Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural

Deborah Rogers finds the modern netherworld too 'lite' and longs for a return to the dark side

April 19, 2012

Every generation gets the Gothic it deserves. According to Victoria Nelson, in the 21st century, the Gothic netherworld has morphed. If Gothick (the spelling is meant to differentiate it from medieval precursors) continues to be accessed through monsters of the dark, it has taken a "new turn toward the light". This wildly popular genre has "outgrown" its dark Protestant 18th-century roots to serve as a foundation for new religious movements.

Forming a kickline that includes novels, comic books and films by the likes of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, William P. (The Shack) Young, Mike Mignola, Garth Ennis and Guillermo del Toro, Nelson proposes a new Gothick. Here the satanic monsters of what we may term the Old Gothic (think "Monk" Lewis and Mary Shelley) have been replaced by transcendent divine creatures. Darkness has been replaced by light, and death has been replaced by immortality. Instead of constituting an alternative to conventional spirituality, the Gothick has been elevated to a religion itself.

Nelson considers H.P. Lovecraft, Anne Rice and Stephen King in terms of the original (medieval) Gothic and of its 18th-century iteration. Although she does allude to some criticism, much remains undocumented, if not ignored. For example, although Nelson cites Terry Castle's important work on Gothic sensibility, she seems unaware of George Haggerty's groundbreaking research on the subject.

Even here, however, Nelson, who - it cannot be denied - writes with flair, is hilarious. Consider her description of a death-bed scene from Ann Radcliffe ("the queen of intensely felt subjectivity"): in The Mysteries of Udolpho, the uber-sensitive Emily "interrupts her father's last words with so much fainting and sobbing that he is obliged to leave off dying to warn her about her excess of 'sensibility'". All this may be well and good, but Nelson, who teaches creative writing, has no street cred. Admittedly. Instead, she is "following a thread of logic more intuitive than analytical".

Don't get me wrong. If Gothicka is cherry-picked scholarship lite, it is still a fun, well-written and original read that offers flashes of insight. But instead of positioning her work in terms of the field, Nelson flaunts her lack of academic chops, presenting "a curious sprinkling of bright nodes in the Gothic darkness", connecting them "in a way that makes sense to me". For good reason, scholars may feel bitchslapped.

Gothicka is more like a commercial/trade book, of the sort we might see from publishers such as Knopf or Basic Books, than a scholarly study. Is Harvard University Press off its rocker?

Regarding Gothick as "the ultimate mongrel form", Nelson's rich and all-encompassing (somewhat superficial) text presents an overwhelming array of examples. Many, however, do not seem to fit even her broad definition of 21st-century Gothick, which is marked by unorthodox spirituality (the outgrowth of supernatur-alism), hybridity, medievalisms and Anglo-American Gothick motifs (the haunted environment, the evil older man, the monster, the shape-shifter, the persecuted heroine).

Nelson justifies her lack of sustained scholarly research by emphasising story: "Young or old, educated or illiterate, we must have Story." In the end, showing, perhaps, too much sympathy for the Devil, she modulates to prayer: "May the Gothick never lose its dedication to Story. May it never lose its outrageousness or its lowbrow ways." Seriously?

My prayer: may this tiresome, "bright" ersatz Gothick be left to the realm of teenagers.

Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural

By Victoria Nelson

Harvard University Press

352pp, £19.95

ISBN 9780674050143

Published 29 March 2012

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