Friday, August 28, 2015

A Particular Creature

Giovanni Battista Piranesi's engravings were an 
inspiration for Gothic literature

Our need to explore the dark forces of nature birthed the fairy-tale. From the fairy-tail, the horror story grew and developed into something else. With Gothic Romance we return to those fairy-tale roots. “It’s punk.” It’s a reaction to a strict moral society. It is all about extravagant emotion and sexual innuendo.

It was my deep pleasure to attend Guillermo Del Toro’s Master’s Classes at the TIFF on Wednesday.
Unfortunately, I was unable to be at the other two classes in the series, but what I heard that night left a deep impression. We watched and discussed Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. Del Toro used this as a jumping off point into the genre tropes of the Gothic Romance. I thought it would be great to share with everyone some of the things I learned from it.

I am in no way taking credit for any of the ideas in this post. They are all Del Toro’s. They represent direct quotes from him and much paraphrasing, since recording devices were not allowed and I don’t have a transcript of the event. The only originality here is my interpretation and summation of the over one hour long discussion into the key elements of the genre.

Key elements

The Edifice

A Gothic romance centers on an edifice. It is a space of light and shadow that diminished the characters by its great scale. It is played upon by the elements. Fog and rain affect its mood and emotion. It contains a malignant presence. This is not necessarily a ghost. It could be a ghostly feeling or an ever present absence. This is not the same thing as a haunted house.  The Shinning and The Haunting of Hill House are not Gothic romances. But in the literary development of the edifice, Poe’s House of Usher advances it into being the representation of the corruption of the characters, and Henry James’s Turn of the Screw turns it into the reflection of the character’s mind and psychology.

The Characters

In Gothic romance, it is necessary to have an innocent.  This innocent is not necessarily pure but someone naïve and unworldly. She (traditionally, it is usually a she) is introduced into the edifice and the corrupt world by a dark and brooding guide. This guide is frequently a cad—or as Del Toro put it: “a massive dick.” But the truly beautiful characters in a Gothic romance are the villains. They are the ones that are full of complexity. The ensemble of characters are part of a class system and the dynamics of that system are ever present beneath the surface.

The Secret

Somewhere within the work there will be a hidden room holding a secret. This may be a real room or a concept. The secret is something that lies in the past.  It is a memento mori—a reminder of death hidden away inside the edifice and influencing the action.

The Journey

The story is the journey of the innocent. She meets her Byronesque guide and enters within the edifice, where she is emotionally rocked between the poles of happiness and despair by her guide and the villains. The secret is at the heart of the building’s darkness but she seems to be the only one ignorant of it. The innocent must be physically transported to an underworld—a place subterranean or underwater in order to reach the secret room.  There she will uncover the secret of the past and reveal it.  Only though this revelation can she move forward and return to the surface. In this structure, the Gothic romance is the same as the fairy-tales of old.

Del Toro

In the little time I spent listening to Del Toro, he proved himself to be a very knowledgeable and thoughtful individual with an amazing grasp on both film and literature. I can only hope my meager attempt to relate this information does it justice and that you will  find interesting and perhaps useful.
Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming film is Crimson Peak, scheduled to release in October. It is in the tradition of the Gothic romance and looks as though it will exemplify many of these concepts.


  1. Great notes! I love Rebecca and this reminded me of another film from that era...The Uninvited (1944) I recommend it highly!

    Thanks, David!

    1. I'm incredibly happy you liked it, Bruce. I haven't seen that one. I will be sure to keep a look out for it. Del Toro also spoke a bit about Suspicion, a film Hitchcock made later in his career and was sort of an unofficial remake of Rebecca, where he made the movie he wanted to without as much producer interference. I happened to catch it a few years ago and is certainly a more inventive take on the genre.

      Thank you so much for reading and for the recommendation!