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Scare tactics! Secrets of the Gothic novel

As she prepares to talk about Frankenstein at Hampstead Theatre, Kate Mosse tells Dan Carrier how the genre is all a question of light and shade

16 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

THE Gothic novel is a battle between contrasts, according to bestselling novelist Kate Mosse.

Kate, known for her historical fiction that often has dark themes running through it, was a founder member of the Orange Prize and as one of the co-organisers of the Hampstead Festival, held this week at Hampstead Theatre, will be talking about Frankenstein and the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s ground-breaking work.

And she says a crucial aspect of any novel that fits into the Gothic genre is a sense of a battle between conflicting power – a mark of the Victorian era that saw the genre take off.

“It is a fiction based on darkness and light,” says the author, whose latest book, The Burning Chambers, is out in May.

Kate Mosse

“It is about opposites, it is about the rain and the night, and then it is also about the sun being eventually let in and the world shining once more.”

This, she says, speaks volumes about the era the books came from. Though the first truly Gothic novels come from decades preceding the Victorian period, with genre-defining books such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), it was the spread of literacy and innovations in printing that cut the cost of publication – and made it popular and loved by a mass audience.

“We must remember, on the one hand, the Victorian era was very modern,” she says. “They had machinery, travel and they felt the empire was a force for the good – but all this move into modernity was alongside extreme poverty and the constant fear of epidemics and illness. So you have growth and prosperity, coupled with the real fear of epidemics – things that could destroy society, and showed how precarious life was.”

The writers chose themes that reflected the fears and interests of the societies who were buying the books.

“Gothic fiction is often about disease,” adds Kate. “Up to 1900, half of all children born did not reach the age of five so death was something that was constant. Gothic fiction is about decay beneath the beauty. Things look good but it is all based on quicksand. That is how Gothic plots and atmosphere works. It is all about opposites and the readers related to this.”

It was not, of course, just a British tradition. American authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe, contributed to the genre, as did French writers such as Victor Hugo.

“It is interesting to note that Gothic fiction wasn’t culturally specific, and neither are the locations,” says Kate. “In Frankenstein, for example, the story goes across Europe to Scotland and then north. It has many locations.”

And it was translated into French soon after publication to gain a new audience in another language.

Because of these conflicting pressures that become apparent in Gothic stories, Kate believes one fundamental and crucial part of modern life means a truly Gothic story will often work better if set in the past.

“In terms of Gothic writing today, it is hard because of the advent of electricity,” she says.

“It is all about shadows… the sun goes down and the world goes dark. It is now very hard to find the dark you need today to set a truly Gothic novel.”

She believes that there is still something very special about Frankenstein, surely the most celebrated of the type, and its grip on our imagination.

“It is an amazing thing,” she says. “Speaking as an author, to know your book is so powerful that it speaks beyond the time and place it was written is really something.”
Mary Shelley’s book is multi-layered, she adds. It is not just the story of a monster.

Edgar Allan Poe

“It is like an onion,” she says. “On the surface it looks like it is about humankind playing God. It asks who has the right to create life? But the more you read it, you realise it is actually about love, and the nature of love and what happens when love is withheld. It is about violence and anger.”

Kate’s books, which have been translated into 36 different languages, are often scary, often play on Gothic themes – “a lot of my books will certainly feature a graveyard or a castle”, she jokes – and are set in a period that allows her to explore the genre. They are, like Frankenstein, often adapted for the stage or screen – and her involvement in the festival has allowed her to find other authors who also write books that become plays or films.

“I have been involved in the festival since it started four years ago,” she says. “The idea was to explore storytelling from the page to the stage and screen, how they are developed.

“Stories have more than one life – novelists, actors, poets and screenwriters all have that to unite us.”

Frankenstein at 200: with Kate Mosse is at Hampstead Theatre at 12.45pm on February 17. 020 7722 9301, www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/the-festival/

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