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Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination at the British Library

Last week the British Library launched a major exhibition of British Gothic literature and art. Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination traces the literary cult from the first Gothic novel written in English, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the present. The Gothic mode accompanied antiquarian interest in medieval culture and architecture, and Walpole built a fantasy house at Strawberry Hill in which to contemplate a romantic past. The mode also created a fascination with dark and supernatural forces, or at least the pleasure of being safely scared. Jane Austen satirised these immature fantasies in Northanger Abbey by listing the trashy novels that Isabella Thorne plans to read: ‘Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries’ (chapter 6). It is great fun to see all these books on display in the exhibition.

 Strawberry Hill

In the nineteenth century, Romantic writers understood Gothic’s power to disturb and, drawing on Burke’s theory of the sublime, to represent the unrepresentable. The Gothic moved towards horror and shifted location from baronial castles to the streets of London. Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stephenson and Bram Stoker blended older Gothic elements of psychological states with the grotesque and the morbid. Newspaper reports of the Whitechapel murders in 1888 exploited Gothic discourses to create an atmosphere of sensational fear. In the twentieth century, films such as The Wicker Man revisited Gothic tropes of isolation, racial fear, and atavism.


John Tenniel, ‘The Nemesis of Neglect’, Punch (1888)

Varney the Vampire’ published in a ‘penny dreadful’ paper (1845)

Why has Gothic persisted? Fred Botting has remarked that Gothic subverts authority and pushes the marginal and occult to the fore. ‘In Gothic times’ he writes, ‘margins may become the norm and occupy a more central cultural place.’* This is certainly true of literature and culture. But the Gothic also offers an expressive space, and it was nice to see that the exhibition chose to explore Goth subculture. Music, dress, and specially commissioned photos from this year’s Whitby Goth Weekend revealed the mixture of playfulness and seriousness that has characterised Gothic since Walpole’s novel appeared. My favourite photo showed a top-hatted ghoul eating fish and chips on the seafront.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination runs until 20 January 2015 at the British Library.–the-gothic-imagination

*Reference: Fred Botting, ‘Aftergothic: consumption, machines and black holes’ in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, ed. Jerrold Hogle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 277-300.




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