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Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present

Clive Bloom

(Continuum; US: Jun 2010)

Horace Walpole isn’t an especially gothic name. Entered into an an online Goth name generator, the name of the eighteenth century writer results in “Chimera Omega”. After reading Clive Bloom’s delightful and eccentric Gothic Histories, it’s not hard to imagine that Walpole might have enjoyed that nickname.


Notions of all things gothic “started with Walpole and his obsession with a medieval past that could be ‘recreated’ in bricks and mortar,” Bloom writes. “For Walpole the past and therefore the dead were ‘empty’, husks in which to reanimate whatever contemporary fantasy one could afford.”


Bloom’s history of the western world’s “taste for terror” begins well before 1764, but he establishes that as the year “it all began”, as that is when Walpole/Omega published (on Christmas day) his famous novel, The Castle of Otranto. The journey that Bloom offers from Walpole to (ugh) Twilight often brings to mind the gothic castles that started everything off. There’s a sense of a labyrinthine collection of shadow-filled hallways, strange stairwells and mysterious rooms, taking readers on odd turns and curves, making strange connections and concurrences.


“[T]he tradition of Walpole and the gothic dilettantes who wished to live out their fantasies in the architecture of their homes is now followed vicariously by those who choose to dress ‘goth’ and dramatize their lives through music…gothic lifestyle…and role play dedicated to placating the ennui of life and based around the cult of the night and images of death,” Bloom writes.


What is gothic? The term has been used so often and applied to so many disciplines, it can be difficult and appropriately murky to conjure a clear definition. An anecdote comes to mind: Some years ago, between songs at a concert in Toronto’s Koolhaus, Nick Cave picked up an object thrown on stage. “It’s a doll,” he said, and showed a handmade, black-clad and raggedy little figure to the audience. A few songs later, he picked up another item thrown to him. “It’s”... he said, and paused a few moments. “Another doll.” Someone in the crowd yelled, “Bloody goths.”


“Goth is a state of mind,” writes Nancy Kilpatrick in her 2004 exploration of the subject, The Goth Bible. “Goth is a way of being that embraces what the normal world shuns, a lean toward and an obession with all subjects dark and grim, a view of life that incorporates the world of night as well as the world of day. The gothically inclined make room for the noir in a global culture that favors white and prefers its darkness sanitized.”


Bloom echoes that notion of the gothic as a “feeling” and a “a new sense of the imagination” that follows a sort of formula that was established with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, and went on to take shape in “architecture, poetry, novels, short stories, pornography, romance and painting; they had political and ecclesiastical ramifications and formed a coherent philosophy of living.”


The gothic sensibility takes pleasure in the bizarre and the wild, the magical and arabesque: in architecture, it was expressed in a revived taste for the medieval, while in literature and painting it was expressed by dealing in the supernatural, with the inexplicable monsters of the forest and castle—spooks, witches, damned souls and corpses that rise at midnight; it is interested in science and invention, but turned on their heads as the weird productions of necromancers—doctors in strange laboratories dealing in forbidden knowledge; it is fascinated with the abnormal and the hallucinatory—drug abuse, torture, terrorization, the fear of the victim—the pleasures of being insane!


A Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Middlesex University, Bloom has been called “a card-carrying public intellectual” by the Times Higher Education Magazine for his prolific output and public profile. His book is an extraordinary act of concision balanced with wide-ranging insights and original research. In fewer than 200 pages, Bloom traces the development of one idea over a quarter of a millennium and across a dizzying array of disciplines.


There’s a sense of joy and exhilaration that comes across, conveying Bloom’s excitement at discovering so many connections and interweaving threads. Gothic Histories is refreshing in its academic thoroughness (without reading like a dry and dusty textbook) and unusual in its thoughtful yet meandering nature. Quibbles include typos occurring with notable frequency, and an index that seems incomplete.


At first, Bloom’s narrative feels murky and convoluted, as if he’s trying to cover too much territory in too small a space. As the book progresses, various motifs and ideas recur and connect, often surprisingly. His remarkable abilities with synthesis and concision soon become clear, along with his grander vision of “the gothic sensibility.” Among the surprises are how the interest in the gothic began as an aristocratic trend, but developed into a philosophy of reform and revolution.


Walpole kicked things off not only through his novel about a mad castle, but also through his obsession with building one of his own. Bloom points to the development of a form of architecture known as “follies,” which began to appear around Europe in the 1500s:


They were the pointless foibles to rich men’s odd taste for the dramatic and it was this pointlessness which made the follies of ruined towers and abbeys so intriguing—odd excrescences in the landscape that told of a fictional past, an imagined history and the sense of a quite fake continuity with the land they were built upon… Above all, such buildings were playful reminders to aristocrats that nothing lasts forever, ironically built at the very moment when such people thought their lifestyle was immune from threat.


This interest in being reminded of death and decay recalls a recent essay titled “The Importance of Fear,” in the classic horror magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland (issue #251, July 2010).


“Being mindful of death has inspired artistic creations that vary widely from one another, but serve to remind us of our own mortality and, in the process, leave behind fear to pursue life,” writes Robert Aragon. “For centuries the poets and artists have offered expressions from their personal sacred place of creativity, and they have gifted humanity with tangible manifestations of fear identifiable to all of us, with one unmistakable message: Vita est Brevis, Ars est Longa—life is brief, but art is forever.”


Horace Walpole “fell for the romance of ruin” after a visit to the follies at Netley Abbey. Upon his return, he bought a “small capricious house” called Strawberry Hill, and took many years to remodel it into a “Gothick castle”. Bloom notes that “the house itself was like Walpole’s personality, a fay illusion held up by paper and plaster.”


As with Walpole’s name, “fey” doesn’t seem especially synonymous with gothic. Bloom goes on to describe a fascinating turn by which these “pointless foibles” transformed into something much darker and more dangerous after a few years. “The aristocratic mind may have embraced the gothic as a ‘jeu d’esprit’, but revolutionary democrats took up the genre as an act of class war”, he writes.


The gothic was, all at once, aristocratic burlesque and serious middle-class writing. Gothicism was now not merely a form of low entertainment but a low entertainment whose ‘high’ and democratic message could shake the very concept of social cohesion. At its core, as entertainment and as ontological enquiry was the central destructive sense of annihilation (of virtue, or sanity, of existence) which raises our awareness and presents us with the frisson of our own mortality. In the gothic mode, democratic romanticism with its deification of the plain and humble, rural and rustic, ordinary and mundane found a voice for difficult political and epistemological questions.


As this fairly dense paragraph suggests, Bloom often seems taken with (shall we say “possessed by”) his readings and detours of thought. This often proves enjoyable. Bloom includes lengthy quotes and passages from the works he describes, and at times the little book feels almost like an anthology.


As the story reaches present-day, it begins to take on the feeling of a headlong rush, with references to recent projects like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the ubiquitous Twilight franchise flying fast and furious, while still drawing connections to his historical time-line.


An indispensable primer and at times surprising survey of the subject, Gothic Histories is also an appealing object. On its cover, against a garish orange background, a figure from Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death depicts a skeleton exuberantly playing a drum. That the drum is also crotch-centric suggests a self-flagellating, masochistic element that might not be entirely inappropriate to the subject matter. Bloody goths.


 


 

Rating:

Oliver lives in Toronto. He has published several books, and worked as the Senior Front Page Editor at Yahoo Canada and MSN Canada. Currently, he works as a Manager of Communications at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. His website is www.OliverHo.ca.


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