In literary terms, Gothic typically refers to that frame of mind and soul that embraces the strange, the mysterious, and the irrational—specifically, terror. Gothic novels are often set in the dark and in the wild. This is what one encounters in Andrew Klavan’s most recent novel.
As I consider this novel written for a popular audience, there are no empty cliches for Klavan. Nightmare City is a pulse-pounding, page-turning, plot-twisting, engaging work that will be enjoyed by all who love a rich, suspenseful novel. But this is not a mere bump-in-the-night, goose bump, chills-producing novel; rather, Nightmare City has the capacity to move the soul towards reflection. The reality of death and evil are all around us and even within us. While there are the true, the good, and the beautiful received with joy, sometimes the true and the good are met in the dark. Ignoring evil does not make it vanish. Our contemporary culture is taken with dystopian fiction, and we also seem to be fascinated with zombies and vampires. It has been said that vampires are about sex and zombies are about death. It takes only a cursory knowledge of graphic-novel series and the television show, The Walking Dead, to be struck by the pervasive nihilism of this genre. Klavan, however, gives us suspense without despair, fear without hopelessness, and lessons about courage and morality in the midst of human mortality.
Author Russell Kirk, writing of his own ghost stories, says: “What I have attempted, rather, are experiments in the moral imagination. Readers will encounter elements of parable and fable…Literary naturalism is not the only path to apprehension of reality. All-important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural…can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.” The key here is the ethical end toward which great literature often aims, but has been rejected in our own moment. Klavan is counter-cultural in this regard.
Just as in the natural order there are laws to which one must be yield, in “ghost stories” there is a parallel principle within the supernatural order. These accompanying laws have equally real results when adhered to or when dismissed. Again Kirk: “The better uncanny stories are underlain by healthy concept of the character of evil. Defying nature, the necromancer conjures up what ought not to rise again this side of Judgment Day. But these dark powers do not rule the universe: by bell, book, and candle, symbolically at least, we can push them down under.”
It is important to stress here that the realities of these stories, in general and in particular in Nightmare City, are not merely symbolic or allegorical, as it is the case that a symbol (by the nature of being a symbol) points to or hints at a reality beyond itself. In other words, an allegory is parallel to something that is other than itself. If this is not the case, then allegories and symbols merely refer to other symbols and allegories, and the mirror maze becomes a prison.
Russell Kirk gives further insight into another value of the “ghost tale,” which is also true of liberal arts grounded in fine letters: “The story of the supernatural or mystical can disclose aspects of human conduct and human longing to which the positivistic psychologist has blinded himself.” The human heart longs for “transcendent perception” and “arcane truths about good and evil” that answer questions we have about the meaning and truth of things. Kirk adds:
As a literary form, then, the uncanny tale can be a means for expressing truths enchantingly. Many are drawn to this literary genre as it affirms what most of us know, and that is the truth that our senses are not capable of apprehending all that was, is, or will be. While the ‘scientists’ or ‘materialists’ will not acknowledge it, ‘nature’ is something more than mere fleshly sensation, and that something may lie above human nature, and something below it—why, the divine and the diabolical rise up again in serious literature.
So the scientists, mechanists, or fundamentalists, who resist these tales of transcendence, and the eerie novels such as Nightmare City, should resist even more the ignorant order that loses touch of the ultimate reality to which these parables are set next to and into which they offer a glimpse. It is our narrow, shallow, and hollow view of reality that should be resisted by those of us drawn to the dark, scary, otherworldly and mysterious tales such as these that point us to what is.
The synopsis of Nightmare City is:
“Tom Harding only wants the truth. But the truth is becoming more dangerous with every passing minute. As a reporter for his high school newspaper, Tom Harding was tracking the best story of his life—when, suddenly, his life turned very, very weird. He woke up one morning to find his house empty…his street empty…his whole town empty…empty except for an eerie, creeping fog—and whatever creatures were slowly moving toward him through the fog. Now Tom’s once-ordinary world has become something out of a horror movie. How did it happen? Is it real? Is he dreaming? Has there been a zombie apocalypse? Has he died and gone to hell? Tom is a good reporter—he knows how to look for answers—but no one has ever covered a story like this before. With the fog closing in and the hungry creatures of the fog surrounding him, he has only a few hours to find out how he lost the world he knew. In this bizarre universe nothing is what it seems and everything—including Tom’s life—hangs in the balance.”
Klavan has said in more than one interview that his ideas often begin with a “what-if question.” Human life is filled with mystery and the “what if” calls us beyond ourselves toward something else. Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Williams, Ray Bradbury, and Russell Kirk are grand writers who blend both moral and Gothic imagination. With his keen eye for action and adventure, Klavan joins their ranks.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared on Musings of a Christian Humanist (December 2013) and is republished here with permission.