Something Gothic this way comes

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The Independent Online

There seems to be a consensus that the devil is to blame.

There seems to be a consensus that the devil is to blame. This week, a British tabloid published a picture of Private Lynndie England, the young woman who appears in the Abu Ghraib abuse photographs, with the single-word screamer headline, "Witch!" Just a few days later, the men who murdered Nick Berg justified their grisly snuff video by explaining that they were responding to the "satanic degradation" visited on Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. And though such occult epithets are commonplace in the more excitable forms of public discourse, they chimed rather oddly this week with two pieces of popular entertainment, both of which take the existence of supernatural evil as a given -- Stephen King's mini-series Kingdom Hospital and Stephen Sommers' new film, Van Helsing.

The drama in both cases rests on a combat of Bush-like simplicity -- the continuing grudge match between good and evil, conducted in this case through the stock apparatus of the Gothic - vampires, ghosts, creepy animals and full-blown monsters. But both were left looking decidedly wan by this week's real world horrors - which almost never have the glamour they often achieve in fiction.

Van Helsing, of course, never had any great ambitions. It's not so much a work of the imagination as a themed thrill ride, perfectly happy to exploit existing franchises ( Dracula, Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) for its own end - which is turning a profit. And since only a fool would expect moral ambition of a Hollywood blockbuster, one can hardly be dismayed that it doesn't display any, even if one might feel a pang at the use of some durable literary inventions as supporting players.

Stephen King's naturalised version of Lars von Trier's cult Danish television hit, The Kingdom, is a slightly different matter. He might be said to have put his life's blood into this project, because one of the central characters is hit by a car in circumstances that almost exactly replicate King's ownaccident from 1999. After years of imagining mortal surcease in the shape of supernatural clowns, telekinetic possessed girls, ghouls, ghosties and even a demonic 1958 Plymouth Fury, King was nearly killed by a light blue Dodge van. No scythe, no hood, no premonitory stench of the grave - just a drunk driving without due care and attention.

This lowest-common-denominator wickedness seems to have left its mark on King's imagination - one of the malign characters in Kingdom Hospital first shows his hand when he parks in a disabled space and covers the sign with a grocery bag. But it hasn't really weaned him off his lifelong affection for the Gothic stock cupboard - with its wearily familiar array of cadaverous children, eerie dolls and baleful influences.

Fans of the Gothic genre like to think it confronts the big issues of life, mysteries of existence that aren't touched by conventional fictions. But, in truth, it almost always evades them, escaping into a realm where evil can be defeated with a silver bullet and where death is negotiable.

And it's an absolutely dependable rule that the more supernatural the storyline, the less interesting it will be in moral terms. King has created a rather compelling portrait of banal malice, in his novel Misery, but there's nothing even faintly paranormal about Annie Wilkes, with her dependency on cheap romantic fiction and her psychopathic inability to distinguish between hospitality and abduction. In her you can see the dark ignorance that had the Abu Ghraib guards misspelling "rapist" when they scrawled it on the bodies of their charges, and the lack of imagination that allowed them to pose for those grinning souvenirs.

It's notable, too, that the classic Gothic fictions that do have some moral profundity (I'm thinking of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) aren't, strictly speaking, paranormal tales at all, but rather a kind of proto-science-fiction, in which it is always human decisions and human deeds that have consequences, not the stirring of occult forces. Both stories have been degraded by various Hollywood retellings into Gothic stereotypes, but they began as something much more interesting - studies of ends and means, and the abuses of power.

Occult monsters, by contrast, are usually monstrously dull - completely artificial in their threat and safely cordoned off from putting any awkward questions to us. So, talk of "witches" and "satanic degradation" rather misses the point. As this week's genuine horror movie proved, there are few things quite as terrifying as ordinary, inadequate humans who are convinced that they are doing the right thing. Fictions that dealt with that would really be worth our time and money.