Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

gothic tradition BLWe seem to have an enduring fascination for the mysterious, the terrifying and the macabre. Fraser Riddell reviews the British Library exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, which traces 250 years of the gothic tradition.

Amongst the plethora of books, artefacts and artworks that make up the British Library’s exhibition is a prop from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980). A large, folio-sized scrapbook containing neatly pasted newspaper cuttings, its contents recount the murderous events at the Overlook Hotel long before Jack Nicholson’s psychotic caretaker energetically smashes through a door to announce that Johnny is – ahem – here.

As it happens, this scrapbook never quite got its moment of on-screen stardom – the macabre back-story of this Gothic “haunted house” was lost to the cutting room floor, the prop visible in only a few frames as a ghostly continuity error. Nevertheless, the scrapbook serves as a useful point of departure for thinking about the Gothic genre as presented in this exhibition. Like the (ultimately suppressed) newspapers that speak of the Overlook Hotel’s grisly past, the Gothic is a genre that constantly looks backwards to dark histories, repressed secrets and forgotten memories. And just as Kubrick’s film suggests that a cycle of past horrors must necessarily continue to play out in the present, the Gothic genre speaks of the “return of the repressed,” the reiteration of traumatic events across generations and geographies, and the obsessive reconfiguration of a small handful of themes and motifs.

Poster for Alfred Hitchcocks The Birds 1963 on display in Terror and Wonder. On loan from the BFI National Archive

Poster for Alfred Hitchcocks The Birds 1963 on display in Terror and Wonder. On loan from the BFI National Archive

We start with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and move fairly predictably to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), taking in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), before reaching Wilkie Collins and the “urban gothic” of Dickens’s London. Fin-de-siècle literature is represented by the usual suspects –  Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray – and Sherlock Holmes’s Hound of the Baskervilles bares his slobbery fangs in a film adaptation of 1939. Literature broadly takes a back-seat to cinema in the twentieth century, where we duly meet Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and are (perhaps less predictably) dive-bombed by Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). The diversity of twenty-first century Gothic is represented by reimaginings of canonical works as trashy horror (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Slayre – you get the jist) and nouveau-Vampire lit (Twilight and its undead offspring). At its close, the exhibition moves away from its focus on cultural artefacts to examine youth identity through a series of carnivalesque photographs of Whitby’s Goth Weekend.

The exhibition does well to avoid taking its subject too seriously. One brilliant example of the frequent hyperbolic silliness of the genre is indicated by a cheap pirated edition of Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, entitled (wait for it): The Midnight Assassin; Or, Confession of the Monk Rinaldi: Containing a Complete History of His Diabolical Machinations and Unparalleled Ferocity, Together with a Circumstantial Account of that Scourge of Mankind, the Inquisition, with the Manner of Bringing to Trial Those Unfortunate Beings who are at Its Disposal (1802). Such excess is equally in evidence in a model of William Beckford’s Gothic extravaganza Fonthill Abbey, which collapsed (presumably under the weight of its own ridiculousness) in 1825. The supposed corrupting influence of the genre is amusingly pilloried in a caricature of a young woman reading Lewis’s The Monk: she stands next to an open fire warming her bare buttocks whilst her pet cat rolls on the carpet next to her in (what the exhibition guide describes as) “a paroxysm of ecstasy”. Further fun might have been had with the inclusion of Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818) – a hilarious satire that ably deflates Romanticism’s po-faced profundities. Nevertheless, the curator who decided to include the puppet of the cuddly “Were-rabbit” from Wallace and Gromit clearly has a sense of humour.


Fonthill Abbey model in Terror and Wonder at the British Library (c) Tony Antoniou

Given that the bulk of the British Library’s collection consists of books, it is perhaps unsurprising that the version of the Gothic presented here is primarily “literary”. While there is some engagement with the architectural Gothic – prints of a ruined Tintern Abbey, curios from Walpole’s Strawberry Hill – the exhibition does little to move beyond the clichéd settings familiar from countless horror films. So plenty of terror here, but little grasp of the spiritual wonder inherent in Augustus Pugin’s Gothic Medievalism. Likewise, including John Ruskin’s architectural-cum-social critique “The Nature of the Gothic” (1853) might have presented a more positive vision of Gothic. The British Library’s collection undoubtedly contains items by both Pugin and Ruskin that possess considerable visual flair – so it’s a shame to see them sidelined in favour of several cases showing the rather nondescript frontispieces of trashy Gothic novels. And to ignore the Gothic Revival when your next door neighbour is St. Pancras Station seems like missing an open goal.

