Last week the British Library launched a major exhibition of British Gothic literature and art. Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination traces the literary cult from the first Gothic novel written in English, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the present. The Gothic mode accompanied antiquarian interest in medieval culture and architecture, and Walpole built a fantasy house at Strawberry Hill in which to contemplate a romantic past. The mode also created a fascination with dark and supernatural forces, or at least the pleasure of being safely scared. Jane Austen satirised these immature fantasies in Northanger Abbey by listing the trashy novels that Isabella Thorne plans to read: ‘Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries’ (chapter 6). It is great fun to see all these books on display in the exhibition.
In the nineteenth century, Romantic writers understood Gothic’s power to disturb and, drawing on Burke’s theory of the sublime, to represent the unrepresentable. The Gothic moved towards horror and shifted location from baronial castles to the streets of London. Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stephenson and Bram Stoker blended older Gothic elements of psychological states with the grotesque and the morbid. Newspaper reports of the Whitechapel murders in 1888 exploited Gothic discourses to create an atmosphere of sensational fear. In the twentieth century, films such as The Wicker Man revisited Gothic tropes of isolation, racial fear, and atavism.
Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination runs until 20 January 2015 at the British Library. http://www.bl.uk/events/terror-and-wonder–the-gothic-imagination
*Reference: Fred Botting, ‘Aftergothic: consumption, machines and black holes’ in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, ed. Jerrold Hogle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 277-300.