‘Gothic gnomes’: Degenerate Fictions

  • Julia Reid
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


Stevenson’s ’gothic gnomes’ bring alive the same late-Victorian anxieties about degeneracy which haunt his autobiographical writings.1 They incite, and depend upon, reactions of pleasurable fear and horror — reactions which embody the supposed degeneracy of popular literature, and point to the way that external environment and cultural habit could trigger degeneration. They also, most importantly, tell tales of atavism, figuring the resurgence of irrational states of mind. Fin-de-siècle fiction, as Robert Mighall argues, took up an earlier Gothic interest in the power of the past to haunt the present, and invested it with a newly evolutionist accent.2 Thus these irrational resurgences were understood as the irruption of the primitive in civilized modern life. Stevenson’s tales of horror are populated by characters whose mental disorders push them towards savage bestial conditions, insanity, or even death, but they also question biological notions of primitive resurgences. This chapter investigates how the interest in the psychological ‘borderlands’ of degeneracy evident in Stevenson’s letters, and his preoccupation with questions about heredity, will, and environment, finds fictional form in his neo-Gothic tales, ‘The Merry Men’ (1882), ‘Olalla’ (1885), ‘Markheim’ (1885), and Dr. Jekγll and Mr. Hyde (1886).


Popular Literature Contagious Nature Autobiographical Writing British Audience Psychological Drive 
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© Julia Reid 2006

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  • Julia Reid

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