The “literary” vision here is primarily English too. Nods in the direction of Germanic influences can be seen in the “Northanger Horrids” that share the sensational aspects of Austen’s satire Northanger Abbey (1798, published 1817) – The Necromancer or the Tale of the Black Forest (1794), The Orphan of the Rhine (1802), etc. – but more could have been made of this. Likewise, the genre’s often xenophobic engagement with ideas of foreignness (Catholic Italy, Vampiric Transylvania) could be explored further. Geographical borders might easily have been stretched as far as Scotland to include James Hogg’s profoundly unsettling The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), or even to Kipling’s Imperial India, where the short story “The Mark of the Beast” (1890) serves as a reminder of the very real horror of colonial oppression.

Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma by Henry Fuselli on display in Terror and Wonder (c) Tate

Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma by Henry Fuselli on display in Terror and Wonder (c) Tate

Visual art gets its due – Blake, Fuseli, Beardsley – but, with the exception of present-day “Punk Gothique”, the musical Gothic is absent. The craze for the Gothic in German Romantic Opera (Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821), Marschner’s Der Vampyr (1828), Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (1843)) may not have inspired British composers with quite such zeal, but Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore (1887) is unimaginable without it. Successful modern productions of this work (Opera North, 2010) and of Meyerbeer’s delightfully kitsch French Grand Opera Robert le diable (Royal Opera House, 2012) suggest such Gothic campery has not lost its ability to entertain. The curators in the British Library’s music department missed a trick here.

But any exhibition on such a generic “loose baggy monster” as the Gothic must inevitably be selective if it is to retain a sense of focus.  And reviewing this exhibition by commenting on what it failed to include risks sidelining the fascination of many of the objects included, both inherently and for the way they form imaginative connections with other exhibits. So the manuscript of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) – written in a neat, clear hand – is placed alongside a print of John Martin’s monumental Belshazzar’s Feast (1821), which hung in the Haworth Parsonage. This sublime vision of divine judgment suggests something of the psychological terror that often lurks just below the surface of the Brontë’s fictions. An illustrated edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) from 1948 hints at the way in which this morality tale has been read as a premonition of its author’s quasi-Gothic fate: upon the destruction of his portrait, the face of the beautiful Dorian melts into a distorted visage that is curiously reminiscent of Wilde himself. More prosaically, an encounter with Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3) as dissected into twenty bite-size monthly installments makes this chunky work seem much more approachable. There are some surprises too: a 1529 copy of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and a heavily-annotated seventeenth-century edition of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590) do well to suggest the genre’s narrative and thematic debts to the Romance tradition.

Image taken from the series Whitby Goths by Martin Parr Magnum photos Rocket Gallery 2014 on display in Terror and Wonder.

Image taken from the series Whitby Goths by Martin Parr Magnum photos Rocket Gallery 2014 on display in Terror and Wonder.

A dark, clouded mirror from Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill opens the exhibition. It distorts more than it reflects: a suitable emblem for much Gothic literature, but also symbolic of the risks faced when assembling a collection of representative Gothic objects. While the exhibition’s broadly chronological narrative often privileges a view that literature is best understood as a product of history, this approach remains flexible enough to acknowledge the discontinuities of the genre. The later sections of the exhibition, which extend beyond chronology to examine thematic connectedness (the Gothic body, childhood and the Gothic, etc.) are more successful in suggesting this diversity.

The exhibition has much to recommend to literary scholars, even if it sells short the richness of the Gothic tradition in some respects. But don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination runs at The British Library, London until 20 January 2015. Fraser Riddell is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Studies at Durham University. His thesis examines musical experience and queer identity in English literature of the fin-de-siècle. His research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


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