Inside The New Gothic: “No Substitute”

The Gothic is the most enduring literary tradition in history but in recent years friendly ghosts and vegetarian vampires threaten its foundations. The New Gothic is a collection of short stories which revisits to the core archetypes of the Gothic, the rambling, secret-filled building, the stranger seeking answers, the black-hearted tyrant, and reminds us not to embrace but to fear the darkness.

Steve Dempsey takes the Gothic to the snowy climes of North America in ‘No Substitute’. It employs the classic framework narrative to great effect, taking the reader in one moment from an opulent dining room then to a ship wrecking in freezing waters.

At the other end of the table, my grandfather Buchan sits in his chair, the only one with the arms. Stiff collar, stiff back, stiff moustache. The servant stands over and beside him, a plate in his hand. He places the dish on the table and with the other hand withdraws the silver cover. There are two cubes of meat on the plate. The flesh is uncooked and speckled with bristles. My grandfather looks down. His expression has not changed. He picks up his fork, spears the cube on the right, and puts it in his mouth. He chews, for quite some time, and then swallows the morsel with neither pleasure nor distaste. He repeats these actions with the other cube. The servant reappears and removes the plate. My grandfather looks at me.

“Now, Stephen, your turn.”

The servant places a dish in front of me and removes the cover. There are two cubes of meat on it. One is a darker shade than the other.

“Lower away, faster! Or you’ll ne’er see Nantucket again!” The master screams, his voice lost in the shrieking of the wind and onslaught of the waves. A cataract hits the Barabarita astern, raising the bow right out of the water, like an orca jumping. Men are flung about like droplets of icy water. The master, strapped to the wheel, is hit full in the face by the haft of a harpoon, the blood, the top of his head, lost in the ocean which has risen up to take them. In barely three minutes, the tip of the bowsprit is the last of the ship to be sucked under the chill waters.

For the rest, get The New Gothic from Stone Skin Press.

Steve Dempsey’s approach to the Gothic has been in a pale mimicry of its originator, Walpole. He is a civil servant, but sans sinecure, he lives in a modest London house rather than a romantic pile, his Grand Tour was on InterRail, not by means of carriage, and so far he has avoided the gout (although his father has done his bit to adhere to that part of the tale). Steve and his wife, Paula, are enjoying a growing reputation as writers. When they are not exploring dusty libraries, infamous caves, or the dank woods of Albion, the tapping you can hear in their dwelling is not the pipes, nor a raven at the window, but keyboards.

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