Defining the Seaside Gothic in British Fiction
Let’s start with a story.
I live in Portobello, Edinburgh’s seaside village. Every day, I see the sun rise over the sparkling water, and every day I walk along the promenade that follows the shore. Since moving to Portobello, I have become fascinated with the Gothic.
Several months ago, a storm blew in that raged so hard, the widows of our house were streaked with salt. That storm threw waves across Portobello's promenade, broke one of the spiny groynes that stretch out into the sea and shifted a massive pile of black seaweed onto the beach.
The Figgate burn, a small river that tumbles through Edinburgh and eventually meets the sea at Portobello, was slightly diverted due to a busted sewage pipe. The pile of seaweed remained unshifted due to the diverted burn, and more than usual sand and shells were thrown onto the promenade nearby. It's a testament to the sea's fickle nature.
One small change, one storm, one shifted thing can alter the landscape dramatically. For over a week, the piles of black seaweed rotted and stank. Gulls and the scruffy, tough sea crows notorious to Porty appeared in droves, shrieking as they snatched welks from among the weeds and slammed them onto the promenade bricks to get at their soft insides.
Eventually, the council came out with a bulldozer to plough through the seaweed and discard it. Now, the burn has returned to its usual flow, and the seaweed is manageable, though the crows are still there, cracking open any shells they can find.
What this experience showed me so clearly was the perpetual conflict between humans and the sea, this ambition (so often thwarted) to control something uncontrollable.
As Byron put it, ‘Man marks the earth with ruin – his control/stops with the shore’ (Byron).
The sea seemed to be sending a message, delivering onto the shore a stinking, ugly mass of unwanted detritus (Not unwanted, of course, to the legions of crows and seabirds that picked crabs from the black kelp or even the woman I saw wading in the rubbery mass, collecting choice pieces of the stuff, presumably for ritual or consumption) The sea seemed to be saying, ‘I’m not always so pretty, am I? Look what I’ve got beneath my sparkling surface.’ Jimmy Packham in ‘The Gothic Coast’ describes the ‘coast as a site of unwelcome intrusion’. The sea seems to dredge up that which we’d rather keep hidden.
As you’ve no doubt realised, the piles of stinking seaweed the sea delivered onto Portobello’s manicured beach is a handy metaphor for what I’m wanting to explore today – think of the seaweed as the past, history, traumas, ghosts and memory confined within the sea and revealed to us as an unwelcome gift that we are forced to confront.
In her essay ‘Through Oceans Darkly: Sea Literature and the Nautical Gothic,’ Emily Alder describes the sea as a ‘repository of the past’. In acting as a field on which our human politics and struggles are so often enacted and thus containing shipwrecks, bodies, bones, and secrets the sea becomes a vessel of history. As Peckham puts it, the sea is where ‘palimpsestic layers of history remain visible, where a plurality of historical times and cultural practices exist in successive layers without ever quite overwriting one another.’
A simple example of this is the experience of beachcombing, the practice of finding washed up pieces of history on the shore. In Portobello, I’ve found hundreds of pottery shards, a historical remnant of the old Potteries that used to function there.
So the sea contains history.
Or, put another way, water has memory.
If the sea is a ‘repository of the past’ then the seaside is a place where past and present collide, where ghosts walk and memories haunt. In Gothic literature, the shore is filled with ghosts, maybe because the sea is swimming with memories. Think of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner with its ghostly crew caught between life and death.
Think of Mary Robinson’s 1800 poem ‘The Haunted Beach’ where ‘The fisherman beheld a band/Of spectres gilding hand in hand—’. The seaside plays a role in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and quite a number of Ann Radcliffe’s novels. There is something very Gothic about the seaside; the shore is an in-between space, an undefined boundary onto which the past is delivered.
Classic Gothic literature is very interested in how the past comes back to haunt us. ‘The overarching fear of both the Gothic ruin and the Gothic spectre,’ writes Joan Passey in ‘Gothic Landscapes and Seascapes: Dark Regions in Willkie Collin’s The Dead Secret’ is the idea of the past remaining in or returning to the future.’ Ghosts, you could say, are a manifestation of this Gothic anxiety that the past will not, cannot, remain behind us.
The seaside as an in-between place, between land and sea, makes it the ideal backdrop on which these anxieties are played out.
The Gothic is full of ambivalence – in fact, you might say that ambivalence is the Gothic’s modus operandi… ‘Gothic texts operate ambivalently,’ writes Fred Botting in Globalgothic, ‘the dynamic inter-relation of limit and transgression, prohibition and desire suggests that norms, limits, boundaries and foundations are neither natural nor absolutely fixed or stable despite the fears they engender.’
