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MELMOTH THE WANDERER: Remembering a forgotten Gothic masterpiece on its 200th anniversary

When I say the words “Gothic novel” to you, a few names and titles might spring to mind. First and foremost is probably the groundbreaking Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – arguably also the birth of science fiction in its current form. Next, perhaps, would be Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). Then, there’s Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847), Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847), The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde (1890), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and, for the real aficionados among you, such relics as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). One might also include playful mockeries of the genre, such as Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1803), along with a profusion of short stories so innumerable that it would be foolish to try sum them up here. There are of course numerous twentieth century contributors to the genre, such as Shirley Jackson, and indeed older works, such as the plays of Shakespeare – perhaps most notably Macbeth (1606) and Hamlet (1609) – that whilst not technically “Gothic novels”, certainly laid groundwork for the genre we understand today. In short, it’s a rich genre that’s yielded many gems over the years and continues to be reimagined and interpreted by a variety of writers today. I love the Southern Gothic of writers such as Eden Royce (I highly recommend her two collections Spook Lights I & II). I’ve not read Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, yet, but I’ve yet to see a bad review! 

However, today, I want to take you off the beaten track to observe a Gothic novel that possibly stands above all of these (controversial, I know), and yet has been largely forgotten, perhaps due to the obscurity of the writer, perhaps due to changing circumstance and literary taste, or perhaps even due to the cursed and enigmatic nature of its eponymous villain… This novel is Melmoth The Wanderer, published in 1820 by an Irish Anglican curate, Charles Maturin. Melmoth The Wanderer was ostensibly written as a satire of organised religion, specifically Catholicism, but is far greater in scope and cannot adequately be described as purely “satire”, in part due to the sheer horror and power of some of the scenes it describes that climb to the heights of epic.

In my article on How to write Gothic Fiction, I outlined the four key elements I believed were essential to making Gothic fiction work: Mood, Architecture, Religion, Lyricism. It is probably best for me to approach analysing the novel from the perspective of these four tenets, and therefore to practice what I preach!

MOOD 

Melmoth The Wanderer is the most paranoid book I have ever read. Without wishing to cut into the segment on lyricism, the writing style might be described as a horribly compelling labyrinth. Sentences run on, sometimes for entire pages. Just when you think Maturin has lost this thread, he brings his point home, sometimes in ways so surprising and ingenious they’re frightening. The rhythms of the prose in this book began to effect my thought patterns and circadian cycle. I found myself unable to write particularly well while I was reading this book, because Maturin’s infectious prose-style kept taking over my own; it sucked me in, just as our protagonist, John, is drawn into the tale of the eponymous Melmoth. What’s brilliant about this writing style is not just how impressive it is simply for the sake of aesthetics, but also how the style reflects the crumbling and warped psyches of the novel’s characters. For example, here Maturin describes the dichotomy of addiction: 

“When once fierce passion is devouring the soul, we feel more than ever the necessity of external excitement; and our dependence on the world for temporary relief increases in direct proportion to our contempt for the world and all its works.” 

Maturin writes, at times, with savage zeal, but the brilliant thing is he doesn’t just rant with a singular viewpoint. He gives voices to unexpected characters and allows them to air controversial or disturbing viewpoints. He isn’t a preacher, delivering his moral lessons to the reader in fatuous and belaboured sermons. On the contrary, he seems to delight in having characters justify the unjustifiable, and trusting the reader to discern what’s right and what isn’t, which becomes increasingly difficult as the novel approaches its climax and morality becomes greyer and greyer. It is almost as if the novel, itself, is an article of temptation, a seduction to the darkside.

Unlike many Gothic writers, who resort to supernatural phenomena as a way to excite strong passions or escalate the extremity of their novel, Maturin’s novel plays down the supernatural in favour of human psychology far more disturbed and troubling than any ghost could be. When the supernatural does occur, it’s often with psychological cause. Our mind creates phantoms of doubt and temptation, and these phantoms often become literally realised. At times we are unsure whether there are supernatural events occurring or whether we (and our narrator) are being artfully deceived, which thickens the fog of paranoia. Maturin makes conspiracy theorists of all of us. 

