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.