Clive Bloom, Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present (London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2010), 211 pp. £45 Hardback (ISBN-13: 9781847060501); £14.99 Paperback (ISBN-13: 9781847060518)
<1> The publisher’s website promises that Clive Bloom’s Gothic Histories is ‘comprehensive and up-to-date … a fascinating guide to the Gothic and horror in film, fiction and popular culture’. Unfortunately, this is not what it delivers.
<2> There are certain expectations one anticipates from a ‘comprehensive’ guide: the first is a clear discussion of how the term ‘gothic’ developed. It is not until p. 115 that Bloom suggests ‘from its inception the gothic was foremost a psychological, architectural and visual statement about man’s relationship to his surroundings’; this definition overlooks that the inception of the term pertained to the Gothic race and their language, and was later applied to describe the Middle Ages: The Castle of Otranto is subtitled ‘a gothic story’ on account of its medieval setting; however, ‘gothic’ became a shorthand meaning anything ‘old fashioned’, but suggested something crude rather than civilised.
<3> We are told (p. 2) ‘the gothic is a “feeling” expressed by certain formulas [sic] which have been readily expanded upon since the publication … of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto’. Bloom does consider the ‘Gothic’ in relation to architecture, but the definition (p. 11) comes from Kenneth Clarke’s The Gothic Revival without commentary from Bloom himself. The explanation for what is ‘gothic’ is scattered throughout the book: in relation to Frankenstein, it is ‘low entertainment whose “high” and democratic message could shake the very concept of social cohesion’ (p. 67); the examination then turns to ‘democratic gothicism’ which is used without definition. Later, we are told ‘by the 1840s, the gothic had become domesticated. No more barren castles; instead, lonely farmhouses, windswept heaths, ruined cottages and mist swirling around bleak ancestral piles would take the place of high gothic thrills’ (p. 95). The definition of the ‘gothic’, which is fluid as the genre develops, is present in the book, but the information is fragmented and it would have been useful either to have an introduction dealing with this complex issue, or to have a comprehensive index and thorough definition to understand how Bloom employs his key terms.
<4> Other terms that could have been expanded by the author include the ‘sublime’ (presented without commentary from Bloom through a quotation from Edmund Burke on p. 8), and ‘Romantic gothicism’ (used without interpretation, p. 63). The argument of what constitutes ‘terror’ and what is ‘horror’ derives from a quotation from Michasiw’s introduction to Zofloya to which Bloom offers no follow-up analysis (p. 3); later (p. 126) relating to The Monk, Bloom explains how ‘terrors could now be shared with friends and horror could be joined to amusement for the masses’. Again, this could benefit from definition. Consequently, Bloom appears to pre-suppose a significant amount of knowledge on behalf of his reader, and his examples are often left wanting clarification. He informs us ‘Mozart’s Magic Flute is itself shot through with “gothic” elements’ (p. 58), but does not elaborate what they are. Likewise, he explains that the gothic was ‘momentarily reborn in Technicolor, a technique used by both the low-budget movies of Hammer Films … as well as the derivative, but powerful Italian cinema of the 1970s’. No examples substantiate this statement, which ends a chapter. In many cases, the chapters seem truncated, often ending with a quotation without evaluation and the study is left hanging.
<5> Bloom describes Gothic Histories as a ‘little book’ (p. 2) and this one of the major problems. Each chapter emerges as a presentation of eclectic ideas, often giving long lists of (often obscure) texts as examples. Many of these are worthy more than just a fleeting reference. In addition, Bloom presents lengthy quotations (sometimes two or three at a time, linked by a few lines of commentary or even just a fragment of a sentence), without any validation, leaving the reader feeling bewildered. The inclusion of such quotations would be understandable if the material was obscure or out of print, but not for readily available texts. Such citations include all 20 stanzas of ‘The Ballad of the Water King’ from The Monk (pp. 53–55) and 62 lines of prose from Justine (pp. 65–67). If referenced at all, these excessive quotations are cited by book and chapter number, rather than by page reference.