In one of the most memorable and haunting sections of the novel, one of the main characters, a bastard Spanish royal by the name of Alonzo Moncada, is forced into a monastery against his will. His time in the monastery is made tortuous by his sadistic fellow monks, who excruciate him physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Eventually, Alonzo discovers who one of his chief tormentors is on their deathbed. Alonzo seeks to forgive his tormentor (and thereby ease his own mind too), but his tormentor refutes his forgiveness, confessing he doesn’t really believe in God, and that monastic life ironically destroyed his belief. Horrified, Alonzo supplicates him, thinking they are kindred spirits after all – both wanting out of the monastic life. He asks if there is any hope of one day escaping the monastery. His enemy says there is no hope, that monastic life will crush all but “two” types of people:

“…those who can every day renew, by aid of imagination, the hope of escape, and who cherish that hope even on their dying bed; and those who, like me, diminish their misery by dividing it, and like the spider, feel relieved of the poison that swells, and would burst them, by instilling a drop of it into every insect that toils, agonizes, and perishes in their net—like you.” 

The monk’s dying speech is so spiritually amoral that it led to Melmoth The Wanderer being banned in several regions of Britain and some countries. It is similar to the narrative of the men infected with HIV in the ‘80s, who decided to spread the disease to as many people as possible rather than isolate; and of course, there is also a relevant comparison with COVID-19 behaviours today. To reflect once more on mood, the sheer untenable misanthropy of the dying monk’s final metaphor cannot but work on the reader’s mind, just as it works on Alonzo’s. That is Melmoth The Wanderer’s unique power, and we shall see how it is further enhanced by the novel’s architecture.

“Two Old Ones Eating Soup” by Francisco Goya

ARCHITECTURE 

The topic of architecture in this novel is not lightly taken on, partly because it is one of the most complex books I have ever read. There are two sides to architecture as I see it: literal and structural. 

If we address literal first: Melmoth The Wanderer is packed full of many of the usual tropes of Gothic fiction: decaying castles, dusty manors, monasteries, churchyards, asylums and prisons. However, it is the latter two that make up the majority of the novel, and this fact is key to why Melmoth The Wanderer began to fascinate me so much.

Melmoth, our eponymous villain, is a demon of sorts, with powers of translocation and invisibility, among others. His modus operandi is to appear to incarcerated souls and offer them freedom and emancipation in exchange for their souls. The brilliance of this is that Maturin begins to stretch the definition of incarceration as we move deeper into the novel, so that it is not just physical interment, but familial, financial, and eventually, even psychological imprisonment. Linking physical architecture – the trope-settings of Gothic fiction – with an internal landscape of the mind is part of what makes Melmoth The Wanderer so atmospheric and affecting. Dante-esque, Maturin shows us people who are unable to escape the chains of their own behaviours and thought-patterns, and Melmoth himself is an example of such a person, trapped in an endless cycle. He can emancipate others, but not himself. This dichotomy becomes the heart of the novel’s power and tragedy. We begin to feel sorry for Melmoth as he wrestles with his own inescapable destiny. The scholar Chris Baldick observed that “Melmoth is not just a Faust, he is Mephistopheles at the same time” (1989). He is tempter and tempted, and that gives him layers of psychological complexity that even brilliant characters like Victor Frankenstein and Dracula lack. Melmoth is a living hypocrisy. 

To now address the structural architecture is far more difficult. Melmoth The Wanderer takes the Gothic concept of the “framed narrative” – a story within a story – to such extremes that they defy sanity. Mary Shelly artfully gives Frankenstein a triple-layer of narrative: we start on a boat heading into the Antarctic, with the Genovese noble Captain Walton, who then hears the tale of Victor Frankenstein, who then in turn relates the tale told to him by The Creature. The Creature’s story is buried at the heart of the narrative, and the other two stories frame it. The structure is logical and creates many intriguing mimetic effects, which I don’t have the space to discuss here. 

