In recent years, Dutch writers have crawled deeper and deeper into their own navel to select the most personal stories. Think of Maartje Wortel, Niña Weijers, Saskia de Coster, Bregje Hofstede, Tobi Lakmaker, Valentijn Hoogenkamp, Lale Gül, Philip Huff, Elke Geurts and Bart Chabot. Struggles with sexuality, gender and childhood trauma, arguments with parents, relationships fizzled out, mothers became demented, fathers died, friendships were in dire straits, one had a baby and the other burned out – it all really happened. It certainly made for some wonderful, personal novels, but there was little room for pure, unfettered imagination. This seems to have changed last year: the imagination is back, writers are back inventing.
It happened subtly in a book like The event by Peter Terrin, where the lives of completely normal people intertwine and then suddenly form a special whole. Or with the help of historical figures, e.g. the composer Haydn, or Rembrandt, who was brought to life in the story collection Mr. and Mrs. God by Margriet de Moor. Sometimes a special narrator was chosen: a bullet in The light at the end of the loop by Martin Michael Driessen, or a dead person in the afterlife To have and to be by Dimitri Verhulst. IN Eye comfort by Anton Dautzenberg plants and animals actually spoke. But most notable was the comeback of the ultimate fantasy genre: Gothic.
The body spasms
The Gothic novel is a novel that mixes mystery, romance and horror, ‘invented’ in 1764 when the Englishman Horace Walpole Castle of Otranto published. Obsessed with medieval, Gothic (hence the name) buildings, Walpole made the titular castle play a large part in his story: forbidden rooms, dark corridors, looming towers, moving paintings, doors that open or close by themselves – all too to scare the reader. The book became a huge hit and was a blueprint for the many Gothic novels that would follow. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a famous example, or Dracula by Bram Stoker, but also the horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe are very Gothic.
Apparently, the alluring effect of old secluded houses, creaky stairs, dark cellars, dead animals, ghosts, eerie disappearances and diabolical figures is still not found, because we saw all these elements in a striking amount of Dutch fiction this year. It is The Man Eater by Tom Hofland a direct imitation of a Gothic novel. In a sad office on the edge of the forest, things get ugly out of hand when a strange gentleman comes by with his black poodle (!) to ‘get rid of’ some redundant employees. Moonlight, choral music seeping through an open window, a murmured prayer, flickering lamps—it’s all there.
Simone Atangana Bekono gives a nod to the gothic genre with her short story As high as the sun stood. The main character Sonny lives with a friend in a creepy villa, where faded flowers are freshened up unseen, broken glass is suddenly cleaned up and bloody sheets are suddenly changed. Sonny is plagued by terrible nightmares in which terrifying women bite her stomach open and suck her insides.
The song of stork and dromedary by Anjet Daanje, number 2 on our list of the best books of 2022, is also full of the supernatural: dead people suddenly opening their eyes, inexplicable footsteps on the stairs, rattling skirts in deserted corridors, knocking from a coffin… And what about the carcasses in various states of decomposition buried here and there? Dead animals probably too Little stuttering flights by Femke Brockhus, a mole in the barbed wire, wet, deep red flesh in the bushes, bones in the garden, a dead bird, black feathers, a cold and stiff little body, and don’t forget the distant, old, creaky house where an architect walked alone with his daughter after his wife’s mysterious disappearance…
In short: Gothic is back. And it is easily explained. In these confusing times, when trust in the media, politics and science is increasingly eroded by fake news and disinformation, so that we hardly know who or what is good or reliable or not, ‘what really happened’ is becoming less and less attractive . We prefer to retreat into a fantasy world where danger, evil and frightening things are recognizable as such.
The Marquis de Sade wrote in 1800 that the Gothic novel had a political dimension and saw its rise as a reaction to the French Revolution. A result of the revolutionary shocks that were felt throughout Europe. The greater the social horror, he believed, the more sensational the literature. It would also explain why the gothic genre is gaining momentum right now, at a time when the world is falling from one crisis to another. It doesn’t get scarier than deadly viruses, Putin, rising sea levels and the far right, so dive into all the fantastic literary darkness.