Gothic Travel through Haunted Landscapes: Climates of Fear

When we set out to write this book, we had in mind more than the preoccupation with travel that has marked the Gothic from its earliest moments. What caught our eye or, perhaps, our ear was the eerie footfall generated by Gothic journeys, as well as the power they possess to lead us into unfamiliar territory and to follow us home, dogging our steps wherever we go.

For fictional travellers, and for armchair tourists wishing they were ‘there’, Gothic landscapes have always generated turbulent imaginative atmospheres. As Devendra Varma claimed, the temper of the Gothic ‘spirit’ is that of fierce winds and storm clouds. Yet, from the later eighteenth century to the present moment, Gothic fiction has also captured physical geographies —awe-inspiring wilderness or unhomely local terrain – in vivid detail, conveying the challenges presented by topographical extremity and the elemental forces of more-than-human nature. 

Having spent perhaps too long in haunted houses, we wanted to venture outdoors into the open air, sharing the sensory and imaginative experience of walking through predominantly rural Gothic landscapes. Our book ventures far and wide: to both poles, Himalayan peaks, railway tracks in the Hudson valley, German forests and the Danube, as well to the wetlands and uplands, coastal fringes and secluded byways of the British and Irish Isles. Along the way, we trace uncanny stopping points, resting places, distractions and diversions that detain or disorientate Gothic travellers. Sometimes situating us at the edge geographically, these landscapes always place us on edge. The journeys we trace take different forms (recreational excursions, epic voyages, secular pilgrimages) and serve different purposes (escape, curiosity, self-improvement or transformative discovery), but whatever the motivation for those who travel, pleasure inescapably turns to fear. 

What we are thinking about here is encapsulated by the alliterative trio footfall, friction and frisson. In the narratives we survey, the physical impact of the human foot upon the ground triggers an echo, or activates an uncanny presence, that in turn generates a sensory response, a chill down the spine. Typically, such footfall is also peregrinatory, prone to wandering astray, at once immersed and adrift in estranging surroundings. These walkers become haunters and haunted, with Gothic travel representing a journey into error and terror. 

Of course, the most urgent footfall that haunts us is that of the Anthropocene, and our own damaging footprint. From the outset, Gothic has laid bare the human appetite for plunder and dramatized our vulnerability to the power of more-than-human nature. This awareness has often been expressed as muted but insidious anxiety about how we recklessly transform landscapes and devastate ecologies, but this concern tended to be moved offshore to far-flung or ‘peripheral’ places. Now, that distant dread is gradually creeping closer, stalking familiar routes. None of us can be vicarious travellers across this landscape, or tread too lightly. We have to look at the marks we leave, track the way we have come, contemplate where we are headed, and change the path we follow.

Gothic Travel through Haunted Landscapes: Climates of Fear, by Lucie Armitt & Scott Brewster. Published by Anthem Studies in Gothic Literature