Friday, January 13, 2012

The Gothic Shadow – Bob Douglas' That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War

When people talk about 'gothic' culture today it could apply to pretty much anything with dark clothes, dark hair and pale skin. Author and historian Bob Douglas, on the other hand, has a deeper awareness of the true origins of the Gothic tradition. He has written about that tradition, as well, in a fascinating study titled That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011). In the book, Douglas uses the Gothic literary conventions – especially those contained in Bram Stoker's Dracula – as a means to understanding the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century, right through to and including World War One. Douglas's full study doesn't stop with the Great War; however, he is currently working on a second volume that covers both the Nazi and Stalinist era up until the post 9/11 culture.

James FitzGerald, the author of the award-winning memoir What Disturbs Our Blood (who we interviewed last year) aptly writes about That Line of Darkness that "Douglas reminds us, with erudite, page-turning prose, how life is forever imitating art. Forbidden, atavistic desires lurk under the thin skin of our civilization, and with equal parts horror and fascination, we are transfixed." Douglas has himself been transfixed by this project. Since 1998, when it began as a study of art in ten different historical periods, the book soon became what is now an epic and engrossing historical study of how the demonization of the other and blood purification became a compelling metaphor that continues to haunt the culture. Bob Douglas, whose website is, will be giving a talk on Thursday January 26, 7PM to 8:15 at Palmerston Library two blocks west of Bathurst just off Bloor St. Recently, he had a few minutes to talk to us as well about the project.

dc: The term ‘gothic’ gets used with some frequency today. Since your book That Line of Darkness is an examination of the Gothic tradition, how would you personally define it?

bd: The traditional Gothic is usually associated with certain tropes or images: the haunted house, the crumbling castle, premature burials, madness and disease. I think, though, that the Gothic can be best defined by its transgressive nature, crossing the line that explains its appeal and at the same time its horror. The Gothic invariably involves blurring the boundaries between life and death; as a result, a supernatural or preternatural element then pervades the form. The political and social anxieties of the period, too, are frequently worked into the Gothic genre, but they are camouflaged. This challenges the reader to look beyond its entertainment value.

The original cover of Bram Stoker's Dracula
dc: What led you to using the Gothic tradition – especially expressed in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – as a lens to peer into the Victorian/Edwardian society?

bd: The late Victorian/Edwardian period is interesting because Britain was the flagship of modernity in terms of industrial productivity, including the new technologies as well as scientific work. I focus however on Charles Darwin and the host of thinkers that were influenced by him, not the scientist of evolution but one whose work provoked fears of devolution. Despite that period's achievements, its scholars and pundits were often preoccupied by fears that society was regressing. In their own different ways, those three novels do explore those fears. Dracula ostensibly charts the conflict between the representatives of modernity and a vampire that epitomizes the primitive. But Stoker's great strength is to show us how this particular binary distinction dissolves – even though modernity appears to win out in the end. But just. Stevenson's novella explores the primitive that resides within a respectable pillar of Victorian society. In Dorian Gray, Wilde introduces a preternatural element into what initially appears to be a comedy-of-manners novel. And he does that to critique a common Victorian assumption about physiognomy; that is, that criminality can be read on the features of the body.

dc: How did the Gothic conventions come to define that society?

bd: One of the most important Gothic conventions was the demonization of the other. In this period, the other included the feared underclass, the serial killer, the Irish, the proto-feminist, the foreigner and the homosexual; in other words, anyone who did not keep his private life locked away in a closet. Another but related convention was the double, or doppelganger, which undercut the idea that the other was not like us. The obsession in Dracula with blood purity actually parallels the eugenics campaign in the period that attempted to address the widespread fear that the "best people" were not marrying and reproducing while the profligate poor were over breeding and threatening the stability of society. 

author Bob Douglas
dc: You’ve divided That Line of Darkness into four parts which culminates with an examination of World War One. Can you describe how you developed the focus for your study?

bd: The first three parts of the book that focus on class, gender relations and particularly the issue of manliness respectively provide the context for understanding the Great War. In the fourth part, I rely on Gothic conventions – the other, the double, blood purity and the uncanny – to interpret the War. This last element, so present in Gothic novels manifested itself in reality in the war itself.

William Rivers
dc: When you do discuss the Great War you abandon the Gothic connections for long stretches to examine the destructive power of the war. Were there aspects of that destruction that fell from that Gothic view?

bd: What I think is unique in my treatment of the Great War is that instead of drawing upon literary texts, the war itself becomes the text. The demonization of the other is abundantly evident in the war propaganda. British combatants in the trenches regarded their German counterparts more as doppelgangers; they reserved their deepest hostility toward chauvinistic civilians. The blurring of boundaries between life and death is present in the trenches, in the nightmares and hallucinations of shell-shocked soldiers and in the spiritualism practiced by civilians who were overwhelmed by the death of so many of their sons and loved ones. Psychic vampirism, which I explore in Trilby in Part One, is the dynamic that operated between many physicians and the damaged soldiers in both England and Germany. The psychotherapy that William Rivers conducted with Siegfried Sassoon was atypical.

dc: That Line of Darkness is actually one part of a two-part study. What will the second volume examine?

bd: The second volume will follow the mode established in Part Four of the first volume by filtering through a Gothic lens the Soviet Union during the Revolutionary and the Stalin eras, Nazi Germany and Modern America, especially after 9/11.

Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series
dc: Since That Line of Darkness uses art and literature working in tandem with politics and history, how important is art to understanding the forces that make up our social order?

bd: Art in its various expressions provides documentation and depth to a historical era that I believe enriches our understanding of it. Art has the potential to cause us to pause and reflect on the multiplicity and ambiguity of the meaning inherent in the subject under examination.

dc: What do you feel is the greatest appeal of the Gothic that accounts for its lasting presence in the culture?

bd: The Gothic is constantly being re-imagined and adapted to appeal to new generations of readers and viewers. It mutates into other genres, too, like science and fiction and the political thriller. Currently, some vampires are domesticated and do not need to feed off human flesh. Others like the primeval villain in Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian are more in the spirit of Stoker's Dracula. The Gothic will always express our fears but can also give voice to our aspirations. The tremendous appeal of the Twilight series among young people plays to the fears of aging and mortality; yet its message to teenagers to avoid premarital sex might give comfort to their parents.

– David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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