Whereas the Gothic traditionally relied upon supernatural figures of evil (vampires, ghosts, monsters) to produce the sensation of fear or terror, contemporary manifestations of the Gothic repudiate such abstracted constructions, favoring, instead, metonymical and everyday representations of terror. In this project, I argue that the works of artists Thomas Pynchon, David Lynch, and Steve Erickson signify, what I term, the postmodern American Gothic, through their production of a symbolic economy of fear, paranoia, and dread. I contend that these artists’ works represent narrative critiques of the United States' culture of consumption and history of imperialism dating back to the myth of Manifest Destiny. Moreover, these artists' historiographic narratives rigorously complicate traditional conceptions of gender, sexuality, race, nationhood, and colonialism as aspects of American history.
Deconstructing the tropic elements of the gothic genre distinguishes these artists' creation of a gothic aesthetic that privileges the lived horrors of historical record (slavery, the Holocaust, imperial modernity, oppression engendered through male-centered master narratives) over the metaphorical monsters of the traditional Gothic narrative that represent actual cultural anxieties over lived social conditions. In its contemporary form, the Gothic challenges the very real institutions and social practices that systematize oppression, enable cultural alienation, and deny individual subjectivities. By revisiting actual horrifying events and their impact on human life, Pynchon, Lynch, and Erickson establish the irreducibility of social and historical trauma.
In this examination, I comprehensively track Pynchon, Lynch, and Erickson's respective deployments of Gothic themes and tropes, illustrating the political significance of their creations. Moreover, my project broadens the understanding of these artists' works, as well as those artists whose works employ similar techniques. The scholarly attention paid to manifestations of postmodern paranoia elicits a powerful connection to the horror invoked in the Gothic texts. Considering the profound urgency that differing conceptions of “terror” represent in a post-9/11 world, I believe that understanding representations of terror in contemporary artistic practice is vital to reassessing the Gothic genre, from its origins in the 18th century to the present, as defined by its politics of transgression.