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Upon The Nature Of Gothic Horror

October 28, 2021
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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    October 28, 2021

    That was a wonderful piece of writing! You really bared your soul in describing your close encounters with Creatures of Darkness. It must have been very difficult, all those years, to live in such fear.

  2. October 28, 2021

    My childhood terrors of orange peel teeth and being chased upstairs quail in view of your descriptions of these gothic horrors. I am moved by your memories and by the vanishing of these hauntings on the death of your parents. Thank you for sharing them.

  3. John Price permalink
    October 28, 2021

    Thank you, as ever, Gentle Author for articulating what I am sure is a common experience. Not fear of the dark as such but fear of the playground for the imagination it becomes when, without shape and object to occupy it, the mind fills the void with its terrors. I wonder, has any reader sensed a presence when going up a darkened stair, reached up with their hands to ward it off and called out: “Who is there?”. Heart-stopping. I cannot watch horror films. No point, nothing is as terrible as the thoughts that come unbidden.

  4. Beckie permalink
    October 28, 2021

    Thank you for this beautifully written piece. It brought tears to my eyes. I spent years checking under the bed before going to sleep, in fact I’ve probably only stopped because I got a dog. I think so much of what we think and feel is bound up with our terror of death and trying to come to terms with that great unknown.

  5. Kathryn Vile permalink
    October 28, 2021

    Beautiful writing and these pictures of the misericords are fantastic.

  6. Lesley Hudswell permalink
    October 28, 2021

    I always enjoy your pieces but this is exceptionally powerful.

  7. Roger Preece permalink
    October 28, 2021

    Thank you so much for a wonderful piece. Lovely to see your beautiful pictures of St Katharine’s Chapel carvings. Anyone can come and stay at The Royal Foundation of St Katharine or book an event/meeting here. We also have lots of community activites at the Yurt Cafe. We are a charity form the 12th century that wants to give people peace, connections and time to reflect. Roger Preece – Master

  8. October 29, 2021

    Those pesky demons will be banished for ever at the end of the age. I recommend ‘Seeing Behind the Veil’ by Ana Werner. Ana is a seer who has had many encounters with the Lord Jesus and can describe what heaven is like. Her experiences helped me a great deal while my friend was dying in April. Heaven became very real to both of us and we have agreed that we will one day meet again at the Great Feast as described in Revelation 19:7-9.

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