Black Characters in Gothic Fiction

Traditional gothic fiction is characterized by an atmosphere of mystery and terror caused by the unknown with strong themes of repression, paranormal, melodrama and an emphasis on setting which often features religious dualities of good and evil (morality and immorality). The genre being named after the architectural movement: cathedrals, castles and monasteries which are imagined to be laden with somber corners, underground passages, secret rooms and trap doors represent inner turmoil coming from the main and surrounding characters. A large part of the gothic focuses on the return of the settings’ hidden past (sometimes a buried family secret or an unspoken history) as well as the taboo (sexuality, abortion, murder – especially matricide/patricide – violation of religious beliefs…etc). This could be done through omens or foreboding atmosphere. Would the genre be shaped or redefined if it was given an African diasporan framework, and featured black characters? Could Octavia Butler, Toni Morison, Maryse Condé and Aimé Césaire be described as authors of gothic novels? Or would their narratives redefine the genre? Perhaps they might even create something new entirely…

Violence and violation

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987) possesses all characteristics of traditional gothic fiction; the blurred lines between life and death, violence, and moral ambiguity. Sethe, an ex-slave mother is inexplicably visited by her child, Beloved, whom she had murdered as a baby to keep her from the horrors of slavery. The child appears at her mother Sethe’s front door, wearing a black dress and of the same age she would have been had her mother let her live. Here we have elements of mourning, a returning past come to haunt. Toni Morrison expertly crafts language so that time is split, constantly being ripped apart before coming to a halt at Sethe’s final surrender to the house, following the breaking of Beloved. Character-based, the narrative runs smoothly, threaded together with sensory heavy recollections. Life force draws a blurred line between the living and the dead with an emphasis on the characters’ physical experiences in relation to the reckless baby spirit.

Blood is shown as the strongest element keeping these two worlds apart while also creating a tight bond between them. Character Paul D’s “taste of iron” (having been subject to an iron bit, a frequent torture tool used on slaves) adds unsavory flavor to the red picture. Bodily elements (bloating, dismemberment, crawling, nursing…) are brought into a whole in Sethe’s strange world of 124, the possessed house she clings onto. It is interesting to note how the bond between baby Beloved was stronger than that of her other children due to its premature death. Denver, one of her children, is fed the infant’s blood when her mother nurses her, marking the child. When Beloved takes on human form, the three women share common blood, resulting in an unhealthy triangle once the “reincarnated” baby begins to feed off of her mother.

“Desperately thirsty for black blood, without which it could not live, the dragon swam the Ohio at will” Settings are seen as living, breathing entities. The previous quote is pulled from Paul D’s reference to the Klan, as he concludes why he cannot forcibly remove Beloved from the house. Even seasons are described as “the blood of autumn” which sets a tone of looming terror that one’s body is not their own. Once again, dismemberment occurs. “The people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons” after having found a ribbon with attached a piece of raw flesh from a head, character Stamp Paid ponders, hearing the voices out of Sethe’s home, 124. The isolated environment only reinforces the feelings of sudden danger.

Though the baby is central to the uneasily tilted atmosphere, Sethe is the embodiment of unpredictability. Her tendency towards impulsive violence can be explained by the scars on her back, “the tree” – a remnant of slave whippings – which reflect her damaged Self. The destruction of her body manifests in the pieces her story is told. Episodes of sporadic “rememory” throughout the novel record touch, feeling and song. Beloved is not so much a possessed body as she is the imagined form of what the baby would look like had it grown. Its existence is more the manifestation of a moment than it is its own thing. Sethe, however, is controlled by her act. This obsession over bloodshed, constant questions as to whether or not she made the ethical choice appear as cyclical speech. Beloved is the bodily form of a memory that haunts Sethe’s soul.

