Uncanny soundscapes of gothic nineteenth-century short stories reverberate across centuries
Chilling creaks, chiming clocks, thumping footsteps and heartbeats, persistent breath, howling wind, terrifying thunder and rustling leaves. These are some of the many sounds that crowd the houses, rooms, torture chambers and coffins in the Gothic short stories investigated in a new thesis by Elena Glotova of Umeå University. Although written almost two centuries ago, Gothic short stories still chill readers with their uncanny soundscapes.
Text: Per melander
Elena Glotova, PhD-student, Department of Language Studies
The intense physical realization of anxiety and uncertainty in Gothic short stories makes them highly relevant and adaptable today, even though they were written a long time ago
“The importance of sound in Gothic literature is hard to overestimate as sound is instrumental in the expression of Gothic themes, such as supernatural apparitions, persecution, or confinement,” Elena Glotova said.
Her exploration of Gothic short stories reveals that Gothic soundscapes represent a system of communication with a mediating and informative relationship of listener to space through sound.
“Sound in Gothic short stories enriches the visual configuration of place and contributes to the formation and reformation of the listener’s sense of identity. In addition, my project underscores the presence of liminality in all the elements of Gothic soundscapes. These include ambiguous sounds, transformable places, borderline identities, and unstable temporality”.
She was surprised to see how her close “reading” of sound reveals very close and intricate interconnections between nineteenth-century authors across the Atlantic, for instance, between Edith Nesbit or Matthew Phipps Shiel with the canonical Edgar Allan Poe.
Another finding relates to the relationship between sound and time: “Gothic sounds obscure the flow of events by increasing or slowing down the duration of time and transport the listener into the past or alternative dimensions”, Glotova said.
“In a more tangible sense, Gothic short stories are woven with timepieces, from conventional sounding bedroom clocks and chiming bells to a more idiosyncratic giant horologe of a house”.
Glotova’s personal relationship with Gothic literature started at a very young age with Russian folk tales and the collected tales of Nikolai Gogol.
“Later my shelves expanded with Edgar Allan Poe’s short and Stephen King’s novels. I loved those books, and I grew up reading them. Eventually, reading Gothic fiction made me think how much the genre speaks to the psychological – the fears and stresses of everyday life – and that was the start of a serious inquiry”.
Glotova said that at the beginning of her PhD she wanted to do a larger project that featured the representation of stress in fiction. Then she narrowed down her scope and focused on sound as a source of fear and stress. The idea of Gothic soundscapes, or a combination of sound and sound patterns in Gothic short stories, started taking shape.
“The sonic characteristics of Gothic fiction were understudied, and especially the systematic interconnections between sound, listener and environment in short stories of nineteenth-century authors. Insights from interdisciplinary sound studies, and in particular Murray Schafer’s soundscape ideology, provided useful theoretical and methodological tools”.
Glotova’s study contributes to literary studies, sound studies in literature, and the medical humanities:
“Hopefully my results will impact research in these fields, and in particular, the intersections between the natural and social sound world and literary soundscapes, as well as the affordances of soundscape theory for literary analysis”.
Parallels to the Pandemic
In the last year of her PhD studies, Glotova reflected on how the pandemic changed urban soundscapes during lock-down: from noisy clatter to ominous silence. Silence is just as powerful as sound in Gothic short stories to induce terror.
“Some Gothic short stories demonstrate a rapid interchange of sound and silence, where silence conceals an uncanny presence and is associated with the fear of the unknown. In addition, silence may signify the absence of voice and limited agency of Gothic characters”, she says.
The intense physical realization of anxiety and uncertainty in Gothic short stories makes them “highly relevant and adaptable today, even though they were written a long time ago”.