The Gothic Contagion from Popular Literature to Transmedial Memes

Federica Perazzini, Sapienza Università di Roma

“Having taken up residence in its host, [it] replicates itself throughout our culture like a virus” (Mulvey-Roberts 1998, xvii). With this epidemiological simile, Marie Mulvey-Roberts summarises the mutations of the Gothic genre in its manyfold afterlives. In fact, the association between gothic literature and the pathological comes almost natural in light of how Angela Carter describes the genre’s moral function, namely the pervasive and disturbing ability “of provoking unease” (Carter 1996, 459).

Indeed, from its early emergence in the second half of the eighteenth century to its apparent dissolution in-between the lines of Scott’s Historical Novel, the Gothic genre has proven to be resistant to the antidote of realism, feeding off the incredulity of its readers while evolving in a cross-temporal mode of representation.According to an increasing majority of scholars (Miles 1993; Kitson 2002; Potter 2005), after the 1820s the Gothic did not actually disappear from the official spectrum of genre fiction, but underwent a pulviscolar recrudescence.

As Julian Wolfreys puts it, gothic tropes, popular conventions, and characterisations would spring up anywhere in different sections of the Victorian novelistic market lighting up the dark side of contemporaneity (Wolfreys and Robbins 2000, xiv). Thus the gothic contagion began, spreading towards the lowbrow street literature of penny blood (1840–70) and the later penny dreadful series (1860–1900), reclaiming its novelistic form towards the end of the century with Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker’s acclaimed works. While literary scholarship has often dismissed the penny-series phenomena as derivative, but also degenerative examples of a genre drift, this article argues for their significant contribution in pushing further the Gothic contamination into the unprecedented frontier of memetics.

After a brief introduction about the relationship between adaptation and meme theories, in part two, I will illustrate the actual figures of the Gothic weight in the British novel market until the 1820s, while in part three, I will follow the gothic contagion in the underworld of Victorian street literature of penny blood and penny dreadfuls. The conclusions will focus on how the crystallisation of specific characters into our collective cultural imagery, can be interpreted as embodiments of gothic memes.


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