Non-Fiction Reviews

The Gothic
A Very Short Introduction

(2012) Nick Groom, £7.99, pbk, 169pp, ISBN 978-0-19-958679-0


"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
                                                Hamlet Act 1 Scene V


Anyone hoping for a scene-by-scene résumé of the Twilight saga will be (sadly?) disappointed. Equally, the person wanting merely a companion to the works of Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker will need to look elsewhere (they are mentioned in the Further Reading section at the back of the book). This book is so much more, albeit condensed into just 169 pages.

The clue is in both parts of the title. 'A Very Short Introduction' is a series published by Oxford University Press, now running to more than 300 titles; at times, however, that means that the style of writing indicates that the intended purchaser is a student looking for background material for a course for which they haven’t attended the lectures. The introduction states that it is a cultural history, not ‘just’ critical theory; to me that meant they are hoping it will be picked up by the general reader, but I fear that many will fall at the first hurdle, the introduction.

The Gothic is a reminder that gothic covers a lot of ground/ideas. From the opening chapter, with its historical detail of the original goths (lots of material here for Sword and Sorcery stories), to sections covering architecture, the Reformation, folk songs and tales, politics and nationhood, big concepts such as Romanticism, Medievalism, The Sublime and Film Noir, there are a number of running themes:-
          The supernatural – the Roman poet Claudian introduced this idea, writing of Goths using ‘showers of stones, bees swarming in strange places, …’ in their warfare, and from then on gothic implied something 'Other', characterised by ghosts, spirits, vampyr’s etc.
          The past – or rather a ruined, idealised past, epitomised by the building of follies and the Gothic architectural revival of the 19th century. Much of the gothic literature from the late 18th century onward has this air, not just of the supernatural, but of a past which taints the present. This can also be seen in the 20th century horror films of James Whale, and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
          A religiosity, principally Catholic, which has also become tainted with an air of corruption. This has the danger of descending into camp, perhaps seen best in the Hammer horror films, with their candles and crucifixes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, not just because it reminded me of books and authors I have enjoyed in the past and present (Lovecraft, Shelley, The Castle of Otranto), but because it placed them in their political and cultural settings. There are quite detailed sections about ‘gothic’ aspects of nationhood, and how different groupings, with widely differing viewpoints, tried to appropriate the concept for themselves. There was a danger, however, for these parts to feel like a trawl through every entry for ‘goth’ on Google.

I looked at a sample of the books mentioned in the Further Reading section to see if they were available on Amazon, which they were, but at quite a high price; again, I checked the index for a number of items/concepts, and most were there – but you should expect nothing less from this publisher.

Perhaps the highlight for me was the chapter ‘The revenge of the dead', which looked at ballads, folk songs and Revenge Tragedy’s, something I studied at school and had enjoyed then. Seeing how they tied them in with cyberpunk, ‘found film’ (as in The Blair Witch Project), and best of all Glam Rock (!) made this reviewer's day.

Peter Young

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