California Gothic

Today is October 17—the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake that destroyed our house in 1989. Which leads rather well into something I’ve been thinking about lately: the California Gothic, its few manifestations in literature, and what it might mean to my dissertation novel, The Comforter.

Set in Holy City, California, in 1927 and 1928, The Comforter is historical fiction about two women, one who stays and one who goes, and the tumultuous events of those years in the town. The title comes from one of the names the town’s founder, William E. Riker, called himself. He believed himself to be the modern-day incarnation of the Holy Spirit, and thus part of the Trinity.

Aside from various pages on Tumblr, there is not a lot out there on the California Gothic. I’ve been reading Dr. Bernice Murphy’s The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness while I wait for her upcoming book on the California Gothic specifically. Seriously, Rural Gothic is a page turner. You should read it. She suggests that the Rural Gothic has a number of tropes, some of which I am interested in incorporating into The Comforter, or, for the ones already there, brushing them up just a bit and making them work harder.

Dr. Murphy, a scholar at Trinity College, Dublin, says, “The imaginary exploitation of four indigenous features would prove vital to the establishment of the local strain [of the gothic imagination]. Allan Lloyd Smith has persuasively suggested that these are the frontier, the Puritan legacy, race, and the consequences of political utopianism” (4).

In light of the above, and of the entertaining and weirdly true online ruminations of various posters to Tumblr, for me a picture is emerging of what a historical novel flavored with the California Gothic might look like.

California Gothic marker 1:
A place or population that is always in motion, yet always in stasis

A common thread in the Tumblr entries is that the writer is in a car, on an endless freeway, always trying to get somewhere and never arriving. It’s absolutely true that “traffic” as a reason to be late for school, work, or an appointment is universally accepted. Just Tuesday night, I allowed an extra hour to get to a speaking engagement 20 miles away, because I would be driving during rush hour.

Holy City came to be in the heyday of the Model T Ford and the beginnings of the freeway and airport systems in the US. While the town might be viewed as static, located as it was next to the highway with a constant stream of passing vehicles, in reality it was always in motion, too. With profitability his only measurement of success, Riker opened and closed businesses with such capricious regularity that it’s impossible to state from looking from a photograph just what year it was. Or, for my part, to write a certain business into the novel with the certainty that it was actually there that year, even though if I eyeball the cars and people’s clothes, a photograph gives me a close approximation.

Holy City was in stasis in another way—since Riker believed he and his disciples would be immortal, there is no sign in the documents or newspaper reports of the journey to Heaven or of forward motion to eternity. I suppose it’s rather gothic that both prophet and disciples were doomed to disappointment in their belief that they would live in Holy City forever.

This ties into Dr. Murphy’s assertion that “Rural Gothic narratives … often pivot upon ill-fated encounters between people who are tied to one place, and those who are ‘just passing through’” (142). Either the outsider proves a danger to the settlement (such as the First Nations peoples came to do for the Puritans) or the settlement proves a danger to the outsider (as in the movie Deliverance).

This trope is already present in The Comforter, with the only fictional character, Clara Cercatore, playing the part of the outsider just passing through. It remains to be seen which is the most dangerous to whom.

California Gothic marker 2:
A landscape that cannot be controlled by humans

Whether this is an image of a coyote waiting on the fringes to consume the Tumblr writer or his food, or the fires and earthquakes that are an actual part of life here, the land in a California Gothic is not safe. It could even be out to get you.


Like the Inuit peoples who are said to have numerous words for snow, we on the subduction zone have several words for the kinds of earthquakes we experience. There’s the roller, where you feel rolling waves in the ground. There’s the shaker, which is the motion often portrayed in disaster movies. There’s the jolt, which feels like a vehicle hitting the house and often has the same sound. We can tell the difference between the P-wave and the S-wave under our feet. “That was a five-point-oh,” we’ll say, and then check the US Geological Survey website to see if we’re right.

