Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review : Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination ( British Library Publishing)

Book Review : Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination ( British Library Publishing)


From the rise of Gothic Literature in the 1790s, the genre has occupied a prominent place in Western Culture. Gothic has found its way into fine art, music, film, fashion and many other media constantly mutating and transforming into different forms from the eighteenth century to the present day.
This book accompanies the major exhibition at the British Library and by considering the many objects in the exhibition provides an overview of the ‘Gothic imagination’ over the past 250 years.

The introduction written by Dale Townsend traces the birth of Gothic Literature to the publishing of the Castle of Otranto in 1764, its author Horace Walpole was a respected member of society and nervous of how the public would receive the book decided to invent a back history that suggested the book was a reprinting of a medieval text, supposedly translated from Italian to English by a William Marshal.
Only when public opinion of the book was deemed favourable did Walpole disclose his authorship and subsequent editions featured his name and the subtitle A Gothic Story. If the birth of Gothic Literature was shrouded in mystery, the success of the Castle of Otranto set an unfortunate trend of  hoaxes leading to many novels and other written works supposedly based on found and rediscovered texts.
By the 1790s, there developed a large market for ‘Tales of Terror’ mostly set in ancient, medieval or Gothic times. Such was the popularity of the genre that it led to many parodies most notably by Jane Austen in her novel Northanger Abbey.

In Chapter one, there is an investigation into what is the meaning of the word Gothic and how it became the label for this particular strain of literature. The origins of the word is traced back to the Goths, the mysterious Germanic tribe who defeated the might of the Romans. Although the Goths had their victory, it was the losers who began to use the term Goth to represent barbarism, the complete  opposite of Roman culture and civilisation. The later growth of Germanic or Gothic architecture suffered from this cultural baggage considered in many ways inferior to the more  classical Mediterranean style.
However by the time the Walpole novel is published, there is a movement to celebrate and romanticise a shared North European past and take pleasure in the old folklore that offered dark and macabre stories. After the Castle of Otranto, supernatural events in haunted medieval ruins became the template for early gothic literature.
Chapter Two takes on this theme and considers the pleasures of terror and shows how subsequent Gothic authors especially women played with idea of the damsel in distress. writers such as Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith found the genre conducive to romance which would appeal to the largely female readership. Therefore the Gothic Romance developed in which women often had to overcome a series of ordeals before they were saved. If romance played a part in the Gothic Story, the publication of The Monk by Matthew Lewis introduced illicit sex and lust in a religious setting. Considered highly scandalous at the time, Lewis was accused of trying to corrupt Britain’s youth.
The publishing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had its own religious undertones but represented a move beyond the accepted Gothic  canon.

Chapter Three suggests that the changing times and political turmoil that gave birth to Frankenstein then leads to a new direction for Gothic Literature. technological advances bring about an explosion of cheap printed material, this expansion led to numerous newspapers, printed pamphlets and street literature. Street literature often presented lurid tales of crime and murder, cheap to buy these ‘penny dreadfuls ‘ became highly successful especially amongst the large working class readership.
Sweeney Todd, vampires and other urban monsters appeared in various guises to give credence to the argument that ‘Gothic is now firmly located in urban squalor’  It was in the urban squalor that Charles Dickens finds the inspiration for many of his Gothic novels. The Victorian obsession with death and monument led to a renaissance of Gothic architecture. Cemeteries, railways, churches and even the Houses of Parliament received a ‘Gothic’ makeover.
The Victorian’s love affair with Gothic literature seemed boundless with Wilkie Collin’s Woman in White, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre setting new standards for the Gothic novel.
Chapter Four offers the idea that the end of the century took the Gothic novel into other directions, the idea of degeneration began to filter into the literature. Decadence, concern about empire and religious doubts became crucial to the late Victorian mindset and novels by Oscar Wilde , Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells and Bram Stoker began to play with these fears and suggested behind the Victorian veneer of civilization there was anarchy, degeneration and animal passions.
The Whitechapel murders by Jack the Ripper seemed to confirm that the monster were not supernatural but evil individuals walking though London’s foggy streets.
Chapter Five begins by considering the paradox that even in an age of scientific enlightenment, Gothic literature with its supernatural elements is still highly popular. One part of the answer was that technological advances themselves breathed new life into the genre, the twentieth century creations of cinema and then television used the gothic novels as the primary source of the horror genre. Visual representations bought a new type of terror and wonder to audiences. The old traditional monsters of folklore the Vampire, the werewolf and the Zombie all had a renaissance.
The horrors of the First World War may have replaced the horrors of Gothic literature but belief in the supernatural was wide-spread as many people had to deal with death of their loved ones. Interest in spiritualism was endorsed even by the old ‘rationalist’ Arthur Conan Doyle as people struggled for reasons why a generation had been decimated.
Perhaps not surprisingly ghost stories became incredibly popular in the early twentieth century, however after the Second World War it was the nature vs human narrative that began to assert itself most notably in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Later in the twentieth century there is a movement to return the conventional fairy tale to its dark and macabre origins to explore themes such as animal desire and sexuality, this was illustrated most notably by Neil Jordan’s Company of Wolves. Susan Hill’s Woman in Black paid homage to the Victorian ghost story and there were major reinterpretations of Gothic favourites Dracula and Frankenstein by Frances Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh.

Chapter Six considers Gothic in the twenty-first century , one of the most prominent trends have been the sympathetic approach to Vampire’s in the Twilight saga which have created a distinctly modern Gothic romance. Another trend is that the cast list of Gothic villains have grown with demons, werewolves and predominately zombies  entering the fray.

However one of the most unusual trends has been the way that contemporary Gothic engages with the past. Fine Art, Fashion , Film design and illustration have all mined Gothic for inspiration to create a ‘Gothic’ look. The Chapman Brothers drawing doodles on Goya prints illustrate the tendency to pay homage to the past but also to deface it to create a modern idiom.

The Internet, video games  and different formats to read Gothic Literature have allowed the genre to mutate in many different directions and allow different degrees of participation. This is illustrated by the  final chapter which is a series of photographs from a Goth weekend in Whitby, the Goth subculture has developed from its punk origins into almost a costume play social convention where you can play out you Gothic fantasies.

This comprehensive, well written and lavishly illustrated book offers considerable insight into the ‘Gothic imagination’  and its appeal over many generations. Lucie Armitt in the section called Twentieth- Century Gothic offers perhaps the clearest explanation of its appeal ” in pursuit of what frightens us, we continually reshape our Gothic monsters to fit society’s changing fears .”  As the book  clearly shows, despite the rise of scientific explanations, we seem unwilling to let go of our supernatural traditions of the past.  However for all the ‘Terror’ of the genre it is important to remember that humour has played an important part in the ‘Gothic imagination’, in many ways we like to be frightened but we also like to able to laugh at those fears.

This book will appeal to a wide range of people ranging from fans of the Gothic genre to those who seek to understand the historic progression of  one of the most fascinating genres in literature.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended 

If you would like to find out more about the book or buy a copy, visit the British Library shop here

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