Science Fiction Studies

#81 = Volume 27, Part 2 = July 2000

Carol Margaret Davison

A Gothic Bonanza

Marie Mulvey-Roberts. The Handbook to Gothic Literature. Macmillan, 1998. xviii + 294 pp. £15.99 paper.

David Punter. Gothic Pathologies: The Text, The Body, and The Law. Macmillan (fax: 01256-842084), 1998. xii + 251 pp. £45 cloth.

Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd-Smith, eds. Modern Gothic: A Reader. Manchester UP, 1996. vi + 202 pp. $69.95 cloth; $24.95 paper. Dist. in the US by St. Martin’s.

William Hughes and Andrew Smith, eds. Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis, and the Gothic. Macmillan (fax: 01256-842084), 1998. xiv + 229 pp. £42.50 cloth.

While North American universities and publishers are increasingly warming to the idea that Gothic literature is a fascinating and legitimate subject of study, British scholarly organizations, such as the International Gothic Association, have been hosting conferences and symposia productive of innovative scholarship. British publishers have also earnestly endorsed the Gothic enterprise. Four recent publications—three from Macmillan—attest to the growing interest in the Gothic and the extensive cultural domain in which it may be said to be at work.

Even when one is dealing with a tame subject, taxonomy is a vexing business. There are bound to be omissions, repetitions, and a great deal of second-guessing about the designation of categories. Then, once the work is completed, there is likely to be criticism. When the subject is the Gothic genre, the taxonomist’s troubles are further compounded for, as every knowledgeable gothicist knows, the Gothic continues—to the distress of such pedantic scholars as Maurice Lévy and Stephen Bernstein—to expand its frontiers, to transgress national and generic boundaries. Indeed, this is its very nature. As Fred Botting has noted in his introductory book, Gothic (Routledge 1996), the genre is characterized, first and foremost, by excess. Clearly, then, the job of undertaking a taxonomy of the Gothic is not for the faint of heart. Given the importance of such a taxonomy to further scholarship in the field, someone has to do it.

So they—65 of them to be exact—have gone where no gothicists have gone before. Under the direction of Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at the University of the West of England, specialists in the domain of the Gothic including David Punter, Fred Botting, and Alison Milbank have contributed to a Handbook to Gothic Literature. Inspired by Frederick Frank’s eccentric and interesting "Glossary of Gothic Terms" (contained as an appendix in his wonderful bibliography The First Gothics: A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel [Garland, 1987]), which treats what Roberts describes as "beguiling Freudian categories" (xvi), The Handbook to Gothic Literature is a unique pioneering effort to tame the Gothic beast by Augustan means. Designed as a basic guide for students and general readers, the Handbook is composed of 118 short essays, ranging in length from a paragraph to ten pages and treating diverse topics, from English-Canadian Gothic, to the Golem, to the concept of the uncanny, to the Northanger novels (the seven Gothic works recommended to Catherine by Isabella in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey [1818]).

Well aware of the breadth of the field of Gothic studies and both humble and sensible in the face of it, Mulvey-Roberts does not aim for comprehensiveness. For pragmatic reasons and due to space constraints, this volume focuses on landmark authors in the genre and on English-speaking countries (with the exception of entries on France, Germany, and Russia). Readers interested in the multimedia nature of this cultural mode will be especially pleased by the inclusion of entries on the Gothic’s manifestation in various genres and disciplines such as drama, film, art, the novel, photography, and science fiction. While David Seed’s entry on Gothic Science Fiction is only two paragraphs long and barely scratches the surface of its subject, it does serve as a stimulating introduction to the ongoing debate about the exact relationship between these genres.

What is especially engaging about this Handbook is its resistance to "objective," dry definitions. Most entries do more than simply define a subject; they offer helpful and provocative interpretative comments, direct the reader to cross-referenced topics of related interest, and provide suggestions for further reading. While random perusal is absorbing in many instances—I added the concept of Zerrissenheit (a feeling of self-estrangement) to my vocabulary, and read with fascination about the exhumation and reinterment of the bodies of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin in the entry on Mary Shelley—more precise research queries are also generally rewarded.

To take a specific example, the genre of the female Gothic is extensively treated (it is even given priority as a distinct category in the appended list of further reading). This is only appropriate, for, as several entries make clear (e.g., Gothic Romance, Ann Radcliffe), gender has been important to this genre since its inception, and indeed the Gothic has, by longstanding custom, been divided into male and female traditions. Dedicated entries are provided for seven female Gothic writers—Angela Carter, the Brontës, Ann Radcliffe, Anne Rice, and Mary Shelley. Other prominent Gothic novelists such as Charlotte Dacre, Sophia Lee, and Clara Reeve, and Gothic parodists such as Jane Austen, are discussed in entries associated with their works. Entries treating the Gothic along national lines also examine women writers: Elizabeth Bowen is a subject in the entry on Irish Gothic, for example, and Gerry Turcotte’s enthralling ten-page essay on Australian Gothic mentions several prominent women writers. Finally, entries focusing on the Gothic’s manifestation in specific genres and disciplines are also of interest to feminist scholars: the entry on Gothic film, for instance, provides fascinating information regarding the adaptation of the female Gothic narrative to the screen in popular 1940s "women-in-peril" films.

