Madness, inbreeding and isolation. The irony of the blue-blooded family is that in their efforts to not dilute their line, they create something grotesque. The aristocratic family is a common motif in Gothic fiction. While the prince and princess within the Disney fairytale are portrayed as happy, healthy, beautiful and graceful, the aristocracy in Gothic stories are decayed and immoral. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Olalla, is the story of a man recuperating in a beautiful secluded castle, he discovers more and more disturbing things about the ancient aristocratic family who live there. The odd mix of beauty and cursedness gives an eerie, tragic feel to the story, and you get the impression of a once great dynasty falling into ruin, no so much through war or politics, but through their own isolation and vanity.
Jordan’s End by Ellen Glasgow is a more recent Gothic story, which uses this same theme. Here, the protagonist, a doctor, visits a large dilapidated house, where the once proud family have been reduced to insanity and isolation. We are told at the beginning that the family are inbred, and the full horror of this is revealed through the story. Interestingly both stories also hint at a medical theme, in one the hero is an invalid who is recovering from illness, in the other the hero is a doctor summoned to visit one of the strange inhabitants of the house.
The motif of the grand mansion, or castle which has fallen into decay is common in Gothic stories. It is perhaps analogous to the skull in a vanitas painting, reminding us of the transient nature of things. The futility of trying to preserve a fortune and a dynasty is very strongly emphasised in these two stories. After everything that these families have gone through, there is the tragic suggestion that their line is about to die out completely. They are the last pathetic remnants of what has been.
H P Lovecraft’s fictional seaside town of Innsmouth, where all the characters are inbred (not to mention being descended from fish) is based on a similar idea; that when people are very isolated they become increasingly bizarre. Here the author suggests that a whole community has cut itself off from the world and wallowed in its own strangeness. The important families in the town are made up of hideous semi-human creatures. Lovecraft’s version of this theme is very extreme, any maybe even a little comedic, but it is still very atmospheric, and you still get the sense of leaving the ‘normal’ world, and entering a pocket of terror and strangeness. Who knows what bizarre happenings go on in the next village?
Gothic tales are interesting in that they tend to portray the family unit as highly dysfunctional, or worse. But there is a very real tenderness in the families in Olalla and Jordan’s End, despite their strangeness. They are perhaps halfway between humanity and monster, reminding all of us what we could slip into.
Gothic stories are important because they look under the surface of things. The plot structure where the hero or heroine goes to a place and peels away the layers to discover more and more is very commonly used in Gothic fiction.
If you ever get the chance to visit the castle at Alton Towers, it is well worth seeing. It is a beautiful castle, and huge even by castle standards. The newer parts are designed by Pugin. In the modern day Gothic story the waning aristocratic family, finding themselves short of cash would be tempted to open up their castle to the public and build a theme park in the grounds. Who knows what the unsuspecting tourist may stumble upon if they happen to wander into the wrong room…..