Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Damsels in Distress


Fillettes dans un Jardin a Montmarte,
Pierre Auguste Renoir,
oil on canvas, c. 1893-95.


Certainly not those damosels.

The golden atmosphere is wrong.

Last night I read an old collection of short stories called Gothic Sampler, edited by Edwina Noone.

In her preface she makes this observation: The simon-pure Gothic story will star a blameless young heroine who is placed in constant jeopardy by her own presence in a strange house ( either as governess, guest, relative or new mistress); in that house will be a cast of characters who are living in the shadow of some Great Terrible Secret...

The hero is often the brooding master of the house, who inherits all the skeletons, the ghosts, the secrets and the curses as a descendant of an ancient line.

She goes on to define the Gothic tale as one of doom and romance and which require three essentials:

1. damsel in distress.
2. atmosphere and mood.
3. menace from the past.

Though the term Gothic has fallen into descriptive disfavour, many stories today still contain the basics, particularly the innocent heroine - though innocence itself has also been re-defined - with one exception.

The atmosphere and setting, conveniently annotated by the crumbling mansion/baronial hall congruent to the architectural definition of the term, is usually lacking; and the menace has become internal (personal demons) or overtly realistic (ie. serial killer/stalker.) Even vampires run bistros these days.

Is it just me or has atmosphere and setting suffered from the lean-and- mean definition of suspense? I have the impression that a supportive setting has become a largely irrelevant tool in tales of woman in peril.

24 comments:

December/Stacia said...

I agree. That's one reason I'm so addicted to old gothics and seek them out wherever I can find them.

I love gothics, I totally think they're going to come back too.

kmfrontain said...

Dame Barbara Cartland: I swear she had the first computer, because all her stories followed the Gothic pattern with an exactitude that seemed inhuman. Oh, and she gave a working clone of her mysterious computer to Louis L'Amour, who had his own sort of pattern...

My first conspiracy theory, the secret early computers of Cartland and L'Amour.

I read too many Gothics by Cartland. My mom had a slew of them. Most every modern-set Harlequin held true to the Gothic pattern to some degree, at least in that the woman usually was blameless and just had to exist to get into trouble. Perhaps the reason for the change in setting in current novels is the jaded young reader has become today's writer. And women don't nearly feel as helpless, and settings aren't, in reality, always that supportive.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

One reason I love to write and read short stories is because the story elements that speak to the story, like setting, always stands out.

They're also sorely missed when not utilized, which is all too often these days.

Ric said...

I think the Gothic setting has suffered with the advent of 'everything old is bad' mentality now forced upon us. Nothing old is good - old building? tear it down. Old houses - tear them down, replace with McMansions. Old people - lock them away. Even soda pop has use by dates - how does it get old?

The car is old. Yeah, but it still runs fine - yeah, but it's old.

Hard to find an old manor house with a deep history, skeletons (real or imagined) Torn down, replaced by faux townhouse with Starbucks in the lobby.

Settings no longer have any permanance - go by next week, and the old stone fence is gone, replaced by brand new plastic horse fencing.

Bernita said...

I suppose one of the reasons setting has been dismissed, December, is a practical one - easy transportation. Isolation is more difficult.
I wonder if the rising price of gasoline will make a segregated setting suddenly more realistic.

However, Karen, the women are just as innocent - if one defines that as innocent of evil intent.
Some of Cartland's heroines showed surprising spine though.
I like it when the setting reflect the conflict, even surreptitiously.

I wonder if in rejecting the block description as purple, SS, that writers often fail to dribble it in in the same manner as useful backstory.
So many stories seem anywhere/anytime - anchorless.

Bernita said...

There's something in what you say, Ric - even to a distrust for permanence.
Urban renewal shouldn't always mean removal.
But are old houses, for example, really that hard to find? Or do people just not see what they look at?

kmfrontain said...

Oh, yeah, most of the women had quite a bit of spine, since they put up with a lot of crap in her stories. I read every one my mom had. Can't say I wasn't addicted, but I'm not writing those sorts of stories now. I think your idea of transport and settings (answer to December's post) may be valid. We're in a fast-paced age. We see many settings fly by really quick. Seen one, seen 'em all mentality perhaps. Go back five or so decades and you'll find many people that never left the home neighbourhood. Perhaps they contemplated settings more, got more out of imagining a new one.