One of my research tasks is to find out if there was actually an earthquake during December 1927. If so, I could use it as a metaphor for the upheaval that another real-life character, the aviatrix Evelyn Rosencrantz, caused in Holy City. She never set foot in the place, though in the best tradition of the Rural Gothic, she passed through in a taxi that did not stop, leaving emotional destruction behind.

Fire and rain

California doesn’t have four seasons. There are only fire season and rain season. In the forested mountains around Holy City, fire is a constant fear in the back of the mind. It’s a holiday or a weekend—in all that traffic on Highway 17, will someone throw a lit cigarette out the window? Or pull over with engine trouble and ignite the dry grass? Will someone using a weed whacker in their yard strike a stone and cause a spark? Fire is caused by weather far less often here than by ordinary human activity. Conversely, by October, people are anxiously scanning the skies and the weather reports for the first sign of a cloud. If a cloud is spotted, what’s its potential for rain? No one wants to see white, puffy clouds. No one. If there’s a cloud, please let it be carrying rain, or just go away and don’t get our hopes up.

Dr. Murphy says “the conflict between order and chaos, ‘civilisation’ and ‘savagery’ … lies at the very heart of the Rural Gothic.” The Puritans were responsible for the popular mythos of the forest and its inhabitants being evil or wicked, bent on the deaths of the innocent and godly villagers.

In Holy City, the circle of redwood trees known as the Temple of the Gods represents this well. Of all the things constructed in this clearing in the woods, there was never a church building. Only the Temple of the Gods (plural!). While Riker used the circle of trees for commercial purposes (self-serving sermons, musical performances), he didn’t build or invent it, and could never actually control it. Those trees were there long before he came, and are still there fifty years after he died. While the redwoods are not a threat, exactly (though I suppose one could fall on you), in The Comforter I can use them to present a sense of the uncanny—a rustle in the undergrowth, or the sight of a wild animal moving through the circle on business of its own.

Riker “conquered the wilderness” in the sense that he and the disciples built a town in the forest, which they considered the “promised land.” They didn’t consider Heaven or an eternal destiny to be this promised land, because they thought they were going to be immortal. Sadly, Holy City wasn’t. Fire took its buildings, and now the forest is taking back what is left.

California Gothic marker 3:
A search for things to consume

Fast food. Concert and sports events. Groceries from trendy stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. New cars (Tesla or Prius? that is the question). Tourist dollars. Riker became wealthy providing things for passers-through to consume: food at the restaurant and market, entertainment with the peep shows and plaster Santas, the endless billboards, the booklets and broadsheets and newspapers created by the print shop.

Dr. Murphy agrees that another trope of the Rural Gothic may be “a bitter mockery of the ceaseless drive towards movement, exploration, and consumption that has so often shaped the national character” (128). Manifest Destiny took vast tracts of land from the original inhabitants, and imposed ownership on the frontier, where it had never been before. Now, I am interested to note, the First Nations peoples are taking it back in the form of casinos, where tourists happily hand over their money to gamble.

In keeping with the “frontier” idea of the band of renegades with their hideout in the hills, from which they would ride to rob a train or terrorize a town, while Riker stayed put and let the passers-through come to him, he made no secret of the fact that he was pillaging them for their money. Holy City’s purpose, after all, was to be a money-maker. The cash registers rang all day long, to the tune of $100,000 in annual income. In the 1920s, this was a serious chunk of change.

Even today, the accounting software I use for my writing business makes a cheery cha-ching! sound every time I record a deposit—the same sound all those cash registers at Holy City would have made. And speaking of software, Silicon Valley still has the frontier attitude of making a new life (or a new startup) with a kind of wild west approach to funding and business. And how strange is it that venture capitalists are referred to as angels? The connections between money and religion are endless.

The connections between my novel’s historical content and the California Gothic really resonate with me. Partly it’s because of my own experience with all three of these tropes in real life, and partly because of the depth and interest I can add to the novel above and beyond “what really happened.”

October 17, 2019

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