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Gothic at sea: ships, revenants, and the liminal realm of the ocean.

Alder, Emily



Many aspects of the ocean deep remain obscure to modern science and exploration, and in literature it has always been an area of mystery, sometimes of horror. Foucault’s characterisation of the ship as heterotopia, ‘a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea’, works within a long-standing construction of the sea as a shifting, unknowable environment disassociated from the normal world. Traditionally, seafarers were seen as occupying a liminal existence, ‘“numbered neither with the living nor the dead”’, and while superstitious beliefs described a world beneath the waves, the ship traversed its surface along the borderline between states of existence. In Gothic sea-fiction, the real world finds a shadowy double in the liminal realm of the ocean; the two are brought into contact by the ghost-ships and other revenants that populate sea narratives. Throughout the long nineteenth century, sea narratives – Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798), Poe’s ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’ (1833), Marryat’s The Phantom Ship (1839), Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates (1908), and parts of Dracula (1897) – present images of derelict or ghostly ships and their occupants that constitute moments of crisis in the narrative, moments of reversal and doubling. Revenants of the sea mock life with death, wreck with phantom, lifelessness with animation. This paper explores how, in such narratives, long-standing legends and superstitions of the sea combine with nineteenth-century perspectives on exploration and advances in scientific knowledge to construct the ocean as one of the remaining places of terrible mystery; through a process of ominous doubling in these narratives, humans are forced to confront the horrors of material and spiritual existence.

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Conference Name Gothic limits / Gothic Ltd.’: 10th Biennial Conference of the International Gothic Association. 2-5 August 2011.
Start Date Aug 2, 2011
End Date Aug 5, 2011
Publication Date 2011
Deposit Date Dec 7, 2011
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Keywords Supernatural; sea fiction; Gothic literature; Victorian literature;
Public URL