The Gothic, as we know, is not limited to the ambit of the written word. In fact, it slinked into literature only later. But Gothic literature has had an indelible impression over the readers for ages, with an enticing range of titles that have shed light on the darker side of our imagination. As we enter the last month of what has been an exciting year, we have decided to indulge in something that is uncanny about the uncanny itself: the Gothic Laughter. Diganta Ray writes…
Every tale has a frequency at which it unlocks, a kind of code if you will. Sometimes you may read through the entire book and still not decipher this code, and sometimes you may discover it in the first few pages of your reading. What this code is, is difficult to define. You may call it the essence of the story or the core sentiment you relate to. At some point in the story, you begin to work the plotline in your head both from the point of view of the characters in it, and from your own position, turning yourself into an additional character. That is the junction at which I believe the code of the story is unlocked. Of all the genres of writing, the Gothic is most alert to this invisible presence of the reader’s persona, not as an external observer but as a being trapped within the mesh of the plot. This unacknowledged and incomplete dialogue between the reader and the character tightens the tension of the storyline, which is released through the maniac laughter that features frequently in the plot.
The Gothic laughter is like an emotional miasma that has escaped a broken bottle. It is elusive when you try to capture it with sense and reason yet fearfully tangible and real in that it invades your mental and physical space unapologetically. Like a guest who has made itself at home in your apartment, the gothic laughter sits in the coziest corner of the narrative without being necessary. Yet its absence would become noticeable if you chose to read the story without it.
Alice Thomas Ellis in her 1985 book Unexplained Laughter makes this trope of maniac laughter a recurrent presence in the story. I feel Ellis deliberately does not construct a plot thick with dramatic events. As a reader I found myself exploring a literary space that did not compel me to follow any fixed narrative path. Consequently, the story is infused with a home-spun brand of monotony that resonates with the empty thinking of the protagonist Lydia, hazel-eyed and freckled, as I like to imagine her to be. The story encourages you to trail off into your own realm of thoughts like Lydia absent-mindedly does. As the narrator says, “Once you get too exclusive, too obsessed with a place, you are worshipping false gods. I think we may be called upon to wander”. And wander we must, as readers of Ellis, as the narrative buoyantly guides the reader into spaces unknown. And then, the jarring laughter, or the brief episodes of facile romance, for that matter, rocking us in our chairs and jolting us into our taut readerly selves.
It is this jarring laughter or the brief episodes of facile romance between Dr. Wyn and April which brings you back into focus and drops you headlong into the story. That is how Unexplained Laughter harnesses the invisible presence of the reader, not by opening dialogue with him but by quietly allowing the reader’s sense of ennui seep into the character of Lydia and vice versa. Interspersed with the narrative of Lydia, who is trying to figure out her world on her own, is the narrative of the mentally deranged Angharad. The latter’s speeches have a dreamy sadness that puts Lydia’s dark humour into perspective. And then, there’s the laughter that originates in the valley, whose source is unknown, whose purpose unclear. Unlike other gothic tales where the maniac laughter is deemed evil, the laughter in Ellis’s novel is purposeless. And that is where it contributes to the gothic texture of the novel. The laughter of the valley, like the laughter of Angharad or of Lydia, is neither characterized by mirth or by malice. It is the expression of a mind that has lost contact with reality; it is the safety valve of an existence that borders on the psychotic, and for whom the realm of life and the realm of death overlap: “It was reassuring to make your dwelling place of the same indigenous material as your grave. Living and dying here you would feel much the same”. As readers, therefore, we should not consider the laughter to be disruptive; it does not block the narrative. Rather it releases the entrapped emotions both of the characters and of the reader to allow the story to unfold after a brief hiatus. The fact that Bueno is able to ‘stop’ the laughter towards the end of the novel shows that Lydia has been able to accommodate herself to the reality through the course of the novel. The laughter, like Angharad, may have no narrative significance; but that only adds to its uncanny essence. Without a purpose of its own, it is able to manipulate the moodscapes of the characters, just like Angharad’s mentally unstable nature unconsciously influences Hywel and Elizabeth’s decision to remain childless, or for Beuno to turn into a celibate preacher.
The comic discrepancy within the gothic laughter is pronounced even in Barbara Comyns’ book Who was Changed and Who was Dead. The story of the Willoweed family intersects with the sudden onset of the suicide ‘epidemic’ in the city. Comyns carefully weaves the death imagery into the comic rhetoric of her novel. For instance, the image of the ducks waddling in the drawing room relieves the tension of the imminent doom of the flood or the suicides that are to take place: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night”. On other occasions, however, the laughter is deliberately psychotic. In Unexplained Laughter, we have the scene of Angharad being amused by the pool of milk she creates by dropping the milk on the kitchen, or the lewd drawings she makes on the mountains. In Comyns’ novel, the maniac laughter takes a darker turn as the butcher’s self-inflicted wound on his neck “resembled a smile”. Although repressed emotions and fear are unanimously believed to be the motor driving the Gothic genre, I believe, if we turn a Gothic tale inside out, we get to see the sinister laughable ironies of life that animates it. The butcher, who spent his life mastering the art of cutting meat, seems to have exhibited his skills of precision in the last cut he will ever have delivered. The range of deaths in the novel, from the animals dying in the flood, to the suicides, to the death of the tyrant Grandmother, does not allow you to dote on them for long. And it is then that death becomes comical because the ‘funeral’ becomes a part of daily entertainment, a ritual that no longer deserves serious lamentation. There is no difference between those who change and those who die because death wanders in the neighbourhood like a playboy waiting for his catch. This mundane, matter-of-fact treatment of death enables the gothic laughter to flourish in its full natural form.
Nothing completes a discussion about gothic laughter without at least a tip of the hat to the Joker who says in The Killing Joke, “It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?” The Joker’s laughter like the characteristic Gothic laughter grows out of the mind’s refusal to follow the train of logic and reason; it creeps out of the dark spaces and insulates the mind from its unbearable past. Ironically, it also brings the mind closer to an acceptance of its brutal history in a twisted way. It is a laughter that contaminates, like the iconic end to The Killing Joke where Batman takes on the laugh from where the Joker’s trail off.
Writing about books you have read is a tricky exercise. You cannot read the book like a monologue. The characters do not so much talk to each other as they long to talk to the reader. To suspend the reading of the book mid-sentence, to stop the characters from talking, and engage in a dialogue with your own thoughts, is one of the guilty pleasures of reading. Inevitably, the character’s whimsy of ceasing to be a part of fiction, and to sneak around with the real people in your thoughts makes them a part of our daily joy-ride. And between such crossovers between fiction and life, we live on, as puppets animated with laughter.
If this article has brought some perspective to your imagination of the Gothic other than the clichéd ones, then why not go one step further and enrich your bookrack with a few more titles that invoke laughter the other way round?
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
Horner and S. Zlosnik’s Gothic and the Comic Turn: “The comic turn in Gothic, we claim, is not an aberration or a corruption of a ‘serious’ genre; rather, it is intrinsic to a mode of writing that has been hybrid since its very inception.”
Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter: “A book is a dream machine. Its purpose is to take you out of the world.”
Title Image by Subarnarekha Pal
Book covers from Google Images
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