Philosophy of death in black literature

“How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died […]” – Beloved, Toni Morison

Looking at Moi, Tituba Sorcière (1986) the notion of death differs from the classical European gothic fiction’s theme of Heaven and Hell. Written by French author Maryse Condé, we follow the narrative of a slave witch hanged during the Salem trials. Much like Beloved, it interprets the life of a slave woman derived from an actual historical figure. Tituba also kills her child, hers unborn, to spare it from the horrors of slavery…a horror which is real, the supernatural elements not overriding, as there are very few ways to exaggerate slavery.

The dead “haunting” the earth is not presented as solely negative nor positive. There are further nuances than in the classic gothic novel. In fact, death is almost preferable for black characters. It could be argued that the Southern Gothic is a genre which also utilizes this under “magic realism”, only it does so in a fetishistic way. Backwards rural communities and a legacy of slavery are viewed there as a dark fascination. Repressed racism and patriarchal values manifest in subtle ways. When married with black characters, these subtleties become overt. Here, to hint at slavery and colonialism would not strip away the mystery. We already know what is to be uncovered. In the case of Butler, Morrison and Condé, they are aware that if this reality were not established, the reader would do it in their place. This leaves room for by far one of their strongest points: a fear worse than death.

“Singing love songs to Mr. Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt whom folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last. Only when she was dead would they be safe.” – Beloved, Toni Morison

Morison illustrates this in Beloved through the eyes of prisoner Paul D. After having taken a look at her perspective, further delving into Condé shows a brighter side to passing and haunting.

Born in Pointe-à-Pitre Guadeloupe, Maryse Condé sheds light on Afro-Caribbean witchcraft. According to the few records on the true figure, Tituba was a practitioner of Obeah (a term for Afro-Caribbean occult magic). Condé also offers a completely new perspective on the Salem trials. We follow Tituba, an ostracized orphaned witch living well within the company of her ancestors. In an almost comical act, she willingly surrenders herself into slavery to marry a man she falls in love with. She later receives a second master, this one far stricter than the last and a member of the clergy (a defining element in certain European gothic fiction as it reinforces the notion of Good and Evil or Heaven and Hell) who moves his family, Tituba and her husband to Salem. For historians, the life of a slave witch may have been seemingly irrelevant despite its compelling nature. This makes the fictitious elements all the more compelling, as they bring life to what little is known of.

The novel’s relation to the gothic is split, with the genre in the traditional sense being best embodied in Salem, a cold, wicked area rife with guilt and repression. On the other side, Maryse Condé represents witchcraft in the Caribbean as beneficial, warm and liberating. In terms of setting, it is in the heat of the islands that slaves toil away, hurt, robbed and dissected. Yet, the author does not solely focus on the misery of their plight. Instead we are reminded of parties, loud music, dancing, momentary affairs and taking advantage of every moment the lenient master turns their back. Salem, in contrast, is depressing. Every character represses natural pleasures and desires to the point where little entertainment or even joy in life is to be found.

There is no Heaven or Hell for Tituba. Ancestral presence attests to this, requiring adoration lest they become irritated and threaten those who may have offended them. “Les morts ne meurent que s’ils meurent dans nos coeurs. Ils vivent si nous les chérissons, si nous honorons leur mémoire (…)” This is very much unlike how Christian practices are represented within this novel. The contrast between the obsession with the taboo by the inhabitants of Salem and Tituba’s consistent breaking of it almost seems to rupture the gothic. With Salem on the classic side of the genre, is the Caribbean a type of its own? Despite the skepticism and distance people of the islands projected upon her, Salem is where she is truly isolated. It is possible that the gothic is in both parts of the novel, only played out in different ways. Perhaps the gothic can become colorful, yet threatening in the site of masters and whippings. Elements of the supernatural could be revealed rather than unexplained and the line between Good and Evil blurred. Tituba’s life in the Caribbean may reinforce Salem’s dreary atmosphere. The reverse is equally possible. There is still much to explore within the concept of the gothic genre as “completed” by an opposed setting. The two parts of this novel could be reversed, elements could exchange places…etc in the same way as Beloved. It is heavily malleable and certainly questions the scope of gothic subgenres (such as with Urban or Southern gothic. How about Caribbean gothic?). This brings us to a classic duality.

