While evil stars whir: Terror and Wonder at the British Library

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

British Library, October 2014- January 2015

The PACCAR Gallery always seems dark – it has no windows that I know of, and you go down into it. In deep January, with the Christmas sparkle long removed, it seems now simply a darker piece of a dark city. Wandering into its Terror and Wonder exhibit, which was to close a day later, I was struck again by the utilitarian black walls which had dominated and enhanced Comics Unmasked, but which were this time broken by a wall, perforated with pointed, Gothic style windows: passing through this barrier to get to the exhibition, one was traversing a plasterboard ghost of Strawberry Hill.

The layout was controlled, the path from Walpole’s Mansion to modern day Whitby chronologically arranged and easy to follow. But there was a sense of unease – black gauze curtains which appeared in gaps in the walls provided both a mottled vision of people in other parts of the exhibition, and a potential – though perhaps slightly illicit – pathway through to those areas. It was unclear if you were permitted – even supposed – to move through them. People did. I returned back through the displays at the end of my tour to ensure that I had not missed another part of the exhibition, hidden behind the curtains. I hadn’t. But the sense of disorientation, a fading at the edges of a solid display, and unhomeliness, seemed appropriate, somehow, and had a distinctive effect.

Sound, too, was progressive and eerie. Whilst there were many different sounds at many different points, the modular nature of the exhibition was contrived such that they didn’t collapse into a cacophony. More disturbing was the noise of the multitude of visitor: whether because the was the penultimate day or whether the exhibition had hit a never, impossible for me to say. Many of the denizens seemed at least vaguely alternative, even if in the most populist, Gaminanian* sense of the term. I saw only two full-blown Goths in my passage through.

What does this popularity say about the wider adoption of previously fringe forms of fashion and lifestyle? I am not sure, though the idea that humans are, perhaps, becoming less tribal, increasingly accepting of heterogeneity, both in others and in themselves as individuals, is an intriguing one. To define oneself or an other purely by their clothing, food, lifestyle or music choices is simplistic at best yet be do it to ease interactions on a daily basis – making statements, communicating.

Enough pontification. I could too easily luxuriate in speculations. What was there in the exhibition more solid, graspable? What of the content?

The strongest part of the exhibition, unsurprisingly, is the collection of books and manuscripts from the 18th century until approximately 1940. In a particularly meta-fictive move, the British Library chose to put on display a collection of the ‘Northanger Horrids’ – real books which featured in Austen’s pastiche, and which fascinated its heroine, Catherine Morland. Again, the visitor had their place in the exhibition and their sense of its solidity disturbed; over and behind them hover the shades of Catherine, Austen, and these less well-known writers.

Gothic has changed multiple times over its long history, and the exhibition uses these moments of change to make connections between this fantastical, sometimes silly, genre, and the harsh realities of life outside its paper walls. The French Revolution coincides with a marked shift from psychological terror to a more visceral, bodily horror; in Lewis’ The Monk, a nun, eroticised, bleeds. Victorian Gothic sees a shift in temporal focus, from the wealthy of the past to the contemporary urban poor. Here, it is a copy of The Mystery of Edwin Drood which is the touchpoint: and it is itself a sad, fragmentary remnant, finished and cobbled together by others – an echo of the deceptive ‘ancient’ manuscripts as which much early Gothic literature was published.

The relationship between Gothic literature and art is also born ut, from large scale paintings of ruins or scenes from texts, to illustrations in books, to original work from the comic Arkham Asylum. In art is is even more possible to see the heterogeneous nature of the Gothic soul; an edition of Frankenstein, illustrated by Lynd Ward, shows how the art of the 1930s can be married to works of a century prior and a world away in an astonishingly evocative fashion. That Ward was an artist known for is woodcut ‘silent stories’ of the disenfranchised of the Depression casts another shadow on the book and its lonely monster: ‘What have we created with our science?’, it asks.

