Vampires everywhere but not a Buffy in sight

A Companion to the Gothic
April 18, 2003

In David Punter's well-edited compilation of specially commissioned essays, sex and death make frequent appearances, often together, as one would expect. As Bela Lugosi explained to Ed Wood, the sexiest of all Gothic creations remains the vampire. Who could resist the allure of doom and dark good looks? Yet in isolating the essays that refer to vampires here - and there are a lot of them (Dracula is the fourth most cited figure in the book, after Freud, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis) - one begins to detect a curious pattern.

This book bears witness to a strange development of modern culture. Many of us continue to be subject to the elusive unease that Gothic embodies, and one might think that its success depended on the persistence of such anxiety: Gothic - the place where we are drawn safely to experience our fears - would lose its attraction only when people stopped being scared by ghosts, by darkness, by the sensation of being secretly watched; the feeling remains that there is little so common to us as our unspoken terrors. Yet, increasingly, Gothic criticism and horror literature itself has celebrated the objects of those fears: we can read about vampire murderers in the press, and turn away in sadness and disgust, and then find in learned essays that vampires represent a worthy and happily transgressive "lifestyle choice", the utopian possibility of unlimited sexual and political freedom.

The key essay in this book takes such critics to task for what is perceived as their facile endorsement of the "subversive" qualities of Gothic. Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall declare convincingly that "Gothic criticism" "has abandoned any credible historical grasp upon its subject, which it has tended to reinvent in the image of its own projected intellectual goals of psychological 'depth' and political 'subversion'. It has erased fundamental distinctions between Gothic suspicion of the past and romantic nostalgia, mistakenly presenting Gothic literature as a kind of 'revolt' against bourgeois rationality, modernity or Enlightenment." These are fighting words. Yet Baldick and Mighall are persuasive in their argument that something has indeed gone awry.

The "baddies" of Gothic criticism are now not the monsters, who represent the subversive appeal of the "other", but the supposedly repressive white Victorian male. In many ways, the wrong turn taken by these misguided critics itself follows a Romantic impulse, one seen in the reinvention of Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. Some essays here really do seem to be saying "evil be thou my good", celebrating the overthrow of taboos without really taking on the uses they had in the first place.

Yet the fact that Baldick and Mighall's historicising stance is at odds with several others in the same book shows the strength of this impressive and useful collection. The book does not offer a house view of what Gothic is, but instead faithfully reproduces the status of current debates on the relevant genres. Many essays provide useful summaries of criticism or of primary texts; others offer new critical insights. Of the latter, Clive Bloom's essay on "Horror fiction: in search of a definition" stands out in taking the issues back to literary responses, without using a simplistic model of depth and surface, or resorting to the convenient psychologism of Freud. Other fine essays include those by notable critics of the Gothic such as Julia Briggs, Robert Miles, Victor Sage and Punter himself.

I was disappointed by the neglect of non-literary areas such as painting (Henry Fuseli receives only one mention, and there is nothing on Odilon Redon or Felicien Rops), television (nothing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer ), and 20th-century ghost stories in theatre (despite an interesting essay on Romantic Gothic drama by David Worrall).

There is also disappointingly little on Gothic in film, Heidi Kaye's intelligent piece on the subject limiting itself to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and adaptations of 19th-century texts. It is slightly odd to read a book on the Gothic that makes no reference to David Cronenberg, William Friedkin or David Lynch. Sentimentality regarding my own youth also made me yearn for an essay on the Gothic as a youth subculture and a branch of rock music - the collection feels incomplete without a discussion of Siouxsie Sioux. These gaps are inevitable, and do not detract from the success of a book that will prove very useful.

Michael Newton is soon to be visiting professor, Princeton University, New Jersey, US.

A Companion to the Gothic: David Punter

ISBN - 0 631 20620 5 and 23199 4
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £75.00 and £17.99
Pages - 323

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