Cybergothic; Or, The Walls Are Closing In

Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, & a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty & strength, had become food for the worm. Now I was led to examine the cause & progress of this decay & forced to spend days & nights in vaults & charnel-houses.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

Let me tell you a modern horror story. Horror is about invasion: something from the outside coming in, or something from within trying to get out: a stranger in the home, a virus in the body, an alien bursting through the chest, a thousand-year-old curse growing leaves out of the basement. In my tale, the internet swallowed us like a flood, nested itself like a parasite under our ribcage, & something’s creeping behind our walls. Around the turn of the millennium, notably in Mark Fisher’s Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism & Cybernetic Theory-Fiction, appears the idea of the cyberspace as a gothic territory.[1] The gothic deals with a most primal invasion, a most upsetting boundary disruption – life is ventriloquized into undead profanity, & death walks on earth disguised as ghosts, vampires, & monsters. The problem of the cybergothic is doctor Frankenstein’s dilemma: technology, allowed to wield organic life as its tool creates a prosthetic hyper-nature. In Fisher’s horrific tale, the cyberspace made the undead out of us – the internet lives in our bodies, manipulating our nervous systems to its rhythm. We dance to its macabre tune. We are like marionettes on its string, pulled into the carnival of ventriloquized emotions & epistemic micro-wars. The cyberspace is where it is no longer possible to distinguish between the internal lives of men & machines, where, as in a scene from The Golem, humans are blown around from one place to another like scraps of paper, moved by invisible cybernetic winds that hack our perceptual channels, all the while we think that we are enjoying ‘freedom,’ ‘personal expression’ or ‘community.’[2] The uncanny terror of it is not that inhuman creatures are alive just like us, as it is with vampires or zombies, but that we are as dead as our machines. It is no longer possible to tell where agency, intention, & desire come from. The cyberspace is Dr. Frankenstein & we are its monster.

In 1973, Leonard Wolf wrote that “the Gothic novel was something of a cottage‐industry of middle‐class women — as if women, oppressed by needlepoint, whalebone stays, psychic frustrations, shame & babies, found in the making & consuming of these fictions a way to signal each other (& perhaps the world) the shadowy outlines of their own pain.”[3] In Flatline Constructs, Fisher spends little time on the Gothic classic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus, the contents of which are too well known to summarise. Frankenstein tells horrific tales of ‘perfect’ reproduction through a woman’s horror, although this might not be obvious at first. In her essay on Frankenstein, Jill Lepore describes how Shelley wrote the canonical novel after a series of biotraumas:

Mary Shelley began writing “Frankenstein, or, the modern Prometheus” when she was eighteen years old, two years after she’d become pregnant with her first child, a baby she did not name. “Nurse the baby, read,” she had written in her diary, day after day, until the eleventh day: “I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it,” & then, in the morning, “Find my baby dead.” With grief at that loss came a fear of “a fever from the milk.” Her breasts were swollen, inflamed, unsucked; her sleep, too, grew fevered. “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, & that we rubbed it before the fire, & it lived,” she wrote in her diary. “Awake & find no baby.” She was pregnant again when she wrote the book, pregnant again when the book came out. Shelly’s mother, a famous feminist author, died eleven days after giving birth to Shelley.[4]

Frankenstein is not only about technological manipulation of organic life, about how we are as dead as the monsters that we make, as Fisher would have it. It is also about stillbirth. A woman is a receptacle for organic invasion, the vessel for life to carry itself out through a mutation of the body: reproduction is a brute force stronger than any ideology, a nightmare & blessing eternal. A woman’s body is a ghostly receptacle. Reproduction is bifurcation. From one body, comes another. From one body can also die another. Mothers, as Claudia Day writes, are not only makers of life; they are also makers of death: even if a baby is not stillborn, making a baby is always adding to the future death count of the world. Uncanny changes are set off in the mother’s body, the most altering of which is the loss of autonomy, which is yet another form of death: “the mother is divided the moment she watches another human being exit her body.”[5] Gothic reproduction makes clones, stillborn babies, & undead beings stitched together from organic matter, complicating the notions of autonomy, intention & agency.

