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New gothic? No, thanks: Please, Meet Patrick McGrath

by Anna Battista

Darkness falls on a castle lost in the mists of a faraway land. Bats fly here and there, casting their little scary shadows on the ancient and thick walls, covered with damp ivy. Rattling chains can be heard in the distance: the ghosts that haunt the place are just reborn to a new life-in-death during the night hours. Meanwhile in the long underground corridors of the castle a mysterious heroine is trying to run away from a villain who keeps her imprisoned in the secret dreadful dungeon of the castle to use her for his evil purposes. Booohh! Get scared! You're on the set of a typical Gothic novel. Appearing in the second half of the 18th century, this kind of story was opposed to the realistic novel, giving vent to elements such as horror, sensation, grotesque and supernatural. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe, Vathek by William Beckford, The Monk by M.G. Lewis, Melmoth The Wanderer by C.R. Maturin and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley are usually considered the best examples of Gothic novels. In these books, gloomy buildings, haunted castles, prisons, convents and monsters abound for the horror lover. But is it possible to recreate these atmospheres now, and would the brave, bold and difficult-to-scare third millennium reader get a passion for this kind of novel? Probably yes, if they were written from a more psychological point of view, such as the one chosen by Patrick McGrath.

Born in London in 1950 and grew up near Broadmoor Hospital where for many years his father was medical superintendent, McGrath graduated in English and American literature from the University of London. He lived for a while on a remote Canadian island in North Pacific and moved to New York City in 1981, settling in a community of writers in the East Village, where he lives nowadays with his wife, the actress Maria Aitken. "The difference between the New York writing scene then and the actual scene right now is that we were all young in 1981 and now we're old; we were all poor and now we're rich!" McGrath jokes in a posh voice which slightly grates on your nerves. But when he's tricked by my observation that nobody gets rich writing, he retorts, "But we are richer than we were!" McGrath has already published quite a few books: Asylum, which was short-listed for The Guardian Fiction Prize, Blood & Water & Other Tales, The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction (edited with Bradford Morrow and containing tales by Jamaica Kincaid, Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, Angela Crater, Ruth Rendell, Emma Tennant, Peter Straub and Kathy Acker), Spider, Dr Haggard's Disease, Grotesque and Martha Peake, winner of the Italian Flaiano Award.

"The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael's story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic." --Patrick McGrath, Asylum

In all of Patrick McGrath's books, there's still the tension and fear dictated by the Gothic novels, that sense of sublime so well described by Edmund Burke, but there is also something else, such as sensuality and psychological tension, often caused by the irrational choices of the characters which delineate in them a self-destructive personality, as it happens for Stella in Asylum. Set in a mental hospital, the novel recounts the love and passion of Stella Raphael, the wife of the local psychiatrist, for a patient, Edgar Stark, a sculptor hospitalised because of his terrible past. Stella, described by the author as a victim of "the language of the heart", finds freedom in a passionate relationship with Edgar, like a renewed Lady Chatterley lost in the pangs of love and wild sex, like a Lady Chatterley gifted with a perverse Medea complex. If the hell of the gothic novels was tangibly manifest in prisons, castles and deformed monsters, the hell of Patrick McGrath has moved into his characters' psyches and is represented by the cracks into their minds. McGrath describes Stella's love for Edgar with great clinical care. "I learnt a great deal about extreme disorders of the human mind growing up being the son of a father who was a superintendent in a mental hospital," the writer explains, "But this wasn't worth making me a writer. It was only after I became a writer, I discovered that this was a real source to write."

"It is a black art, the writing of a history, is it not?-to resurrect the dead, and animate their bones, as historians do? I think historians must be melancholy creatures, rather like poets, perhaps, or doctors; but then, what does it matter what I think? This is not my story. This is the story of a father and his daughter, and of the strange and terrible events that tore them apart, so it is to those two unhappy souls that I would direct your gaze. As for me, I shall soon sink from sight, and you will forget me altogether. No, I am merely the one who happened upon the story, as you might happen upon, say, a cache of letters in the attic of an ancient uncle's country house; and blowing away the dust of decades, and untying the ribbon that binds them, finding within those crumbling pages a tale of passion so tragic, yet so sublime-as to transform, in that instant, the doddering relict in the bath-chair below to a spirited youth with a fiery heart and the blood of a hero racing in his veins!"--Patrick McGrath, Martha Peake

Martha Peake - A Novel of the Revolution retains something of the Frankenstein monster in the figure of Harry, Martha's father, "to whom Nature in her folly gave the soul of a smuggler, and the tongue of a poet", but includes a variation of the American revolution during the 1770s. Gothic and Romantic imagination clash and collide in this novel, but does McGrath like being labelled a neo-gothic writer? "No, because I write stories of love and madness, but not particularly Gothic novels, which I write only occasionally. My favourite writers are Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Brockden Brown, of whom I'm very fond. For what regards Martha Peake, well, the novel is a pastiche of the Gothic novels of the 18th century. My subject was America and I wanted to deal with America when it was a Romantic youth and not a crippled giant as it is today. I chose the American Revolution as part of the set for Martha Peake as I wanted to write about America, I wanted to understand how it is possible to love America when it is such a crippled ugly giant." "So why are you living there?" I ask him. "Because I can see the romantic youth inside the giant!" he quickly snaps back as if to excuse himself.

Patrick McGrath's works have also hit the big screen. The Grotesque was adapted into a film and released as Gentlemen Don't Eat Poets (1997), directed by J.P. Davidson, starring Alan Bates as Sir Hugo Coal, Theresa Russell as Lady Harriet Coal and Sting as Fledge with a screenplay penned by Patrick McGrath. The film was awarded the jury prize for best film at the St. Petersburg Film Festival. Stephen King adapted Asylum, directed by Jonathan Demme with Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson. The original Asylum adaptation was written by Chris Baylis and Patrick Marber. "I have seen one of the adaptations for the screen of my novels and it wasn't very good because it wasn't tasteful." McGrath explains, "But I have just finished collaborating with David Cronenberg, a good director, and my second novel Spider will be filmed later this year."

Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson should be part of the cast of the movie, the screenplay for "Spider" is written by Patrick McGrath, the story deals with a man, Dennis Clegg, nicknamed Spider who goes back to London after having been hospitalised with acute schizophrenia for 20 years. Dennis gets out of the mental hospital and starts looking for his long lost origins. In Spider Patrick McGrath returns to the medical theme he has already explored in previous novels. His experience in the environment of mental hospitals might hint that if McGrath hadn't become a writer he would have been a doctor, but he denies that. "Actually I don't know what I would have beenů" he ponders for a while, but his wife chirps in, suggesting "You would have been a cartoonist!" and this seems to fit him, as he nods energetically to his wife's suggestion. But for now his readers will have to content themselves with his novels and with the movies taken from his books. Life is long and there's always time for pseudo-gothic comics.

Issue 7, October 2001 | next article


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