Sunshine Gothic

Sunshine Gothic

When I was a kid, my family spent two weeks every summer on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. We went there first when I was ten, and after that we went every summer until my sophomore year of college. At first, it was heaven—rocky beaches at the bottom of cliffs, sand beaches got to on paths that led past the ruins of an old mansion, ice cream in the afternoons, fresh corn. But when my parents divorced, it became less like heaven—parents taking turns, trying to (poorly) recreate a sense of summer joy; my mother with her new boyfriend; my father silent, mourning. And being on the island itself, an island where you had to make reservations months and months in advance to get your car on the ferry, an island where you couldn’t leave until the return ferry reservation came due, an island where your friends were far away and it felt like life was happening without you, the island became claustrophobic, almost panic inducing: what if we needed to leave and couldn’t get a spot on the ferry? We’d be trapped there forever, our eyes fixed always on the horizon.

I’ve been working on a novel for years now that takes place on an island. In my novel, the island is the repository for all the world’s garbage. The garbage arrives by boat, dropped into the water by cargo ships passing on the horizon. It washes up on the beach, is picked up by a group of parentless children, and then is fed, piece by piece, to a herd of giant pigs. From time to time the pigs are a little too enthusiastic and snap off one of the kids’ fingers in their frenzy to get at the trash. But on this particular island, it’s not the pigs that are the menace; they’re just part of the island’s odd ecosystem. The real danger for the children comes in the form of adults who roam the island with all the glamour of the stars of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It’s not unusual for them to drink a flute of champagne before setting off to hunt human quarry. Their high heels are real stilettos. Their teeth are filed into points.

While I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve tried to reacquaint myself with examples of the Desert Island trope: Robinson Crusoe; Lord of the Flies; Tom Hanks’ movie, Cast Away—that sort of thing. Those works are about ideas of solitude, vulnerability, human cruelty, colonial impulses and anxieties, what it’s like to live without food or shelter under the hot sun, what it’s like to be alone. They’re also about something else: containment. Desert Island Literature explores the way behavior is intensified under the pressure of a closed off space. 

Limits make an island an island. On an island, action can’t bleed past borders. You can trace the coastline, but you can’t step into the water, at least not for long, not if you want to keep breathing. The inhabitants of an island don’t have much choice but to deal with the community that’s there, even if it’s a community of just two (or sometimes only one and maybe something to talk to, like a parrot or a soccer ball with a painted face smeared across its surface). When new blood arrives, it’s a big deal. Within the fact of containment is also the fact of no escape. Find a herd of ravenous pigs on an island, and no matter how far you run, if they get loose, they will find you—there just are not an endless number of places to hide. Find a herd of ravenous adults on an island, and you don’t even have to wait for them to get loose: they’ll come for you with sharpened knives no matter where you think you’re safe. Everything pools up inside the space. Action is internal, circular, a kind of Sea of Azof where you can imagine Miss Jessel staring at you across the water. 

That’s right: Miss Jessel, the dead, former governess of Henry James’ 1898 gothic novel, The Turn of the Screw. The novel traces an unnamed narrator who has been hired by a mysterious, wealthy man to be governess to his niece and nephew at Bly, his remote country estate. The catch? She’s not allowed to contact him about anything once she’s there; her authority is absolute. At Bly, the governess keeps seeing (or imagining) Miss Jessel and the (also dead) former valet, Quint. Eventually, she becomes convinced that the children are allied with the ghosts. The screw keeps tightening. Tragedy ensues. 

Bly, with its borders fixed, might as well be an island. And Robinson Crusoe’s island, with its ghostly footprints in the sand, might as well be a haunted house. The longer I worked on my desert island novel, the more I turned to gothic novels for inspiration. It seems to me that there are a lot of similarities between the genres. 

The overarching qualities of the gothic form, adapted from M.H. Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms, include: 

  • a house 
  • difficulty leaving that house 
  • limited or no contact with the outside world 
  • a fixation on death, darkness, or disease 
  • a majority of the action taking place at night 
  • creepy events that seem to have a supernatural explanation, but that, often, are later revealed as having an explanation that is more mundane 
  • usurpation of someone else’s rightful inheritance 
  • difficulty seeing clearly because of all the shadows

So, a list of qualities found in Desert Island Literature, adapted from my layman’s observations: 

  • an island 
  • difficulty leaving that island 
  • limited or no contact with the outside world 
  • a fixation with water, food, or vegetation 
  • lots of action taking place under the bright sun 
  • creepy events that seem to have a supernatural explanation, but that, often, are later revealed as having an explanation that is more mundane 
  • desire to turn whatever or whoever already exists on the island into something personally useful 
  • difficulty seeing because of the constant glare

They’re similar lists, obviously, but not identical—everything to do with the quality of the light: the gothic is cloaked in darkness, is insistent on the difficulty of sight. Desert Island Literature is steeped in sunlight, the kind of sunlight that gets behind your eyes, and gives you headaches, and makes you wish for a pair of sunglasses, and, in lieu of sunglasses, forces you to keep your eyes shut, and wear a hat, and stick to the shadows as much as you can. 

