There’s a long tradition in Gothic literature written by women; the idea of the home as a strange, uncanny and often dangerous space. Contemporary domestic Gothic writing has spread its dark wings across a wide variety of literature; horror, crime, noir and thriller writing. This piece examines the origins of this tradition, but also looks at its re-emergence—and asks why and why now?
Firstly, some background. The concept of home in literature is one that we associate with safety, warmth, domesticity and light. But from the roots of the Gothic novel in the late 18th century, the most popular setting has been that of the anxious and confined home; a genre featuring crumbling castles, family secrets and confined women. In 19th century Gothic literature there is a recurrent version of the home as problematic and contested. This period saw the evolution of the term ‘domesticity’ itself, a time when spaces of work and spaces of home became separate and gendered, with male identity bound up with spaces of work, just as female identity became associated with spaces of domesticity. The shrunken nature of the world these female writers lived in produced a volume of literature that described home as their defining place: an uncanny and enclosed space
…[T]he literature produced by women confronted with such anxiety-inducing choices has been strongly marked not only by an obsessive interest in these limited options but also by obsessive imagery of confinement that reveals the ways in which female artists feel trapped and sickened both by suffocating alternatives and by the culture that created them. (Gilbert and Gubar 1979: 64)
Kate Ferguson Ellis (1989), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1983), Eugenia C. DeLamotte (1990) and Maggie Kilgour (1995) have all written about the impact of this repression on the consequent writing of the period, especially on women’s writing, citing the striking proliferation of images of imprisonment and enclosure that recur within it. This is especially true of those literary moments of transformation where internal anxieties erupt and take physical Surrealistic form: the jaundiced, sulphuric wallpaper with its crawling women in The Yellow Wallpaper, the strange light in the Red Room that horrifies the titular heroine of Jane Eyre, and the horrid physicality of the ghostly Cathy’s wrist rubbed bloody against the broken glass of the window in Wuthering Heights. During these pivotal moments, the home transforms abruptly from a space of comfort to a space of terror, revulsion, and imprisonment.
Domestic Gothic deals with otherness, slippage, terrible secrets, monstrosity, confinement and the persistence of the past in the present. It also acts as a channel of the uncanny. The uncanny home is a home where the familiar has grown unfamiliar and strange. It’s a topic that’s been explored in Jentsch’s On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906), and Freud’s Das Unehimliche (The Uncanny) (1919). Again, this writing of the uncanny home has been equated with the female domain. In describing the uncanny Freud even equates the idea of womb and home –he terms the womb as: ‘an Unheimlich place…the entrance to the former Heim of all human beings’ (Freud 1919: 944). Within the dysfunctional homes described by contemporary writers such as V.H. Leslie (Bodies of Water, 2016), Alison Littlewood (The Unquiet House, 2014), Caitriona Ward (Rawblood, 2015), Penny Jones (Suffer Little Children, 2019) and Priya Sharma (Ormeshadow, 2019) there are classic Gothic tropes of secrets come to light, ancient memories resurrected, and uncanny experiences such as strange dreams and visions.
I’m complicit in this resurgence of women writing Domestic Gothic. My first collection, The Unheimlich Manoeuvre, published in 2016, comes out again in March 2020 with the Sinister Horror Company in a deluxe edition with new material. Of my books, it’s the one that most readers seem to respond to—this dark exploration of the uncanny home through tales of doppelgängers, dolls, doubles and dangerous secrets.
But why this rise of Domestic Gothic? Why now?
My theory is that our perception of home as a normative, safe space has shifted in the global maelstrom of politics, society and environment over the last twenty years. The familiar has become strange, changed by external circumstances. Acts of terrorism carried out around the world, aimed at civilian targets, mean that home has become a recognised space of attack. Legislation tightens around women’s reproductive rights. Racial violence grows. And so, unseated in our identity, our homes, our bodies, our very concept of home becomes disrupted.
The Gothic is rightly, if partially, understood as a cyclical genre that reemerges in times of cultural stress in order to negotiate anxieties for its readership by working through them in displaced (sometimes supernaturalized) form (Hurley 2002: 194).
The Gothic is the form we turn to in times of crises. It offers a subversive counternarrative for the dominant messages of society, culture and politics.
In this new incarnation of contemporary Gothic, we see a range of rich and diverse manifestations of problematic domesticity in literature. Women continue to write in this genre, but in an expanded and considered way that both plays with the original tradition and goes beyond its parameters. The contemporary home in Domestic Gothic literature is a place where buried secrets come to light with the most awful of consequences; it’s also a space haunted by spectres of domestic violence, incest, murder and the paranormal. Home might be a futuristic parable or an ancient castle; either fit the bill. Writers like Margaret Atwood, Carmen Maria Muchado, Gwendolyn Kiste and Gillian Flynn all draw knowingly on the tradition of the Gothic and the positioning of home in the Gothic. In doing so, they create new and fantastical landscapes that range from confined domestic spaces to haunted houses to apocalyptic re-visionings of family, home and world.
Tracy Fahey is an Irish writer of Gothic fiction. In 2017, her debut collection The Unheimlich Manoeuvre was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. In 2019, her short story, ‘That Thing I Did’ received an Honourable Mention by Ellen Datlow in her The Best Horror of the Year Volume 11, with five stories on Datlow’s Recommended Reading list for 2019. Her short fiction is published in over twenty-five Irish, US and UK anthologies. She holds a PhD on the Gothic in visual arts, and her non-fiction writing has been published in edited collections and journals. She has been awarded residencies in Ireland and Greece. Her first novel, The Girl in the Fort, was released in 2017. Her second collection, New Music For Old Rituals, collects together her folk horror stories and was released in 2018 by Black Shuck Books.
In 2020, the deluxe edition of The Unehimlich Manoevure will be released together with a companion chapbook of new material, Unheimlich Manoeuvres in the Dark, both published by the Sinister Horror Company.
More information at her website www.tracyfahey.com