Good and Evil in colonial times

Let’s take a look at Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) The protagonist Dana is thrust back into the early 19th century American South where she must save her ancestor…much to the reader’s surprise he is a slave master. Dana is being involuntarily pulled into the past and then, when threatened with death, thrown back to her 1970s home. The reader is incessantly on edge. Dana’s short trips home transform the plantation from a ghostly memory into a brutal reality. Rather than simply haunt the living, the past takes her as part of an otherworldly “performance” where she becomes an actor opposed to an onlooker within this setting. In this, we see a metaphorical narrative for America’s repressed slave legacy.

“I had only to move my fingers a little and jab them into the soft tissues, gouge away his sight and give him more agony than he was giving me.” – Kindred, Octavia Butler

Violence is prevalent in fiction with settings drawn from racial issues. Following this, the “black gothic novel” would typically involve elements of gore (such as whipping, beating, killing), violation of the black body (assault, overworking, humiliation) and distorted relationships (ambiguous feelings of love, manipulation, rejection and obsession). Murder and suicide are a common theme in Butler’s novel – whether attempted or successful. But slavery’s affects are not always physical. “Slavery is a long slow process of dulling,” Dana realizes. If we were to label this as black gothic horror, we would notice that the killings also take place in the soul. The dismantling of souls in Butler’s story is what drives the haunting. The refusal of memories to die manifests in reverse: rather than coming to Dana’s time as ghosts, these tormented spirits pull her into their realm. Therein lies the true scare. The knowledge that the present is never safe from the past. The threat is not treated as fiction, but as a representation of an unforgettable era where escape was nearly impossible. An innate survival instinct had slaves endure interminable sufferings. They wished for death, but it never came.

Pieces of the Gothic

The gothic is characterized by the strange and unexplained. Aimé Césaire in Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939) makes the familiar unfamiliar, the expected unexpected in a personal novel which tracks his return to his hometown. This alternating pattern can be found in the other novels previously discussed. Only, Césaire materializes the feeling: colonialism has left people of African descent in a perpetual state of instability. This chief aspect of the genre is then unavoidable for most authors writing about the depth of terror on black people. Then perhaps, considering this in addition to what we have explored, Beloved and Kindred could fall into gothic fiction. At the moment, this remains questionable. Césaire, most likely does not fall under that category. However, he helps pose an interesting question. Is the gothic re-definable?

The setting in Cahier d’un retour au pays natal is extremely somber as melancholy (or depression in the Freudian sense) is the primary theme of his work.  When Césaire plays with the familiar/unfamiliar, he depicts his home in the Antilles as being a stranger. Perhaps because throughout the novel until the conclusion he is a stranger to himself.

“Au bout du petit matin, une autre petite maison qui sent très mauvais dans une rue étroite, une maison minuscule qui habite en ses entrailles de bois pourri des dizaines de rats et la turbulence de mes six frères et sœurs, une petite maison cruelle dont l’intransigeance affole nos fins de mois[…]” Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, Aimé Césaire

We could be looking at a gothic setting within the Antilles. Often painted by outsiders as colorful and joyful, we here experience a piece of truth. Its poverty and horrifying legacy are translated in this work as forms of terror. Family members haunt the house, their once lively bodies rendered into ghosts stricken with misery, exhaustion and fury.

“Au bout du petit matin…” rising, the beginning of a memory “un retour”, or “rememory” as seen with Toni Morrison. What is most striking about this passage is its emotional imagery ‘une autre petite maison qui sent très mauvais dans une rue étroite, une maison minuscule qui habite dans ses entrailles de bois […]’

Césaire’s house feeds off of the family, ‘eats’ his brothers and sisters who run alongside the rats in the walls. Infested entrails, a putrid smell, it is rotting from the inside out. Poverty engulfs, a sensation Césaire mimics with repetition. Angoisse, étouffement, le morne retient son cri, souffrance… He employs the language of the hurt, those who are in despair but do not abandon. Rather than an overpowering fear, the menacing presence of a haunted past is felt. His motif of blood and flesh trigger the collective trauma of slavery. Bodies piled upon bodies, sweat, vomit and ultimately, misery.