Among the ways the two genres overlap is the way islands in literature seem to awaken a desire to take what abundance exists on the island and make it the castaway’s own, and the way the gothic novel often unfolds around questions of usurpation. We know very little about the ghosts in Turn of the Screw. But what if we were to flip the story and imagine the events from their perspectives? Miss Jessel, staring at her former subjects in what seems to be a hungry way—maybe she really is hungry; maybe she wants to eat up whatever she finds. Quint, her ghostly companion, maybe paramour, maybe corrupter of children, calling the children out of the safety of their beds; maybe he does want to be in control of the house; maybe he does want to be master. The nameless narrator? One of her very first lines announces her thrill in taking over: “I was, strangely, at the helm!” None of the sources of terror seem capable of leaving. They’re all trapped there, and it’s questionable whether they mind being there or not. Can we think about them in the same way we think about Robinson Crusoe? Arriving on an island, making himself king of whatever he finds there, enslaving the boy he saves, driving most of the other people who travel to the island away from it in fear? If we think of the desert island novel as a cousin of the gothic novel, the thing to be afraid of are the people who arrive unasked for, who get stuck with no access to exit, who decide to make the best of it by claiming the space as their own and venomously haunting anyone else who might assert a counter claim.

There’s another place where the darkness of the haunted house and the glare of the desert island cross paths: in the chill of being captured by a story. 

An argument can be made that the act of reading itself is an act of temporary enclosure on an island, or in a haunted house, the pull of the writing keeping you inside, your impulses to your other life, your other world (food? the kids? email? worry that you should really be out jogging instead of sitting on the couch curled up under a blanket eating ice cream and reading a book?) pushing you in from its coastal shores, pushing you momentarily inside its walls. Freud thought so: for him, the act of reading itself is uncanny in the way the words on a page take over and direct your attention so that you’re both reading and resisting reading at the same time. Lots of other literary critics think so, too: Shoshana Felman’s “Turning the Screw of Interpretation” positions the haunting in The Turn of the Screw as a kind of parallel to the haunting that takes over the reader through the very act of reading.

The Turn of the Screw is a particularly self-aware kind of gothic novel. It’s one of those books that I go back to over and over and that I can never quite decide about. There are so many possibilities for the way it’s scary. Is it about the terror of losing one’s mind? Is it about the terror of being under the control of someone else who’s lost her mind? Is it about the terror of encountering ghosts? Is it about the terror of encountering ghosts while also losing one’s mind? Scholars have been arguing about the way we should read it at least since Edmund Wilson wrote about it in 1938. Brad Leithauser wrote beautifully about his experience with the novel for the New Yorker a few years ago: 

“Yet the book’s greatest feat, its keenest paradox—the ultimate effect is precisely the opposite of openness. The Turn of the Screw may be the most claustrophobic book I’ve ever read. Yes, you’re free to shift constantly from one interpretation to the next, and yet, as you progress deeper into the story, each interpretation begins to seem more horrible than the other. As the gruesomeness gathers, the beautiful country house effectively falls away, like flesh receding from the skull of a cadaver, and we’re deposited in a hellish, plantless, low landscape of bone and stone: plenty of places to run, but nowhere to hide.” 

To me, that sounds like a sundrenched island. Or like the very opposite. Or both. It’s uncanny.

I’ve been back to Block Island in recent years. My sister and I both have children now, and we’ve packed our families together into a rented house—one week with my father and his wife, one week with my mother and her husband, the children crammed into a single room, everybody trying to get along and mostly succeeding. The claustrophobia of my teenage years has been replaced with a desire to stay frozen in place and time forever. I’ve become a happy ghost, haunting another generation of childhood, not wanting to let mine go. My sister and I sit next to each other on a blanket on the beach and watch our father body surfing with the kids. The ferry crosses the water, disappearing into the distance and then reappearing an hour later. 

If this is a book, I think, I’d like to stay inside its covers forever. 

If this is a desert island, I think, I want to take it over and make it my own. 

If this is a haunted house, I think, I’ve made peace with the ghosts and would happily stay stranded inside its walls. 

But of course books end. Of course a boat arrives to take the castaways home. Of course the house and the ghosts inside it eventually let their prisoners go: otherwise there would be no one around to write the story.


Johanna Stoberock is the author of the novel, PIGS (Red Hen Press). 

Photo source: Ionna22 via Creative Commons

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.