We have gone from city to country, and from silly to serious, but there is one place we haven’t looked, and it is within, and below, into the unconscious. Today we venture into “Southern Ontario Gothic,” that sub-genre of Canadian culture that hints at the mystical and the magical.

Let us begin by introducing two of the form’s most accomplished practitioners: Robertson Davies, the Canadian Faulkner, and Timothy Findley, who is perhaps the Canadian Edgar Allan Poe. Though Findley invented the term “Southern Ontario Gothic,” it was Davies who turned the region into a self-contained world like that of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, while Findley would write from the perspectives of Noah and his sons before the Flood, or Carl Gustav Jung on the eve of World War I.

Davies and Findlay were far better behaved than their American counterparts – much like the other Canadian authors I’ve introduced. Unlike Faulkner, Davies did not have a famous drinking problem, while Findley came out later in life as being gay and his marriage was annulled, but he was never the outsider that Poe was. There’s no escaping the fact that Southern Ontario Gothic is a far safer place than Poe’s dark Romanticism or Faulkner’s Civil-War-torn South (but there is a tight connection between the American South and the Golden Horseshoe of Southern Ontario that I will explore in a later installment.)

Davies’ Fifth Business, his best-known work, is a teeming mass of symbols and synchronicity, contained in a single letter to a college Headmaster. It is the story of Dunstan Ramsay, who seeks to justify the aimless circumstances of his own life. All the Jungian greatest hits are here: Dunstan embraces his dark side and survives his journey while his friend and enemy, the dissolute plutocrat Boy Staunton, dies tragically after his materialistic life crumbles. Modern religion with its rigid divisions and inability to meet the spiritual needs of its adherents is compared with Ramsay’s own intense study of the saints and his occasional glimpses of the truly divine:

“The older I grow the less Christ’s teaching says to me. I am sometimes very conscious that I am following the path of a leader who died when He was less than half as old as I am now […] All Christ’s teaching is put forward with the dogmatism, the certainty, and the strength of youth: I need something that takes account of the accretion of experience, the sense of paradox and ambiguity that comes with years!”

By contrast, Findley’s Pilgrim – his best-known work-  is far less restrained. Jung is literally a character here, as is Henry James, St. Teresa of Avila, Leonardo Da Vinci, as is the titular Pilgrim, a man who cannot die despite his best efforts, an incarnation of the collective unconscious. A butterfly metaphor floats throughout the story, as does the idea that the bounds of time, space, sex and death can be transcended easily:

“The so-called Mysteries have been with us forever. There is not a society on the face of the earth nor of time that does not and did not have its own version of what these Mysteries reveal of the Great Spirit, God, the gods and their relationship to our lives – and our lives to theirs. Sun-dancing, circumcision, birth itself, animal and human sacrifice, virginity, Ra, Raven, Tarot, Voodoo, I Ching, Zen, totems personal and tribal, the cult of Mary and the cult of Satan – the list is endless. […]  In time, these shamans will be replaced by others – but all speaking in a single voice. It was ever thus. But no one listens.”

But ultimately, what is the point of all of this psychoanalytic wrangling? The writing is beautiful, but when Pilgrim finally slips the mortal coil, and Dunstan returns to the plainness of Canada, what the reader feels is relief that it’s over, not that they’ve been through some life-altering literary experience like As I Lay Dying or The Masque Of The Red Death.

And this is the unfortunate conclusion of the exploration of Southern Ontario Gothic: because it is an academic study of the dark side of life, it’s just not as interesting. Through no fault of their own, and certainly not for lack of trying, its practitioners have produced works that might thrill critics but leave the rest of us cold. This is one of the reasons that Blade Runner 2049, for all of its high minded symbolism, did so poorly.

But for all their flaws, Davies and Findley positively sparkle in contrast to our next entry in the canon of major Canadian writers. Sadly, we must continue with the person who embodies the worst tendencies of Canadian literature: Margaret Atwood.


Part 1 on Heroes: ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’ Vs Terrance Denby and ‘Sidequest’

Part 2 on “Humour”: The Libertarian Fantasy of ‘Letterkenny’

Part 3 on Graphic Novel Nihilism: The Harsh Truths of ‘Essex County’

Part 4 on Spawn and Wolverine: Banished From The Promised Land: A Tale of Two Canadian Anti-Heroes

Part 5 on Science Fiction Dystopias: Inside Quebec’s – and Canada’s – Replicant Culture

Part 6 on Animation: The Garrison Mentality: More Than Meets The Eye

Part 7 on Pop Music: How To Build A Successful Canadian Musical Act

Part 8 on Anne of Green Gables and The Traumatized Artist: Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Treacherous Alpine Path

Part 9 on Avoiding the Serious: Mordecai Richler, Montreal, And Gritty Realism