Terror and wonder: the gothic imagination

A new British library exhibition is "a penumbral dungeon of the warped, the perverse and the compulsively page-turning"

November 03, 2014
Tales of Terror by Matthew Lewis, published 1808, on display in Terror and Wonder © Photography © British Library Board
Tales of Terror by Matthew Lewis, published 1808, on display in Terror and Wonder © Photography © British Library Board

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 original “horror theatre” of the Grand Guignol in Paris. It rattles on through to the Twilight series, offering the briefest of nods towards music, with an original LP of Bela Lugosi's Dead by Bauhaus (“the first Gothic punk record”) and a copy of Smash Hits with Siouxsie Soux on the cover. The show closes with a room full of photographs by Martin Parr of the Whitby Goth Weekend, so situated in honour of the English town where, in Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula lands, after his trip from Transylvania. Parr's typically candid style strikes a pleasingly discordant note: one snap shows a young white-faced Goth feasting on a packet of fish and chips, surrounded by pensioners, with the harbour in the background.

Subversiveness coupled with wild popularity has been an enduring feature of the Gothic. Walpole's novel sold out its first print run almost instantly, while the Whitby festival has become a booming, twice-yearly event since its inauguration 20 years ago. The brand of “dark romance” found in the Twilight series has helped make it one of the bestselling “brands” in recent fiction. Clearly, in 1764, people were ready to be scared, and the appetite hasn't died down. An important part of this has to do with our capacity for credulity: particularly, the ease with which we invest in real places with the qualities ascribed to them in fiction. Bram Stoker had actually been to Whitby, but Walpole picked Otranto at random from an Italian map. It was only two decades later that he was alerted to the existence of an actual castle there. Pleasantly surprised, he had an engraving made of it, to be included in the frontispiece of all subsequent editions. On the same theme, perhaps the most entertaining thing in the British Library exhibition is the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's 1979 short “mockumentary” Otrantsky Zámek—a send up the whole idea of the mysteriously discovered manuscript, a conceit which underpins much gothic fiction (Otranto first appeared without Walpole's name on it, purporting to be a translation from an obscure Italian source). Svankmajer's film splices together fantastical animated scenes from the story—in his trademark cardboard cut-out style—with an interview with a scholar who claims to have conclusively proved the text's authenticity.

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The idea of the concealed author, hiding behind layers of obfuscation, might seem like a trick straight out of postmodernism's spell-book. But it had its origins in the Gothic, partly in an anxiety about the scarcity of home-grown literary heritage. Thomas Chatterton—most famously known as the dead boy in Henry Wallis's painting—is a perennial hero of junkies and dropouts worldwide, but barely anybody reads the pseudo-medieval “translations” with which he originally sought to make his name. The tea-stained scraps of vellum, purloined from his legal office and passed off as the original works of “Rowlie,” his made-up alter-ego, offer a masterful model for primary school history projects everywhere. Yet it was anxiety of a different kind that helped bring Gothic back into clutches of the academy in the 1990s. In this regard, Poe offers a good model—like noir, he was born in England, flourished in America, and was widely disregarded as pulp before receiving a high-brow make-over in France and coming straight back home again.

Still, it's easy to forget the preceding intellectual scorn, and for all that they might seem to be utterly disconnected, here is where there is continuity between this exhibition and its predecessor, "Comics Unmasked." Both address topics that have been, or still might be, on the cusp between “high” culture and what might once have been called vulgar. As the literary critic Franco Moretti lamented in his magisterial 1983 study Signs Taken For Wonders, “only a few years ago, to write about Dracula meant being taken for an eccentric loafer, and one's main worry was to prove that one's work was legitimate.” These days, an interest in all things “spectral” can be largely attributed to Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx in 1994, and his idea of the “hauntology:” simply put, an uncanny or “haunted” experience supposedly at the heart of what we call reality. In such a context, the whole idea of our own modernity can only increase the appeal of things which quite manifestly don't fit in to that scheme, like leylines, freemasons and ghosts. Just look at the work of writers like Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Neil Gaiman—all of whom introduce elements of the fantastical into modern day narratives. In any case, for every “spectralized” reading of a literary classic, there's sure to be a zombie mash-up like Sherri Browning Erwin's brilliantly titled Jane Sleyre waiting in the wings.

To my mind, the Gothic's reliance on the repressed, and its interest in mythologising particular places, has always worked best through the principle of the unfinished map. Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is centred on a journey to the uncharted south pole, while Mary Shelley's Walton in Frankenstein heads to the north—in fact, it's one of the most frequently forgotten things about Frankenstein that the scientist's story is nestled within another one, of Walton's quest to discover “the wondrous power which attracts the needle and may regulate a thousand celestial observations.” The same sort of thing takes place: in Robert Louis Stephenson's famous tale, the realisation that the two doors used by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde actually lead to the same house marks the moment where the “unknown” takes flight from an increasingly discovered world, and comes home to roost in the dark, fog-soaked corners of the Victorian metropolis. Figures like the cocaine-addict Sherlock Holmes (whose model was the “diseased intelligence” of Poe's original detective, Dupin) had to be born in order to clear all the confusion up with a sound dose of cause-and-effect rationalism. Sherlock doesn't feature in “Terror and Wonder,” but that's fair enough. The Barbican's new show of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the detective's most recent avatar, has sold out fully a year in advance. At least one can still get through the doors of the British Library without too much trouble, and this exhibition is sure to be quite popular enough anyway. It runs until January, and is accompanied by a series of related events. Among the best look to be a talk by Kate Mosse, author of Labyrinth, another on the history of “Vampire Slaying Kits,” as well as (slightly improbably) an audience with the musician Brian May, who will be presenting his collection of nineteenth-century stereoscopic images known as “Diableries”. Not to be missed.