<6> There are few endnotes for the in-text citations and examples (many are not referenced at all, omitted from the index and bibliography), making it impossible for the scholar to follow the research. This book frustrates by the way it flashes through topics without sufficient commentary. The chapter headings are inaccurate: for example, a chapter claiming to lead from “Melmoth the Wanderer to Sweeney Todd” leaves Melmoth after three pages and bypasses the Demon Barber in a page and a half before moving onto Charles Dickens.
<7> The index is extremely poor. There are many important omissions including the Marquis de Sade, Madame Blavatsky, Goethe, Gaston Leroux, the sublime, Strawberry Hill, the ‘Wandering Jew’ and Zofloya (all of which are mentioned numerous times). The inclusion of entries seems arbitrary: from one list, Othello and Titus Andronicus are contained in the index, yet Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s plays containing multiple gothic elements, is omitted (p. 119). This happens on multiple occasions. Where an entry has been included in the index, there may be a single page reference (and it may not be the first time it has been mentioned), so the reader may be forgiven for thinking that The Castle of Otranto, for example, is dismissed in one reference on page 2: in fact, there are around a dozen other occasions where it is not indexed.
<8> One missed opportunity is that, because this book concerns itself with architecture (in the form of Strawberry Hill), analysis of art (Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare) and the influence of Symbolist painters on film directors (such as Ken Russell, probably referencing his film Gothicalthough this is not stated), it does not include illustrations of the subjects mentioned.
<9> Throughout the book, there are places where the phraseology becomes stilted: referring to an earlier discussion (prior to a 23-line quotation) concerning Mary Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and Beckford, Bloom starts his biography of Poe by observing he is ‘neither dead nor sliding into genteel retirement’ –- rather obvious considering he then talks about Poe’s birth (p. 85). He describes how Thomas Love Peacock (omitted from the index) ‘found the whole kit and caboodle of gothicism an excuse for a good laugh in Nightmare Abbey’ (p. 20), and how ‘the fashion for Radcliffe-style sublime landscapes … got on the poet Shelley’s nerves’ (p. 60). On three occasions (pp. 32, 183, 189), he uses the adjective ‘Tolkienesque’ to mean different things, making the discussion vague and unfocused.
<10> The book is peppered with mistakes: some of them are typos, but many of them concern misspellings of names, including Lafcadio Hearn, not Lefcadio Hearné; James Planché, not Plaché; the author of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is Charlotte Perkins Gillman; the author of The Book of Werewolves is Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould; the waxworks museum is Madame Tussauds (and none of these entries are included in the index). Freud’s essay on ‘The “Uncanny’” was published in 1919, rather than 1916 (p. 158). In the Bibliography, the author of Lovecraft: A Bibliography is L[yon] Sprague de Camp, not Camp de Sprague. Bloom also infers H.P. Lovecraft wrote a book called The Necromonicon (p. 155); however, this is a fictional tome that appeared in some of Lovecraft’s writing.
<11> The final chapter, ‘After Midnight: Goth Culture, Vampire Games and the Irresistible Rise of Twilight’, which represents ‘The present’ of the book’s subtitle, is its major failing. This chapter should either be expanded to a book-length study in its own right, or omitted in favour of providing satisfactory clarification of other chapters. As it stands, it is inadequate and poorly researched, as if Bloom is trying to make the book contemporary by including a reference to the popular Twilight novels and films, but is uncomfortable with the material he uses. The theme of the Twilight series not only concerns vampires, but also werewolves. Bloom describes the relationship between teenager Bella Swan and vampire Edward Cullen as ‘the world of the vampire has finally caught up with that of Romeo and Juliet’ (p. 187). By arguing it has “finally” caught up (the first novel Twilight was published in 2005), Bloom overlooks the film and TV series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and Angel (1999–2004) which could have contributed to an examination of the conscious inversion of the horror formula of ‘the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie’ and which also addresses the more serious forbidden love motif considering the relationship was between vampire and slayer. This forbidden love was also covered in the Underworld film trilogy (the first of which appeared in 2003), which features the relationship between vampires and lycans (werewolves).
