Electronic Literature

Sites of Disturbance: The Gothic in Electronic Literature

The gothic is notoriously difficult to define. Swiftly exploding beyond its original signification of a work of art or literature set in medieval times, the gothic has developed into a hybrid form that incorporates diverse media and crosses traditional disciplinary lines. Theorists have attempted to characterize it by recurring formal features (castles, ghosts, persecuted heroines, anti-realism), by its themes (madness, death, the supernatural, domestic violence), and by its effects (terror, horror, pleasure). (Note 1)While none of these approaches has proven entirely successful, they have enabled us to understand gothic works better in small clusters and individually. With its disposition toward hybridity, interactivity, and modularity, new media has proven to be an especially fertile site for the evolution of gothic tropes and themes. Electronic literature both replicates and transforms the conventions of the gothic found in print literature and other non-digital media.

While the best known gothic works tend to be text-based prose fiction, the gothic has found expression in poetry and drama as well as architecture, painting, film, and music. Gothic drama, an extremely popular form in the late-eighteenth century that evolved into the horror films of today, combines elements of the visual and performing arts with the literary to achieve a truly multimedia, multifaceted gothic experience. Even the most classic, novelistic manifestations of the gothic, such as Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) or Matthew G. Lewis’s The Monk (1797), employ multiple literary modes to advance their stories. Frame tales, chapter epigraphs (sometimes attributable and other times not), embedded narratives, transcribed letters and manuscripts, dramatic dialog, and embellishing songs weave together to produce the novelistic whole. Gaps and inconsistencies often confront the reader, so that part of the mystery in these works is linking all the fragments together to produce a comprehensible story.

Electronic literature certainly displays this hybridity and structural fragmentation, but it takes mental gymnastics to the next level through the element of interactivity. Many theorists argue that interactivity is a defining characteristic that sets electronic literature or new media apart from other forms of art.(Note 2) Espen Aarseth has famously challenged this claim by critiquing the vagueness of “interactivity” and pointing out that all reading is interactive on some level.(Note 3) Even if it is a matter of degree rather than kind, electronic literature requires the reader (or interactor) to engage with a text in new ways. Interactive fiction like Emily Short's Savoir-Faire (2002-2004) and Jon Ingold’s All Roads (2001) require the interactor to think about the situation and input text commands to advance the story, while other forms rely on the interactor’s clicking, dragging, and exploring to generate the piece.(Note 4)

In Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy (2002) the interactor must mouseover the browser window to reveal the words and can narrow the text to any topic of his choosing by using a search. In Melinda Rackham and Damien Everett’s carrier (becoming symborg) (1999), the interactor engages with the hepatitis C virus by clicking on images of the replicating virus and responding to its questions. Thus electronic literature offers untraditional paths to the gothic exercise of solving a mystery, opening connections between brain and body and providing new routes to knowledge.

Some of digital literature’s narrative conventions parallel those used in the gothic, such as the inclusion of a framing apparatus—some more ingenuous than others—that explains how the project was conceived or how to use it. These conventions must be learned for interactors to make sense of electronic literature, especially if the author attempts to play off assumptions about the genre. People new to interactive fiction will not get very far until they learn the conventional vocabulary (LOOK, EXAMINE, GO SOUTH) that enables them to navigate the text. Identifying and thinking critically about these conventions is an important part of the interpretive process.

The gothic has often been accused of the senseless recycling of formulaic fragments, but new media seizes upon and celebrates such structural modulation. One essay complaining about “terrorist novel writing” in 1797 provides a recipe:

          Take--An old castle, half of it ruinous.
A long gallery, with a great many doors, some secret ones.
Three murdered bodies, quite fresh.
As many skeletons, in chests and presses.
An old woman hanging by the neck, with her throat cut.
Assassins and desperadoes, quant. suff.
Noises, whispers, and groans, threescore at least.
          Mix them together, in the form of three volumes, to be taken at any of the watering-places before going to bed.(Note 5)

Although the ingredients are different, much electronic literature takes identifiable snippets of text, sound, and image and refashions them into a whole. Jim Andrews’ Stir Fry Texts (1999-2004), for example, combine quotes from various sources that integrate and shift as the interactor views them, creating new refractions on the original ideas. Playing with language formulas on another level, Nanette Wylde's Storyland (2002) generates unique stories that are always patterned upon the same syntax. Electronic literature thrives upon the gothic habit of recycling and renewing motifs and linguistic structures.

