Sugars, Cynthia. Canadian Gothic: Literature, History and the Spectre of Self-Invention. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014. 291 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-7083-2700-5. $150.
Although not the first book on the topic, Canadian Gothic: Literature, History and the Spectre of Self-Invention may legitimately claim to be the book. Published in University of Wales Press's Gothic Literary Studies series, Cynthia Sugars' study surveys the nation's entire literary history and definitively examines how the Gothic has been implemented to both construct and to question notions of "the Canadian." Its inclusive approach addresses English-language writing by Canada's Indigenous peoples, its more recent immigrant populations. Above all, Sugars theorizes the role of the Gothic in the construction of national identity, and its particular meanings in the colonial and postcolonial settings. For this reason, the study should interest scholars of both Canadian literature and the Gothic for its potential model for the study of other national Gothics. Given its emphasis upon the "national" and the "Canadian," the book's only flaw lies in its exclusion of the Canadian Gothic in French.
An epigraph to the entire book, "[l]anguage is how ghosts enter the world," from Anne Michaels' poem "Miner's Pond" (1997), reveals this national study's potential for global application. Sugars begins with an introduction, "Settled Unsettlement; or, Familiarizing the Uncanny," laying out her theoretical bases and establishing the ghost as a central figure in "Can Lit." Sugars consistently grounds discussions of paradoxical, even self-contradictory concepts like the "unsettled settler" and the role of the "unhomely" in the construction of a sense of "homeliness" for newcomers in Canada in concrete literary examples. Here, for example, she reads Canada's best-known, "national poem," John McCrae's World War I-era "In Flanders Fields," as a Gothic text. Similarly, her conclusion, "The Spectre of Self-Invention," examines how Maria Campbell's The Book of Jessica (1989) offers a paradigm for the tangled relationship among Indigenous peoples, White settlers, and the Gothic. Additionally, it uses Terry Kelly's song and music video, "A Pittance of Time" (2003), created for Canada's Remembrance Day, to illustrate the Gothic's presence in very contemporary engagements with national identity.
In between, each of the study's seven chapters begins with an exposition of specific aspects of the Gothic's evolving role--including its rejection as a valid paradigm at various points in time--in the history of Canadian literature and nation-building. The title of chapter one, "Here There Be Monsters: Wilderness Gothic and Psychic Projection," references the maps of early explorers which painted the New World as a realm inhabited by the unknown, a literal illustration of how "from very early on, writings about the place that we now call Canada were integrally caught up with discourses of the Gothic" (21). After such "proto-Gothic" manifestations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Sugars observes how "the importation of the Gothic to Canadian soil" and "the Gothic's implication in widespread debates about the merits of realism and romance" (37) occurred simultaneously with the development of a national literature. The chapter analyzes the Gothic presence in early works like John Richardson's frontier novel Wacousta (1832), the Acadian poetry of Oliver Goldsmith and Joseph Howe, and even in the works of writers who deny the presence of ghosts in such a new and empty land. Thus, Susannah Moodie's pioneer journals, Roughing It in the Bush (1852), along with other ostensibly realist post-Confederation writing, and even the iconic artwork of the Group of Seven, all betray a form of Gothic unrest that "arises out of a feeling of alienation or non-belonging in the landscape" (41).
Chapter two, "Haunted By a Lack of Ghosts: Gothic Absence and Settler Melancholy," deals even more explicitly with a commonplace expressed by Earle Birney in his self-consciously titled poem "Can. Lit.": "it's only by our lack of ghosts/ we're haunted" (1962; qtd in Sugars 10). Sugars deftly addresses this problem for her argument that posits the ghost as the central trope of Canadian literature, taking it as merely another iteration of the Gothic itself. Whereas Canada's Indigenous peoples had cultural traditions that situated them in this place, its settlers invented such traditions, grappling with a dual anxiety about merely mimicking European influences and adopting those already, a form of "going native." This paradoxical absence of ghosts haunts works like Julia Beckwith's St. Ursula's Convent, or The Nun of Canada (1824), Catherine Parr Traill's Backwoods of Canada (1836), and Anna Jameson's Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838). This trend continues into the twentieth century in stories by Stephen Leacock and the poetry of Douglas Le Pan, Al Purdy, and Stanley Cooperman. Sugars contends with contradictory assertions by Canada's two best-known writers, Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood, that Canada has no ghosts and that the ghost is emblematic of the Canadian condition, introduction the recurring motif of what she terms Canadian writers' "fort-da relation with the Gothic" (73). Like Freud's grandson Little Ernst, through the Gothic and its rejection, they express their anxieties about place and identity, at the same time gaining a pleasurable sense of control over them.
Treatments of New France and French-Canadians as elements of a potential Gothic past in English-language literature are the topic of chapter three, "French-Canadian Gothic: Excess as Emplacement." While it is unfortunate that Sugars has not included a chapter on the Gothic in French-Canadian literature, her analysis of how le fait francais (the French fact) served Anglonationalist purposes in the post-Confederation era is significant. The short stories in Susan Frances Harrison's Crowded Out! and Other Sketches (1886) and Duncan Campbell Scott's In the Village of Viger (1896), along with historical novels like William Kirby's The Golden Dog (1877) or Susan Frances Harrison's The Forest of Bourg-Marie (1898), offer "an English-Canadian fantasy of Quebec" (77). As English-Canadian writers sought to construct a national identity distinct from Great Britain's, yet not overly reliant on the Indigenous, French-Canadians appear "sufficiently other, yet not so foreign as to be unassimilable for the White Anglophone settler" (81). Thus, whereas "[i]n many historical fictions about New France, the 'Gothic' past of French Canada is regarded as a rich and, indeed, foundational period" (79), it nonetheless represented a perfect sight for the Unheimliche, familiar, yet strange.
