In 1985, Reza de Wet published a short play in Afrikaans entitled Diepe Grond. The piece, which is set in a ruinous farmhouse, follows two incestuous and nocturnal siblings – Sussie and Frikkie – who spend their time re-enacting scenes of play from their childhood, digging, and functioning eerily as conduits for the voices of their dead parents. Much of the action derives from a visit the two receive from a lawyer named Grové, who comes to their ancestral farm to suggest that they sell the place and move to the city. This does not go down well. By turns, the siblings taunt the man and offer him hospitality, and at the end of the play, after they have trapped him in the house by removing part of his car’s engine, they hang him from a hook on the wall and flay him alive with a sjambok (leather whip). This, we then learn, is not their first killing: the bodies of their conservative parents lie scattered in pieces under the earth between the farmhouse and the family graveyard.
It seems hardly surprising, given all of this, that when Diepe Grond
was translated into English in 2005, the title under which it appeared was African Gothic
. And yet, this moniker is, in the South African context, an unusual choice. Until very recently, the designation ‘Gothic’ has had little currency within South African literary criticism. Gerald Gaylard, who has given the most comprehensive account to date of the possibility of a South African Gothic, identifies as the roots of this absence ‘a distinct embarrassment [that] lurks around
the mere mention of the term, apparently because it appears all too obviously aesthetic and not political or committed enough’ for the contexts of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.1
Apartheid, on which I will say more momentarily, designates the infamous system of racial ‘apart-ness’ brought into being in South Africa in 1948 by the National Party: that administration which, having invented four artificial categories of race (‘Black’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Indian’ and ‘White’), attempted for the next four decades of its rule and with a psychotic fastidiousness to organise the world in its own segregated image. The imperatives to political consciousness and commitment that shape engaged South African literature over the second half of the twentieth century are thus imperatives that issue from the need to interrogate this regime, to bear witness to its absurd banality – in Hannah Arendt’s sense of the word – and to its atrocities. As a result, as André Brink writes, ‘an urge to report … aright was a prime mover in the work of most writers caught up in the culture of resistance’. A ‘need to “tell things as they are”’2
is palpable, albeit in various forms, across black and white writing of the apartheid period, and this in turn is one basis for the insidious mistrust of the mythopoeic to which Gaylard attributes South African literary criticism’s distaste for the gothic.
A related critical question mark hangs – in the context of apartheid in particular – over gothic’s obvious predilection for violence, represented, as it is by de Wet, in excessive or speculative terms. Comments from J. M. Coetzee on the position of the author before the torture chamber are illuminating in this respect. Writing in the final decade of apartheid, amid growing insurrection and successive states of emergency, Coetzee identifies the impossibility of representing the obscenity of torture under conditions where torture is a routine – if obscured – state practice: there is ‘something tawdry about following
the state’, he writes, about ‘making its vile mysteries the occasion for fantasy’.3
The writer is thus placed in an apparently irresolvable dilemma, faced with the options, each unacceptable, of either ignoring the prolific violence of apartheid’s security police, or, by representing it, risking conferring on it a ‘lugubrious grandeur’.4
To make recourse to the gothic, one might imagine, would be to succumb to the latter of these pitfalls. And yet, Gaylard reads Coetzee’s own solution to the problem of torture, elaborated in Waiting for the Barbarians
(1980), as achieved through gothic poetics – and it is worth noting, too, that Zoë Wicomb, writing the tortured body two decades later in her David’s Story
(2001), draws very explicitly on the resources of gothic, as I will show.5
What should be becoming clear, then, is that even if critics have largely eschewed gothic as an interpretative category for South African literature, South African writers have engaged less gingerly with the gothic mode. Including in the work of authors known precisely for their political commitment – Nadine Gordimer springs to mind – gothic poetics are present in South African writing, and have been, as I go on to discuss here, in different forms from the fin de siècle
to the post-millennial moment.
Indeed, the life of de Wet’s play – translated into English in 2005 and adapted as a film in 2014 – would seem to suggest that the profile of gothic in South African cultural production is currently rising. A series of texts published from around the second decade of the millennium confirms this trajectory. Gothic is being written in different styles by a host of authors whose work belongs to South Africa’s emergent post-millennial corpus: Lauren Beukes, Henrietta Rose-Innes and Sarah Lotz provide the best known examples here, but gothic forms are pronounced, too, in a growing canon of young adult fiction – which includes Lotz’s collaborative work under the pseudonym Lily Herne – and across different textual media. Josh Ryba and Daniel Browde’s graphic novel Rebirth
(2012) rewrites colonial settlement in South Africa as a vampire narrative, for instance, and the photographer and visual artist Roger Ballen – whose work with ‘zef’ music phenomenon Die Antwoord
will be familiar to international readers – frequently forays into shadowy territory that might legitimately be called gothic. Alongside this marked upswing in gothic production, a handful of critical essays – and Gaylard’s among them – demonstrates a slowly unfolding interest in gothic in South African literary criticism. Most notably, Dominic Head, Cheryl Stobie, Eva Hunter, Catherine Kroll and Jack Shear have – independently – considered gothic forms in the work of, among others, Coetzee, Angelina N. Sithebe, Karel Schoeman, Nadine Gordimer and Marlene van Niekerk.6
These interventions join with a wider and relatively established interest in postcoloniality in gothic studies – which has nonetheless commented only infrequently on South Africa7
– but also with recent
work in world literature and postcolonial studies that demonstrates gothic’s currently growing traction in these circles.8
All of this together suggests the time has come for a criticism that takes seriously the presence of gothic forms in South African texts: one that explores the contexts to which these respond, which seeks to chart their shifting poetics and which examines their roles within South Africa’s literary imaginaries. What does South Africa gothic look like? What animates it? And what does it do? These questions are addressed in the following chapters, in which I consider gothic forms effulgent over the “negotiated revolution” that brought about the fall of apartheid in 1994. In this introduction, I will draw attention, too, to strains of gothic that appear about a century earlier in South African writing in English and Afrikaans, around the fin de siècle period of another revolution in the country’s history, but one that had to do primarily with gold. I will also lay the foundations for the arguments that will be pursued over the course of this book, salient across which – as will be clear from the above comments – is the connection between gothic narrative and moments of profound social upheaval or transformation. Concisely put, gothic as I understand it here, gives shape to anxieties that emerge with force under conditions of change. It deals with these by encoding them in forms – flexible and often locally specific – that render them visible and immediate, and which situate them beyond the pale of what is deemed rational and acceptable by a particular dispensation. In a secondary sense, and as a result of this function, gothic has also become a mobile vocabulary that can be summoned and adapted to a particular context in order consciously to interrogate the obscure and anxious places within the social organisation or history of that context, enabling in this way a mechanism of critique.