Terror and Wonder: the name itself splits the twofold nature of the Sublime. And within the exhibition, the ambiguous, entangled relationship between the Gothic and the Romantic is highiged. The Romantics, with their lofty visions saw themselves as high art; the sensationalist Gothic as the low. But in a villa called Diodati, Byrons and Shellys and Wollstonecrafts mered sensibilities not so different after all, producing Polidori’s Vampyre, and, more famous today, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein’s monster, in all his iterations as both intellectual and illiterate thug, is perhaps the iconic Gothic figure; for, more than any count, he captures the beauty, the longing, the ugliness, the embodiedness, the fragility, comedy and tragedy of the Gothic mind and body.

The Gothic and the body are intimately intertwined, the mortality, fecundity, profligately leaking human form giguring in its literature from its inception; disembodied hands, ghosts, bleeding nuns, the patchwork of Frankenstein’s monster and the sexualised blood-sucking of the vampire. When the exhibition talks about this relationship, the display area morphs from black polygon to crimson corridor – restrictive, reminiscent.

As we get towards the end of the exhibition, though, the atmosphere becomes tepid and flat. Little mention is made of the influences of the Gothic in other media – aside from films. A display of the usual suspects – Siouxsie, Bauhaus – in a case entitled ‘Punk-Gothique’ glosses over the the importance of music in the scene**. Just after this case, we move into a white cube, displaying a collection of photographs taken at a recent Whitby Goth Weekend. I do not know what to make of these images, for they are not celebratory or simply fond: without the out and out mocking of the satirists of earlier years who chuckled at the genre and its tropes, it nonetheless seems a little derisive. But perhaps what it is doing is humanizing Gothic and Goths: showing the subculture at its flawed normality; misplaced clothing, chewing chips by a seagull whilst wearing full white face makeup. This is perhaps the logical endpoint of Gothic’s bodily infatuation: we, too, have failed and failing flesh, and we, too consume.

*Neil Gaiman appears in two videos, a poster boy for the alternative which is not, in fact, as alternative as it seems.

**Perhaps this is simply a matter of a lack of material, or a desire to focus on the literature. But ‘the Gothic imagination’ is much braoder than words, so I feel at a loss.

A Different Kind of Crying: The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears

I know very little of giallo, having only really experienced its particularly European blend of erotica and horror through Berberian Sound Studio. So I am unsure what made me buy a copy of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears in HMV* last year. Maybe I’d read about it somewhere. Or maybe I just liked the name and the pretty DVD case. Maybe it was just because I was lurking in the world film section and it caught my eye. Maybe. But no-one else in the house really wanted to watch it, and so I had to wait until I was alone and not frantically busy. The opportunity finally arose on Thursday last, and as it happens, I’m glad I watched it on my own.

The-Strange-Colour-of-Your-Bodys-Tears

Whilst Berberian Sound Studio begins as a film about the making of a giallo, and slowly transforms into one, Strange Colour grabs the viewer by the delicate parts and shoves genre tropes at them unremittingly. Perhaps that’s one reason it split reviewers, and why Berberian Sound Studio garnered more critical success. Unlike Berberian – a wonderful film in its own right, and certainly more musically inventive, but essentially a rather gentle, middle-class liberal take on the giallo form – Strange Colour offers no consolation or orientating frame.

 

From the beginning, the viewer is led into a depraved fantasy: scenes of the protagonist, Dan Kristensen, heading home from a business trip, are intercut with a black and white world where a woman – his wife, Edewige – is enjoying her subjugation to the ministrations of an unseen knife-holder. The knife sequence repeats throughout the film, becoming increasingly graphic, and as much murderous as sexual. When Dan arrives home, he finds Edewige missing, and his apartment locked from the inside. Almost immediately, the film descends into a complex and ambiguous narrative, which is either a story of madness or the supernatural: I don’t think I want to know which, but I enjoy the speculation.