Under all of these extreme emotions lies permanent fright. Death and loss loom over them at all times with no respite. The house is possessed with the thought of retribution its spirits never received.

Is it Gothic?

Are the novels above discussed gothic in the European or Southern sense? Beloved could be categorized under the term gothic due to its falling under its classic themes. However, while Moi Tituba and Cahier d’un retour au pays natal possess elements of the gothic, they do not remain exclusive to the genre.

In the case of Maryse Condé’s Moi Tituba, we could say that the genre is redefinable: Carribean gothic might be an adoptable term. Colorful playful environments juxtaposed by violence, bloodshed and unpredictability. The paranormal as embedded in ancestry and ancestral practices with Good and Evil existing in nuanced fashion. Though Obeah and Christianity contrast they both possess the concept of morality and immorality. Omens play a powerful part in the novel, starting with her curse on her lover’s master. Settings of the European gothic are isolation and abandonment. Her “home” in Salem felt uninhabited except for the alleged presence of ghosts. In addition, once she managed to return to her island she was met with dreary weather and found herself joining the Marrons, a group apart from the others who were devoted to overthrowing their masters. Bloodshed preceded her death. However, her hanging proved to be a release where she went on to heal others in her afterlife, feeling the sweet relief of passing and the end of a torturous existence.

We can see now that where the novels discussed set the European gothic apart is the release from violence. The mystery is ambiguous. Tituba may be categorizable as a subset of gothic, “Caribbean”, but Kindred and Cahier d’un retour au pays natal seem to possess elements of it without fully falling under the genre. Certain features such as religion find themselves distorted (with Churches in Kindred or seemingly absent with Césaire) and violence is dominant. Though the same could be said for Beloved, we will address that below. Kindred borders on science fiction and is primarily gothic in setting. The main character is thrust back and forth into a bleak environment, until her “real world” becomes bleak itself. This element of the unexplained stands out from the rest, which is literal. She is in a time of slavery and does herself become a slave. In this way, Césaire’s metaphoriphizes truth. Actual circumstances are set in a gory, somber environment painted with sadness. It is not until the very end that he achieves liberation, solves “the mystery”. But, his cryptic prose does not hide anything paranormal. Both Kindred and Cahier d’un retour au pays natal may be too literal to completely fall into the gothic. Their setting, somber, isolated and often dark does subscribe to the genre. It could also be argued that Césaire adopts melodramatic speech and Butler provides moments of pure terror (such as Alice’s sudden suicide). Still, they seem more to stand on their own with pieces of the gothic intertwined in their story/narrative.

Beloved appears to be purely a gothic novel. It possesses its characteristics of the paranormal, at times suspenseful atmosphere, introspective and dramatic narratives, premonitions, symbolisms of death and depression, religion and ultimate isolation. We see these in Beloved the baby’s arrival, “rememories” (Paul D’s in particular with the escape from prison), manic inner-monologues, Denver’s jealousy and moods foretell certain dramatic events, Beloved’s black dress, Paul D’s pride-induced retreat within the church and Sethe’s forever secluded 124. Though blood and dismemberment of the body play a primary role here, it feels as though Beloved fits into a type of gothic that could potentially be described as Black gothic. If one wishes to go further in considering the last section of the novel painting an abstract grotesque experience, inspiring fear and hinting at the onset of danger, Beloved might fall under a new term: Black gothic horror.

Each of these novels must be considered separately, but it is certain that the gothic literary genre is flexible when it comes to black characters. Falling under a category can at times be limiting, but it can also permit the discovery of alternative modes of writing stories in a society pushing European works at the forefront. Black characters in these novels are as strong as they are vulnerable, intelligent, soft, powerful, mysterious and loving. Given this, the terms Caribbean gothic, Black gothic or Black gothic horror are options as labels in considering works case by case. To complete this, here is another proposition: Black Terror Fiction.

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