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Project fear: what will Brexit gothic fiction look like? | Books

Gothic has always been a particularly reactive genre. It responds to trends and to what sells. But most of all it reacts to fear. The gothic has a flair for metaphors of anxiety, especially in its monsters. Frankenstein’s depiction of scientific hubris, Dracula’s immigrant vampire, the corrupted masculinity of both Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde: each of these iconic grotesques was birthed as an embodiment of prevailing social anxiety.

The technique endures. In Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972), Ira Levin used satanists and robots as metaphors for the attack on a woman’s ownership of her body and reproductive rights. The shock and awfulness of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1992) obscures a wry examination of individualism under assault by Reaganomics, with serial killer Patrick Bateman’s meticulous descriptions of violence sitting uneasily alongside his equally detailed lists of clothes and on-trend nightclubs. The juxtaposition exposes the violence that the latter performs upon the psyche of the modern American urbanite.

If, then, the gothic births monsters from social and cultural unease, what horrors will our current neuroses usher from the shadows?

We are nearing the end of a decade marked by unique and volatile anxieties. Fears about immigration have been fed and fanned by rightwing rhetoric that no longer seeks to lower its voice. The nostalgic Brexiter narrative dovetails neatly with the gothic’s fixation on preserving a particularly British order. When Nigel Farage expresses concern about Romanian men moving in next door, it makes one wonder if he has read Dracula – the story of a Romanian man who literally moves in beside some stuffy British people. And it doesn’t take much of an imaginative flex to see James Goddard and his mob as the pitchfork-wielding townsfolk on their way to annihilate a monster – in this case, being Anna Soubry, Owen Jones or whoever the yellow vests identify as“globalist elite” this week.

Across the Atlantic, there is Donald Trump: a man who seems determined to live out his own gothic fantasy. Where JFK had Camelot, Trump has turned the White House into the Addams family mansion.

The original gothic monster was the tyrant prince, the demagogue who, in love with power, flouts all moral, sexual and political standards. We first meet this type in Manfred, the antagonist of Horace Walpole’s inaugural gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764). David Punter, in a landmark study of the genre, describes how Manfred’s “violence, his bullying, his impatience with convention and sensibility mark him out not only as the caricature of a feudal baron, but also as the irrepressible villain who merely mocks at society, who remains inassimilable”.

Remind you of anybody? (It is worth noting, however, that Manfred is finally revealed to have gained power through corrupt means and is summarily cast out. Fingers crossed.)

But Trump, Brexit, the whole far-right spasm we are currently experiencing: it is almost impossible to distil into any singular figure. In our deeply divided society, monstrosity depends, more than ever, on perspective. I can talk about racists and tyrants in a postmodern way that reassigns monstrosity to those who would oppress alternative lifestyles or cultures. But to the ardent Brexiter or Trump supporter, the other may still scare. How can we reconcile these terrors?

The answer may lie in the gothic trope of the unreliable manuscript. The genre is littered with scrolls, books, letters and diaries that propel the plot and reveal secrets. Crucially, however, the very nature of these documents put them under suspicion. Who wrote them? How can they be verified?

The Castle of Otranto introduced the gothic as a false history; it was only in the second edition that Walpole admitted to the fiction. Both Frankenstein and Dracula are constructed from fragments of manuscript that must have been edited by someone. In contemporary gothic, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) takes the conceit to an extreme, with a labyrinthine text of contradictory narratives that pursue the unreliability of fiction as their central point.

Now, in the age of fake news, unreliability itself may be the monster that can scare us all. We are all hyper-aware of bias and blatant dishonesty, whether it’s the left bemoaning the BBC’s treatment of Corbyn, or rightwing rage at the mainstream media’s coverage of Trump.

My favourite example of this gothic fake news is found in Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World (2018). A young family, comprising gay parents and their adopted Chinese daughter, suffer a home invasion at their isolated cabin. The invaders insist that an apocalyptic event is on the way, one that can only be averted by the sacrifice of a family member.

There is lots to unpick in the novel – the alternative family dynamic, a discussion of gun control and the legacy of hate crime – but what lingers are the scenes in which the invaders use the television news as proof of how real the apocalypse is, and how righteous their cause. As one character points out, “All they had to do was make us watch cable news where it’s bad news all the time … they tell us pseudo-Christian-biblical end of times vagaries knowing that any moment they can turn on the news and in our fried and frazzled brains something will very likely stick.”

Could there be anything more monstrous?

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