Peripheries of Fear

  • Gerry Turcotte
    Peripheral Fear: Transformations of the Gothic in Canadian and Australian Fiction. Peter Lang Publishing Group
Reviewed by Daniel Burgoyne

Gerry Turcotte’s Peripheral Fear is a collection of essays published separately in the 1990s. This work engages two important questions. First, if the Gothic is rooted in medieval revival, why does it play such a prominent role in colonialist writing of Australia and Canada? Second, how can a single genre negotiate both the imperatives and anxieties of colonialism and remain relevant to postcolonial literature?

Key to answering these questions is Turcotte’s claim that the Gothic is a “topical index” of eighteenth-century change and conflict in Britain, including colonialism, global trade, and large-scale transformations of industry, social class, and belief. He emphasizes how writers take liberties with the antiquarian interest in the medieval that dominated early revival architecture and fiction. These liberties accrete the medieval with a macabre fascination with death, ghosts, and landscape aesthetics such as the picturesque and sublime, effectively displacing the Gothic from an interest in history and producing more metaphorical explorations. In writers like Ann Radcliffe, the “spurious” historical setting is used “to measure the limits and weaknesses of her own ‘civilized’ world.” By the early nineteenth century, the Gothic genre was already flexible enough to articulate the experience of colonial settlers.

Turcotte observes how the disturbing and transgressive potential of British Gothic fiction had a tendency to fail, to recuperate the danger it posed. I think of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, where the supernatural at first disturbs and destabilizes but subsequently affirms the legitimacy of the church by authenticating Satanic damnation. Turcotte argues that colonial Gothic differs because the landscape and the danger confronted by settlers is not merely imagined. The openness and disturbance of the Gothic make it an apt genre for articulating colonial experience, but the New World setting intensifies the openness and disturbance because it can’t be narratively recuperated.

One possible limitation with this analysis is that the Gothic is too generic: if “the very nature of colonial literature is predicated upon a notion of incompleteness, and displays a preoccupation with identity,” perhaps the ambiguities of the Gothic can accommodate any colonial literature. Thus, I appreciate Turcotte’s analysis of Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague and Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton, which shows that early colonial writing doesn’t encompass the fear and disorientation characteristic of the Gothic. Nevertheless, I continue to wonder about the flexibility of Gothic as a genre label, especially with regard to postcolonial writing.

The emergence of Gothic taste in Canada and Australia during the early nineteenth century offers a vivid historical instance of how the genre is bound up in colonialism. By the 1790s, the Gothic was an accepted architectural style that was progressively adopted in Canada and Australia to signify Britain. This inversion of Gothic alterity corresponds with shifts in colonial Gothic that anticipate later postcolonial critiques and subversions. Drawing on what by now seems like a textbook reading of how Freud’s idea of the uncanny informs analyses of the Gothic, Turcotte engages nineteenth-century novels, including John Richardson’s Wacousta (1832) and James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888). He shows how in these novels “fear of the familiar can come to surpass that of the unfamiliar.”

As Turcotte observes, there are obvious limitations created because the book is a collection. For me, one example is raised by the analysis of the Gothic in Marian Engel’s Bear. As part of this analysis, he turns to Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection in Powers of Horror in order to show how women writers use the female body to appropriate the Gothic. While this use of Kristeva makes sense, I wonder why the abject, which provides such a companion and alternative to Freud’s uncanny, is not applied to the other works that he discusses, specifically colonial Gothic. For instance, what is De Mille doing with abjection in A Strange Manuscript?

This book offered me a clearer sense of Turcotte’s tripartite model of the Gothic that accounts for the progression from Old World Gothic, epitomized as “decaying heritage,” to New World Gothic, characterized by risk and wonder, to the emergence of postcolonial Gothic that re-appropriates the genre in order to counter colonialist assumptions. In general, this triadic model helps explain how the Gothic can articulate unease or anxiety—a failure and re-inscription of colonialist models—while simultaneously working subversively to question the sufficiency of colonialist frameworks.

Peripheral Fear pioneered exploration of the Gothic outside of European and American literature, and it remains relevant as a point of departure for those working on colonial and postcolonial Gothic.

This review “Peripheries of Fear” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 195-96.

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