Our deepest, darkest fears
The transgressive, transmedial and transnational nature of the Gothic genre
Gothic: An Illustrated History, Roger Luckhurst, Thames & Hudson Ltd (£25.00)
Defining the Gothic is not simple. It has expanded beyond eerie castles, buttressed churches, bulbous moons and misty graveyards. It now encompasses all that humans may find unnerving, unholy, uncivilised, or uncomfortable – it is the fear of the unknown, but it is also suppressed desires. It is this overarching feeling that allows the Gothic to be so ubiquitous; it is manifested in historical fiction, classic literature, modern horror, fine art and popular culture. The Gothic connects society’s anxieties with humanity’s greatest fears and as such has evolved, mutated, and expanded over time, and across the world.
Roger Luckhurst’s new book, Gothic: An Illustrated History, attempts to consolidate the many influences, origins and manifestations of the Gothic genre in an overview that combines the visual and the literary. Underpinning this overview is Luckhurst’s understanding of the Gothic as a collection of “travelling tropes” that, he explains, “originate in a narrow set of European cultures with distinct meanings, [and] have embarked on a journey in which they are both transmitted and utterly transformed as they move across different cultures”. Gothic therefore aims to build a global, illustrated history of the genre that illuminates its transmedial and transgressive nature.
Luckhurst’s task is no mean feat, and ultimately this is a comprehensive, impressive overview. The key motivators of the Victorian Gothic revival (Walpole, Pugin, Ruskin) are given their due alongside their literary counterparts (Shelley, Stoker, Brontë, Dickens, Byron, Poe); folkloric, fairy-tale and medieval influences are not overlooked; the urban gothic is placed beside the rural and the literature of the Deep South is considered alongside Japanese drama, poetry and cinematic productions.
The Gothic connects society’s anxieties with humanity’s greatest fears and as such has evolved, mutated, and expanded over time, and across the world
Rather than organising Gothic chronologically, Luckhurst structures his book thematically in four parts, and within each are five topical essays. This rigid structure is an interesting counter to the Gothic’s extensive and sprawling reaches, but it generally works well and successfully encompasses the genre. There could have been a greater effort to highlight core concepts from the start, however. The uncanny, or the unheimlich, is mentioned in the discussion on The Haunted House, at the end of the first chapter, and while it is relevant here it feels underdeveloped. The subject is then picked up again at the very end of the book with the discussion on doppelgängers and the uncanny self. This sense of unease, agitation and supernatural is essential to the notion of the Gothic and underpins key emotional responses that drive the genre. Explicitly highlighting this in the introduction I believe would create a better understanding of the connection between the genre and the human psyche before embarking on its divergent form.
Contemporary multimedia in Gothic is key, with mentions of widely popular TV series over the years: The Addams Family (1964), True Blood (2008), Game of Thrones (2011), Stranger Things (2016) and Westworld (2016). The Walking Dead (2010) seems like a notable omission, particularly in the section on Zombies, the undead and doppelgängers. Nevertheless, nearly all modern horror and terror films are recognized and images of video games, stills from movies, architectural drawings, comic illustrations, and more traditional artistic renditions are displayed concurrently, underpinning Luckhurst’s transmedial outlook.
The juxtaposition of contemporary visuals alongside traditional analyses of Gothic foundations is effective. Luckhurst illustrates his discussion on William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798) with four images that are thematically linked: an etching of the ruins of Palmyra, Syria (1798), the iconic ruin of the Industrial Promotion Hall in Hiroshima (1945), the destruction of the library at Holland House following a firebomb (1940) and an abandoned video store following a nuclear meltdown near Fukushima (2011).
In illustrating sections in this way, Luckhurst highlights how the expanse of time and place play into the wider themes of the Gothic. While the Gothic is not limited temporally or spatially, these elements do impact how we interpret Gothic moments, and in this case, Gothic ruins. Luckhurst notes how Wordsworth’s poem depicts “picturesque scenes recollected in tranquillity” but images of war ruins are “too near in time” and “brutal reminders of the realities of disfigurement”. The proximity to tragic, terrifying events plays on the human psyche allowing it to envision the alternate reality that lies behind the ruin. It is this feeling of discomfort and underlying fear that is stimulated by the visual representations, that in turn effect the reader’s understanding of Luckhurst’s literary and historical discussion, providing a rounded and thorough understanding of the genre.
When the Gothic is so rooted in the evocations of what we see, or what we don’t see when our sight is taken away, it makes sense to have a history so extensively illustrated. My only qualm is that I want more. Not more images (there’s 350 of them), but more direct analysis and interaction with the images used. At times, it feels the illustrations are only included because they are mentioned in the text, and hence there is a lack of symbiosis with the textual analysis.
For example, in “The Lie of the Land”, Luckhurst discusses the changing shape of the forest, before going on to mention Dante’s opening lines from Inferno. Then, on the following spread there is a full-page image of Gustave Foré’s illustration for Inferno: “I found myself within a forest dark”. There is, however, no further connection between this illustration and the analysis of Dante’s work. This is an opportunity missed – an explicit interrogation of what specific illustrations bring to our understanding of classic, modern, horror or fantasy literature would have been compelling and perhaps would have elevated Gothic beyond an encyclopaedic-style overview.
In spite of this, the sections on the global Gothic are strong and original, shedding light on cultures that have previously not been given space in discussions on the genre. Understanding the global, colonial influences on local English village Gothic representations is particularly fascinating. Furthermore, the tone throughout is fun, insightful and illuminative. The passion for and fascination with the subject matter is clear and infectious, and technical terminology is frequent, providing substance to the entertaining imagery. Envisioning John Carter as “apoplectic” is notably comedic.
Overall, Luckhurst successfully captures and contains the ever-evolving Gothic in an overview that is impressively thorough. It is refreshing to read discussions on the genre that bridge the historical, contemporary, global and extra-terrestrial, all while observing the human fears and social anxieties that will continue to make the Gothic relevant.
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