Supernatural fiction: the vampire on the threshold

A large part of my critical interests can be found in the area of self-conscious fiction, and in particular, metafiction: fiction which not only reflexively plays with its own genre identity and rules, but which manages, through its offering of itself deliberately as constructed artefact rather than mimetic reality, to complicate and problematise the relationship between text and reality, and thus the act of representation. The problem with dealing in metafiction is that all texts are crafted, the self-consciousness almost inherent in the act of creation, and sooner or later everything looks metafictional if you stare at it for long enough.

The case I’ve recently been dealing with is the supernatural fiction genre, primarily as represented by Victorian writers such as Poe or Lefanu or Stoker, but extending into the work of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft. This kind of supernatural writing plays bizarre and fascinating games with representation and reality. So many supernatural texts employ first-person narration, often from multiple viewpoints, often framed as science or scholarship – Dracula takes this to extremes, with telegraphs and newspaper articles and transcribed doctors’ notes making up part of its narratives. A lot of ghost stories rely on this narrator figure, simultaneously caught up in but outside, if only virtue of surviving, the supernatural events – Poe’s “House of Usher” is another example. Lovecraft’s investigators are often academics, doctors, professors; even H. G. Wells, demonstrating the close ties between science fiction and the Gothic mode, frames his Time Machine travels as a narrative told to an audience of respectable middle-class men. The narrated supernatural experience is a subgenre in itself, extending effortlessly from the nineteenth century into the present day, so that the Dr. Hesselius frame to Lefanu’s weird fiction is an exact technical equivalent to the camera in The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield: an appeal to verifiable, scientific reality. At the same time, of course, it places the reader or viewer firmly within the emotional response of the protagonist, and thus able to access the unease and terror which are intrinsic to the genre.

The interesting thing about this framing is that it demonstrates the extent to which the genre needs to convince. Supernatural fiction is by definition non-mimetic, self-consciously fantastic: it cannot pretend to reflect reality in any exact way. However, the Gothic mode is also essentially emotional, its purpose to re-create the suspense, dread and terror felt by its protagonists – to generate, in fact, for the reader that vicarious thrill of empathetic fear as something which is simultaneously both unreal and real. In order to genuinely feel that artifically-constructed terror the reader needs to commit to the obviously false reality of the story, its location in a supernatural world – hence all the appeal to verifiability, science, trustworthiness. Paradoxically this is also a self-conscious genre identity which underlines its lack of realism – its brandishing of itself, in fact, as artefact simultaneously with its obvious demand for the reader’s investment. It figures in slightly more extreme terms the tension and paradox of reading any kind of text, the need to suspend disbelief in order to participate in a fictional world in order to generate a real emotional investment.

This means that, on all the meta-literary levels that matter, supernatural fiction is itself a vampire creature, explained and dramatised by this most powerful and complex of its own symbols. Like the vampire, it can only have its effect if you explicitly invite it in. Once you do, it offers you surprisingly similar pleasures to those offered by the vampire: the experience of fear and desire, a horrible sort of intimacy, an irresistible power to which you helplessly and enjoyably submit yourself. The guilty pleasure, in fact, of corruption. Like the vampire, in texts from Varney to the Vampire Diaries, the supernatural genre is continually re-inventing itself as it finds new ways to offer this pleasure.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *