From portraying families tormented by terrible secrets to hostile landscapes that forsake their inhabitants, Canadian writing isn’t afraid to get morbid, creepy or just plain weird—while still somehow maintaining a sense of humour.
Although most writers aren’t quick to align themselves with the gothic genre—or genre writing in general—we can appreciate the following books for their foray into the murky depths of the unconscious.
In no particular order, here are eight Canadian Gothic literary works to inspire your submissions for our Canadian Gothic themed issue, 39.3:
1. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Emily Carroll derived inspiration from German fairy tales for her hauntingly beautiful collection of graphic stories, including her break-out web comic “His Face All Red,” within her debut print anthology, Through the Woods. Riffing of Grimm’s classics like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Bluebeard,” Carroll masters the art of atmospheric dread (think blood-drench skies against a dark, twisty forest) while never pandering to pat, moralistic conclusions. She’s been coined the “modern day Edward Gorey” for her eerie illustrations exploring themes of envy, guilt and loneliness.
2. We So Seldom Look on Love by Barbara Gowdy
Gowdy’s sophomore novel, Falling Angels, earned her a spot alongside Margaret Atwood and Jane Urquhart within the Southern Ontario Gothic genre, which marries literary realism to an overwhelming sense of dread or discomfort. Gowdy takes a more fantastical approach in her neo-gothic short story collection We So Seldom Look on Love, which challenges notions of monstrosity with dark humour and sympathy. The collection includes a relatable necrophiliac looking for love in all the wrong places (ie, the morgue) and a two-headed man, Simon and Samuel, who have grown incredibly paranoid in each other’s company.
3. The Double Hook by Sheila Watson
In the opening passage, the anti-hero James commits matricide by pushing his mother—known to everyone else as “the old lady”—down the stairs. Much to his dismay, the old lady decides that she’s not going anywhere. Instead, she starts fishing in the creeks of B.C.’s caribou county, haunting its inhabitants along with another spectral figure: a coyote who spouts riddles from the hillside. With highly figurative language, Watson portrays violence and betrayal in a community that’s still determining whether it will band together or break apart.
4. Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson
Robinson sets Monkey Beach—the first English-language novel to be written by a Haisla writer—within the Pacific Northwest’s Kitamaat village, a locale haunted by the legacy of colonialism. 19-year-old Lisamarie searches for her younger brother, who mysteriously disappeared at sea, while coming to terms with her supernatural ability to communicate with otherworldly spirits. Robinson’s gripping read won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2001.
5. The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
Hunter, who recently completed a PhD on resonance and beloved objects in the homes and museums of Victorian writers, illustrates how the past permeates the present in her latest novel, The World Before Us, which won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize earlier this year. In a London museum, archivist Jane Standen investigates the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a mental institution in 1877. Standen’s search is guided by her own shadowy past: at fifteen, she lost sight of a young girl under her supervision within the same woods that borders the mental institution. A cacophony of unnamed spirits narrate the novel as they follow Jane on her search, hoping that, they too, can find closure and move on.
6. Hopeful Monsters by Hiromi Goto
Goto mixes the mundane (welcoming family members at the airport) with the magical (a mother petrified of her newborn’s tail) in her first short story collection, Hopeful Monsters. The term, ‘hopeful monsters,’ we learn, means “genetically abnormal organisms that, nonetheless, adapt and survive in their environments.” The collection plays with monstrosity, both literally and figuratively, to depict characters struggling with feelings of displacement, alienation and otherness.
Love Hiromi Goto? We still have back issues available of Issue 37.4 "Claiming Space", which features a chilling gothic story by Goto.
7. Invasive Species by Claire Caldwell
“I think any nature writing today is going to have a shadow hanging over it—a sense of loss/dread/urgency that’s informed by what’s happening all around us,” Caldwell told the Winnipeg Free Press earlier this year. Gothic eco-poetry may not yet be a thing, but Caldwell’s poems deftly work to unveil the lurking threat of climate change and ecological disaster. Notable poems include “Grizzly Woman,” whose speaker is mauled by a bear, and “Osteogenesis,” whose depiction of a decomposing blue whale won the Malahat Review’s long poem prize in 2013.
8. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Hopkinson’s feminist urban fantasy has Toronto in chaos after the wealthy and middle class flee to the suburbs during an economic collapse. Ti-Jeanne, a young single mother, struggles to nurture her newborn amongst the urban decay, while haunted by visions of death and Obeah demons. With the help of Mami, her grandmother, Ti-Jeanne must learn to accept her ancestral spirits if she’s to combat inner-city corruption.
Honorable gothic Can Lit mentions include selected works by Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart, Shani Mootoo, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Dionne Brand, and Ann-Marie MacDonald. Tell us about some of your favourite Canadian gothic works by tweeting us @RoomMagazine.
Leah Golob is a full-time reporter, freelance book critic, and member of the Growing Room Collective. She will be editing our Canadian Gothic issue, 39.3.