I will go on, in the next section, to adapt Fred Botting’s suggestion that gothic fictions present what Michel Foucault called heterotopian reflections of the worlds in which they are produced. And as the South African world shifts over the course of the twentieth century and into the early twenty-first, so gothic in South Africa has shifted as it has been appropriated to various ends. At the fin de siècle
and in the first decades that followed it, gothic is marshalled, as I will show, to colonial and then nationalist causes: its hyperbolised figures of threat are deployed to crystallise violent conceptions of racial
difference, or to shore up the unity of an imagined national collective. And yet, these strategies are never wholly successful: the language of the gothic is inevitably too closely connected to states of vulnerability, of real anxiety and disorientation, to articulate any kind of stable and ordered relationship. It is on this inherent instability, this sensitivity to a disordered world, that I will argue post-apartheid writers capitalise in their engagement of gothic forms. Gothic is deployed in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century fiction to register sites of anxiety that emerge over the transition democracy, but where the disorder of such sites is refused by earlier writers, it is emphasised in later texts, which mobilise gothic’s apprehension of a world resistant to organisation to challenge organising efforts underway at different moments in South Africa’s recent history – or to imagine beyond these. Further still, I will suggest towards the end of this book, this dissenting action might also be used to productive ends, as a means through which to conceptualise less rigid social configurations. To map the forms that facilitate all of this, I turn now to the gothic in its early iterations.
Gothic, modernity and heterotopia: a ‘proliferation of monsters’
‘Gothic’, writes David Punter in the introduction to his formative The Literature of Terror
, ‘is most usually applied to a group of novels written between the 1760s and 1820s’. If this were the term’s only denotation, he goes on, ‘it would be reasonably easy to … define’.9
In this case, gothic would refer to the medievalist tradition inaugurated by Horace Walpole with his Castle of Otranto
(1764): to what Punter describes as ‘a fiction of the haunted castle, of heroines preyed on by unspeakable terrors, of the blackly lowering villain’.10
This collection of tropes remains enduringly recognisable as gothic. However, over the more than two centuries since its inception as a literary designation, the sign ‘gothic’ has also become more complex, appearing in connection with multiple, varied forms of cultural production, and travelling – as this book itself shows – beyond the purview of eighteenth-century Britain. Gothic has witnessed ‘many changes and variations’ since its emergence.11
It might describe, to
offer only a sparse sample, the poetics of the ghost story, the American South as this is grimly imagined by William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, the postcolonial hauntings that proliferate in the work of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, or the horror fiction and film – emerging in increasingly diverse and digital forms – of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Supporting this diversity is the sense in which gothic’s iconic castles, its antique villains, have always – as Jerrold E. Hogle argues – been ‘quite obviously signs only of older signs’. They constitute what he terms ‘ghosts-of-the-counterfeit’: figures ‘broken off from past connections’.12
Not concerned with historical authenticity, their early authors fashioned visions of the medieval from previous visions: from Shakespeare, from portraiture, from half-finished drawings of castles and cathedrals now long-ruined or perhaps entirely imaginary, entirely – as in Walpole’s Otranto
– unseen. This unrootedness facilitates adaptation and re-appropriation, rendering gothic’s signature tropes wandering and flexible: a vocabulary through which varying meanings might be explored. It is to this kind of flexibility and variability that Dale Townshend refers when he writes that ‘Gothic is more a mode than a consistent, stable and formally recognizable genre, one that … continuously metamorphoses and reinvents itself across time’ – and also across space.13
And yet, a consideration of the poetics of what might – albeit with a degree of caution – be termed the “original” gothic continues to be instructive. It sheds light on the conditions under which gothic emerges, and on the strategies informing its response to these.
In his early assessment, Devendra Varma sets out the conventions of an eighteenth-century gothic in terms similar to those glossed by Punter above. He associates gothic with a ‘medieval atmosphere … [invoked by] castles, dungeons and lonely towers’, and also with ‘supernatural incidents’ – with, as in Otranto
, animated paintings and bizarre or extravagant hauntings.14
These are characteristics that would be appropriated – perhaps most famously – by Ann Radcliffe, and which would transmute, in the hands of Matthew Lewis and other progenitors of horror, into ‘grotesque, ghastly and violently … superhuman fiction’.15
Varma’s analysis, largely a descriptive catalogue of the influences and poetics of gothic literature from the late 1700s, remains useful for the detail in which it maps a gothic
lexicon of violence, superstition and medievalism – an iconography, significantly, that emerges under conditions of profound socio-economic transformation, in which the shape of British society was being re-made. Punter elaborates:
The period that saw the birth of the Gothic novel was that in which the early forces of...