Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
The British Library
From 3 October 2014 to 20 January 2015
For the comedian Tim Minchin, there is no better guard dog against superstition than that steadfast defender of enlightenment values, Scooby-Doo. In Storm, a series of vitriolic verses attacking the fluffy excesses of faith in favour of the advances of science, Minchin attempts to unmask the “cheap, man-made myths and monsters” dreamt up by hippies and homeopaths—in much the same way that Scooby and his flare-wearing friends unmask dodgy janitors and party-trick hypnotists posing as ghouls, werewolves, and zombies.
As demonstrated in a new exhibition at the British Library, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, those moustachioed rogues are directly descended from the manipulative monks of early Gothic fiction. Texts such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mystery of Udolpho (1794) established the trope of the “explained supernatural”, blending mock-medieval romance with a touch of the realism of the novel. The resulting genre was a thoroughly modern take on medievalism, tales which could be enjoyed from the comfort of a drawing room, preferably with a couple of cobwebs in the corner.
Dredged up from the darkest recesses of its collection, the British Library brings us prized artefacts ranging from early manuscripts of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Jane Eyre, to an account of a Gothic pageant held in honour of the artist Henry Fuseli—the mind behind The Nightmare (1781), who reportedly ate raw pork to fuel his fevered imagination. A healthy proportion of the exhibition is given over to the sexual excesses of the genre (with fewer petit-mort puns than might have been expected), and due attention is given to Gothic fashion, children’s literature, comic books, and pamphlet penny dreadfuls.
Following the standards set by Strawberry Hill, that Gesamtkunstwerk of a Gothic Revival villa where Horace Walpole dreamt up The Castle of Otranto (1764), the exhibition creates its own elaborately staged Gothic world. Flimsy black shrouds connect a series of labyrinthine rooms, spiralling into one another to create disorientating dead ends; every step is accompanied by background patter from various film projections, echoing around the exhibition on a torturous loop. The theatricality is further emphasised by various props scattered around the exhibition, acting as counterweights to the shifting, slippery power of words. It’s hard not to marvel at Dr Dee’s obsidian spirit mirror, an eerie relic from the Elizabethan age and the prize of Walpole’s collection. On the other hand, nothing could be as absurd as a spic-and-span vampire slaying kit, or a mawkish Victorian alarm clock featuring a grinning skeleton astride a kitschy coffin.
The Gothic is perhaps best appreciated from backstage, where we can admire the cords and pulleys, the intricate mechanisms which combine to create a satisfactory impression of the supernatural: convincing enough to hold our attention, fake enough to flatter our intelligence. Yet beyond all the knowing exposure lurks something far more disturbing: those moments when the shock of the real reduces Gothic tropes to a collection of horror-house gimmicks.
Discussing the effects of tragedy in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), Edmund Burke made the famous claim that no theatrical performance could ever compete with the lure of a public execution, the horrors of reality experienced in the flesh. Decades later, Burke was one of the first to condemn the brutal excesses of the French Revolution, while the reading public of Britain were baying for blood. The Gothic form adapted accordingly, moving away from a focus on natty interior design choices and pleasant play-acting and towards a literary incarnation of a Terror which was all too real. Readers found their fix in the salacious, semi-satirical sadism of texts like Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796), where bleeding spectral nuns, matricide, mob-violence and rape provided a suitable substitute for the atrocities across the channel.
In banishing the Gothic to the domain of the imagination, we are perhaps denying some of the more troubling elements of the human condition—something more sinister than the undying appeal of hunky high school vampires. The exhibition has little time for such dismal thoughts, and concludes with Martin Parr’s dazzling photographs of this year’s Whitby Goth Weekend. Though clearly intended as candid portrayals of individual characters, the result is uncomfortably reminiscent of a freak show. A couple in full mourning pose coquettishly for the camera. A lone witch prongs a greasy chip on a rainswept harbour front. There is no sense of empathy here; the high-res brightness only makes the characters appear more detached. A series of masks.
All in all, the show is a vast, elaborate romp, coloured by a slight cynicism even as it celebrates the power of the human imagination. It closes with a credit to Farrow & Ball, the source of various lugubrious shades of Pitch Black and Rectory Red, but the words of Tim Minchin might also have made a suitable epitaph:
Ever solved has turned out to be
But what about the mysteries which remain unsolved? Can the post-medieval Gothic ever be expressed without cynicism, in “good faith”? One such example is Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-7)—a vast canvas housed at Tate Britain, in which a peaceful country graveyard suddenly swarms with the activity of the dead rising. The imagery is pure Hammer Horror, yet the mood is informed by the irrefutable truth of faith. The quality of paint is all about solidity, and the figures help one another out of their coffins with everyday ease. For Spencer this is precisely what the resurrection would look like taking place in his home of Cookham, and the archetype of the risen corpse is Christ. Perhaps this painting goes some way to reconcile our uncomfortable relationship with the Gothic, a celebration of spiritual authenticity which is far from flamboyant forgeries or the delights of horror held at arm’s length. Such a sense of authenticity could hardly be less fashionable. But perhaps there’s some truth in it.
Matilda Bathurst  is is a freelance journalist and copywriter.