BANGALORE: As the season finale of True Blood, HBO's ever-popular vampire series ends with a whimper, Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries series fly of the shelves for one last time. This brings to an end the hullaballoo around one of the early genre benders that created a craze among the teenage female audience around the world. This is also perhaps a good time to remember another innovator, Horace Walpole, the fourth earl of Oxford and the progenitor of the Gothic romance, the literary forbear to the 21st century paranormal romances.
In 1764, exactly 250 years ago, Horace Walpole paved the way for an entirely new literary genre that changed the way the world looked at romance and horror. His novel called The Castle of Otranto left in its wake a legion of fans, imitators and master innovators who continue to take his legacy forward to this day. For the first time, death, decay, horror and suspense were conjoined with romance, desire and longing to create a tragic, readable and entirely entertaining genre — the gothic romance. Masterpieces a la Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and Bram Stoker's Dracula among others dominated the 17th-18th century literary landscape while Anne Rice, Stephen King, Daphne Du Maurier took the tradition forward in the 20th century. The swooning, brooding and pale-faced teen vampire-centric romances of the 21st century are perhaps the modern inheritors of the gothic romance.
With a strong female readership as well as authorship, the gothic novels delivered on all counts of popular entertainment. Menacing and lofty structures, eerie winds whistling through underground tunnels, virtuous damsels fleeing in distress from profligate male characters, secret doors, hidden passageways, supernatural elements, prophecies, corruption, decay, madness and tragedy were the typical tropes that defined this type of fiction. While the regressive nature of punishment/rewards for the virtuous was highlighted in some books, the subversive and feminist content of others like Jane Eyre was also equally lauded. There were the shy and delicate heroines like Isabella in Walpole's classic whose character was etched as tragic suffering figure. She was: ‘the gentle maid, whose hapless tale’ was recounted in the ‘melancholy pages’ of the book. She was also the yelling, shrieking madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre who was appropriated by the 21st century critics as a beacon of female sexuality.
In turns thrilling, melodramatic, laden with purple prose and dark and brooding heroes, the gothic novel appealed to Victorian women who were trapped in a rather staid domestic existence.
At the same time, it was fantastic and radical, drawing on the current scientific discoveries, religious debates and socio-political events, presenting a strange and slightly skewed mirror of the time.
While the context might have changed, the horror-romance combination continues to abound, drawing on our essential preoccupations and fears, an exploration of the dark side of the human psyche and the external world itself and bringing the real and the strange together in the same space.
And we all have Horace Walpole to thank for these tales about the paranormal twists of the heart.