Exhibition review: Gothic is very much undead

Gothic is 250 years old – and very much undead, writes Colin Wilson.

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Photo: Ruth Flickr, flickr

They have a vampire-killing kit in the British Library. You might think that this was sensible in a building with five levels of basements – who knows what might scuttle out from behind a remote shelf deep underground, late one winter afternoon. But in fact the kit forms part of the delightful exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination.

Gothic began in 1764 with the publication of Horace Walpole’s hit novel The Castle of Otranto. The book includes not only a castle but also an ancient curse, secret meetings in an underground church and two knights who agree to marry each other’s daughters.

By the time Gothic emerged, few people – at any rate, few literate people – believed in ghosts and monsters any more. Knights were dead and monasteries, closed down by Henry VIII, lay in ruins. But now that they were safely unreal, such things could provide thrilling entertainment. The heroine of Jane Austen’s satirical Northanger Abbey, for example, devours books with titles like Horrid Mysteries – a novel which really existed, and is on display here – full of ruined abbeys, fiendish aristocrats and scheming monks. You can see why the young women of Austen’s gentry, who always had to behave with strict propriety and not go out in the rain in case they caught cold, would have loved stories of escaping from villains across an unreliable bridge, in a forest, by moonlight.

As industrial capitalism developed in the nineteenth century, and with it Victorian respectability, Gothic continued to celebrate everything that lay outside the modern era, the stuffy family and the search for profit – romantic ruins, dreams, debauched lords and dangerous sexuality. And the industrial city provided its own kind of Gothic. The dank dungeons of a medieval castle turned into 19th-century slums. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White is a lurid tale involving illegitimate children and lunatic asylums, while in Dickens’ Bleak House Lady Dedlock walks through an urban cemetery so overcrowded that the rotting human remains stain the hem of her skirt. The Gothic began to appear in the Victorian press – Spring-Heeled Jack, for example, was a demonic figure first seen in London in 1837, with red eyes, sharp claws and an ability to leap over walls.

Since then, of course, the Gothic has only gone from strength to strength, continuing to articulate – often in an energetically trashy way – all manner of forbidden desires. The wide selection of exhibits on display at the British Library features authors from Edgar Allen Poe to Clive Barker, and objects range from a 1912 mourning gown to a 1980 edition of Smash Hits featuring Siouxsie Sioux. Dracula gets a whole room to himself, including the vampire-slaying kit, Edward Gorey’s splendidly camp toy theatre, an except from the German 1922 version of Nosferatu and a detailed 1888 map of Transylvania – now part of Romania, the region’s name literally means “the land beyond the forest”.

If there are occasional omissions – no Lovecraft! no Buffy! – everyone will find something to like amidst the red and purple decorations and drifting black draperies. One of my personal favourites was the genuinely creepy Dr Dee’s Spirit Mirror, a piece of black volcanic glass used by John Dee, the Elizabethan mathematician and astrologer, to conduct séances and communicate with angels. Another was a 1771 travel guide showing “the wicker colossus of the druids” filled with sacrificial victims. Nearby there plays a clip from the 1973 film The Wicker Man, in which Edward Woodward’s sexually repressed Christian policeman, imprisoned in just such a structure, is burned alive by the wicked pagan aristocrat Christopher Lee. As I say, a delightful exhibition.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination runs at the British Library until 20th January 2015

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