A new British library exhibition is "a penumbral dungeon of the warped, the perverse and the compulsively page-turning"by David Anderson / November 3, 2014 / Leave a comment
It’s curious that a celebration of “the Gothic imagination” should take place in the modernist-orientalist terracotta fortress of the British Library. After all, just next door looms the St Pancras Hotel, complete with enough pointed arches and foliated window-frames to keep even the most jaded Gothic revivalist happy. And not far up the road is the churchyard where Thomas Hardy did work experience shifting gravestones to make way for the railway, and a young Mary Shelley whiled away the hours reading, propped up against her mother’s tombstone. Still, the curators of “Terror and Wonder,” the British Library’s new exhibition of all things Gothic, have succeeded in pouring some of these local atmospherics into the Library’s Paccar galleries, transforming them into a penumbral dungeon of the warped, the perverse and the compulsively page-turning. The timing’s good too. The latest cinema adaptation of Dracula, Dracula Untold, opened on the same day as this exhibition. Not that this was a deliberate tie-in: such is the Gothic’s popularity that coincidences of this kind are almost inevitable.
“Gothic” itself is a slippery term—even to call it a “genre” might be to set foot on unsteady ground. The term suffers from its implicit pluralism: are we talking about novels, horror films, flying buttresses, Alice Cooper, black-painted fingernails or a specific period in North-European history? On the one hand, it seems fair to say that John Ruskin’s famous comments on the architecture—that most of us know Gothic when we see it, without being able to identify exactly what makes it so—still have something to say about the thing as a whole. On the other, the Gothic really does just mean the spooky and the titillating.
In literary terms, one solution is to stick closely to the 18th century, which saw the first outpouring of what is definitely, unquestionably Gothic, centred on Walpole’s groundbreaking 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. It’s where the exhibition begins, and it’s a good candidate. After departing Otranto, the show wends along a 250-year journey, with stop-offs in Victorian Gothic (the Brontës, Poe), the cinema (The Shining, The Wicker Man), and the…