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The Murky Landscape of Eastern European Gothic(09 May 2013)
By Miss Maria Cohut
First of all, I suppose I should introduce myself: I’m Maria Cohut, apprentice of metaphysics (read: first year PhD in comparative lit) and lover of all things macabre, ambiguous, uncanny and obscure. I conduct all my dubious experiments at the Uni of Warwick, whose staff is kind enough to overlook the shrill, inhuman cries emerging from the basement of the Humanities building whenever I’m around. I am privileged to have been allowed to share my curious thoughts and queries on the IGA blog throughout May, and I do hope I will get many exciting and challenging responses from the readers.
For this, my first entry, and as David Langdon kindly suggested in his previous post, I will briefly explore a topic that has been on my mind for quite some time now: what I think of as ‘Eastern European Gothic’. This, I hope, will also tie in nicely with David’s own discussion of what does and what doesn’t constitute ‘the Gothic’ and where it is that we could and should draw the line between Gothic and other liminal genres such as horror. My questions, for the moment (which I don’t really hope to answer even though I’ll play with the various options), amount to:
1. Is there such a thing as ‘Eastern European Gothic’?
2. If there is, how does it differ from British/ Western Gothic and in what ways is it similar to it? What are its characteristics?
So what do I mean by ‘Eastern European Gothic’? I guess the best way to describe it would be a literary exploration of contemporary social and psychological concerns by employing such elements as terror, horror, the supernatural, the uncanny and an oppressive, overbearing atmosphere transforming the story itself into a labyrinth that entraps both the characters and the story’s readers. What, then, sets apart this Eastern European Gothic from its Western counterpart? The specific human geography context, I would say, and the particular ‘Eastern European’ fantasy elements – the range of werewolves, undead, village witches and roaming spirits with emphatic ‘Eastern European’ flavour. And this is the point, I would say, where the conundrum becomes apparent: if part of the Western Gothic’s description is the fact that it extensively uses Eastern European locations and characters in order to create/express a sense of uncanny, or of ‘otherness’ through the partial exoticism of ‘darkest Europe’ – see Bram Stoker’s Dracula as perhaps the best example in this sense – then what does the Eastern Gothic use to accomplish the same purpose? Does it turn on itself, ‘exoticise’ itself, as it were? Or does it turn yet on other spaces to provide an ideal context for the uncanny? This, I admit, is one of the questions I find difficult to answer. I will, however, try to do so by looking – very briefly, I promise! – at three authors of dark/occult/uncanny fiction from four different traditions, whose works I believe may fit this invention of mine, the ‘Eastern European Gothic’.
One would be Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852), (Ukrainian-born) Russian author of many types of fiction, most of which markedly contains elements of Russian and Ukrainian folklore, fantasy or surrealism, and the grotesque. While it would be impossible to say that all of his work is in some way reminiscent of the Gothic, I would, nonetheless, argue that some of his short fiction is – pointedly so. An excellent example is the story Viy, in which a young theology student confronts (and apparently kills) a witch only to be shortly forced to exorcise her evil spirit from her dead body. I won’t tell you much about the plot itself, since I don’t want to ruin it for you in case you haven’t read it, but the witch figure draws heavily on Eastern European folklore – where a witch or an evil spirit would embezzle the naive and unfortunate to carry her on their backs until they lost their life force. In Gogol’s story, the main character is literally trapped in oppressive, claustrophobic spaces – a small and uncanny Russian village, a ruined Orthodox church – just like the main character in any traditional Gothic novel, only here the roles are reversed: the man is the oppressed, the woman the oppressor. Throughout the story, the supernatural and psychological elements serve to point out various societal flaws: local despotism, corruption, the ease of spreading moral panic through gossip, the hypocrisy of the theology students, who switch between casual atheism and strong superstition with nonchalance. In many ways, Gogol thus uses various ‘Gothic’ techniques’ to criticise the structures and habits of nineteenth-century (rural, though not exclusively) Russian society. Does he turn Russian folklore and customs against themselves to ‘other’ said society? It seems to me that yes, he does, that such elements as the hints at vampirism (onto which the villagers have turned a blind eye for years) and the subtle blend of religious faith and crude superstition in many of the characters are used as a means to defamiliarise the (local) reader with their own environment so as to judge it, if possible, from a distance.