Now compare this with Maturin’s frames: John Melmoth (a descendent of the “true” Melmoth of the title) attends his relative’s deathbed, and is bequeathed in the Will a narrative from an inmate of an insane asylum called Stanton. So far, so good. But then, Alonzo, the monk that I previously mentioned, is washed up on the beachhead near to where John is staying. Alonzo, recognising John as a descendent of Melmoth, begins to relate his own tale of incarceration in the monastery and eventual encounter with Melmoth The Wanderer. During the course of this tale, Alonzo meets a Jewish scholar by the name of Adonijah, who has retrieved several manuscripts describing a tale that takes place nearly a century earlier, a tale in which a young woman, Immalee, is abandoned on a desert island, only to be discovered by – you guessed it – Melmoth himself. Alonzo has to translate these manuscripts for Adonijah, and he is shocked to learn that they pertain to Melmoth and his own situation, so he relates these stories (third or fourth hand?) to the young John Melmoth… This section is referred to as The Tale of the Indians. Within this story, we meet another character, the father to the abandoned young Immalee, Don Francisco, who in turn relates his own story, and in doing so, relates another tale told to him by a mysterious stranger at an inn (The Tale of the Guzman’s Family). Within this story, there is another story buried (The Lovers’ Tale) and so on – you get the gist. 

But the weirdest thing about this structure is less its total insanity but the fact it works. Like Christopher Nolan’s popular film Inception, each layer of reality leads us down to a new more disturbing one, and the deeper we go, the more uncertain we become of what is true, who is speaking, and what it all means. Yet, at the same time, the emotions we feel intensify, as though we’re upping the dosage of a drug. This means that in the latter stages of the novel, the narrative works on us in a way that a more straightforward narrative can’t. Like a dream, it bypasses conscious analysis and plugs into some more emotive and primitive part of our brain, which is what makes it so fucking scary in places, and moving in others.

Through the course of these “descents” we begin to assemble a clear timeline of Melmoth’s life. Melmoth is almost never the main focus of the narrative; he is elusive and alluded to in mysterious whispers and oblique dialogue. He weaves in and out of these seemingly disparate stories, connecting them all. In this way, he becomes far more sinister and compelling than if he’d been “on screen” the majority of the story. Maturin again understands that psychological paradox that what we don’t see is often more frightening than what we do. 

RELIGION 

So much can be said of the religious elements in this book. The entire novel is steeped in religion, with the language itself laced with Biblical and mythological imagery. For example, there is one friar, whose curses are so vile, Maturin tells us they were “viperous as the suicide foam of the dying Judas”. This imagery is sublimely disturbed. The very religiosity of it is what makes it heretical and unsettling. 

Similarly, Maturin’s decimation of organised religion is at once heretical and righteous. It screams into the modern day, but also runs far deeper than superficial modern allegations of corruption and vice in the church. Maturin, himself a member of the clergy, uses his deep immersion in theology to expose deeper spiritual hypocrisies in the church: “The inhabitants of the world you are about to see call this worship—and they have adopted (a Satanic smile curled his lip as he spoke) very different modes; so different, that, in fact, there is but one point in which they all agree—that of making their religion a torment…” We see this reflected in The Spaniard’s Tale, where the monks devote every hour of the day to contemplating how to inflict misery on others and themselves; and in The Tale of the Indians, where Immalee, having been finally discovered by her parents and brought home from the mysterious island where she grew up, is then educated in strict and rigid Catholicism, which retrogresses all the spirituality she obtained living in the natural world without human contact. 

