Gothic: the stuff of nightmares

The Gothic still retains a powerful influence on visual culture, as an eerie show at the British Library reveals. Rick Poynor ventures inside

The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, Universal/The Kobal Collection

The Gothic still retains a powerful influence on visual culture, as an eerie show at the British Library reveals. Rick Poynor ventures inside

I have always had a slightly guilty taste for the Gothic. I say guilty because there is something undeniably adolescent about the Gothic imagination. At its most excessive it is certainly not subtle: ruined castles, dark forests, evil monks, supernatural occurrences, lashings of black and rivers of blood. My dalliance with the Gothic began as a teenager, watching Hammer horror films on late-night TV and reading the classic novels.

What still attracts me is the pleasure of the fantastic, the genre’s willingness to embrace the irrational, the proximity of terror and the sublime, and the way that Gothic works usher us down into crypts of inner experience that more decorous forms of storytelling cannot reach. I draw the line at dressing up like a Goth, but I can see the appeal for those who do.

Model of Gothic revival country house Fonthill Abbey, on loan from Beckford’s Tower and Museum, Bath. Photo: Tony Antoniou

Terror and Wonder, the British Library’s unusually crepuscular exhibition – low lighting, black walls, typography (by Kellenberger-White) like inscriptions on a tombstone – brought it all back. This is another of those compendious surveys, like the library’s Out of this World science fiction show in 2011, which begins with the historical origins of a phenomenon and traces it through to the present. For make no mistake, the Gothic’s overwrought contemporary progeny are still intrinsic to our cultural life, from Mark Z Danielewski’s typographically experimental cult novel House of Leaves (2000) to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006), a knowingly morbid set of children’s books, which became a hit movie. Jane Austen may have made fun of Gothic literature in her 1817 novel Northanger Abbey. Today, she herself gets mashed up and parodied in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009).

The exhibition begins, as it must, in Strawberry Hill, where Horace Walpole spent three decades building a tribute to the medieval Gothic style with towers, battlements and ornate chambers. In 1764, Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, commonly regarded as the first Gothic novel – “a tale of mistaken identity, illicit sexuality, supernatural happenings and tense pursuits”, as the curators put it – set in a medieval Italian castle. Lurid Gothic romances rapidly became a craze and many early examples are on show: William Beckford’s Vathek – a later German edition with a hair-raising illustration by Gottfried Helnwein; Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho; and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, an astonishing book, which I recently read again. Written when its precocious author was 19, it significantly boosted the Gothic novel’s sex and violence quotient. A James Gilray cartoon from 1802 shows a lady at a table reading The Monk out loud to three startled but utterly enthralled female companions.

The Nightmare, after Henry Fuseli, print made by Thomas Burke, London, 1783 (on loan from the Trustees of the British Museum)

The mood of these novels receives visual expression in some well-chosen paintings of the period, such as Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Travellers Attacked by Banditti (1781) and Henri Fuseli’s Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783). But the early parts of the exhibition are inevitably bookish, with many title pages to be studied, and the exhibition’s accompanying volume, written by literary scholars, emphasises the literary history.

For non-specialists, the most rewarding aspect of Terror and Wonder is its detailed exposition of the many channels through which the virus of Gothic themes and imagery took cultural hold. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) continues to haunt the popular imagination, as does Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, which in 1990 made it into an episode of The Simpsons. The exhibition also includes a clip from a 1953 animated version of Poe’s story The Tell-Tale Heart, narrated by the actor James Mason, which received a precautionary X certificate from the British Board of Film Censors.

Cover of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, featuring the first ever illustration of the Count, Leeds, 1901

Gothic imagery can be found in the Brontës’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, which was restyled in a 2009 reissue to look like a volume from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight vampire saga, as well as in Dickens’ Bleak House (the exhibition has a clip of the BBC dramatisation), Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, not forgetting Bram Stoker’s seemingly immortal creation Dracula (1897). The Victorian penny dreadfuls, where Spring-heeled Jack, a persistent urban legend, made regular appearances, were also significant. The exhibition finds a place, too, for a front-page story from 1888 in The Illustrated Police News, detailing Jack the Ripper’s latest slaying in the Gothic gloom of London’s Whitechapel.

The Plague of the Zombies poster (BFI National Archive)

As the narrative moves into the 20th-century, the displays become more garishly graphic. There are film posters for Dead of Night and The Innocents, Jack Nicholson’s scrapbook from Kubrick’s The Shining, and clips from The Bride of Frankenstein, Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies and The Wicker Man. At times one wonders whether the curators – led by Tim Pye – have become too over-enthusiastically all-encompassing in their interpretation of the theme. The Wicker Man has an enduring power to chill, and it gets some useful contextual support from an alarming but dubious illustration from 1771 showing Druids burning sacrificial victims in a wicker man, but is the film in any real sense Gothic?

Early illustration of a ‘wicker man’ from Nathaniel Spencer’s The Complete English Traveller, 1771, British Library Board

The Wicker Man, 1973, Studio Canal Films/The Kobal Collection

Since the 1960s, horror has become so extreme as a genre that traditional tropes – castles, dungeons and deranged clergymen – now seem rather fangless. The Gothic today is more an arena for stylistic play and irony (see the Chapman Brothers) than a place of fearfulness or true transgression. In the late 1970s, Gothic style jumped the species barrier into pop. Listen to Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus on YouTube, if you have never heard it – the sleeve graphics are in the show. Performers like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Robert Smith of The Cure became icons of Gothic moodiness. Costuming yourself as a Goth was now a lifestyle choice, an act of subcultural allegiance and a declaration of difference.

Jim Kay, preliminary sketch for A Monster Calls

Every year, the face-painted tribe converges on the port where Bram Stoker’s Dracula came ashore, for the Whitby Goth Weekend, and the British Library sent Martin Parr along to document the event. His photos, on display in the last room, are washed out by the weather and don’t have the glamour some photographers might have contrived. What Parr records, 250 years after the first Gothic novel appeared, are gentle and surprisingly touching visual gestures of everyday defiance.

Rick Poynor blogs at designobserver.com/profile/rickpoynor/81. Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is at the British Library until January 20, 2015. See bl.uk

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