The coast’s existence as a place without firm boundaries, a place that is unable to be defined, that can, with the force of a storm and the pull of the moon, change in dramatic ways, makes it a sought-out backdrop for not only classic Gothic literature but also contemporary Gothic stories.
Two contemporary British novels, CJ Cooke’s The Lighthouse Witches and Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters, use the seaside’s liminality to explore themes of the past coming back to unravel the present. These novels explore the collision (almost literally, certainly narratively) between past and present and use the seaside as a place where the past refuses to remain hidden, acting as a place of re-surfacing.
In The Lighthouse Witches a single mother and artist, Liv, moves to the fictional Scottish island town of Lon Haven with her three daughters. Liv has been hired to paint a mural on the inside of the no-longer functional lighthouse called the Longing. Lon Haven was the site of witch trials in the 1600s. The Longing was built atop the prison cell in which people accused of witchcraft were held prior to their trials. While Liv paints the Longing and unearths Lon Haven’s history, she becomes entangled in the townsfolks’ belief in wildlings; the town has a history of missing children who return physically marked with numbers etched into their skin.
Narratively, the novel shifts between past and present. It is told in Liv’s point of view in the late 90s and in the point of view of her surviving daughter, Luna, over 20 years later. Through the inclusion of a grimoire discovered by Liv’s teenage daughter, we also read the story of Patrick Roberts who was a victim of the witch trials that took place in Lon Haven. The hook of the novel is that we don’t know what happened to Liv’s two other daughters, who went missing during her stay at Lon Haven. The readers are constantly thrown between past, present, and future as the characters navigate their past traumas.
The Lighthouse Witches uses the Gothic image of the old and foreboding lighthouse as well as the backdrop of a changeable but ever-present sea to explore the anxieties of a present that struggles to reconcile with its past. The history of the witch trials and the death of innocent people hangs above the town, looming like a spectre over all who live there, manifesting in the strange folk beliefs of the townsfolk. As Saphie, Liv’s eldest daughter remarks upon their arrival, ‘Things grow in the forest… but die on the beach.’
Similarly, in The Lamplighters, a creepy, menacing lighthouse features prominently as a witness to the events of the novel. Again, this novel is structured across time, alternating between 1972 and 1992. Readers are curious to learn what happened to a group of men stationed at the light house on Maiden Rock who mysteriously disappeared without a trace in 1972. The novel follows the lives of the wives and girlfriends of the lost men; not knowing what happened on Maiden Rock all those years ago, the women are never able to truly move on and are constantly being drawn back into the past through their grief. Strikingly set along the shore and threaded with Gothic anxieties and imagery, The Lamplighters, like The Lighthouse Witches, explores themes of unacknowledged trauma and secrets that are longing to come to light.
Both these novels use a contemporary seaside setting to explore Gothic anxieties of the past colliding with the present. These novels, along with others I didn’t have time to explore today, such as the short story collections by Lucy Wood and Daisy Johnson set in Cornwall and England’s fenlands are, I think, prime examples of what makes the seaside so Gothic… or what is so Gothic about the seaside.
Ambivalent, border-bending, boundary-breaking, and liminal, the coast is where the sea’s history is washed ashore.
Alder, Emily. "Through Oceans Darkly: Sea Literature and the Nautical Gothic." Gothic Studies 19.2 (2017): 1-15.
Błaszak, Marek. "Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic Romances and the Sea." Explorations: A Journal of Language and Literature 9 (2021): 30-42.
Botting, Fred, and Justin D. Edwards. "Theorising globalgothic." Globalgothic. Manchester University Press, 2015. 11-24.
Byron, George Gordon Byron Baron. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Blackie and son limited, 1837.
Clifton, Anna Elizabeth. ‘The Haunted Beach’: the coast and the Gothic tradition, 1764-1820. Diss. University of Birmingham, 2020.
Cooke, C. J. (2021). The Lighthouse Witches. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2021.
Packham, Jimmy. "The gothic coast: Boundaries, belonging, and coastal community in contemporary British fiction." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 60.2 (2019): 205-221.
Passey, Joan. "Gothic landscapes and seascapes: dark regions in Wilkie Collins's The Dead Secret." Studies in Gothic Fiction 5.2 (2017): 21-30.
Robinson, Mary. "The Haunted Beach." English Romantic Writers (1800).
Stonex, Emma. The Lamplighters. S.L., Picador, 2022.
This talk was originally presented at the 2022 Once and Future Fantasies Conference at the University of Glasgow.
Angie Spoto is an American fiction writer and poet living in Edinburgh. In 2020, she completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Her doctoral thesis was a fantasy novel, called The Grief Nurse, and a collection of essays on grief, madness and language. The Grief Nurse has been shortlisted for the First Novel Prize 2021 and The Bridge Awards Emerging Writer Award in 2020 and will be published by Sandstone Press in 2023.