Maturin’s criticism goes well beyond religion, however, also addressing how it intersects with every other facet of human life. Through the mouthpiece of Melmoth educating a wild, young Immalee on human “civilised” life, he offers criticism of 

social injustice and urbanisation:

“those who live in uncontrasted and untantalised misery, can hardly feel it—suffering becomes their habit, and they feel no more jealousy of their situation than the bat, who clings in blind and famishing stupefaction to the cleft of a rock, feels of the situation of the butterfly, drinks of the dew, and bathes in the bloom of every flower. But the people of the other world have invented, by means of living in cities, a new and singular mode of aggravating human wretchedness—that of contrasting it with wild and wanton excess of superfluous and extravagant splendour”; 

monarchy: 

“These people have made unto themselves kings, that is, beings whom they voluntarily invest with the privilege of draining, by taxation, whatever wealth their vices have left to the rich, and whatever means of subsistence their want has left to the poor, till their extortion is cursed from the castle to the cottage”; 

and war: 

“Sometimes exhausted by the monotony of perpetual fruition, which has no parallel even in the monotony of suffering… they amuse themselves by making war, that is, collecting the greatest number of human beings that can be bribed to the task, to cut the throats of a less, equal, or greater number of beings, bribed in the same manner for the same purpose.” 

Maturin claimed these views were not his own in his notations, and perhaps they aren’t, but they certainly ring true to modern sensibilities; Maturin’s, or perhaps we should say Melmoth’s, view is that it is often, ironically, the rigidity of rules-systems that compel us to greater acts of depravity than if we were free and wild and could do whatever we wished. One can’t help but think he would be more at home in our time than he was in his own.

But not only is Melmoth The Wanderer a vehicle for satire and critique, it is also a powerful vindication of religious belief. I spoke about the dichotomy of Melmoth as both tempter and tempted, and the novel replicates this psychological duality in its own theological premise: whilst with one hand it brings a wrecking ball against the walls of the Vatican, with the other, it builds an impenetrable fortress dedicated to the beauty and transcendence of true belief. When Immalee observes a humble woman praying at a cross, she exclaims, “Christ shall be my God, and I will be a Christian” – which instantly banishes Melmoth, where no physical force could. The line that Maturin uses to conjure the image of the fleeing Melmoth is taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) (a line which is, in turn, a reference to the final line of Virgil’s Aeneid, circa 29 BC)“He fled murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night.” This line puts Melmoth on the same level as Satan, yet rather than the touch of Gabriel’s almighty spear being the cause of his flight, it is simply a true-hearted declaration of spiritual belief. 

LYRICISM

As you can see from the length of this article, Melmoth The Wanderer is one of the most quotable books I have read in a long time. I certainly believe a mark of literary greatness is one’s ability to produce quotable work, with the reverse also being true: that bad writers are hardly quotable at all. As my own father, James Sale, wrote in his seminal HellWard (2020), “That poets be oceans; he is a pond. / The final proof? Poetry no-one quotes.”

Melmoth The Wanderer is lyrical to the core. Its imagery, extended metaphors, and prose-styling are astonishingly unique. Maturin oscillates between horror and sublimity with an intensity that Oxford World Classics described as “reckless”; I’m inclined to agree. I can’t say much more about this mammoth 550 page Gothic masterpiece other than it is probably one of the greatest books I have ever read and it has fundamentally changed my outlook on what is possible in fiction. If that is not a good enough recommendation for you, then I don’t know what is. I will say this is not an easy book to read. But, as the subject of this blog (and book) seems to be dichotomy, that is, of course, precisely what makes it so compelling. Like a challenging video-game, it makes us work for its best secrets.

Charles Maturin died in 1824 at the age of forty-four, in abject poverty, just four years after Melmoth The Wanderer was published. Like Keats, he enjoyed very little commercial or critical success in life, and was only truly acknowledged posthumously, and even then, nowhere near to the degree of many of his contemporaries (though Maturin remains very popular in France, where he is revered among the Gothic greats). I am a sucker for the underdog, the reject, and the outcast – the weirdoes working at the fringes. Maturin was odd, maintained odd views, and wrote very odd books. But that does not mean he should be forgotten. Quite the reverse. The oddballs show us the reality of the human condition the rest of us are too scared to believe is real. Indeed, perhaps the reason Melmoth The Wanderer is so quotable is precisely because its leans toward madness. As Alan Moore sadly observed in his magnum opus, From Hell (1989)“Our lunatics were prophets once, and had a prophet’s power.” 

