California Gothic: The Dark Side of the Dream

California Gothic: The Dark Side of the Dream

By Charles L. Crow

Anthem Impact Anthem Studies in Gothic Literature

California has always represented new beginnings and opportunities in a golden land. In constructing the California Dream, much has been omitted or repressed. This study explores the dark side of the dream, as revealed in the state’s rich tradition of Gothic literature and film.

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January 2024

£19.99, $23.80

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January 2024

£19.99, $23.80

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About This Book

California Gothic explores the California Dream and its dark inversion as nightmare, as illustrated in fiction, poetry, and film. California began as a literary invention, a magic island, in a Spanish romance before conquistadors first visited the land. From early days to the present, the California dream of happiness in a land of new beginnings has been maintained by suppression of disturbing realities: above all, the destruction of native peoples; and by events and facts such as the tragedy of the Donner Party, the persistence of poverty and crime in the golden land, disturbing crimes such as the Black Dahlia; and pandemics and ecological disaster.

The exposure of the Dream’s dark side began early in California’s history and literature. The tragedy of the Donner Party is an emblem of California’s hope and disillusionment and is a foundational event of California. Later, after the madness of the Gold Rush, Ambrose Bierce and Emma Dawson explored the ghostly potential of San Francisco and its environs. In Carmel, George Stirling’s community of writers and artists attempted a life in harmony with sea and landscape, like that of the lost natives as they imagined them. Instead, they evoked demons that led many to suicide. The story of the lotos eaters of Carmel anticipates the disillusionment of the 1960s, as represented by the novels of Kem Nunn, Thomas Pynchon, and Denis Johnson. George Stirling’s friend Jack London battled his own demons, and left, in the ruins of Wolf House, one of California’s true Gothic places. 

California Gothic has interacted with the Noir tradition, a European transplant that found rich soil in California, creating a style, mood and subject matter in movies and the crime fiction that often provided the films’ screenplays. Often deeply Gothic, Noir produced masterpieces such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2002) that, like most of the works discussed in California Gothic, speak to America and the world at large, while being deeply rooted in the culture and history of the Golden State.


This book is essential reading for anyone interested in California or the Gothic, and an exciting new field of investigation from a foundational figure of American Gothic scholarship. —Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Dark secrets, the Uncanny, wrecked illusions: Charles L. Crow shows how such Gothic conventions form a spectral, abiding undertow in California literature from Ambrose Bierce to Thomas Pynchon and Octavia Butler. He explores how recurrently the Golden State has represented not the cutting but the bleeding edge of the American Dream.—Michael Kowalewski, Lloyd McBride Professor of English and Environmental Studies, Carleton College, USA.

California Gothic: The Dark Side of the Dream is an engaging, expansive and exceptionally well-informed volume that convincingly underlines the literary, filmic and cultural significance of California’s fascinating but, until recently, much overlooked, Gothic tradition. It is essential reading for anyone interested in this rapidly growing area of scholarly inquiry.” —Bernice M. Murphy, Associate Professor in Popular Literature, School of English, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

In this elegantly written short history, Professor Crow vividly exposes the darkest undercurrents of well-selected tales and films rooted in California. By choosing the Gothic focal points he has, he has explained works that no other study has treated completely and has linked them to California history in highly revealing ways. —Jerrold E. Hogle, Professor Emeritus of English, University Distinguished Professor, University of Arizona, USA.

California Gothic: The Dark Side of the Dream examines how the Californian desire to lead a fulfilling life is challenged by environmental crisis and worldwide pandemics. This is a detailed history of California and a critically important assessment of its dystopian, Gothic tendencies and place within a wider Gothic America.” —Professor Andrew Smith, University of Sheffield, UK.

Author Information

Charles L. Crow, Professor Emeritus of Bowling Green State University, has authored and edited studies of American regional literatures and of American Gothic.


Anthem Impact

Anthem Studies in Gothic Literature

Table of Contents

Contents; Chapter One- Dreams of the Magic Island; Chapter Two- Ambrose Bierce and San Francisco’s Gothic Frontier; Chapter Three- Lost Coasts; Chapter Four- Disease, Pandemics, and the Monstrous; Chapter Five- The Shadow Line: Noir and California Gothic; Chapter Six- California Ecogothic: What’s Buried in the Basement; Afterword


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