But the gothic is not purely a structural mode, and its themes and concerns feature prominently in electronic literature. The components of the above recipe—buildings, bodies, noises, groans—often appear in digital works. If the gothic expresses the anxieties of the particular cultural moment in which it is produced, readers of electronic literature can ask what problems and fears preoccupy modern culture. We find many of the same themes that were present in older gothic texts.(Note 6) Digital works explore the boundaries between life and death, reason and madness, male and female, self and other. Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995), an early hypertext fiction, explores all these quintessential concepts and explicitly refers to canonical gothic texts. Some works, like Kerry Lawrynovicz’s Girls’ Day Out (2004), demonstrate that violence (especially violence against women) is a constant presence in our lives. Others, like Rob Wittig's The Fall of the Site of Marsha (1999) and Emily Short’s Galatea (2000) explore the strains and stresses of heterosexual relationships. Jason Nelson’s Dreamaphage (2003) is a timely reflection on disease and madness in the age of the AIDS epidemic and the psychological disorders rampantly pedaled by pharmaceutical companies. Although they have modern inflections, these fundamental issues of being do not differ significantly from the anxieties that plagued Anglo-American culture two hundred years ago.

Electronic literature reserves its most profound ambivalence for the computer itself. Fear of technology has been an undercurrent in the gothic ever since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) spun off science fiction, but the computer is a late-twentieth-century beast. To the conceptual pairings typical of classic gothic, the digital gothic adds human and machine, language and code, reader and writer. If the gothic responded to the immense cultural changes wrought by the French revolution and the industrial revolution, electronic literature responds to the digital revolution. Cyberspace promises an immense realm of danger as well as possibility. The World Wide Web is a fantastic resource but it can also be disorienting and impersonal, a place where one can get lost and overwhelmed, or worse yet, preyed upon by others. Software and machines are sometimes personified as the monster, as in Dan Shiovitz’s Bad Machine (1998-2003). But more significantly, the archetypal spatial metaphors of the gothic, the house with its labyrinthine passageways, rooms, and secret closets, have been transferred to computer architecture. This is the way we imagine and conceptualize our networks and machines. The narratives of electronic literature happen on the site of the computer both literally and figuratively, on the physical hardware of the machine as well as in the imagined places of software and cyberspace.

Despite these obsessions with what frightens and disturbs us (and the fact that many works opt for black backgrounds), electronic literature is not all dark and dreary. Comedy and self-parody have always been components of the gothic, from amusingly naïve heroines to excessively gruesome monsters. No gothic text is without its moments of humor, playfulness, and pleasure, and the digital gothic is no exception. Listen to the circus soundtrack that accompanies Storyland’s tales of interpersonal desire and conflict, look at the cartoonish drawings Donna Leishman uses to depict The Possession of Christian Shaw (2004), or consider Marsha’s fondness for throne angels. Recall that many new media artifacts can also be classified as games. Laughter and knowingness coexist with fear and uncertainty, a paradox that lurks at the heart of the gothic.

  1. Excellent starting places to learn about the definitions and varieties of the gothic include A Companion to the Gothic, ed. David Punter (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) and Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, ed. Diane Long Hoeveler and Tamar Heller (New York: MLA, 2003).
  2. See for instance Geoffrey Rockwell and Andrew Mactavish, "Multimedia," in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schrelbman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/
  3. Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1997), 48-50.
  4. Short's and Ingold's works appear in Electronic Literature Collection 1, eds. N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland (Maryland: Electronic Literature Organization, 2006) http://collection.eliterature.org All electronic literature cited in this essay appears in the ELC unless otherwise noted.
  5. Anon., "Terrorist Novel Writing," The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1797, 3rd ed, v. 1 (London: 1802), 229.
  6. Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl (Watertown: Eastgate Systems, 1995).