I invited Jack Swift, my writing group buddy and vamp muse, to talk about gothic crazysauce.
(1) What is gothic crazysauce?
“Gothic crazysauce” is an informal term that was getting thrown around on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I thought the phrase was a hilarious and apt description of everything I am about.
To me, “gothic crazysauce” describes the ridiculous, melodramatic, yet gloomily atmospheric happenings in certain gothic literature. Not all gothic qualifies.
Keeping a mentally ill wife locked up in an attic a la Jane Eyre is pretty gothic.
Marrying someone you hate, and then abusing her and her child, all just to get revenge on someone else, Heathcliff-style, is approaching crazysauce.
Literally summoning Lucifer to help the man you love enjoy another, as Matilda does in The Monk? That, my friends, is full-blown gothic crazysauce.
Gothic crazysauce is when your characters never experience being happy, sad, angry, or horny—instead they are ecstatic, hysterical, murderous or deranged with lust. Your plot twists are well beyond byzantine. Everything takes place in a mouldering haunted castle, with a double order of bats. Outside is a thunderstorm. There is always a thunderstorm. You flee into it, from the man you both adore and despise, clad only in your diaphanous white nightdress, and lose yourself and your mind on the moors.
Gothic crazysauce is generally used as spice for the dish, rather than as the meat of an entire work of literature. More rarely, brave souls set out to pen entire novels and plays utterly drenched in the crazy. My hat is off to them.
(2) Do you have some recommendations of this from literature?
I already mentioned the classics Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Monk, in ascending order of crazysauce. The Monk is literally all crazysauce, all the time. Nothing that those characters do really makes sense—unless you are Lord Byron high on laudanum trying to get into the pants of both Percy AND Mary Shelley at the same time.
Speaking of laudanum-fuelled Byron/Shelley orgies, the novelization of the Ken Russell film Gothic, written by Stephen Volk, is another fine example of non-stop crazysauce. I am not going to say it’s actually a good book—but it sure is fun, if you just want to marinate in aesthetically pleasing batshit insanity.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, though they obviously pre-date the gothic movement, have plenty of crazysauce to go around.
King Lear springs readily to mind, especially the scene where Edgar erroneously convinces the blinded Gloucester that he has actually attempted and survived suicide by jumping from a cliff—all without revealing that he is actually his estranged son.
Othello has plenty. (“Blood! Blood! BLOOD!” Sounds exactly like a Christian Death song. Also, if you become so upset that you fall into a “trance” or “epilepsy” from sheer emotion, you are probably staring in some major gothic crazysauce.)
Julius Caesar, my personal favourite Shakespeare play, is a lot more gothic than people give it credit for. In an oft deleted speech, Cassius describes how he “bared [his] bosom to the thunderstone,” daring the gods to strike him down with their lightening. (Trying to be struck by lightning for deity-defying reasons, or indeed for any reason at all, is like the Tabasco of gothic crazysauce—a dependable, classic standby.)
And of course, there’s Titus Andronicus. Crazysauce slathered on your sons, who are baked in a frigging pie.
The delightful play Irma Vep is an extended parody of gothic crazysauce, and as such, hits pretty much every ridiculous note you can imagine. Vampires! Werewolves! Mysterious dead wives who might not be dead but instead locked in the attic! Secret passages! Betrayal! Passion! Murder! You get the picture.
(3) How have you injected gothic crazy sauce into your own work? (feel free to plug anything you’re doing here, including music).
My main work in progress at the moment is a novel called The Conspirators, concerning Cassius and Brutus, the assassins of Julius Caesar. I have been working on this novel in some form or another for more than ten years. Originally it was conceived as “serious historical fiction,” and you’d better believe I did a lot of serious historical research.
But eventually, I admitted to myself that I wanted it to be a gothic novel.
Why a gothic novel? Well, honestly, a lot of the crazy is already there. Plutarch reports very seriously that Brutus conversed with the ghost of the murdered Caesar, on more than one occasion. Brutus’ wife Porcia supposedly committed suicide by swallowing hot coals. You can’t get more gothic than that! Cassius’ greedy mentor Crassus had molten gold poured down his throat after he was beheaded, and his head was used as a prop in a play. The orator Cicero had a hairpin stabbed through his tongue, after he was also beheaded. Brutus’ father-in-law Cato disembowelled himself with his bare hands, after being stitched up from a previous suicide attempt. Not to mention the assassination of Caesar himself! Sixty plus senators converging on one man, who fought like a wild beast up until the very moment that his beloved friend Brutus stabbed him, right in the crotch!