The story has been accused of being slight and confused. To some extent, this is true, but to view this as a problem misses the point, or points, of the structure: story is only an integral part of story, not of film, or even written prose; and to suggest that for a narrative to be compelling it must be simple to follow seriously limits the options of creators in terms of their ability to generate effect, tone and mood. Atmospheres, writes Bohme,

are neither something objective, that is, qualities possessed by things, and yet they are something thinglike, belonging to the thing in that things articulate their presence through qualities – conceived as ecstasies. Nor are atmospheres something subjective, for example, determinations of a psychic state. And yet they are subjectlike, belong to subjects in that they are sensed in bodily presence by human beings and this sensing is at the same time a bodily state of being of subjects in space**

Atmosphere, then, is perceptual, partially indescribable: words, and indeed story, are limited in how they can express what we might call the carnal nature of environmental character. Strange Colour is a film which has about it a deep physicality and ineffability, and thus a kind of antaeic magic.***

Strange Colour is not supposed to be easy to follow. As a depiction of the time-lapses involved in mental breakdown, drunkenness or drug-use, and the swirl of thoughts inside nightmares, it demands disorientation. The viewer is positioned more closely towards the perspective of a character than they are towards an omniscient narrator or external passive viewer. An easy to follow narrative can assume particular characteristics of a reader or viewer – that they are reading without being active, needing to be told the story rather than piece together ideas for themselves. Strange Colour, on the other hand, demands what Barthes called a ‘writerly’ reader – one actively involved in the meaning-making of the media being presented, becoming, as a consequence, a kind of vicarious character in their own right****. They inhabit the minds of each of the individuals whose nightmares are being presented – making the film even more disorienting, as there is no singular point of reference or perspective. Even the individual who is our ostensible protagonist, Kristensen, cannot be trusted: we do not know how reliable he is, and neither, it appears, does he. The fragmented, if partially progressive, dramatic structure enhances this – as he looses his grip on conventional reality and time, so do we.

I’ve already suggested that soundtrack is not the film’s most innovative point – it seems to borrow a lot from Sergio Leone scores, stylistically and perhaps actually. But the music is evocative in the context of Strange Colour – its overblown orchestration complimenting the general themes, visual as well as contentual, of over-indulgence. It’s Spaghetti Western associations evoke that sense of emptiness and paranoia – as well as the violence – which characterises films such as For A Few Dollars More.

It also recalls the landscapes of those films – beautiful, but full of threat and deception. The gorgeous art nouveau apartment in which the action takes place is catastrophically decadent: alluring, but wicked, and very much a character in its own right. The visual styling of the film overall, with its use of natural colour, filters, and black and white, and the beautifully disturbed use of holes in ceilings and breathing, palpably living walls, recalls my first experiences of del Torro – Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone. This is also one thing critics seem to agree on – Strange Colour looks stunning. So stunning, in fact, that even the most gruesome images – including suggestively shaped cranial stab wounds – are as compelling as they are repugnant.

One could accuse Strange Colour of objectifying women if one consid

ered only the opening sequence. But that would be to ignore the odd and manipul

ative Dora, who lives upstairs and advises Kristensen that all is not well in the building, and Laura of Room 7, who’s enraged spirit seems to be the perpetrator of these crimes and psychoses. These women are more complex than the conventional understanding of the female in horror – this conventional understanding itself perhaps simplistic, born from a fear of female

Verite called Strange Colour ‘a hallucinatory, mind-expanding experience’. Indeed, I am only able to think through it in the same detached fashion in which one attempts to recall and make sense of a drunken night at a club or house party, and it has left me with that same dissociative feeling that lingers for a few days after such a night. I’m waiting for the walls to breathe. sexuality and desire. The women in Strange Colour are damaged, but more than victims, humanly vulnerable, and in various stages of control, and/or insanity. In this case it is Kristensen who is the most exposed and manipulated character – tossed like a ragdoll on the waves of someone else’s nightmare – perhaps the nightmare of the building itself, or the multiple dreamscapes of its many inhabitants. Eventually, he walks behind the walls to find a hidden world, parts of the building lost when it was transformed into apartments from a single dwelling, and where he, and several others, meet a rather bloody, eroticised, demise. This is a film in which human existence is subject to passion, and where the protagonist is no hero, or even significant – ultimately, he is just a pawn, through the eyes of whom we happen to witness the effects of something more than desire.

*Other record shops are available. Please support them.

**Gernot Böhme, ‘Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics’, Thesis Eleven, 36, 1993, 113-126, pp.113-114

***Mattias Ekman, ‘Architecture for the Nation’s Memory: History, art and the Halls of Norway’s National Gallery’, in Macleod, et al., Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions, (London: Routledge, 2012), pp.114-156, p.148

****Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1974), p.4