Writing Prairie Gothic

There was a reason early settlers on the prairie called it god-forsaken, why they  became cynical and very very watchful. Anything can leap at you at any time from any direction. Coming out of their heritage, I can’t help perceiving the landscape as inhospitable with threatening undercurrents, abandoned by God. As a prairie writer, I try to deal with this perception by giving the landscape structure, that is, by describing it. Such descriptions are often of a dark and gloomy nature, you might say gothic.

A definition of gothic as it pertains to literature is in order. I think of it as writing that employs desolate scenery, lonely places, Ephraim Frey Homesteader Shack 1911isolated characters, dark themes, and an overall atmosphere of apprehension, fear, or dread. And secrets. There is always a secret, something about a house, something about the people who live there. If your mind attaches such descriptives to the land, I’d say you have a gothic bent, and if you have one, likely you’re stuck with it.

I call it Prairie Gothic, the form some of us employ to express the human condition when faced with this landscape. As is other forms, i.e., the American Western, Prairie Gothic is a myth. How and to what extent a poet/writer can incorporate his myth and make it his own is the mark of his genius. For an obvious example in film, think George Lucas and Star Wars, how the director incorporated the myth so completely into himself and made it his own and thus created his other world. Examples in literature – Emily Bronte was the moor and Heathcliffe; Faulkner was his particular American south. If we move things to Canada,  Sinclair Ross totally assimilated a prairie gothic myth in As For Me and My House, in which we have the full slate of threatening prairie town, brooding husband, caged wife.

Or, as John Newlove puts it in Driving:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .You become the country.

You are by yourself in that channel of snow

and pines and pines, …

The function of a myth is to explain or express a truth about our existence. That’s why we have myths, that’s why we’ve always had them, from man’s earliest writings on cave walls, the myth of the hunt. To continue with Newlove, because he’s such a good example, here is the way he expresses our existence here on the prairie:

it is not unfortunately

quite enough to be innocent,

it is not enough merely

not to offend–

 

at times to be born

is enough, to be

in the way is too much–

(Ride Off Any Horizon)

Writers know that darkness is in the eye of the beholder. We know that the landscape is not evil in itself, that it is, in fact, nothing. It is simply there. The landscape and the isolated house do not care one way or another. We writers with a gothic bent perceive the prairie to be gloom and doom as a way to  get our heads around the place that engendered us, i.e., as a way to tell our stories.

Why can’t we write a pastoral: I wandered lonely as a cloud, etc.? Why can’t we produce friendly pastels of Peggy’s Cove as so many watercolour enthusiasts do? Anyone who has been out on the prairie at dusk on an isolated road with a storm coming on knows the answer.

. . . . . . . . . .  Fear at night

on the level plains, with no horizon

and the stars too bright, wind bitter …

(The Double-Headed Snake, John Newlove)

We are not an idyllic pastoral or a cozy Peggy’s Cove. We are a vast unstructured, dark (think winter coming on), threatening place. Our art reflects this place. Prairie Gothic, an attempt to cope with all of the above plus silence and cold – claustrophobic paralyzing cold.

…how lovely and lonely that driving is,

how deadly. …

…All I can see is the silent cold car gliding,

walled in, your face smooth, your mind empty,

cold foot on the pedal, cold hands on the wheel.

(Driving, John Newlove)

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