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Upon The Nature Of Gothic Horrors

October 30, 2018
by the gentle author

I believe I was born with a medieval imagination. It is the only way I can explain the explicit gothic terrors of my childhood. Even lying in my cradle, I recall observing the monstrous face that emerged from the ceiling lampshade once the light was turned out. This all-seeing creature, peering at me from above, grew more pervasive as years passed, occupying the shadows at the edges of my vision and assuming more concrete manifestations. An unexpected sound in my dark room revealed its presence, causing me to lie still and hold my breath, as if through my petrified silence I could avert the attention of the devil leaning over my bedside.

When I first became aware of gargoyles carved upon churches and illustrated in manuscripts, I recognised these creatures from my own imagination and I made my own paintings of these scaled, clawed, horned, winged beasts, which were as familiar as animals in the natural world. I interpreted any indeterminate sound or movement from the dark as indicating their physical presence in my temporal existence. Consequently, darkness, shadow and gloom were an inescapable source of fear to me on account of the nameless threat they harboured, always lurking there just waiting to pounce. At this time of year, when the dusk glimmers earlier in the day, their power grew as if these creatures of the shades might overrun the earth.

Nothing could have persuaded me to walk into a dark house alone. One teenage summer, I looked after an old cottage while the residents were on their holiday and, returning after work at night, I had to walk a long road that led through a deep wood without street lighting. As I wheeled my bicycle up the steep hill among the trees in dread, it seemed to me they were alive with monsters and any movement of the branches confirmed their teeming presence.

Yet I discovered a love of ghost stories and collected anthologies of tales of the supernatural, which I accepted as real because they extended and explained the uncanny notions of my own imagination. In an attempt to normalise my fears, I made a study of mythical beasts and learnt to distinguish between a griffin and a wyvern. When I discovered the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Breughel, I grew fascinated and strangely reassured that they had seen the apocalyptic visions which haunted the recesses of my own mind.

I made the mistake of going to see Ridley Scott’s The Alien alone and experienced ninety minutes transfixed with terror, unable to move, because – unlike the characters in the drama – I was already familiar with this beast who had been pursuing me my whole life. In retrospect, I recognise the equivocal nature of this experience, because I also sought a screening of The Exorcist with similar results. Perhaps I sought consolation in having my worst fears realised, even if I regretted it too?

Once, walking through a side street at night, I peered into the window of an empty printshop and leapt six feet back when a dark figure rose up from among the machines to confront my face in the glass. My companions found this reaction to my own shadow highly amusing and it was a troubling reminder of the degree to which I was at the mercy of these irrational fears even as an adult.

I woke in the night sometimes, shaking with fear and convinced there were venomous snakes in the foot of my bed. The only solution was to unmake the bed and remake it again before I could climb back in. Imagine my surprise when I visited the aquarium in Berlin and decided to explore the upper floor where I was confronted with glass cases of live tropical snakes. Even as I sprinted away down the street, I felt the need to keep a distance from cars in case a serpent might be lurking underneath. This particular terror reached its nadir when I was walking in the Pyrenees, and stood to bathe beneath a waterfall and cool myself on a hot day. A green snake of several feet in length fell wriggling from above, hit me, bounced off into the pool and swam away, leaving me frozen in shock.

Somewhere all these fears dissolved. I do not know where or when exactly. I no longer read ghost stories or watch horror films and equally I do not seek out dark places or reptile houses. None of these things have purchase upon my psyche or even hold any interest anymore. Those scaly beasts have retreated from the world. For me, the shadows are not inhabited by the spectral and the unfathomable darkness is empty.

Bereavement entered my life and it dispelled these fears which haunted me for so long. My mother and father who used to turn out the light and leave me to sleep in my childhood room at the mercy of medieval phantasms are gone, and I have to live in the knowledge that they can no longer protect me. Once I witnessed the moment of death with my own eyes, it held no mystery for me. The demons became redundant and fled. Now they have lost their power over me, I miss them – or rather, perhaps, I miss the person I used to be – yet I am happy to live a life without supernatural agency.

Fourteenth century carvings from St Katherine’s Chapel, Limehouse

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Misericords at St Katherine’s Chapel, Limehouse

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    October 30, 2018

    Thank you for sharing this insightful piece of writing. And, I always wonder whether some wood carvers in medieval days specializes in monsters and exotic beasts?? They must be great fun to create.

  2. October 30, 2018

    It must of been ‘The Printers’ Devil’….

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    October 30, 2018

    Except – that first bench-end carving is, very clearly a Pangolin ….

  4. October 30, 2018

    I fully understand what you mean. I think it took me nearly forty years of life to cease seeing, dreaming and hearing strange things.

  5. Leana Pooley permalink
    October 30, 2018

    Difficult to know whether a vivid imagination is a blessing or a curse. It’s a gift for creative people – writers, musicians or artists – but then those who are unimaginative seem to have calm, tranquil lives.

  6. Paul Loften permalink
    October 30, 2018

    The intricate and descrpitive writing in the blog compliments the extraordinary detailed pictures

  7. Gary Arber permalink
    October 30, 2018

    There are some early carvings that are of creatures from distant lands that were unknown in this country at the time of carving.

  8. October 30, 2018

    Gargoyles are carvings on spouts which carry water away from walls of churches to protect them from erosion. What you are talking about is something completely different. The term gargoyle is from the same origin as gargle, hence they are the things that gargle. Not misericord creatures and monsters. You’re welcome.

  9. Elizabeth Olson permalink
    October 30, 2018

    Oh GA, if only I were as articulate a writer! Hope to imbibe at least a bit of your talent at a blog course in 2019 if the stars align. Meanwhile, I do so enjoy waking up every morning and reading your poetry.

  10. October 30, 2018

    An evocative piece of writing, thankyou. It was becoming a parent that helped me put aside my fear of the dark and the malevolent beings that existed in the shadows. As a small child, my parents bought me a torch to help me, but of course the darkness persisted around me. Dreams of snakes and devilish creatures and the sounds of feet shuffling on carpet meant that sleep was not a refuge. My insomnia is lifelong, but now I put on my lamp and do puzzles or read my way to the morning.

  11. October 31, 2018

    Fabulous writing, as recommended by my husband. It brought back vividly memories of my own terror in darkness, the sound of my pulse beating in my ears like a malevolent, inexorably approaching tread, the sensation of being pursued by hoards of demons through the streets as I ran home from school. I, too, have slowly come to understand all these things much better as I’ve grown older. Thank you so much. XXXXX

  12. Gary Arber permalink
    October 31, 2018

    That was an interesting piece of information from Barb Drummond.

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