A Wicked Pack of Cards – Tarot and the Gothic in Literature

10177263_10152082547252672_8819269431177047326_nIt would be madness to run a Gothic blog inspired by a deck of tarot cards, and not address the link between “The Gothic” and the art of tarot.  Of course, if you’re reading this, chances are you already have your own philosophies on tarot, and at least a basic grasp of its story. I know for a fact that at least some of you will be experts on the matter. Thus I dare not attempt to educate you on tarot’s lengthy and often obscure history, but perhaps I can impart a few interesting facts about tarot’s Gothic connection to something I know and love – writing.

While various works of modern fiction refer to tarot within the context of a Gothic Victorian setting, the truth of the matter is that there is little evidence for Tarot being used in the British Isles at the time of the Gothic novel’s creation and rise to popularity. As Jesse Molesworth puts it in Chance and the Eighteenth Century Novel, “Instead of thinking of tarot reading and Gothic fiction as elder and younger sibling, we must think of them as twins… mysteriously separated at birth and forced to grow up on opposite sides of the English Channel with no knowledge of their common bloodline.” Indeed Europe’s 19th Century resurgence of interest in psychological theory, coupled with a renewed interest in ancient magic, seem to have played a major part in the sudden popularity of both cartomancy in France and the Gothic novel in Europe. It is no great surprise, then, that recent writers have rather blurred the lines between the two. 

Two instances of tarot in ‘modern’ literature have particularly stuck with me: a poem and a series of short stories, written at opposing ends of the 20th Century. The title of this post is taken from the former: T.S. Eliot’s modern epic, The Waste Land speaks of Madame Sosostris “The wisest woman in Europe/ With a wicked pack of cards.” The term ‘wicked’ instantly evokes early Protestant rebuttals of the cards as “The Devil’s Picture Book”, implying something sinful about the reading that follows – perhaps the sin of forbidden knowledge?  This unsettling sense continues with the veiled references to the cards: “the drowned Phoenician Sailor,/ (Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)/ Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,/ The lady of situations.” These are generally held to be the Ten of Swords and the Lady of the Rocks, respectively, but the relationship drawn between the two – the drowned sailor and the rocks that are his demise – evokes Odysseus and the sirens, making the summation of the reading, “I do not find the Hanged Man. Fear death by water”, all the darker.

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More recently, the acclaimed story-teller Neil Gaiman, whose works are certainly laced with elements of the Gothic, often in surprising combinations, wrote ‘Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot’, a ‘short story’ comprising in itself of fifteen brief stories focusing on the supernatural – specifically vampires in different guises and situations – each linked to a particular Major Arcana card.  Some are comical, some are chilling – much in line with the often self-conscious satire of the Gothic novel. In my experience, some excerpts take two or three readings before the link between the story and the card chillingly reveals itself. In an introduction to ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, the volume in which the story is published, Gaiman states, “One day, perhaps, I’ll finish the major arcana… And then there’s the minor arcana. You can draw your own pictures.” In that remark lies something key to the writing – a necessity for individual interpretation – something that these brief bites of vampirism certainly have in common with the art of tarot reading.

Whether due to their link with ancient magic systems, dealings with the mist-shrouded unknown, or simply age-old tropes regarding ill omens, tarot cards remain aligned with the same dark glamour that prevails in Gothic writing.  Like Gaiman’s short story, The Bohemian Gothic Tarot explicitly express that relationship using a rich tapestry of Gothic references, from Frankenstein’s monster to vampiric lovers. Similarly, the hints of humour in the cards reflects the dark satire of the Gothic genre, while adding elements of surprise even for those who use the deck regularly – a figure in the background that you’ve never seen before, perhaps, or a certain shape in the shadows. It may be in these spine-tingling layers of perception that tarot and her ‘twin’ art in Gothic literature have remained entwined throughout the ages.

As previously mentioned, this is by no means a comprehensive list. However, together we can perhaps fill in some gaps – if you have a recommendation of some dark literature with a portrayal of tarot, share it in the comments below or on our Facebook page!

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