Today, we are pleased to present the Halloween edition of our Literary Terms series. Here at TMR, we love scary stories, and it is useful to examine the vocabulary we use to describe the fiction that frightens us.
Gothic Literature- Merriam-Webster defines Gothic as: adj., “of or relating to a style of writing that describes strange or frightening events that take place in mysterious places.” Gothic literature all started with with Horace Walpole’s novel Castle of Oronto in 1765, and the tradition was continued by writers such as Ann Radcliffe, and in classic horror stories like Frankenstein and Dracula. The genre itself was named after the architecture that inspired it: the medieval castles and ruins in which much of Gothic literature takes place, and which often play a vital role in the narrative’s plot. Gothic literature has evolved over the years to include subgenres such as Southern Gothic literature, which takes place in the American South and is associated with much-beloved authors Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner, among others. The Gothic tradition continues today in the works of such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Julia Elliott.
The Uncanny – What exactly is the uncanny? We can think of no one better to explain this slippery term and its history than Marjorie Sandor, who contributed an essay on the uncanny earlier this month. Read it here. A preview: “The sensation of uncanniness is, at its core, an anxiety about the stability of those persons, places, and things in which we have placed our deepest trust, and our own sense of identity and belonging. And what’s exciting about this for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, is that it invites us to practice uncertainty.”
The Grotesque – Nowadays, when people talk about “the grotesque,” their meaning is closer to its adjectival form: “very strange or ugly in a way that is not normal or natural.” The grotesque in literature focuses on the human body, and all the ways that it can be distorted or exaggerated: its aim is to simultaneously elicit our empathy and disgust. Very much like the uncanny, the grotesque draws its power from the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, or the familiar distorted. Gothic fiction often has elements of the grotesque, such as Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein or the off-kilter characters in Flannery O’Conner’s stories. In its earlier iterations, the term “grotesque” was used in a way that overlapped more with “the uncanny,” referring to works that blurred the line between the real and the fantastic, such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which the human protagonist is transformed into an insect. It is interesting to see the ways in which these terms overlap, and it’s important to note that their exact “definitions” can be hard to nail down because of the way they have changed over time.
Terror and Horror – Terror and horror are often used interchangeably, but the two terms are actually quite different. Last year, Lincoln Michel contributed a brilliant essay on the difference between the two: “Terror is the feeling of dread and apprehension at the possibility of something frightening, while horror is the shock and repulsion of seeing the frightening thing. Terror is the sounds of unknown creatures scratching at the door; horror is seeing your roommate eaten alive by giant rats. Terror is the feeling a stranger may be hiding behind the door; horror is the squirt of blood as the stranger’s knife sinks in.”
What other terms do you use to talk about frightening fiction? Share in the comments.