Review: The Gothic and the Carnivalesque in American Culture

The Gothic and the Carnivalesque in American Culture

By Timothy Jones. (Wales: University of Wales Press, 2015. 288 pages). ISBN 9781783161928

The Gothic and the Carnivalesque in American Culture by Timothy Jones is an original exploration of the carnivalesque in American Gothic, tracing its origins and evolution from Poe to pulp, flying along with the speed of a witch on a new broom. Jones’ text focuses on American consumers and connoisseurs of the Gothic, chiefly their morbid and macabre, but basically harmless, desires. It is pleasure, not fear or terror, which drives the Gothic in American culture.

The introduction, “Ballyhoo”, serves to define what the carnivalesque adds to American Gothic. In addition to screams and thrills, the carnival Gothic involves laughter, camp, and mockery. According to Jones, “It is naughty rather than evil” (p. 8). There is also the freedom of being a spectator, of being anonymous in a large crowd.  The carnivalesque in American Gothic is about entertainment, not critical analysis, the excitement of walking through a haunted house where a skeleton glides out of the darkness and you jump. The jump is more important than the workings of the zip-line that sent the skeleton soaring your way. The carnivalesque in American Gothic is not reflective or deconstructive, it is immediate and experiential.

Using Stephen King’s story “The Raft”, Jones illustrates why critical interpretations of American Gothic often fail to illuminate a text that is written and read primarily for entertainment. In “Theory, Practice, and Gothic Carnival”, Jones argues that it is time to address the “unliterary qualities” of the Gothic carnivalesque, which are not respectable or literary (p. 12). That is, to stop searching for meaning and to start seeing opportunities for play. Mikhail Bakhtin’s work with the concept of carnival, where the normal is put aside, and the bizarre is embraced, becomes especially useful to Jones’s theory of carnival as play. Yet Jones is careful to make a distinction between the American Gothic of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Although both texts are technically ghost stories, one celebrates the spectral, while the other is far from celebratory in tone, thus revealing that the carnivalesque in American Gothic tends to avoid engaging with culture and history in a serious manner. Instead it offers amusement, emphasizing participation over analysis, and utilizing atmosphere to evoke a certain feeling. It is not meant to reflect real life, it “is a product of the American real, in that it seeks to provide darkly-hued escape from the real” (p. 36).

The second chapter explores nineteenth-century Gothic literature in America, primarily Edgar Allan Poe: “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) and “Hop-Frog” (1849), including Roger Corman’s film adaptations, are essential to the formation Jones’ early definition, where American Gothic is “not to behave badly but to imagine naughtily” (p. 45). This includes tales that are both grisly and jovial, obscene and spirited; tales not meant to frighten, but to induce laughter and a satisfying sense of eeriness. The inclusion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) and Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) deepen the discussion, particularly on Gothic atmosphere, where an awaited spookiness permeates each text. It is comparable to the Danish concept of hygge where the Gothic trappings of skulls, ravens, witches, and jack-o-lanterns create a cosy sense of the Gothic, which is perhaps the reason popular American television shows have Halloween specials more often than Christmas ones—a sort of Halloween Hygge.

Chapter Three, “Weird Tales and Pulp Subjectivity”, further develops the examination of horror and pleasure in comics and pulp fiction, utilizing H. P. Lovecraft’s essay, “Supernatural Horror in Gothic Literature” (1925-1927). This essay once again moves the discourse away from theory towards craft, the creation of the Gothic as opposed to its deconstruction. As much as an autopsy may be apropos to the entertainment value of the carnivalesque in American Gothic, it is not helpful in terms of explication. Jones makes it clear that the genre is not about depth or weighty revelations, but about readers and writers escaping the real world for spine-chilling fun. The contributions of Ray Bradbury are explored in the fourth chapter where Bradbury is considered less as a science fiction writer than the creator of “October people,” who make their appearance in The October Country (1955), a revision of the collection, Dark Carnival (1947). Bradbury’s “October people” revel in Halloween-ish settings, escaping the real world for the carnivalesque. Applying Walter Benjamin’s discussion of “aura,” Jones demonstrates how aura is an encounter with the intangible or ghostly, a key factor in carnival Gothic, and one that audiences anticipate with wicked glee. Through investigation of stories such as “The Dwarf” and “The Jar”, Jones uses Bradbury’s Gothic to show the limits or boundaries of the carnival Gothic, which shy away from substantial horrors, adhering to rules that designate acceptable horrific behaviour (decapitation, but not paedophilia), so that Bradbury’s texts embody a function much like safe words within the genre.

Chapter Five starts with William Gaines, of EC Comics, testifying before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in 1954, defending the cover illustration of Crime SuspenStories, which featured a severed head. Unfortunately for many artists, and juvenile fans of the carnival Gothic, the Comics Code soon began to regulate the market. This chapter charts not just the rise, fall, and eventual return of the carnival Gothic to comics, but its shift to television with Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65), The Twilight Zone (1959-65), and Night Gallery (1969-73). The carnival Gothic did not promote delinquency, but instead encouraged levity, modelled by hosts who enjoyed puns and tricks, such as Hitchcock, Karloff, the Crypt-Keeper and Vampirella. In Chapter Six, Stephen King’s blockbuster horror novels of the 1970s and 1980s dominate the discussion. Jones argues that, pre-King, most American Gothic was short fiction, resulting in a lack of sympathy or emotional investment in the characters. Although Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates are also contemporary writers working at times with the Gothic, Jones contends King is the only author to create sympathetic characters, while still maintaining the carnival Gothic. Jones uses Carrie (1974), The Shining (1977) and It (1986) to show how sympathy is evoked, yet the characters often remain flat, unlike Morrison’s Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. According to Jones, one can’t enjoy the carnival Gothic if one feels genuine distress—as one does reading Beloved—where there is no escape from the brutal real.

The last chapter looks at Goth subculture, its origins in punk and hardcore, and its transformation “towards something finer, if a little weirder” (p. 181). For Jones, although Goth as an identity is a good deal about performance/expression, or exteriority, Goth also embraces the Romanticism of the outcast. The Goth in American Gothic appears in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead (1979). It is a love of lace and tombstones that opposes mainstream culture, a dreamy, grotesque, and occasionally comic genre that allows safe exploration of the dark side.

Jones closes his investigation with Linus from The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (1966) as he “hope[s] for some kind of spooky wonder or delight” to appear in his pumpkin patch (p. 205). The reference reminds us that this is a text about the lighter side of the Gothic; however, the pleasure always rests on a knife’s edge—festivals out of control, clowns that kill, waking up in a nightmare—but the skeleton must have a zip-line as the carnival Gothic maintains rules to limit fear or anxiety arising from real-world issues. Since the “American Gothic consistently returns to masquerades, circuses, sideshows, freakery, participation and spectatorship” (p. 206), readers should note that Jones cites King’s verdict on Todd Browning’s film Freaks (1932), claiming it became too real by using real “freaks,” ruining the monster story as a result. With borders and tastes constantly shifting in American culture, it would also be interesting to know Jones’ opinion on American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014). Has the carnival Gothic strayed too far, or does the show’s graphic violence still provide its viewers with a naughty but not evil/too real sense of “play”?

Review by Shannon Scott

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