Creating New Ghosts

Settlers in a strange land need their own ephemera, it seems

Full disclosure. Not only am I not a scholar of the Gothic, but my understanding of the Gothic, until now, has been almost completely intuitive, born of an abiding taste for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a youthful devotion to Stephen King and a curiosity about the Grant Wood painting American Gothic. I am not sure if this makes me the last person who should be reviewing Cynthia Sugars’s Canadian Gothic: Literature, History and the Spectre of Self-Invention or the absolutely right one.

Sugars’s book traces the appropriation of the Gothic tradition by Canadian (and pre-Canadian) writers in the service of creating a national literature and a national identity. It is important to note that she is using the term “Gothic” in the modern postcolonial sense: “concerned less with overt scenes of romance and horror” and more “with experiences of spectrality and the uncanny.”1 She begins her argument with the statement that two of the most famous poems in Canadian literature—Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee and John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields—contain ghosts, challenging the oft-repeated assertion that Canada suffers from a lack of them. Sugars states that the Gothic is the response to an “anxiety about history,” that ghosts connect the people to their history in one way or another, and that if ghosts did not exist—as Voltaire would undoubtedly say—it would be necessary to invent them. The Canadian Gothic that emerges is a result of the settlers’ anxiety of being deracinated, living in a new country where there are none of their ancestors’ bones, where the land appears to them alien and dangerous.

There were of course people and stories, bones and ghosts, here on this land before the settlers, and Sugars addresses the settler-indigenous question directly and consistently throughout the book. As an indigenous artist, an indigenous reader, I am usually required to practise extreme negative capability, reading books that may well express a truth for mainstream readers but completely exclude me as an indigenous person, all the while maintaining my own often invisible indigeneity. To my great delight, I felt completely visible in Canadian Gothic, not because Sugars talks about work by indigenous authors (although she does briefly in the penultimate chapter), but because her chronicling of the creation of Canadian Gothic is a chronicling of the settlers’ response to their own role as settler-invaders, their complicity in colonizing, and their rejection of the idea of the land and people who existed here before they arrived. Rather than embrace the spirit or spirits that pre-existed here, the writers hungering for a genius loci imposed new ones on the land, so that Gothic literature is in effect the artistic manifestation of the act of colonization.

Sugars uses the terms “settler” and “settler-invader” throughout, which express the underlying anxieties not only of this literature, but also of the ongoing relationship between indigenous peoples and Canadians. The book is hugely successful in tracking and articulating the settlers’ anxieties about themselves, and about living in a land that feels both vast and empty but is evidently still peopled and alive. I did not find it an apology for colonization and the dismal relations between us, but an illumination of how colonization has affected both—or all, if we include recent newcomers—peoples who live here now beside each other.

Sugars holds that a profound terror of nature that the settlers found themselves confronting gave rise to the Gothic impulse in the early writings about pioneering in the Canadian wilderness, tracing the path from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Rising Village and Joseph Howe’s Acadia to the “first overtly Gothic novel in Canadian literature,” John Richardson’s Wacousta, or the Prophecy. Susanna Moodie’s 1852 book, Roughing It in the Bush, epitomizes this terror, showing both the influence of the British Gothic narrative tradition of the lone woman under threat and the imposition of the qualities of Gothic on the land she occupies: sinister, paranoia inducing, nightmarish. Later on, Sugars examines Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie, in which Atwood resurrects the early poet, “giving Moodie a Gothic inflection” effectively transforming her into a ghost of the Canadian landscape. If ghosts did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them. This creation of new ghosts, of y/our own ghosts, creates legitimacy, forges historical associations that insist “we are here,” and invents a culture that we may feel lacking.

There is a delicious irony that Duncan Campbell Scott, much loathed because of his assimilationist stance on First Nations and his role in creating the residential school system, should figure so prominently in this book. Sugars uses poems of his such as “The Onondaga Madonna” to illustrate “wilderness Gothic,” showing in the process how Scott’s “willed version of a diminished people” says more about his own fear and unease than about the indigenous people with whom he negotiated treaties.

Many of the works cited here as Gothic were surprises to me—James Reaney’s trilogy of plays, The Donnellys, much of Margaret Atwood’s work, poems by Al Purdy. Once I accepted Sugars’s definition and explanation of the Gothic, I began to nod about others: John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright, Jane Urquhart’s Away, Emily Carr’s story of D’Sonoqua in Klee Wyck. Still, others gave me pause: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, that paragon of Canadian culture, as a Gothic revisionist?

Chapter by chapter Sugars leads the reader through her argument, which reflects the old challenge of being Canadian and being defined by what we are not; the Canadian Gothic emerges from an effort to define selves by an absence, forging a new Gothic out of old forms, overlaid on a new “cultureless” place.

By extension, after making the case so handily, it becomes impossible to assign the Gothic labels to the people who were already here, with their ghosts and histories and landscapes. Sugars arrives finally at the chapter about indigenous writers and their work (one of the many things I admire about this book is its form, which speaks as much about the relationship between settlers and the indigenous people as does the content), leading us from the genesis of the settlers’ unease to the very root of their unsettlement. While the chapter “Indigenous Ghost-Dancing: At Home on Native Land” touches lightly on the Gothic in indigenous writers’ works, acknowledging such overtly Gothic works as Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel, it does not try to force all indigenous writers whose work includes spirits and ghosts into the Gothic tradition. We are included here because we were always here; the lack of the settler-­invaders’ ghosts was not our lacuna, we had our own ghosts and our own relationships with them. Like being called Indians, which we are not, there is little reason to call our writing Gothic.

Despite Sugars’s status as an academic whose fields include postcolonialism and Canadian literature, I found Canadian Gothic accessible and engaging, stumbling into only the occasional “epistemology” or “historiography.” For the most part, she makes her arguments in clear, unambiguous language that invites the reader to truly consider her thesis. Canadian Gothic is a book that not only makes the reader think, but also can teach the reader how to think in possibly new and more inclusive ways about what will no doubt be an enduring issue of the 21st century in this country now called Canada: namely our separate and collective pasts.

 


  1. As explained on pages viii–ix of Unsettled Remains: Canadian Literature and the Postcolonial Gothic, edited by Cynthia Sugars and Gerry Turcotte (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009).