Bernita said...

Faceless urbanization and flash-past countryside.
Move it. Move it!
And that may explain in part, Karen, why world building is so essential to fantasy.
Has escaped Eliot's "have seen it all already, seen it all..."

writtenwyrdd said...

I can't actually form an opinion on this one. I think that the run of Gothics which I read in my misspent youth turned me off the old castle/ ancient evil/ helpless maiden set up because I read really bad ones, lol.

Nevertheless, I do think that the atmosphere is what made them gothic more than the setting.

Isn't Wuthering Heights more or less a gothic novel? I confess, I wanted to slap that ninny silly for playing games with Heathcliff; but helpless or whiny heroines curl my lip.

Bailey Stewart said...

I confess, I've read very little gothic in my life. But when I think of gothic, for some reason I think of England.

Bernita said...

Written, Wuthering Heights is one of the classic Gothics, along with Jane Eyre and Rebecca.
Mary Stewart wote a good Gothic and so did Phyllis Whitney. Victoria Holt adhered more often to a medieval style setting.
Have read some good Gothics set on a storm-lashed promontory on the Maine coast.
And Bailey, some Gothics have been centered on the Hudson Valley too. As Written said, atmosphere is what counts mostly.

Scott from Oregon said...

I think setting, in general, is being ignored in most genre fiction, these days, at least the bits and pieces I pick up and try to read a page or two from.

It seems every story rushes in to grab you by an event before you put the book down.

With so much that is out there now, I feel no more "inside" of some else's world than I do reading the newspaper.

Bring back the descriptive passages, please.

Bernita said...

Scott, I thought it might be just me.

Carla said...

"I thought it might be just me."

Not at all, I have the same feeling as Scott. I think that's probably part of what draws me to historical in preference to contemporary fiction. HF, like fantasy, has to at least try to take you to someone else's world.

Bernita said...

And the thing is, Carla, used properly, sans info dump, the Gothic settings enhanced the situations and enforced and promoted the plot.

writtenwyrdd said...

The thing I love most about a good fantasy is when I fall in love with the world itself. The descriptions! I'm always getting gigged for being too wordy, but I'm not gonna change. I like those full blown descriptions. give me a description-bloated novel any day.

raine said...

Is it just me or has atmosphere and setting suffered from the lean-and- mean definition of suspense?

No, it's not just you.
Agree wholeheartedly. And we are all the poorer for it.

Here's hoping December's right, and that much of it makes a comeback.
(Rochester nearly made me drool!)

Charles Gramlich said...

Setting is always immensely important to me, and to my enjoyment of a tale. I think there are too many modern writers who neglect the setting as unimportant or superfulous. I'd rather see the old stuff personally.

Scott from Oregon said...

Well, I am glad I am not alone.

"Generic" comes to mind when thinking of "place" in most recent stories.

I don't want generic.

Bernita said...

Yes, Written, I can think of several where the world was as interesting as the action.

Mental geography can only serve so far, Raine, yet that's sometimes all we're offered.

People do react to setting and atmosphere, Charles. Don't like characters totally divorced from it.

Homogenized and stereotyped, it seems, Scott.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think it depends on what genre you're writing in. Gothic to me denotes a certain group of kids today called Goth. Their hair, fingernails, lipstick (sometimes on boys too) and eye makeup is black.

They are brooding, introverted children, so I think of the genre in the same terms!

I only read action, adventure, so I don't pay much attention to what goes on in other genres! :-)

Bernita said...

Bonnie, you make me wonder if the decline of the term "gothic" relates to the rise of that sub-group!

Sam said...

I used to LOVE Victoria Holt's books. And I still do, lol.
Yes, the Gothic style is predictable and in some ways silly (it can go way over the top) but it makes a great read. (On a rainy, thundery day...)

Bernita said...

Me too, Sam!
Now the type is classed as paranormal or romantic suspense, but really, many are basically gothics.