A bit later on in time and a lot more to the west in space, we have Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932), German language writer of many weird novels and stories with occult themes, born in Austria (the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time), but obsessed with Prague, where he lived for around 20 years (between 1883 and 1904). His constant fixation on Prague and its medley of cultures, languages, folklores and religions made me label Meyrink’s prose as ‘Eastern European’, though I’m very open to debate. Two of his novels, The Golem (1914), and Walpurgisnacht (1917), are set in Prague and they are both, I would argue, very Gothic. They both use the city as the labyrinthic space of an inner journey of spiritual development and renewal, though where exactly the threat comes from in Meyrink’s stories is never quite clear. Usually (and this holds for all of Meyrink’s novels), the source of evil is something intangible, like social unrest, revolution, or war, which threatens to bestialise, or de-humanise society. More than the city – always pervaded by an oppressive atmosphere of unrest – the plot is set in particularly cramped, claustrophobic and ambiguous spaces within the city itself: the Jewish Ghetto in The Golem, the Dalibor Tower (old torture and prison dungeons) in Walpurgisnacht. In Meyrink’s work, the terror and horror comes either from clashes with the inhuman violence of the crowd, or from ambiguous encounters with supernatural beings such as the Golem from Jewish folklore (an anthropomorphic automaton brought to life via theosophical or magical formulas). In these two novels, he draws heavily on Jewish tradition and Czech history (specifically the history of Prague) to create a space of ‘otherness’ where everything is possible and, indeed, probable. The most ‘exotic’ elements in all his stories, however, are those of occultism and esoterism: after he defamiliarises places by exposing them to social violence, he then proceeds to outbid this situation by creating a parallel world of exalted dreams, visions and supernatural beings.
Even more than Gogol and Meyrink, finally, I’d say that the author whose work best fits this ‘Eastern European Gothic’ category is the Polish writer Stefan Grabiński (1887-1936), who ‘proposed calling his [own] fiction work “psychofantasy” or “metafantasy”’, because it channelled ‘psychological, philosophical, or metaphysical concerns’ (Miroslaw Lipinski, ‘Introduction’ to The Motion Demon). He himself felt the need to specify that: ‘Wonder and fear—these are my guiding motives’ (quoted in the ‘Introduction’ to The Motion Demon). His work is full of terror, horror and a sense of uncanny and he, as Gogol, draws on peculiar local motifs in order to create these feelings: in his short story Fumes, for instance, the male main character barely survives a close encounter with a vampiric creature that takes on, by turns, the guise (and personality) of a lecherous old man, or of a hypersexualised young woman; in another story, In Sarah’s House, another such vampiric character appears, another hypersexualised woman feeding on her male lovers’ youth and vitality to sustain her own. Grabiński’s stories are all varied, and they each reveal different subconscious fears: many focus on the (then rather newly-instated) railway transport, picturing trains as ‘beings’ exerting an uncanny evil influence upon the traveller or the railway workers, who all usually end up in a bad way; others explore various ancestral fears (succumbing to diseased sexuality, overexcited creative minds turned mad by their own genius); yet others play with a fear of the natural elements (usually fire) disrupting the domestic role imposed by man and producing death and havoc. Grabiński’s label of terror and horror thus rakes up the dirty secrets of the human mind and especially a certain dread of the darker side of technological evolution. What is the exotic, ‘other’ space in his fiction? I’d say, first of all, wonders of technology, such as train, which are demonised and rendered uncanny over and again. Does he, as Gogol, turn Polish folklore against itself, defamiliarising Polish society? Perhaps, sometimes, but I think here there’s more of a case of defamiliarising the human psyche through very local motifs, rather than turning on the whole of society, at large.
Now, I would love to go on and on and on, and look at some other possible examples of ‘Eastern European Gothic’, as I (tentatively see it), but I realise I’ve already written quite a lot, and probably said not much at all, so I’ll pass this on to you, readers of the IGA blog. Do you think there’s such a thing as ‘Eastern European Gothic’, or is that a contradiction in itself? I know I haven’t answered the questions I outlined at the beginning of this entry (and I didn’t really expect I would), so what do you think about those as well? Also, I’d be very grateful for more suggestions of Eastern European authors of dark/weird/surreal(/Gothic?) fiction I might be able to look at.
Thank you for patiently reading through my spontaneous outpouring of questions!
Gogol, Nikolai Vasilievich. Short Stories vol. I&II, trans. Constance Garnett (University of Chicago Press, 1985)
Grabinski, Stefan. The Dark Domain, trans. Miroslaw Lipinski (Dedalus, 2005)
Grabinski, Stefan. The Motion Demon, trans. Miroslaw Lipinski (Kindle Editions, 2011)
Grabinski, Stefan. In Sarah's House, trans. Wiesiek Powaga (CB Editions, 2007)
Meyrink, Gustav. The Golem, trans. Mike Mitchell (Dedalus, 1995)
Meyrink, Gustav. Walpurgisnacht, trans. Mike Mitchell (Dedalus, 2011)
Mitchell, Mike. Vivo: The Life of Gustav Meyrink (Dedalus, 2008)