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 gothic 

The Contemporary American Small-Town Gothic

Dissertation Project by
Thorsten Burkhardt
 

This (ongoing) dissertation project examines contemporary novels in terms of how they make use of the gothic to represent a cultural moment of crisis. Drawing on the observation that the post-postmodern moment manifests as a resurgence of political realism in American fiction, this project reads the contemporary gothic as a predominantly realist endeavor that explicitly foregrounds the political. The focus on fictions that take place in a rural or small-town setting narrows down the project by focusing on a place that traditionally embodies the conflict between an American national political mythology and the American gothic.

This project argues that contemporary realist texts regularly make use of gothic tropes to represent the rural space as burdened by both political neglect, as well as by a lack of self-reflection that makes social institutions facilitate gothic events and manifestations, like gothic doublings, hauntings and abject violence. So while the gothic does today what is has always done in American culture, question national narratives, the explicit political nature of the contemporary realist gothic locates the reasons why the rural must be represented as gothic in harsh political and social realities instead of offering the more abstract enlightenment critique of the traditional gothic. The contemporary realist gothic, this project argues, is not so much characterized by a traditional dark existentialism but by a failure of institutions, like the government, the police, the small-town community. It anchors crises of national ideology and literal as well as metaphorical hauntings in the material and political reality of the everyday. Here the gothic fully unfolds its political potential in recent post-9/11 realist texts. In the context of this project, the term "contemporary gothic" does not necessarily mean how the gothic changes but how literature and culture change and use the gothic as a vocabulary to articulate it.

In terms of its corpus, this project theorizes the realist gothic by means of the canonical gothic work of Stephen King and focuses on novels by Cara Hoffman and Julia Keller as exemplary in how they (quite differently) use the gothic mode for political realism.

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