I want my 21st Century Gothic. Do you?

raven.jpgI recently read a review of the latest Realms of Fantasy at Tangent, and this was the review for my story:

“Little Miss Apocalypse” by Christopher Barzak is a bit of a downer, but I can’t say the author didn’t warn us. It’s about enduring love, but a rather sick form of it, in my opinion.

Aidan, attracted to Eve from the start, manages to avoid her for two years. “Whenever she caught my eye, I’d look down into my cup… I thought if I got too close, I might cease to exist. I wasn’t stupid. The flame-attracted moth always gets singed.” So Aidan, in the name of his version of realism or common sense, expects to get hurt. A self-fulfilling prophecy?

Once they get together, and we see that Eve is even more pessimistic and emotionally fragile than Aidan, she tells him “The world doesn’t always provide a happy ending.” So we’re prepared for heartache and disaster right from the start.

Add to the mixture that Aidan is the only child of miserable, battling parents so has very little concept of a normal relationship. Eve’s mother committed suicide and her estranged father is dying of cancer. Eve, who may or may not be bipolar, carries the curse that drove her mother over the edge; she not only sees and talks to ghosts, but she is aware of spirits trying to leave their bodies. She sees the approach of death. All of this makes for a depressing situation.

I was hoping the characters were going to grow and evolve, that they might rise above the circumstances and some good would come of it. The inclusion of the insightful and sympathetic psychology professor added fuel to that hope. But in the end, I was disappointed. I suspect Edgar Allan Poe would have liked this story better than I did.

I’m not posting the review to talk about my story (though the reviewer does misquote it to a certain extent). I think the review is fair mostly because the reviewer basically summarizes aspects of the story and when she comments on things negatively or favorably, she qualifies those comments as opinion. What the review got me thinking about (and this is why I’m posting it) is the happy ending. It’s something that I see come up in reviews, or just how readers in general talk about fiction they’ve read. Now it’s mostly a general consensus that in novels, readers would like a happy ending. A least a fair ending where some of the characters have a happy ending if not all. I can somewhat understand this readerly desire/expectation in a narrative that runs the length of a novel. But traditionally the short story has been a form where unhappy endings are something reader’s should expect just as much as an unhappy one–when endings conspire to deal in happiness or unhappiness period, that is, because I think there are many, many stories that aren’t dealing with those polar opposites in any central way, though I’m sure I’d hear arguments that even when a story doesn’t centralize it’s concerns on the axis of happiness that it’s still on some basic level about happiness. My argument for those would be that it isn’t happiness so much as justice that we’re really talking about, and that happiness is something we feel an ending has when characters we sympathize or empathize with receive an ending we consider “fair” and that any potentially antagonistic characters in a story receive their own ending that we consider is fair. Usually we call this them getting their “just” desserts.

But all that aside, why is the happy ending such an important, widespread desire or expectation for readers, for readers of even the short story, which has a history of short, sharp shock endings, dismal gothic endings, sad revelations and betrayals? Has the need for fairness or justice or happiness, whichever you’d like to call it, become more prevalent in reading expectations over the years?

Myself, I love a good unhappy ending, as long it feels right, feels real, as if that’s exactly what those characters would do, or what would happen to them based on what I know and understand about how their world or ours actually works. I’m glad the reviewer of my story included that she expects Edgar Allan Poe would have liked it better than she did, because it was a contemporary gothic story of strange love, madness and ghosts set in a city known for its urban decay, and so I know by this she read it correctly, but dislikes that mode of storytelling categorically. That’s a fair enough review, as far as reviews go in these here parts, I think.

So tell me about the happy ending (or just ending) versus the dark endings that short stories also traditionally exhibit. Do others out there perceive a rise in the demand for happy endings? Has our love for the gothic, or the short sharp shock, or stories of betrayal or life-shattering revelations waned? Any insights to these questions and to those unasked but related questions will be very much appreciated.