The Short Story: An Introduction

By Paul March-Russell | Go to book overview

16
Popular Short Fictions

Following the previous discussion of the ghost story, this chapter offers a brief survey of five popular sub-genres: Gothic, detective fiction, contemporary romance, humour and science fiction. The choice is not random. The Gothic tradition began to divide into romantic and crime sub-genres during the middle of the nineteenth century while science fiction has also been seen as an outgrowth of the Gothic form. Even the more surreal and darkly comic elements of Gothic might be said to feed into contemporary humour. Although some of these subgenres, such as romance, have closely defined conventions, others like science fiction exist as modes of writing with a vocabulary of images that have informed cultural thought. Indeed, what connects these subgenres is their preoccupation with effects, not necessarily in terms of the epiphany, but in ways that subvert their canonically low status.


The Gothic Tradition

The key starting-point for Gothic fiction is usually taken to be Horace Walpole's short novel The Castle of Otranto (1764). Like other e ighteenth-century figures, Walpole was intrigued by signs of decay, in particular the ruined castles and desecrated churches that dotted both the English countryside and the European continent. The dense brutality of their structures, offset by collapse and fragmentation, inspired a nostalgic interest in early modern culture. The Castle of Otranto, like Anna Letitia Aiken's early tale 'Sir Bertrand: A Fragment' (1773), accumulates supernatural effects rather than developing either character or plot. The suspension of linear narrative in both texts evokes a sense of atavistic incomprehension in stark contrast with the rational beliefs of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

As the Gothic form developed, especially in the novels of Ann Radcliffe, it became a means of debating reason versus unreason. In Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the mysterious effects are

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