22 July 2021

EXPLORING THE GOTHIC MIND

Clive Bloom (Editor) The Palgrave Handbook of Steam Age Gothic. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.


The foundations of the gothic novel were laid in the eighteenth century with The Castle of Otranto (1764), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1790) and The Monk (1796). This is a dark dungeon and secret passageway territory that I read as a teenager but have been unable to comfortably revisit. Most of it contains stolid terror and fancy laced with worries over Roman Catholicism, producing mechanical effects and frights that no longer engage me: exceptions being the Arabian Nights humour and exotica of Vathek (1786) and extracts from Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).

However the explosive development of the gothic from 1830 onwards, profoundly influenced by the Romantic poets, the zeal of Victorian progress and Edwardian social anxieties, has proven to be a rich source of influential art and literature. Of course the gothic also entered twentieth century modernism to hurtle through popular culture and today shows no sign of loosening its grip (The contemporary horror film, romantic and detective fiction still play with and develop earlier gothic ideas).

It’s this second wave of the gothic (1830 to about 1920) which is the substance of The Palgrave Handbook of Steam Age Gothic, and what we are given is a weighty doorstop of a book running to 860 pages. 41 contributors ranging from academics, researchers and free-lance writers are featured. Bloom’s introduction and the others 46 essays cover an impressive amount of material (literature, art, music, film, theatre, photography, technology, hauntings, spiritualism and even cemetery architecture).

As I write this article I’ve now read about twenty essays. So can I offer a proper review yet? Yes. Given the research-tool nature of a handbook I feel it would be mad to cover everything and what I’ve read so far requires deserved scrutiny and reflection. To be honest this book is just so good that it can’t be rushed. What I’ve read is outstanding. And what’s yet to come appears as compelling in a book full of many surprises and insights. For the contributors find new perspectives and emphases to rigorously examine a multiplicity of exciting ideas about the gothic.

I dived in at the beginning with Clive Bloom’s introductory essay. Bloom delineates how the gothic mutated in form. He starts by exploring ideas contained in the word “imagination”; tracing its meaning from the changes brought about by the French Revolution , the emergence of a secular humanism and the experience of a more free and individualised psychology.

For Bloom (and now a majority of literary theorists) Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817) proved to be instructive for British and later on European culture.

"Coleridge summed up his views in his essay called ‘On the imagination' (in the Biographia) in which he suggests that 'the primary IMAGINATION [sic] I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a representation in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’ In other words, primary imagination is a god quality capable of producing new experiential moments in materiality, but out of space and time."



Thomas De Quincy (Confessions of an English Opium Eater) follows on from Coleridge with his real experience of mind-altering states that will embrace new imaginative possibilities for writers and readers. Clive Bloom makes a highly convincing case for the gothic, dictated by such inner power, and succinctly sets the scene for the gothic to assume a central position in our appreciation and enjoyment of the aesthetic. Now the gothic becomes a coherent sensibility taking in other forms and disciplines.

After Bloom, I immediately read the chapter on Edgar Allan Poe, rightly regarded as one of the founding fathers of the gothic. Brian Jarvis’s 'The Horror of Edgar Allan Poe' might just be the best and most comprehensive summing up of Poe’s writing I’ve ever read. In sixteen pages we get a remarkably perceptive overview. ‘The shadow of Poe looms over the gothic tradition like his enigmatic raven evermore.’ I can see this essay becoming a bookmark accompaniment to my revisiting of Poe.

From Poe I turned to M.R.James where I discovered a very original take on Montagu’s fiction. 'Golf and Masculinity in M.R.James' by D.A.Ibitson. Sport and manliness might appear peripheral to James’s eerie stories. However Ibitson very cleverly argues for their foregrounding as the Jamesian fusty professor or clergyman stumbles upon ghostly powers. Such background information, full of gentle wry comedy, about a protagonist’s competence at sport, unsettles images of their confident masculinity. Ibitson concludes that such male identity is inherently shaky, "James’s ghostly bogeymen put pressure on masculinity, revealing it to be not firm and objective, but spectral, shifting and unstable." Now I not only see James’s stories in a new light but have linked this notion back to the golf episode of the portmanteau Ealing horror film Dead of Night (1945). Instead of providing light relief from the gothic menace of the other parts, it can be viewed as an anxious interlude for the companion of a ghostly golfer.

'Cinematic Darkness' by David Anyn Jones proved fascinating. The early history of cinema contained many gothic tropes for Jones. He outlines first productions (1896-1912), extended features (1913), the war years (1914-1919) and 1919 -1922 period culminating in The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari and Nosferatu. Jones appears to have watched every gothic-themed film from this time. I learnt of more films that I’d previously not known about. The Somnambulist (1911), The Mysteries of Myra (1916), Nerves (1919) and Korda’s Magia (1917) had me eager to scour YouTube to see if they’d been downloaded.

Rather than summarise some of the other essays I’ve enjoyed I’ll now provide a list and a brief remark.
  • 'The Plant, the Mother and the Other in Ambrose Bierce’s Fiction' by Angela Elisa Schoch / Davidson. A terrific analysis of a weird and ambiguous story.
  • 'Victorian Gardens of Death' by Stephen Sowerby. An absorbing account of the planning and construction of the London cemeteries Kensal Green, Highgate, Norwood etc.
  • 'The Rise of Terror in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales' by Lorna Piatti-Farnell. This is a careful recording of the subtle changes made to the tales over the years.
  • 'The Cult of Pan in Nineteenth –Century Literature' by Katy Soar. An important essay on a much neglected area of current literary research.
  • 'Algernon Blackwood’s Storytelling and the Horrors of Space' by Nicola Bowring. The ontology of Blackwood’s world is grippingly explored.
  • 'Journeys Through the English Haunted House' by Alicia Edwards-Boon. The sociology of the haunting of buildings.
  • 'Eerie Harmonies, Ghostly Melodies, Uncanny Symphonies' by Maria Giakaniki. A concise history of classical music’s orchestration of gothic elements.



I’ve yet to find anything I really disagree with in this handbook. And if I do I feel I’d enjoy having a friendly Zoom, or real, meeting with the contributor. But one small point is some omissions. Why no chapter on Henry James? Have studies of The Turn of the Screw and his other ghostly stories been exhausted? And why no essay on James’s wonderful contemporary Edith Wharton? Her ghost stories are fascinating for their gothic rupture between spectres and a 19th / early 20th American high society that’s acutely anxious to keep up appearances.

Nevertheless The Palgrave Handbook of Steam Age Gothic is for me one of the books of the year. It should be required reading for every student of the gothic. I’m temporarily pausing before I open my copy again and continue to be pleasurably informed, re-informed, educated and always entertained by a cornucopia of freshly-minted material on the Gothic mindset. -- Alan Price

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