Anne, Edgar and Empathy: Personal Experience in Gothic Writings

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This week is quite a significant one when it comes to Gothic literary greats. Saturday, the 4th, was the birthday of Anne Rice and Wednesday, the 7th, will be the anniversary of Edgar Allen Poe’s death. The two are undoubtedly numbered amongst America’s most important contributors to the the Gothic horror genre, with Poe’s ‘The Raven’ considered a benchmark for 19th Century Gothic tropes and Rice’s Vampire Chronicles almost entirely responsible for reawakening vampire-mania in 20th Century mainstream culture. Probing a little deeper reveals certain similarities beyond pure aesthetic, despite the century that lies between the authors – both writers experienced a tragic loss in their personal lives, which manifested itself somehow in their works, and both are noted for having somewhat convoluted relationships with the Christian faith. It is certainly not news that a sense of loss and spiritual turmoil are key themes in the Gothic, but perhaps the personal experiences of these writers has given the genre’s gloomy sense of surrealism a core of raw human emotion – something that has ensured that Poe’s writings withstood the test of time, and doubtless destined Rice’s modern Gothic classics to do the same.

Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry and prose is overt in its mourning. The motif of a dying or dead young woman is almost constant, dominating poems such as ‘Lenore’, ‘Annabel Lee’, ‘Ligeia’, ‘Ulalume’, and of course ‘The Raven’. The sense of loss in these works is brooding and oppressive, and even when a lost love is mentioned only as background information, the narrator is marked by this sorrow. It is no surprise that this keenly felt agony drew on personal experience. Poe was married to his first cousin, Virginia, and while their familial closeness and vast age gap (Virginia was 13 when she married the 27-year-old Poe) has led some biographers to suggest that their relationship was more that of close siblings than of passionate lovers, Poe’s obsessive grief until his own death speaks of a profound love. Friends of Poe expressed concern over his habit of spending winter’s nights sitting at Virginia’s tomb, even years after her death. His heavy references to the experience of grief mark out his Gothic writings as more than just eerie, and add a real pathos to them – the understanding that amongst all the horrors the imagination could hold, life without one’s true love is perhaps the most terrible of all.

In contrast, Rice’s expression of grief is more subtly expressed in her Gothic novels. A major impact on her life and writing was the loss of her daughter to leukaemia at the age of five – only three years before Interview with the Vampire was written – and while the focus of the Vampire Chronicles is the pain of unending life rather than that of death, who can forget the character of Claudia? The little vampire girl becomes Louis’ obsession in Interview with the Vampire, and he acts as a parent to her, despite her increasing will to outwardly represent the young woman she has become within.  At the end of the novel, Claudine is put to death, and Louis’ grief in response to this is overwhelming. While Rice has stated in interviews that the memory of her own daughter served only as an initial inspiration for the character, which later developed into a far more psychological study of innocence and experience, Louis’ reflection on the loss of a ‘daughter’ is written with a deep emotional connection, taking the Victorian vampire trope and turning it on its head by endowing the ‘unholy’ creature with truly human emotions. 

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While the striking physical characteristics of Rice’s Claudia are the very picture of childlike innocence, Virginia Poe was also often remarked on as being childlike in her appearance and mild nature, and Poe drew on the tragedy of lost youth as much as he did lost love, exemplified by this line from ‘Lenore’: “An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young – A dirge for her, the doubly dead in that she died so young.” The effect of these literary memorials to innocent youth builds on the deeply disturbing Gothic trope of involving an innocent child in the subtle horror of the Gothic world. As Henry James remarks in the prelude to the Turn of the Screw, a ghost story involving a “little boy… at so tender an age, adds a particular touch” that is “quite too horrible”.  Indeed, throughout the Gothic novel’s history, that counter-intuitive combination of unnatural fear and parental instinct has been preyed on to great shudder-inducing effect.

Alongside personal tragedy, Rice has famously veered between atheism and devoted Catholicism throughout her life – a discrepancy reflected in her novels. While the Christ the Lord trilogy is as theistic as one might expect, even the dark Vampire Chronicles are laced with Catholic imagery and philosophical questioning. In a 2008 interview, Rice went as far as to state, “I have one more book that I would really like to write; and the book will have a definite Christian framework and it will concern the vampire Lestat”, despite later statements that the series was complete. Raised Catholic, Rice left the Church at 18 years of age, when she realised that organised religion and personal morality were not always the same thing. However, in a prelude to Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt she remarked, “I wrote many novels without my being aware that they reflected my quest for meaning in a world without God.” In her later life, Rice returned to Catholic doctrine, stating that she simply “let go of all the theological or social questions that had kept me from God for countless years”, though more recently she has claimed to not see herself as “Christian” as her personal relationship with Christ seemed at odds with the politics and hypocrisy of the Church.

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Again, a sense of disillusionment with religion is a common concern of the Gothic novel, with Dracula and Frankenstein being perhaps the most celebrated fictional expressions of 19th Century anxiety over the uneasy relationship between science and conventional religion. Naturally at the time, this fear was a genuine one amongst fin de siecle readers, and its extrapolation in a Gothic setting, where anything is possible, was deeply unsettling. Through the figure of the vampire, Rice explores this feeling of spiritual alienation, as the damned character seeks meaning and atonement in a godless state. Poe, too, faced criticism over his unorthodox views of God after his treatise, Eureka, on the marriage of science and religion. This led to widespread shock that the writer, raised Episcopalian, was following a deist or pantheist religion at odds with Protestant teaching – a reaction that angered Poe, who considered himself a Christian despite believing the Episcopal Church to be going against his core spirituality. When pressed, he simply stated, “my own faith is indeed my own.” This joint reliance on and separation from Christian faith has filtered into modern Gothic culture, in which Catholic art and imagery are heavily borrowed from, yet juxtaposed with stark challenges of traditional authority.

In conclusion, we can see throughout the history of Gothic literature a certain spiritual displacement and self-exile – characters who have experienced some great sorrow, leading them to shun traditional society. Anne Rice’s Louis can certainly be seen as chief amongst these, the loss of his family spurring him on to embrace accursed immortality, and his afterlife-long search for inner peace is perhaps a reflection of the author’s own search and exploration over time. Poe, too, poured catharsis into his works, searching for meaning in a world without the beloved wife who gave him meaning. While the works of both authors can be read as deeply personal reflections, their appeal is wider – through these moments of raw introspect, we see the deep draw of the Gothic novel – a surreal window through which we can view wider human struggles with life, death, and whatever lies after.

If you’re a fan of Poe’s writings, you may be interested Baba Studio’s range of luxuriant scarves and bags in homage to ‘The Raven‘ and ‘A Dream Within a Dream‘.

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