***

Thanks for reading this epic-sized blog! If you’ve come this far, then I can only profusely thank you for your dedication. If you want to support my work, including the production of more detailed content like this, then you can head on over to my Patreon where I post monthly fiction with accompanying breakdowns of how and why the scenes came to be, and behind-the-scenes videos, plus a ton of other bonus content every week! 

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The Cathedral of the Deep Part 3: The Gothic Ending

And we’re back! Like a slippery thing from the grave, the Cathedral of the Deep series returns for its third installment. Thank you to everyone who sent me kind messages about these talks; it was wonderful to hear how the classes had benefited writers and helped them finish stories they were struggling with, or given them ideas for new stories!

To recap, in parts one and two of this talk, we looked at how we can define Gothic, and how to write a Gothic opening, respectively. We covered the four key elements of Gothic: mood, architecture, religion, and lyricism. We also looked at opening lines, and how they work in relation to the rest of a piece. We also looked at the five act structure.

Today, we will specifically be looking at endings, which is the fifth act of the five act structure: catharsis. Catharsis is something that is quite difficult to grasp without a concrete definition. The Oxford dictionary defines it as: “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” The secondary definition is “purgation”. I think the word “release” is most helpful here. Catharsis is the moment of “release” at the end of a film, poem, story, piece of music, whatever the medium is. We have experienced something terrible, something that has taken a hold of us, and then are freed from it, often through tears.

Now, in order to talk about catharsis and endings, I’m going to need to talk about plot, so inevitably I’m going to be spoiling certain shows, books, and stories. There’s no way around it. So, steel yourselves friends! Spoilers are coming!

LOSS & GAIN

Before we can talk about catharsis, we need to talk more broadly about how endings work. I’m going to give you one of my best-ever pieces of advice for ending a story – any story. It’s from Tristine Rainer’s book Your Life As Story, where she says: the definition of a climax is that something is lost so something can be gained. It should be noted that this doesn’t have to be literal. For example, in a Romantic Comedy, a character’s pride might die so that they can become a better person and their love might live. In Fantasy novels and films, often one of the heroes must make a sacrifice and give their own life so that others might live and return home after their adventures to a joyful and healed world. To use a Gothic example: Dracula is the epitome of this. The heroic American Quincy P. Morris perishes in the final assault on Dracula, giving his life so that the curse of Dracula might be abated. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff must lose his sight (the distractions and corruption of appearances and social ideals) in order to truly find love with the one who is right for him: Catherine.

It is vitally important that the ending has both something lost and something gained. Often, when endings “don’t work”, it’s because the balance is wrong. Nothing is lost, but the heroes all manage to save the day without a single consequence. There’s no threat, there’s no significance, there’s no reality. Or, the other way, where everything is lost, and the gain is so minimal that it is meaningless. Increasingly, with the advent of modernist ideologies and criticism of heroic narrative, films are looking to the “hopeless ending”. The recent horror movie Hereditary is one such example, although there is arguably a small nugget of “gain” in that the daughter, Charlie, realises her true purpose in the world. However, in my view it does not land with the sledgehammer of emotional resonance for this reason: The balance is wrong.

There is a phrase I hear a lot among my fellows which is: “The movie earned that ending”. I like it a lot, because it exactly encapsulates this ending theory: you have to pay a price to gain something.

Exercise 1.1

So, when you are thinking about your short story, or whatever project it is (and it even works for music – though they call it “counterpoint”, and it is to do with the relationship between harmony and disharmony), ask yourself this important question: what is lost so what can be gained?