In the gothic tradition, spiritual traumas nest in physical containers. The ghost, like a baby, is an emotional & physical wound twisting & morphing the body just as anxiety, chronic pain, or sexual trauma does, albeit each of these morphs the body in a different register. A haunted house – the house that houses the wound – or a haunted body, is in the gothic like a time machine. The future cannot be born – walk into the wrong body, you’re dead or trapped forever (possession). Walk into the wrong room & you’re back there again, living through it again, surrounded by ghosts (haunting). The gothic, so often concerned with the domestic life of women, turns both female territories – the body & the house – into terror zones. In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, intimate pasts are trapped within the house, while in the new suburban gothic novels, such as in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the domestic space houses self-renewing loops of inescapable terrors for both the wife & the husband. It is because the spaces where terror happens – your body, your home – are inescapable that the gothic is the ideal frame for describing the increasing domestication of the cyberspace. Whether it is the walls of the uterus or the walls of the house, the walls are closing in.

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the heroine is prescribed “the rest cure,” a method of treating postpartum depression in women popular in the 19th century, now scientifically debunked, where the woman is asked to move & act as little as possible – to not go out, write, socialize, or even cook, but to instead live as passive a life as possible. Just stare at the walls in your house. In the story, the longer the heroine looks at the wall, the more the wall begins to mutate. The house morphs into a feminine form – the house is the uterus from which the heroine herself is stillborn into a nightmare. She notices “a woman stooping down & creeping about behind the pattern.”[6] The heroine sees an inverted, grotesque version of herself mended into the wall. Incidentally, we’ve taken to calling our news feeds walls – don’t they close in on us, each a misshapen mirror, with humanoid shapes creeping underneath? When we enter into the simulated Americas that we’ve taken to call social media, are we entering into a modern gothic quarter, where the mundane becomes horrific, & every exit is a dead end? What’s there creeping behind the walls if not ghosts, of ourselves & others, past versions of our thoughts & stillborn selves, monstrous clones, living their own lives in the dark?

In her (cyber)gothic horror novel Ciemno, Prawie Noc [Dark, Almost Night], novelist Joanna Bator writes: “On the Net, night never falls. Words that would once sink without a trace here harden into a film, immortalised in a lifeless glow.”[7] If the haunted house in the gothic is a time machine, where memories are materialized as ghosts, the internet immortalizes versions of ourselves (a time machine). It confronts us perpetually with our past, which never disappears, creating prosthetic, monstrous copies of ourselves. Lifeless, stillborn selves. It starts innocently, with snapshots of our ‘normal’ lives: babies, dogs, dinners. Soon enough, though, monstrous versions of us appear behind the walls. The walls are closing in. We are drawn to them, as if through fate or hypnosis. Cybergothic: being surrounded by stillborn versions of yourself, immortalised in the lifeless glow of the spiderweb that became your house.

BOGNA KONIOR

*Published in Alienist 9 (2020)


[1] Mark Fisher, “Flatline constructs: Gothic materialism & cybernetic theory-fiction.” PhD diss., University of Warwick, 1999.

[2] Gustav Meyrinck, The Golem, trans. Mike Mitchell (Sawtry/Riverside: Dedalus/ Ariadne, 1995) 54-55.

[3] Quoted in Jacqueline Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction: A Bakhtinian Approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) 58.

[4] Jill Lepore, “The Strange & Twisted Life of Frankenstein,” The New Yorker, 12/02/2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/12/the-strange-&-twisted-life-of-frankenstein

[5] Claudia Day, “Mothers as Makers of Death,” The Paris Review, 14/08/2018, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/08/14/mothers-as-makers-of-death/

[6] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892, https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1952

[7] Joanna Bator, Ciemno, Prawie Noc (Wydawnictwo W.A.B., 2012) [e-pub]

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