The Gothic Revival

The great black secret of American culture is that we're in love with death in all its dark glories, from the tormented Ahab bound to his prey, to the sepia-washed shoot-outs of John Ford and Hannibal Lecter's dining habits. What's all too clear, however, is that in its full-bore attempt to shock the bourgeoisie, the neogothic too often finds itself playing handmaiden to the very middle class it purports to disdain. It's hard to maintain a renegade artist's sensibility when your work is playing at the Massapequa miniplex, or being used to sell Absolut vodka and Mitsubishis. These suburban goths are more likely to lunge for your wallet than your jugular.

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Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin
By Richard Davenport-Hines
North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 438 pp., $35
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Still, this veritable flood tide of gothic influences in contemporary life only underscores its lasting—perhaps eternal?—influence. Not bad for a graveyard genre obsessed with the dead and undead. In attempting to sum up four centuries' worth of depravity and decadence, Richard Davenport-Hines may have set himself an insurmountable task; but Gothic remains an intelligent, provocative guide to one of the more enduring and entertaining artistic forms this millennium produced.

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