Create a table, with two columns, one entitled “loss” and the other “gain” and make a full list of everything in your narrative that is lost and gained. Now ask yourself whether the balance is right. If you are going for a bleaker, darker story: then more needs to be lost. If you are going for a more up-beat story, then more needs to be gained.

FRAMES & STAGES

So, now that we know this foundation, how can we take this one step further and use this to elicit emotional release? Killing off a beloved character is not a guarantee of emotion by any stretch. Think of how poorly the fifth Harry Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix, rendered the death of Sirius Black in contrast with the books. In the novel, I felt his death (which is the cathartic moment of that book) like a stab wound to the chest. In the films, it was laughable, a side-note. There are many reasons, some technical and some broad, about why the execution was flawed, but the primary one is that the balance was not framed right. Gothic endings, indeed any ending, needs what I call a frame. This is the window through which you are seeing the ending, it is the lens you have placed over your cinematic camera as well as the positioning of the camera itself.

If you imagine the events of your story as transpiring in a mysterious other world, which can only be glimpsed through a window, the window and its frame is how this vision of another world is presented to you. Through another window, things might look quite different. This applies, of course, to the whole story, in one sense, but it is specifically relevant to the end. The other way I think of this is not as a frame but as a stage. If your ending was being performed dramatically (for some of you reading this it may be literally true) then how would it be staged? What type of stage would it be set on? I will be looking at these stages and frames, particularly ones relevant to Gothic, and talking about how they work.

This is not to suggest that this list compiles every ending known to human kind or possible. Of course, there are variations, anomalies, and infinite complexity within (and without) of the framework, but these will certainly help you get started and thinking about your ending. When you have mastered how these work, you can then subvert them for your own end.

THE MIRROR

In True Detective’s iconic first season, there are many complex losses and gains. The killer, in one sense, is lost, which gains closure for many characters and us as followers of the investigation. Rust’s nihilism is lost, which gains a newfound spirituality and hope. The resentment between Rust and his partner Marty is lost – they forgive one another – so their friendship might live. The list goes on, which is why it is so powerful. The moment of catharsis is achieved by having the seemingly invincible, inscrutable, unshakeable Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) finally break down with the realisation that there is a life after death and his daughter is waiting for him there with “nothing but that love” – in other words, she has forgiven him. He expects enmity and blames himself for her death – it is what’s haunted him his whole life – but the realisation of this love, something positive after the seemingly endless bleakness of his world, breaks him. In watching his release of emotion, we as an audience are triggered, and our buried emotions are released. This frame is what I call the mirror. We witness the moment of catharsis and are moved ourselves. Rust’s loss of hopelessness, by realising there is hope in life after death, is directly tied in to the moment of cathartic narrative and emotional release, which is why it works so beautifully.

Shakespeare often uses the mirror. For example, the ending of Hamlet (which I consider a Gothic play) shows us Hamlet’s death in the arms of his one true friend, possibly even lover depending on interpretation, Horatio. Horatio’s profound grief, and the sense of someone truly magnificent needlessly lost, is what moves us to tears. Hamlet himself is seemingly at peace: “The rest is silence”, but it is Horatio’s sorrow: “Goodnight sweet prince” which rouses such catastrophic emotion within us. Horatio is the everyman whom we can relate to. As audience members, we recognise ourselves in him. He tries to guide Hamlet and curb his madness, frustrated by his irrationality and procrastination. In showing us a broken Horatio, we see the mirror of ourselves, our sense of hopelessness. The gain at the end of Hamlet is, of course, diplomatic unity and the avenging of his father, but there is also a tragically small gain in that we feel Hamlet can finally know peace from his own raging thoughts.

THE SECRET

This is a subtle, subtle frame that is very difficult to pull off. The most successful example of it of recent years is the film Calvary, which starred Brendan Gleeson. This masterful film, which depicts the final days of a priest who is told, in the confession box, he will be killed in seven days, is one of the most profoundly moving I have seen in a long time (it might even be my favourite film). This film is very low budget, carried by its brilliant actors and poetic script, which probes the nature of sin, suffering, detachment, and, of course, God. Increasingly, one feels the despair of being a person of God in our modern world, which is so without values or dignity. Yet, the brilliance of the film is the courage the humble priest shows in the face of such mind-breaking adversity, and his compassion even for those that spit at him. There is also an element of who-dunnit, about it, as we try to work out who the killer might be.