<12> As with the chapter concerning Sweeney Todd, the summary of Twilight lasts only one paragraph before a gallop through modern popular culture is which filled with generalisations and inaccuracies and fails because of its omissions. The outline of the book on the back cover promises to lead from the traditional, popular, themes of gothic literature ‘to the very different worlds of Hannibal Lecter and Goth culture’. Lecter (omitted from the index) is set aside within two pages towards the end of the book (pp. 183–4), although the majority of this is taken up with quotations. When considering the gothic in modern film, Tim Burton is dismissed by listing three of his ‘gothic’ films, Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow, but other his films include Batman, which breathed life into the superhero franchise with Bruce Wayne representing the Byronic anti-hero, flawed, brooding and who uses his own sense of morality to justify his actions and set a benchmark for other ‘flawed’ hero figures; all of this is set against the labyrinthine urban gothic cityscape of Gotham, akin to some Victorian gothic motifs.
<13> The jarring discussion of the last three pages begins with a brief remark on children’s books. Bloom mentions Lemony Snickett (omitted from the index), whose books would best be described as ‘mock-gothic’, and R.L. Stein, the teen-horror writer (who is included); however, this survey could include Darren Shan, whose successful Saga of Darren Shan re-introduced the vampire myth to a post-primary school, pre-adult age group, and Celia Rees, a popular author of supernatural tales for teenagers and young adults.
<14> The brief mention of children’s fiction then passes, inexplicably, to focus on those who ‘dress “goth” and dramatize their lives through music’ (‘Gothic culture’ is cited once in the index, on p. 1, which refers to the chapter heading): here he lists bands which he erroneously categorises as ‘gothic’ including Metallica, whose music is ‘Thrash’, Slipknot, whose music is ‘Metal’, and Rammstein, who are ‘Industrial’ (p. 188). He could have mentioned bands who had found commercial success such as Evanescence or Cradle of Filth, and Bloom also disregards the European development in the gothic fashion and music scene which is larger than that of the UK.
<15> The review of the modern gothic then moves to the ‘gothic lifestyle’ and the ‘gathering each year at Whitby’ (it’s bi-annual, March and November). Bloom feels it is necessary to explain to an audience that has previously pre-supposed are familiar with complexities of defining the terminology, that the goths are always present because Whitby is ‘a central location to Dracula’ (p. 189).
<16> Bloom then skips through the subjects of Computer games, the Torture Garden nightclub, S&M, and Live Action Role Playing (LARP) implying all of these genres are gothic and there is an inherent connection between them. Although there is occasionally some crossover between goth and fetish, it is not necessarily the norm and is definitely not the same thing (the Torture Garden describes itself as a fetish nightclub: a brief Internet search revealed listings for around 350 gothic nightclubs in Europe). There is no fundamental link between fetishism and roleplaying. Some LARPs are gothic but most are not. Bloom dismisses in a paragraph the roleplaying games from which the LARPs were born, Dungeons and Dragons(which was first published in 1974, not in the 1980s), but there are others intrinsically gothic in style. Call of Cthulhu, for example, is based on the writings of Lovecraft and August Derleth (whose contribution to gothic literature is ignored), and in addition to an error in the title of the game, Vampire: The Masquerade, ‘White Wolf’ is the name of the publisher, not a separate gaming system.
<17> The book (like many of the chapters) ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily, arguing some people ‘live as the [gothic] characters that they have created as an ‘instance of the gothic invading reality’ and concludes with a quotation ‘“[it’s] alluring, powerful and seductive. That’s what being a vampire is all about”’ (p. 190). One would have expected a comprehensive conclusion which draws together the strands of the various chapters.
<18> Although there is some useful information regarding gothic elements in the earlier chapters, the flitting discussion and lists of examples without sufficient explanation feel sketchy and incomplete, while the lengthy quotations fragment the study. Combined, these make the text difficult to follow. Ultimately, the numerous typos and mistakes, as well as the lack of referencing and the poor index, mean the text is unreliable and therefore of limited use to the scholar and student of the gothic.
To Cite This Article:
Jon Mackley, ‘Review of Clive Bloom, Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 2 (September 2010). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2010/mackley2.html. Accessed on [date of access].