Sugars opens chapter four, "Local Familiars: Gothic Infusion and Settler Indigenization," with a reflection on Gothic's role in the settler's problematic process of constructing a new, native identity, "becoming Canadian," rather than English, Irish, German, and so on. Unable to acknowledge the actual violence and erasures that Europeans caused, writers filled what was perceived as a void with invented mythologies. Thus, texts like Andrew Shiels's long poem "The Witch of Westcot" (1831) and Thomas Chandler Haliburton's novel The Old Judge; or, Life in a Colony (1849), stories like "Witchcraft" (1895) by Lilly Dougall and "The Perdu" by Charles G. D. Roberts (1895), and even Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1908) contribute to "the work of gothicizing ... that has become a tradition in the Canadian Gothic canon" (135). The North frequently plays a key role in constructions of the Canadian; it serves the Gothic in this respect, as well. The uncanny North represents, for example, "an objectification of European displacement and psychic disorientation" (127) in Farley Mowatt's iconic novels, Lost in the Barrens (1956) and The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966), and in the Yukon poetry of Robert Service. In spite of overt messages about nation building taking place on the graves of Indigenous peoples, French-Canadians, and their own White Anglo-settler ancestors, in a handful of works in this period Sugars identifies themes that will point toward later, more fully postcolonial reflections, such as Howard O'Hagan's Tay John (1939) and "D'Sonoqua," an episode from Emily Carr's novel Klee Wyck (1941).
Chapter five, "Playing fort-da with History: Settler Postcolonial Gothic," proposes a significant argument for the Gothic's potential to express the anxieties of postcolonial writers in settler-colony nations in the second half of the twentieth century. Although a "national uncanny" prevails in Canadian literature during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the "Southern Ontario Gothic" identified with Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, James Reany, and others, their works also reveal "obsessions" suggestive of an unease with the moral and identitary ambiguities of nationalism in a postcolonial setting. These writers explore such themes as:
the historical suppression of Aboriginal peoples; the emergent identity of a settler self-consciousness; the colonial foundations of the Canadian nation; fears of territorial illegitimacy; anxiety about forgotten or occluded histories; ambivalence toward flawed or complicit ancestors; explorations of hybrid cultural forms; and interrogations of national belonging and citizenship. (145-46)
Such topics reveal their overall concern with the loss and recovery of history and memory.
Up to this point, Canadian Gothic has dealt largely with Anglo-Irish Canadian settlers and their descendants; its mosaic would not be complete without a discussion of "authors of non-White settler background" (179). She finds that writers like Wayson Choy, David Chariandy, and Dionne Brand "pose a challenge to the settler Gothic tradition of settled unsettlement. In many of these works, the nation has a spectral or phantom presence that is founded on the suppression of spectres of 'otherness' within" (182). Perhaps the longest close analysis of the study (some ten pages) is devoted to Hiromi Goto's novel The Kappa Child (2001) and story collection Hopeful Monsters (2004). The chapter closes with a discussion of "possibly the best-known Gothic novel by a contemporary Canadian author," Fall on Your Knees (1996) by Anne Marie McDonald, a writer of "mixed Scottish and Lebanese background" (208).
Sugars's seventh and final chapter, "Indigenous Ghost Dancing: At Home in a Native Land," examines the Gothic in First Nations literature. Acknowledging that differences between Western and Indigenous positions on the ontological status of the "supernatural" world problematize the term's application to Indigenous writing, Sugars nonetheless finds a clear relationship--often a self-conscious one stated by the writers themselves--between the Gothic and Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach (2000), Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), and Drew Hayden Taylor's Anishnaabe vampire tale, The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel (2007). First Nations' theatre has also been a locus for Gothic explorations, such as Highway's The Rez Sisters (1986), Marie Clements's The Unnatural and Accidental Woman (2005), and Daniel David Moses's Brebeufs Ghost (2000). Throughout the study, Sugars takes into account contemporary Gothic theory by such scholars as Fred Botting, Judith Halberstam, Jerrold Hogle, and Robert Miles, the growing body of secondary literature on her primary corpus, and related theoretical works like James Waldram's Revenge of the Windigo (2004), a study of the pathologization of native thought, and Avery Gordon's Ghostly Matters (1997), a study of the phenomenon of haunting.
While the size of her corpus forces Sugars to be succinct in many of her readings in the early chapters, chapters five, six, and seven, on more contemporary, "postcolonial" Gothic texts, offer more detailed analyses. Overall, Sugars covers nearly all of the possible ground in regard to Canadian writing in English; given the definitive nature of the study and the series within which it was published, I just wish she had considered including a chapter on Quebecois Gothic. David Ketterer's Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (1992), although now a bit dated, gains considerably in legitimacy as a "national" study from its inclusion of French-Canadian sf. Not only had Michel Lord clearly established the Gothic's presence in nineteenth-century French writing in En quite du roman gothique quebecois, 1837-1860 (1994), the work of Quebec's most internationally accepted writers, Anne Hebert and Michel Tremblay, have heavy Gothic undertones. Nonetheless, Canadian Gothic is admittedly not just a study of how the Gothic has been interpreted in English-language fiction and poetry in Canada, but also an extended theoretical engagement with the Gothic as a paradigm for and a vehicle of national identity and its deconstruction in the so-called postcolonial era. A final comment on price: although this (and many other) scholarly presses price hardcover editions for library purchase, a more reasonably priced paperback edition is announced for publication.