The ending of the film is deceptively powerful. The priest, after contemplating running away, decides to meet his fate as Christ did. He confronts the killer on the beach, and is shot dead. Following his death, there is a slow reel of all the people in the village whom the priest has interacted with. We see that the adulterers are still committing adultery, the money launderers still stealing, the world unchanged. The final scene is the priest’s daughter, about to speak to her father’s killer (who is now in prison), weeping as she remembers her fathers words, which are that “forgiveness is underrated”. You might, quite rightly, be asking, what in the name of Hell is gained here? The priest dies, the killer is arrested, nobody learns anything. Except, that is what we learn as an audience. We are witnesses to something momentous and awe-inspiring: an act of sacrifice for people who do not actually care. This is the “unsung hero” narrative. The hero has saved everyone, but nobody knows or cares. He has saved them, died for them as Christ did, despite their ingratitude. That is the breathtaking nobility of the film. The priest loses his life, so that we might gain an understanding of what true human courage is. I call this frame the secret, because it is almost as if the story has shared a secret with the audience, something not even the characters can see.

A good example from the literary world is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. In this book, the hero Jake Epping travels back through time in order to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Eventually, he realises it is impossible to accomplish this without un-seaming the universe. The problem is that he has fallen in love with a high school teacher, Sadie, in that previous timeline, but he must give up that love to fix the world. There is a terrible, heart-rending scene at the end of the book where Jake goes to visit Sadie in his own current (and now fixed) timeline; Sadie is in her 80s and has no memory of Jake, but she experiences a strange sensation that she might know him. The two share a dance. It is an incredible scene that reduced me to floods of tears when I first read it, and it is this powerful because we sense just how much is lost: the future they should have, by rights, shared together. It is also heart-rending because no one can ever know what Jake has been through and how much he has given up to, quite literally, save the world. This is the secret. Only we, the Constant Readers, and perhaps Jake, are privy to all the facts of the case that means we can experience this cathartic moment.

THE TRANSFERENCE / THE CURSE

This is in some ways similar to the secret except that the knowledge/ revelation is passed from one character in the story to another. One of the most iconic and easiest examples of this is: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The poem details an encounter between a young and naive wedding guest and the eponymous mariner. The mariner, cursed to wander the land forever telling his bleak, harrowing tale, accosts the wedding guest and tells him his story. At the end of the story, it tells us that the wedding guest goes to bed and “a sadder and a wiser man / he rose the morrow morn”. In other words, though the mariner is still cursed to repeat his tale, the wedding guest has learned from the experience, and the transference of knowledge has had a positive effect. This is highly cathartic, as we realise that someone else’s suffering is another’s learning, and that while the mariner is doomed and a “fixed point”, others can still avoid his tragic fate.

Another great example of this is Frankenstein. I mentioned in part two of the Cathedral of the Deep that Frankenstein uses a framed narrative, couching Victor Frankenstein’s bitter tale within the journals of a seafarer in the Artic, the “Genevese” noble. It is the Genevese noble who is changed by hearing the tale of Frankenstein, and who goes forward into their life with a new sense of perspective.

It is also possible to subvert this ending by making the transference a “curse” that is passed on to the next generation. This is a classic 80s horror cinematic trope. Evil is seemingly defeated, but in actuality, the curse is merely transferred on to the next person. This can be cathartic as well (catharsis can come from downer endings too). For example, the ending of something like Kubrick’s The Shining, which shows us Jack Torrance has “always been here” at the hotel, is a cathartic moment, because it implies some deeper history behind the psychological breakdown. Is the entire film, in fact, from the perspective of Danny Torrance, who is feeling the dirty secrets of the hotel through his psychic sensitivity? Or did Jack Torrance have some undisclosed history at the hotel which is glimpsed at the end? Is Jack the subject of some kind of curse – transferred to him by the other dark spirits that speak to him when he is in captivity in the store room? There are no straight answers (although perhaps Mr King thinks differently!), but it is certainly that final shot that completes the film and draws together the dissonant elements into a well of emotion and release.

