Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present

By Venezia, Tony | Gothic Studies, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present


Venezia, Tony, Gothic Studies


Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present, by Clive Bloom (London: Continuum, 2010), ISBN: 978-1-8470-6050-1, 224pp., £45.00hb.

Gothic Histories is yet another Gothic historiography to add to the weight of groaning bookshelves. Clive Bloom's latest book faces stiff competition. David Punter's seminal The Literature of Terror (1980) played an important part in establishing Gothic Studies as a serious academic concern. Fred Botting's Gothic (1996) remains something of a pedagogical touchstone for the field, even if it's clearly showing its years and needs updating with a revised edition (as Adam Roberts did with his Science Fiction [2002], published as part of the same Routledge series). The History of Gothic Fiction by Markman Ellis (2000) and Gothic Literature by Andrew Smith (2007) both do useful and necessary jobs in supplementing prior work, even if they do not really offer novel paradigms for Gothic Studies. Meanwhile, Catherine Spooner's Contemporary Gothic (2006) opened up the genre, and analysed its proliferation across modern media. Given these creaking bookshelves, it seems only reasonable to ask the question: do we even need another generalist book on the Gothic?

According to Bloom, well established as a gothicist, the answer is yes. Bloom's credentials should be well known to readers of this journal. Although widely published as an author, Bloom probably remains best known for Cult Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory (1997), a monograph that examined how pulp writing and culture saturate the contemporary experience of modernity. Subsequent anarcho-culturalist critique, such as Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900 (2002, 2008 second edition), have concentrated on literary historiography. Bloom's contributions to Gothic scholarship are the result of his editing important anthologies in the field, notably Gothic Horror: A Reader's Guide From Poe to King and Beyond (1998, 2007 second edition), and Creepers: British Horror and Fantasy in the Twentieth Century (1993). A genuine love for the technicolour attractions of popular culture has meant that Bloom is never likely to be mistaken for his illustrious American namesake.

As the title of this latest volume advertises this is an attempt at histories in the plural, and the approach is extensive particularly in the coverage of eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury literatures. As the focus moves into the twentieth century and beyond Gothic figurations move into the mediascapes of cinema and television, from the classic monsters of Universal and Hammer horror films to the defanged teenage angst of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. This remarkable tropic resilience is a point that Bloom touches on: 'The codification of the gothic mood and the creation of the vocabulary of that mood took the best part of 150 years to form. We have playing variations ever since' (4).

This chronological movement from the Gothic event of the late eighteenth century takes in proleptic proto-Gothic moments and charts the way that the Gothic accrues often contradictory cultural meanings, both positive, as in the case of the architectural revival, and negative, as seen in 'terrorist' literature (123). This is a well-known story but Bloom generally tells it well being a master of the digressive anecdote. The nine, roughly chronological, chapters present something of a historical sprint taking in architecture, Romanticism, theatre and psychoanalysis as well as Gothic fiction. The chapters themselves are compact and short, and tend to pile up references giving us the usual suspects of Walpole, De Quincy, Radcliffe, Lewis, de Sade, Maturin and so on.

Given the excess of cultural materials that potentially come under the rubric of the Gothic, it is clear that a conventional literary/cultural historiography is inadequate. Where Bloom really succeeds is when he leaves literature behind to explore the explosion and dissemination of Gothic tropes in non-literary contexts. …

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