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Published on October 24, 2014

Author: DemianHammock

Source: slideshare.net

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1. he Gothic imagination British Library, until January 20, 2015 From The Castle of Otranto, through Frankenstein and Dracula, to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies SUSAN OWENS “But are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?” As Catherine Morland’s anxious question in Northanger Abbey suggests, writers of Gothic novels traded on their sensationalist subject matter, vying to outdo each other with tales of the grim, the ghastly and the gruesome. Armoured ghosts, cowled skeletons, murderous tyrants, rotting corpses and bleeding spectral nuns jostled for the reader’s attention, offering a dose of the sensation that Edmund Burke, in his treatise on the Sublime and the Beautiful, had defined as “delightful horror”. This exhibition celebrates the 250th anniversary of the publication of the first “Gothic novel”, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, by looking at this and subsequent expressions of what one might call the dark side of British culture. What Terror and Wonder reveals is just how slippery a concept Gothic is. When Walpole, with whom the show begins, called the second edition of Otranto a “Gothic story” he intended to evoke a superstitious medieval past; the present-day Goths represented in the final room of the exhibition, in photographs taken in Whitby (where Dracula first came ashore) by Martin Parr, play with the imagery of death and the paraphernalia of Victoriana, including inventive interpretations of “steampunk”, inspired by the fantastical early science fiction of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Each era in between has fashioned its own versions of Gothic. The Gothic genre, it seems, has always been a channel for the expression of contemporary anxieties. Walpole’s initial claim that the origin of The Castle of Otranto was a book “found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England” speaks of an uneasy relationship with Catholicism – mistrust tinged with fascination. In the 1790s, the real Terror that was taking place in Paris resulted in an increase of fictional bloodthirsty cruelty. The Victorians, for all their love of historicism, dismissed the medieval past and situated the Gothic in the present day, finding ample subjects in the dark back streets of the contemporary city. The gratuitously sensationalist images of crimes and dead bodies that decorated the pages of the Illustrated Police News competed with the florid plots of penny dreadfuls. By the fin de siècle, mounting fears about decadence and physical and moral degeneration were fuelled by Aubrey Beardsley’s insolently assured drawings of smirking demi-mondaines and their sinister pimps. Books, manuscripts and inset narratives, from Walpole’s fake source for Otranto to Mark Z. Danielewski’s complex metafictional novel House of Leaves (2000), are naturally at the heart of this show. But however important such material may be, it is always a challenge for museums and galleries to bring it to life. At the British Library, the curators go some way towards addressing this by placing headphones in front of some of the manuscripts, with readings of the works – Walpole’s drily humorous account of his visit to a seedy corner of old London to see, or rather not to see, the famous “Cock Lane Ghost” is well done, as is an account of the staggeringly lavish Gothic pageant held at midnight in the

2. summer of 1783 by Sir Brooke Boothby. These work well because they are stand-alone narratives, but problems inevitably arise when so many of the objects on display are parts burdened with the task of standing for a whole. Books as artefacts can of course be fascinating and beautiful in themselves, but they also need to convey an idea of their contents. The curators facilitate this with an impressive assemblage of supporting material. While these objects are helpful in the earlier stages of the exhibition in drawing out the themes of relatively unfamiliar literary works, they are used to greater effect in the later sections where they are less illustrative and more central. The enclave devoted to Dracula maps out the cultural ripples set in motion by Bram Stoker’s novel, with objects including Edward Gorey’s superbly gloomy toy theatre and, the strangest exhibit of all, a “vampire slaying kit” (assembled in the 1970s and 80s, it turns out, though some of the components are much older than that) on loan from the Royal Armouries Museum, containing a pistol for silver bullets, a mallet and four wooden stakes, a crucifix and a phial of holy water. In contrast to the written word, Gothic visual culture is patchy and contingent. It has never been a very respectable genre, for which reason “high art” has, on the whole, steered clear of its themes, with the result that there are few examples here. The opening section of the exhibition brings together two coloured “transparency” prints inspired by Otranto that richly evoke the castle’s oppressiveness. These look magical when lit, as they are intended to be, from behind – but unfortunately this particular trick is missed and they are displayed in conventional frames, an odd oversight in the context of an otherwise lavish installation. Oil paintings are mostly gathered in the Romantic section, with over-the-top drama by Henry Fuseli – all bulging eyes and straining sinews – and Nathaniel Grogan’s scene of vertiginous terror in a mountainous landscape, inspired by Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. This section includes representations of ruined abbeys, regarded at the time as walk-in memento mori; a particularly telling watercolour of Tintern Abbey reveals that these relics of the Catholic past were used for dramatic entertainment – on a moonlit night, men with flaming torches can be seen conducting groups of awed visitors around the site. Gothicism allowed architectural fantasy to flourish on a grand scale, nowhere more extravagantly than in William Beckford’s legendary Fonthill Abbey, a model of which is included. The 300-foot tower of this folly was so unstable that it collapsed more than once, finally, and aptly, transforming itself into a picturesque ruin. Film is a major component of the latter half of the exhibition, with clips not only of classics including The Bride of Frankenstein and The Innocents but also of more obscure material, such as a 1953 version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. There is even a welcome glimpse of Ken Russell’s gloriously excessive Gothic. In this and other choices the curators display an admirable lack of squeamishness. Their decision, however, to include an excerpt from last year’s pedestrian Christmas adaptation of M. R. James’s story “The Tractate Middoth” in preference to Jonathan Miller’s peerless version of “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is regrettable. A more general problem is that it all makes for a noisy exhibition. It may be an authentically Gothic experience to be startled by a penetrating scream every minute or so, but it quickly becomes tiresome, and the sinister aural fog of “Sumer is Icumen In” from the final scene of The Wicker Man reaches to most corners. The exhibition design of billowing

3. black curtains and rich velvet drapes is visually arresting, but more thought could have been given to the total visitor experience. The final stages of the show, although they lack the careful contextualization of the earlier sections, amply demonstrate the sheer ubiquity of Gothickry in recent and contemporary culture. Fan-fiction mash-ups, such as Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, exemplify the playful transgression which has become a distinct aspect of the genre’s character. An eerily spectacular dress by Alexander McQueen shows how the Goth taste has infiltrated high fashion – although a nearby Edwardian mourning dress competes with it for extravagance. A telling distinction is made towards the end of the exhibition between two recent vehicles for the Gothic imagination, the horror genre and the ghost story. While film clips and posters demonstrate the 1970s and 80s heyday of the visceral, blood-and- guts side of things, the curators argue that more recently the ghost story has made a comeback, with Sarah Waters and Julie Myerson among others exploiting the ghost’s inherent dramatic potential and the psychological power of haunting. It is perhaps too early to tell what this latest turn of the Gothic imagination tells us about our own anxieties and preoccupations.

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