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

Caroline Franklin relishes a romp through the excesses of the human imagination  

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Reviewed by: Caroline Franklin
Author: Clive Bloom
Publisher: Continuum
Price (RRP): £14.99

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Hold on tight in this roller-coaster ride through half a millennium of hair-raising Gothic art and culture. Leaving Marguerite, a self-willed Canadian heroine, abandoned by her father on the Isle of Demons in 1555, we hurtle at breakneck speed through countless scenes created by the morbid imagination until, less than 200 pages later, we dizzily emerge out of the cyber world of Resident Evil, a computer game flickering in the bedroom of a 21st-century teenager. Professor Clive Bloom describes this as a “little book” but its Frankenstein ambitions to assemble fragments of Gothic sensibility from all corners of popular culture big up the volatile mode as “ one of the most influential artistic styles and genres of the last four centuries”. 

This prolific critic’s expertise enables him to embellish the familiar literary history with unusual details of grotesquerie. Nine chapters are loosely themed around Gothic’s antiquarian 18th-century origins, its architectural and literary fantasies, interfusion with European Romanticism, later spectral visions of cities, Victorian mutation into spiritualism, and inherent theatricality throughout, making it hugely influential on melodrama, opera and film. 

However, Bloom feels free to digress and make piquant juxtapositions: psychics with psychiatry, the visual language of set design with surrealism, the fact that Dracula was published two years after Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria and that all the main Universal Gothic film monsters were created by Europeans not Americans. His enthusiasm is infectious if somewhat manic. Fascinating facts abound from Aubrey’s druidical rites on Primrose Hill, to the first folly; Victorian tournaments; the Egyptian avenue in Highgate cemetery; Louis Daguerre’s moving dioramas of ruins swirling with moonlit mist and the climactic mutilation of a woman into the shape of a chicken in the 1932 horror movie Freaks. 

Bloom attempts little analysis of the cultural material amassed. Perhaps he fears boring the general reader or student, for whom he provides a concise bibliography of the main primary and critical texts. He usefully maps the interface between popular culture and canonical works; deftly sketches in contextual information about the publishing trade and rise of a mass readership/audience. We learn how the ‘penny bloods’ were put together by 
a team under the direction of entrepreneurial publisher Edward Lloyd. We realise how various fairground visual shows prepared the way for cinema and modern media. 

The democratic emphasis on cultural history occasionally clashes with clichéd judgements on literature. Ann Radcliffe is “conservative and restrained”; Mary Shelley didn’t write anything worth reading except Frankenstein; Shelley and Byron were incompetent dramatists. Indeed, dwelling so insistently on the sensationalism of popular culture in itself is faintly patronising. 

Although Gothic Histories is often genuinely informative, it is infuriatingly careless. Copy-editors should have spotted that “Antarctic France” was in Brazil not Newfoundland, the fact that the same quotation on The Castle Spectre is used on pages 118 and 126, the misspelling throughout of Grand Guignol and Edmund Spenser. The statement: “There had been no gothic drama before the 18th century” confusingly follows directly on from observing Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ inspiration by Jacobean tragedy. Another bloomer is that a caustic review in the Tory Ant-Jacobin Review (sic) is attributed to PB Shelley who supposedly disliked Radcliffian fiction. Apparently Bloom has forgotten the poet wrote two such Gothic novels, the latter (Zastrozzi) here attacked.

These reservations aside, I promise you will enjoy this exhilarating grand tour of Gothic.  

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Professor Caroline Franklin, Swansea University, is editor of The Longman Anthology of Gothic Verse (Pearson, forthcoming this autumn)