These are dark days for goths, what with the recent horrors of Littleton and the subsequent blame by association that trails those who traffic in what author Richard Davenport-Hines calls “dark powers, the lust for domination and inveterate cruelty.” Still, as he points out in his ripely entertaining cultural history Gothic, it’s always been dark days
for the spiritual godchildren of Goya, de Sade, Horace Walpole, and Mary Shelley. What self-respecting goth would have it any other way?
Davenport-Hines is the author of Auden and editor of The Penguin Book of Vice. This last must have served him well in writing about a cultural mode whose pro genitors seemed especially prone to death by misadventure, madness, and/or sexual maladies. Yet despite its deliberately provocative subtitle, and the author’s claim to “explore the fascination with twisted and punished desires, barbarity, caprice, base terrors and vicious life,” Gothic is less a roller-coaster ride through Hell than an urbane Cook’s Tour of the architectural and artistic oddities that define a sensibility at once transgressive and retrogressive, highly ritualized and at times stupefyingly bourgeois. It’s a long, long way from The Castle of Otranto to the Cure.
Gothic begins with a brief, febrile prologue that overburdens our own century’s somewhat rickety gothic infrastructures:
The late-twentieth-century gothic preoccupation with fetishistic body mutilation or transgressive decoration of body surfaces is not just a counter-cultural version of cosmetic surgery….It also registers dissent from God’s arrangements for humankind; it expresses our self-disgust and death-wish; it recognizes that demoralization is one of the most effective modes of seduction; it declares that adult acts of self-reinvention are ultimate acts of freedom.
Yes, but a nose stud can sure piss off Mom, too; that is, when Mom isn’t already in line at the mall to get her vulva tattooed and nipples pierced. One challenge awaiting any writer who attempts to analyze contemporary gothic culture lies in separating it from the mainstream. These days, overt s/m imagery is used in print ads to sell beer, suggesting that the 15 minutes we all have to be famous is roughly the same time in which it takes any fringe art form to be subsumed by mass culture. The original impulse behind gothic art, architecture, and literature was to produce an experience of the sublime, mingling awe and terror. But this has likewise dwindled to the baser desire to shock.
What’s lost in between is our capability to experience transcendence, rather than a mere adrenaline buzz. Davenport-Hines seems to miss this point, concentrating on the buzz rather than the epiphany. So we get a brief summing up of the sordid suicide of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, but no discussion of the band’s influential music, as well as a roundup of the installations of Dinos and Jake Chapman (heavy on the mutilated corpses), but no mention whatsoever of painter Alex Grey’s skeletons transcendent.
Davenport-Hines is on firmer ground when detailing the architectural and artistic trends which first popularized gothic, starting with the works of the 17th-century Neapolitan painter Salvator Rosa. Eschewing a novitiate in a Naples monastery, Rosa instead chose to paint the desolate Calabrian hills, landscapes which in their barrenness and wild seclusion offered the experience of the sublime, which is the very essence of the gothic aesthetic: that moment (to paraphrase Algernon Blackwood) when wonder and terror ring out simultaneously.
Rosa enjoyed great success during his lifetime. But it was posthumously that his work began to be collected by an English aristocracy whose tastes for the macabre had been honed by visits to the catacombs, Roman ruins, and the smoldering heights of Vesuvius. Efforts to import these grandly “savage” and archaic vistas to the bucolic English countryside led to the establishment of estates that served as grandiose stage sets for their owners. “Gothic, as it revived in Britain, was partly a taste for the theatrically picturesque; but a sort of dramatized decay and a self-
tormenting play with the fears and melancholies of the graveyard were also incorporated into it.”
Those chapters that trace these eccentric architectural influences, as well as the legacies of Alexander Pope, Walpole, Goya, and the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in its decline, form the meat of this book. Davenport-Hines also does a masterful job of encapsulating the horrors of the French Revolution and the temblors of economic and social disease that shook England in its wake, finding its purest and most lasting expression in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
He is less convincing when it comes to American and 20th-century gothic, doing a serviceable job with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, but floundering when artists wander too far from their Old World antecedents. Perhaps the most glaring fault of Gothic is its failure to recognize, or even acknowledge, the many fine and justly celebrated 20th-century gothic writers—English and American. Davenport-Hines briefly discusses Patrick McGrath and Anne Rice, gives Faulkner his due, and does a superb job with Isak Dinesen’s classic Seven Gothic Tales. We are also treated to an extensive exegesis of Poppy Z. Brite, whose horror novels, while agreeably gooey nighttime fun, do not hold up well under sunlit scrutiny. Meanwhile Flannery O’Connor, arguably the greatest American gothic writer, is barely touched upon. And where are Peter Ackroyd, Angela Carter, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Carroll, John Gardner, Paul West, John Hawkes, Stephen King, Jeanette Winterson, Kathe Koja, Dennis Cooper? And, surely, for matters of shelf space alone, Joyce Carol Oates deserves more than two passing references. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel series, with its teenybopper figure of Death and moody Dave McKean covers, has had a lasting impact on popular culture and fashion, influencing everything from print ads to clothes to television. But Gaiman is absent altogether from this book; as is any cogent discussion of the darker streams of gothic youth culture, which the media so easily misinterprets.
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.
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.