THE CRUX / SCALES

This frame works particularly well for short stories and movies, but not so well for novels or longer cinematic forms (such as a television series). This essentially is when you build to a climactic moment, a crux, where everything hangs in the balance, and then you end at that moment. This might sound like you are cheating the reader / audience of an ending, but in actual fact, if you have set up enough of the dominoes, the reader will have already drawn their own conclusions on how it is going to turn out, and it is in feeling this sense of climax, of everything weighed (hence the scales), that they feel the emotion. The reason it does not work with long forms is that when you, as a reader, have invested so much time, you cannot leave it to chance. Too much uncertainty here will break the story’s spell and create anger and discord. But for short forms, the ambiguity, what some coaches call “negative capability”, will work in your favour.

So, let’s look at an example. John Carpenter’s The Thing ends on what some people consider a cliff-hanger, but I consider it a perfect example of a crux or scales ending. At the conclusion of the film, there are two survivors, Childs (Keith David) and MacReady (Kurt Russel), sitting in the snow, watching their facility, and any hope of getting out of the Arctic wastes, burn to the ground. They have the following exchange:

Childs: Fire’s got the temperature up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.

MacReady: Neither will we.

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Childs: If you’re worried about me…

MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.

Childs: Well, what do we do?

MacReady: Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while… see what happens?

As a viewer, we realise there are two possibilities: either the Thing is dead and they are both going to die out in the cold, or one of them is the Thing, and everything is in jeopardy, because it means at some point the Thing will be dug up and the cycle will start again. There is no definitive answer as to what the reality of the situation is (and it has been hotly debated for years), but that is not the point. The film ends on this ominous, bleak note. Yet, there is an immense catharsis in this. We realise at this moment what the movie is really about, which is paranoia. If we look past the shape-shifting body-horror elements, we can see that this is a movie about suspecting those close to us, being unsure of everything we know, and how doubt can tear apart even the strongest and most disciplined people.

Another famous example, though perhaps less Gothic, is the 60s movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. At the end, we do not really see what happens to the pair, we are left on a moment of heroic confrontation, where they stand up together to impossible odds. It is left to our imaginations exactly how that showdown goes down, although we can be fairly certain both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid are slain. If they had showed us the conclusion, a slow motion shot of them being gunned down, it would have been piteous and melodramatic. By holding back, leaving us on the crux moment where everything hangs in the balance, we feel the emotion of it all the more powerfully. This technique taps into the power of human imagination too. Our own version of what happens when that door bursts open will actually always be better than anything they could show us.

 

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So, those are four frames which you can use to elicit catharsis for your Gothic ending, along with a foundation of loss & gain to weight it and make it land, to “earn” it. To recap, we have: the mirror, where you show the reader a mirror of themselves, the secret, where something is accomplished beyond the knowledge of the characters, the transference, where tragic knowledge is passed on, and the crux, where we end at a moment of climactic confrontation. There are many more frames, but I have gone on long enough, so these are perhaps best reserved for another essay

Exercise 1.2

Choose one frame and re-write your story through this prism. How does it change things? Do you need to add characters or take away certain scenes? Has it improved the overall emotional resonance of the scene?

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Thank you so much for coming this far. I hope that this class has been of use to you. We’ve now reached the end of Part 3. I really enjoyed writing up these notes from my seminar, and I hope they are of use to you in some way. Thanks very much for taking the time to read it, it means a lot to me. In the future, there may be further classes, with more frames and techniques, depending on interest. If you do want more, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter.

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!