Gothic novels are not merely ‘simple horror stories’; often the themes used reach a psychological level, tackling human nature, and the imagination. The horror aspect is used as a tool to induce fear in the reader on not only a ‘physical’ level but also a psychological level, themes such as loneliness, revenge, jealousy, victimisation and a need to rationalise surreal images, sounds and feelings. In all the Gothic explores human identity, a train of thought that every human being will wonder about at some point or another in their life. Discovering who and what you are is a daunting prospect, especially when realisations such as the existence of a deep evil as well as good within us all are made, leading to themes such as ever-present evil and madness.
Situations such as loneliness and facing the supernatural are also frightening, and so such texts are written in style of what can be seen as ‘simple horror stories’ on the surface. William Patrick Day also assumes this concept: ‘…the descent into the Gothic underworld becomes a descent into the self in which the protagonists confront their own fears…However the conventions of the genre always externalise this process…with exotic places, creatures and events’. The Gothic concerns these thought-provoking, and naturalistic issues in ‘The Woman In Black’ by Susan Hill, and ‘The Woman In White’ by Wilkie Collins. Both novels tackle the theme of evil, good, nurturing and identity, all issues which make them more than just scary stories. ‘The Woman In White’ also concerns greed, entrapment, and sanity.
‘The Woman In Black’ begins with a scene set on Christmas Eve, a day associated with family life, and giving a warm atmosphere. This is our first hint to the theme of parenthood in the novel, for later we see that the protagonist Kipps, is subjected to the wrath of a mother who watched her son die. Supernatural elements in the novel, such as an eerie atmosphere; ‘the world went dark around me’, or the surreal idea of her ‘presence’ as the deaths occur are used to lead us to conclude that she goes as far as to kill his wife and son too.
The subject of parenting is also taken up in observing the relationship between ‘the woman in white’ and her mother; Mrs Catherick puts her daughter in an insane asylum to keep her from revealing a wicked secret that she has overheard, perhaps actually driving her to insanity. This idea of parenthood and nurturing in isolation from the novels are far from being ‘simple horror’, and the inclusion of this issue forms part of what makes them complex pieces of literature.
In taking these courses of action both mothers lead us to the theme of morality -one speculates if their actions be justified? ‘the woman in black’ is evil, she terrifies, haunts and traumatises Kipps, someone unrelated to her cause of distress, and in ‘The Woman In White’ Mrs Catherick has her only daughter locked up for no other reason than for having a curious and innocent nature that is common in childhood.
This also represents the battle between good and evil -Kipps represents good by attempting to overcome, or deny, his fears of the other-worldly ‘woman in black’. Ann Catherick, ‘the woman in white’ maintains a struggle to be heard and speak out against those who have wronged her, representing good, which is furthered by her image -dressed completely and unassumingly modest in white. The theme of morality and good versus evil is something very pertinent in terms of human identity, no matter what period of time we are in, and so these novels cannot be ‘simple horror stories’ for they address concerns that reach us on a much deeper level.
Malice and revenge as forms of evil exist in ‘The Woman In Black’ herself, as a result of the immense agony and suffering she has endured, and so she is embodied in a supernatural form, which one cannot say is or is not a ghost. What is habitual in life is seen as ordinary and ‘good’, and she is ‘unknown’ for we cannot identify what she is, and has an ability to terrify and shock in an inexplicable and intense manner, making her supernatural, extraordinary and as a result emphasising evil. In ‘The Woman In White’ Ann Catherick is seen as the supernatural element, in terms of her description and the atmosphere created when she is present: ‘Under the wan wild evening light, that woman and I were met together again; a grave between us, the dead about us, the lonesome hills closing us round on every side’.
The supernatural and sublime, motifs that run throughout both novels, are a prime example of a deeper meaning hidden by an exterior of a foreboding atmosphere. In ‘The Woman In Black’ for example, ‘there was the sound of moaning down all the chimneys of the house and whistling through every nook and cranny’, and in ‘The Woman In White’, ‘The sharp autumn breeze that scattered the dead leaves at our feet, same as cold to me, on a sudden, as if my own mad hopes were dead leaves, too’. After both of these eerie settings, an equally eerie event occurs which holds connotations to be explored on a psychological level, and are not to be taken as ‘simple horror’.
In between the lines of this ‘externalisation’ of ‘horror’, for example in the description we get of the ‘woman in black’; ‘she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only was she extremely pale…but the skin, and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones’, and the chilling events that are perhaps caused by her, we see that what is truly terrifying is the fact that she is, or was once, a human.
She proves that humans have the capacity to wreak desolation. She victimises the innocent by plaguing death among children, and this falls into a ‘horror’ genre, but is a complicated rather than ‘simple story’ due to the fact that her pain can be identified with. This is also true of Count Fosco, Sir Percival Glyde and Mrs Catherick. Their greed drives them beyond malevolent trickery and cheating, to the point where the death of Ann Catherick is worth nothing except to lead their way to acquire a desired wealth. The features of victimising others, inflicting pain, suffering pain, and greed can be easily identified with, creating another complex layer to what are supposedly ‘simple horror stories’.
The creation of this psychological affinity with the affairs of the characters in the novels evidently shows that they are not ‘simple horror stories’. The style of both novels increases this level of realism, for Susan Hill’s novel is written in the first person, and so we journey with him, and see what he sees, hear and feel what he does, and the dialogue too is naturalistic. With Wilkie Collins’s novel, the story is unravelled by each of the main characters, and the language and style is adapted to each one of them, therefore also giving an acute sense of naturalism, that the reader can relate to.
Another contribution to the naturalism of ‘The Woman In Black’ is Kipps’s constant battle to rationalise the irrational, he is always in a state of denial of his sixth sense, which relates to the theme of human identity -one can choose to accept that supernatural forces such as evil exist, or to be in complete denial of it. The use of dogs in both novels agree with the former option, for they are said to have a stronger sense of the phenomenal; when Sir Percival Glyde arrives Laura Fairlie’s dog reacts in a negative manner, to reflect that this character has a darkness around him, and in ‘The Woman In White’, the dog ‘Spider’ whines and is frightened when something evil is about to occur.
‘The Woman In Black’ and ‘The Woman In White’ may be termed ‘simple horror stories’, but this is because they employ the use of pathetic phallacy, and a desolate, ruined, foreboding building or location, and frightening imagery, events, sounds and the characters reactions to create a mysterious and terrifying atmosphere. However this is merely a build up for the readers to be prepared for concepts that are even more frightening, for they affect us on a psychological level, aided by literary devices to make the novels naturalistic.
Exploring human identity and liberating one’s imagination are the primary themes of all Gothic novels; they lead into the themes used, such as good versus evil, malice, revenge, denial and nurturing. These novels are much more complex as a result, they are thought provoking, and we are able to identify with the characters although they endure otherworldly experiences.