’s interest”. Further still, epand or interpret a story, poratraying elements that may not riignally have been shown. Similarly, if Gothic is mostly a feeling then to the Gothic form has had a long connection with poetry. It therefore seemed that the inclusion of poems was a necessity.

Though TWM is for a tween audience, Taking unspuration firm agoreys the unstrubg harp abr gashlyvrumb tinies… inpsured by oenny dreadful. Perhaps then they are more accepted when juxtaposed with humour as it acts as a release from the serious (Austin, 2013) with this supported West (1990) by adding that fantastical elements can also have the same effectits gravity” (Leeuwen, 1987, p. 79). What could be considered as graphic violence or gore, for example when Amy falls down the stairs and dies in Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies or the Ugly Stepsister gets beheaded in Cinderella in Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, is not deemed as such because of their sketchy style. This is another way in which the writer’s can counter the macabre, hard-hitting themes in their Gothic children’s fiction. In childrens fiction the gothic seems yo favour poertry as much as stabdard prose. Pietry permuts the writer ti deal with the grossest parts and for it to be easily dealt with fos uts a poem.

The Gothic Child

As TWM is both aimed at children and features child protagonists and/or narrators, exploring the child as characters and readers of Gothic literature was important. Coats suggests that at some point in life, the child will lose the “comforts of their home, their family and the protection from responsibility” and that this could be described as a “Gothic moment”. It must be acknowledged that the child reader is one formed by the author, who writes with a nostalgic purpose of writing a lost childhood. This may give reason as to why Cybergothic narrative have seemed to evade children’s literature. Authors are not of the correct generation to write literature for children with this themes. This may be to much of a generalisation. The role of the child has always been an important feature of Gothic literature. It could be suggested that children are such a good fit for Gothic literature as constantly changing- liminal. Childhood as a gothic state.

Contemporary Childhood Fears

Due to Gothic’s ability to be reinvented and reflect cultural fears and anxieties of a given time, it is necessary to explore contemporary fears as a basis for TWM. If the fin de siècle Gothic literature of the late 19th century responded to emerging “evolutionary, social and medical theories” (Buzwell 2014) of the time, it is logical to suggest that a contemporary equivalent would be the role of technology and concerns surrounding its relationship with humankind.

Though Spooner (p. 4) suggests that the anxiety surrounding the millennium bug at the turn of the 21st century provides an indication of themes that would later inspire ‘post-millennial Gothic’ texts, it is a concept that has been present in literature for much longer. Perhaps best summarised by Copeland (1991) in which he suggests the term ‘cryptotechnophobia’ to describe “the secret belief that technology is more of a menace than a boon” (p. 172). Though there are no notable connections made between the Gothic form and the technology-centered dystopian TV series Black Mirror (2011-present) previously, it is justified to suggest that it is a key example of this concept and worthwhile to note its influence on TWM.

Producer of Black Mirror, Annabel Jones mentions that the show was pitched as depicting “the fears of the day […] things that people didn’t quite realise were unsettling them”, an essential element to the Gothic form. Furthermore, the dark satire and psychological thriller elements of the series plays to the Gothic notions of excess, exemplifying feelings of both laughter and terror. As the series is targeted at an adult audience, there appeared to be an opening in which to offer similarly themed narratives to a child audience.

A study by Yip (et al. 2019) collated a list of children’s fears relating to technology and demonstrated that the elements children found most ‘creepy’ was their lack of control, the ability for technology to mimic the user and its unpredictability. The stories in TWM aimed to reflect these fears. In Jenny and Hector and Viral Stain for example, technology is shown to be a controlling force for both adults and children, respectively, whilst Stranger Danger narrates a tale demonstrates technologies capability to mimic its user. Whilst cryptotechnophobia served as a theme for TWM, by using technology as a lens through which to address childhood fears that have more historic basis also seemed important. For example, loss of a loved one (Grandma), life-threatening situations (Viral Stain), tests and grades (Scanners) and social humiliation and bullying (The Underlings) are just some examples.

Due to the double-address nature of children’s literature, the importance of targeting both adult and child audiences could not be ignored. It has been suggested that the fear that parents have regarding their children is the influence and factors surrounding technology. In doing so, TWM aims to address both audiences. Furthermore, Stranger Danger demonstrates the capability of technology to mimic a user and each of the stories demonstrates different ways in which technology can be unpredictable.

In doing so, the stories in TWM also address the overriding current fear that parents have over technology and their children, which in turn helps to bridge the gap of the double-address. Digital technologies have provoked a litany of uncertainties about the status of the human. Furthermore, Regarding the themes of the material in TWM, a major influence was the technological dystopia series Black Mirror (2011-present).


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