Gothic narratives often play out amidst the most blighted of settings. The barrenness and harshness of these primal landscapes often depicts allegorically the spiritual impoverishment and internal desolation that many of the characters of these novels experience. The wasteland of the Gothic novel is the ugly sister of the civilized urban cityscape, lacking even the rustic charm of rural, pastoral land. Within the city, civility and the hierarchy of social order prevail, while in the wasteland no such laws and norms govern life, which grows indiscriminately and in unforeseeable ways. It is altogether unwholesome and inimical to civilized human life, which often visibly distorts and reverts to base primal instinct while it resides there. Wild and untamed, the wasteland suggests regressive superstition in its lack of civilization, defying penetration by the reasoning mind.

Prehistoric dwellings mark Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles; once the abode of savage Neolithic man, it now plays host to gypsies and an escaped convict, creatures living on the fringes of society, the civilized man’s other.

Where the urban setting is associated with life and mobility, the Gothic wasteland presents its opposites – it is filled with ever-present danger and death, while its untamed bounds restrict rather than facilitate travel. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the bleak Arctic landscape threatens to freeze Robert Walton’s ship in place – death literally by stasis. Likewise, the blasted Grimpen Mire around the Baskerville estate in the The Hound of the Baskervilles entraps travelers and animals in sticky mud, into which they sink to their deaths. Arctic blizzards and rolling fog respectively also occur in these areas, extending the Gothic trope of obscurity to the land itself, waylaying the unwary and concealing misdeeds. Treacherous and inhospitable, Gothic wastelands represent nature and by extension human nature in crisis, or in a state of infirmity or insanity.

When the Gothic makes its transition from rural settings to urban ones, the city also reveals its ability to function as a wasteland. Although London presented a glamorous facade of wealth and power, the Gothic emphasizes its seedy underbelly; docks full of criminals, back alleys where Jack the Ripper stalked his victims, and the crushing weight of the urban poor, who starve when the surface of the earth is covered in pavement, not fertile soil. The London of Dickens' Oliver Twist provides an example of the blighted city wasteland, but the best Gothic examples might be in GWM Reynolds' Mysteries of London and Mysteries of the Court of London, in which the horrors are all-too-real, having been ripped straight from the headlines, splashed with bloody sensationalism, leaving no question that for the everyday man, London is not a place of prosperity or vitality, but rather one of malice and death.
Courtesy of Kenneth Tan, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University

See also: urban landscapes

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York : Facts on File, 2005. Print.




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