Identity dissolved in isolation: the contrasting notions of density and ‘thin-ness’ in haunted places in the literature of the supernatural from the 18th century to the modern age, with particular reference to works by Shirley Jackson, Stephen King and John Langan, and the development of these themes in the writing of no man.

PhD Thesis

Wilkins, A. 2022. Identity dissolved in isolation: the contrasting notions of density and ‘thin-ness’ in haunted places in the literature of the supernatural from the 18th century to the modern age, with particular reference to works by Shirley Jackson, Stephen King and John Langan, and the development of these themes in the writing of no man. PhD Thesis
AuthorsWilkins, A.
TypePhD Thesis
Qualification namePhD

My aim is to illustrate the development of inter-related themes of personal identity and isolation, in both physical and psychological senses, within the literature of the supernatural and to trace the development of a treatment of the horror of physical and mental disintegration which is increasingly psychologically-aware both in authors and readership through the introduction of ‘the thin place’ as a trope as it became an explicit feature of stories within ‘horror fiction’. To begin this thesis I will offer explanations of some key terms relating to the literature of the supernatural, incorporated within a necessarily brief historical review in Chapter 1, DEFINING THE INDEFINABLE: The Development of Themes of ‘Thin-ness’ Within Stories of the Supernatural From Early History to The Gothic. In literary works predating the arrival of ‘the Gothic’ as a distinctly identified form, I will show that there is no clear boundary demarcating the ‘natural’ from the ‘supernatural’. This boundary becomes more clearly defined in later literature wherein the ‘supernatural’ is increasingly seen as a wholly separate, often inimical realm. I will demonstrate that the notion of ‘density’ which I will identify as emerging more fully and precisely in the later twentieth century should be seen as representing a ‘consensual reality’ in contrast to the ‘indeterminacy’ which is one characteristic of the supernatural. In the course of this investigation, I will draw upon a number of different approaches, including definitions of the various associated genres in Section 1.2, with an exploration in sections 1.3 and 1.3.3 CRITICAL ENGAGEMENT: The Horrors of Isolation and The Dissolution of Identity, of some major critical currents shaping the treatment of these themes. This will be linked to the psychological insight which views irruption through ‘thin-ness’ as a transgressive motif, often including both metaphorical and literal ‘penetration of the boundaries’ - metaphysical, as between planes of existence, and physical, as in penetration of the flesh. Thus a new understanding of a hitherto familiar literary trope in this stream of fiction was developed, combining the psychological horror of isolation, the physiological horror of ‘penetration’ (with concomitant death a likely outcome) and a third, metaphysical element of horror in the face of modes of existence wholly inimical to humanity. In Chapter 2, the works of Shirley Jackson, Stephen King and John Langan, along with material from other authors working within broadly similar traditions, will be examined and compared to reveal common threads in their treatment of isolation in ‘thin places’ along with the subsequent dissolution of the ‘density’ of identity suffered by their characters. I will reference the ways in which particular settings have been used in stories by these authors, namely the ‘haunted places’, increasingly described as ‘thin places’, where the boundary between natural and supernatural is easily traversed. In the course of this examination, I will demonstrate the continuing emergence, and import of, the notion of ‘density’ as a marker of normality, in contrast to the ‘thin’ nature of the boundary with the transgressive supernatural, and also show some of the ways in which this treatment manifests in modern stories of the supernatural. This trope, I contend, has developed following a conscious ‘psychologisation’ of the experience of writing and reading tales of the supernatural which suggests a blurring of traditional boundaries of inner and outer experience, and, by extension, of reality and fantasy. I will also demonstrate some of the ways in which this particular stream of literature of the transgressive has developed to reflect the concerns of readerships of the time. There will be a focus upon elements which became of central importance in attempts to define the genre: issues concerning setting as character; and of identity and ontology, the latter in the sense of exploring what there is. I will seek to show how dissolution of identity plays a key part in many related genre stories, and how this dissolution is reflected in the themes and language used in the texts as ‘thinning’. The notion of ‘density’ is taken as being of fundamental importance in modern novels of the supernatural placed within the tradition of ‘Contemporary Gothic’ (as opposed to the more thematic concerns of the ‘new Gothic’). In modern times, physical and mental injury have both become seen as methods for demonstrating the dissolution of identity, in which both body and psyche wear thin (as examined in section 2.2.5). In the third chapter, the thesis sets out a thematic record of the process of the creation of my novel of the supernatural, No Man, tracing influences, techniques and methodologies employed in two sections: looking at characters and settings in section 3.1, and at autobiographical influences on the roots of the story in section 3.2. I will identify where the novel draws upon the methodologies outlined previously, and where it consciously draws upon contrasts of exteriority and interiority and where the boundary which separates these contrasts becomes foregrounded. Finally, I will attempt to place my novel within the literary tradition of tales of the supernatural, and bring to bear an authorial analysis, with explanations of the ways in which elements described above are developed within the story. This element of the thesis will aim to illuminate ways in which traditional themes, tropes and motifs of isolation and the dissolution of identity have been incorporated in a modern novel of the supernatural, developing the contrasting notions of density and ‘thin-ness’ as major thematic concerns and plot elements.

KeywordsGothic density ; No Man ; Thin-ness ; King ; Langan; Jackson
PublisherUniversity of Derby
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Output statusSubmitted
Publication process dates
Deposited20 Sep 2022
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