The deaths, as reported by the ancient historians, are just wild. You can’t make this stuff up. It doesn’t just beg for crazysauce. It is crazysauce already—real life, canonical, historical gothic.
Of course, being me, I couldn’t resist pouring even more crazysauce on top of already nutso history. One thing I knew, which will likely drive the Serious Historical Fiction buffs mad if I ever publish, is that I wanted to take the homoerotic tension between the Cassius and Brutus of Shakespeare, and make it explicit. Extremely explicit. And ferociously sadomasochistic, and pathologically intense.
So it was that my Serious Historical Fiction turned into a gothic romance/ghost story/work of erotic horror. Imagine mashing up Shakespeare’s Caesar with The Monk, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Story of O, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of where I am going with this. I should probably be ashamed, but strangely, I’m not.
One of the biggest challenges of writing extreme gothic crazysauce is maintaining the proper atmosphere and tone. Everything should be dialled up to eleven, at all times. This is probably why the book is still in its first draft.
If you try to write gothic, you will get self-conscious. You will second guess yourself. You’ll think your prose is too purple, your metaphors too dense and ridiculous, and that your characters are acting like Bronte heroines on a bad acid trip. That is as it should be. Write from the heart, the gut, and from your sense of melodrama. Anything that just plain doesn’t work can always be deleted later.
Wow, that’s some good advice. I should probably take it. And I will.
As soon as I finish up this swooning fit.
(4) Do you think the gothic genre has a place in the modern world, and how would it differ from more traditional gothic?
Really good question.
Of course, “gothic” originally emerged from the Romantic Movement, which came out of a specific moment in history, and was a reaction against the Enlightenment. So it would be easy to assume that no, gothic has no place in the modern world, divorced as we are from that particular place and time.
But let’s dig a little deeper. The Romantic Movement was about breaking away from the overly restrained, intellectual, and reasoned approach of Enlightenment-period art and poetry. Romantic literature was about instinct, emotion, spirit—the heart and the gut, rather than the head. Gothic just takes all of that further, striving to plumb the darkest, nastiest depths of human experience. Gothic is about madness, bliss, extremes of feeling, the sundering of societal taboos, and reaching some visceral, something primitive. I think that impulse will always exist in humanity.
Right now, some people feel alienated from the easy answers of science and materialism and the legacy of the Enlightenment. But many of these alienated souls have no desire to follow the equally pat and easy path of conventional religion. I think a Gothic revival could be upon us—and I am not just referring to the influx of black lace and dark lipsticks to mainstream fashion, although that too is symptomatic and related. There has been a rise in interest in witchcraft and paganism among a certain set of young people, similar to what happened in the 90’s. The Satanic Temple in America has been steadily gaining followers and popularity. Pop stars are aping gothic looks and themes in their songs and music videos—and more importantly, it’s selling like hot cakes. All of these things point to individuals seeking a third path, a dark path, where sentiment, mysticism, intuition, instinct, and desire can be valued.
I might be talking out of my ass a bit now, because of course I love writing gothic fiction and would like to think people will read my books. But honestly, I am convinced that as long as passionate, sensual and imaginative souls exist, gothic will always have an appeal.
So go forth, my friends, and chug that sweet spicy gothic crazysauce, right out of the bottle. Wash it down with absinthe. And then cry.
Jack Swift is a rock musician and wannabe novelist. As Johnny Truant, he fronts The Truants, and plays bass for Cardiac Dream, two deliciously dark San Francisco-based post-punk bands. He is also a queer, trans, polyamorous, polymorphously perverse pervert, general wastrel, and androgynous source of sexual confusion. He resides somewhere in his native San Francisco Bay Area, with his boyfriend and three black cats—Wednesday, Babs and Dorian. Look for his novel Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape sometime next spring, which isn’t very gothic but does have a ghost in it. Look for his novel The Conspirators sometime in the next hundred years or so (fingers crossed).