If there is a flaw in this compelling and essential Handbook, it is the fact that it lacks an index. While the cross-referencing of subjects with dedicated entries is extremely useful, an index would alleviate the frustrating guesswork involved in tracking down references to subjects that lack dedicated entries. Perhaps such an index will be included in the second edition. And there are bound to be several more editions, since despite being designed as an introductory resource, The Handbook to Gothic Literature is a necessary addition for even the specialist’s library. No other single reference volume covers such a broad range of Gothic-related materials or draws upon such a wealth of scholarship. It is sure to become a reference Bible for Gothic students and established scholars alike.

Speaking of Bibles, David Punter’s 1980 publication, The Literature of Terror (Longmans), is arguably the best critical introduction to the field of Gothic studies. (Punter is an eminent and prolific Gothic scholar who has contributed—among so many publications—to the other three works examined in this review.) Recently reprinted in two volumes, Punter’s "Bible" is, like Mulvey-Roberts’s Handbook, characterized by a taxonomy of sorts as it traces thematic and technical developments in the history of the Gothic genre. Informed by a variety of theoretical approaches, Punter’s close readings are coherent, engaging, and provocative.

Unfortunately, Punter’s more recent deconstructive-psychoanalytic explorations in the Gothic genre are often abstruse, offering insights only for the patient and attentive reader already well-versed in the Gothic. The eleven essays in Gothic Pathologies: The Text, the Body and The Law, "a series of incursions into [the] uncanny territory" (18) of cultural psychology/pathology, are a case in point. Focusing on an eclectic range of subject matter, from Percy B. Shelley’s Zastrozzi (1810) and Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Liu Suola’s "King of Singers" (a Chinese short story from 1985), these essays explore what Punter describes as the rival forces of the law and psychology in Gothic texts. Focusing on the sociohistorical context from which the Gothic emerged, Punter traces how ambivalent representations of and attitudes towards the law in the eighteenth-century novel were picked up and transformed in the literature of terror. This transformation, Punter maintains, was due to the increasingly repressive nature of the legal system between 1750 and 1825. Over this period, the law—and the prisons that exerted its will—began to evoke social terror. He argues further that the figure of the monster, prominent in the Gothic, threatens to dismantle the law and is pleasing to readers, as they are both apprehensive about and titillated by that prospect.

Looping back throughout the volume to these basic ideas, Punter is at his best—his most insightful and poetic—when, in the light of his extensive knowledge of this genre, he generalizes about it. Regarding literature as "at all points connected to dream" (ix), he argues that the Gothic investigates the depths and heights of human experience. While it allows us to see our own abjection, it also allows us to play out a fantasized transcendence of the limits of the body. Although the law polices our desires and may try to impose certainty, the Gothic exposes the fact that chaos ultimately underlies apparent order and that there are forces working behind the scenes to which we can never be privy. The question of the provenance of evil is left unanswered in Gothic fiction, just as the violent primal scenes from real life that find symbolic representation in that fiction remain ultimately irretrievable.

Drawing on these ideas, Punter examines the concept of the primal scene in the work of Stephen King and explains the key to King’s popularity as involving a sense that feelings of loss in childhood and of loss and separation in adolescence are eventually overcome in a perfected version of adulthood. His detailed examination of Elisabeth Bronfen’s reading of gender in Poe’s "Ligeia" (1838) in her 1992 study Over her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Routledge, 1992), is similarly intriguing. While his point is well substantiated that gender is often fluid in the Gothic, for "we are frequently in a world where the dramatisations of the ego are nakedly revealed as locked into a series of specular identification, where legally verifiable ‘character stability’ is beside the point" (120), his attempt to use Bronfen’s flawed reading of "Ligeia" to call into question the entire concept of female Gothic is not convincing, especially given the legitimacy he lends to it in his chapter on Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

This disjunction regarding basic concepts perhaps provides the key to the primary problem in Punter’s collection. With the exception of the introduction and conclusion that strive to connect this volume’s disparate material, one suspects (and this suspicion is confirmed by the inclusion of Punter’s chapter on King in Sage and Smith’s Modern Gothic, reviewed here) that these essays were initially written as papers for a variety of conferences with different foci and later brought together. As a result, there are some conceptual and sociohistorical gaps and leaps. Connections drawn between eighteenth- and twentieth-century texts require a fair degree of qualification that is, generally, absent. Although the opening and closing chapters provide some of the most interesting insights into the Gothic, one senses overall a strain to link these independent "incursions." Perhaps a better approach would have been to publish them as a volume without attempting to connect them.

That being said, Punter remains, in the opinion of many, one of the top scholars in this field. The insights that punctuate his book can certainly vie with those currently on offer in studies by Punter’s peers and protégés. Punter is a Gothic pioneer who, with his unrelenting spirit of inquiry, still manages to provide fresh insights into classic Gothic-influenced works. With any luck, he will return in a future study to the Gothic-infused genre of cyber-fiction that, he maintains in his conclusion, gestures towards transcendence and the sublime.

In his claim that early Gothic writers, "in their dealings with haunting, the phantom and the boundless text, as with the whole notion of the sublime" (199), foreshadowed certain postmodernist techniques, Punter lends support to the motivating premise of Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith’s edited collection, Modern Gothic: that the Gothic and postmodernism share similar predilections. While Smith is, as I will illustrate, guilty of dehistoricizing in his comparative analysis of these two literary modes, the examination of points of connection between postmodernism and the Gothic is a potentially rich field of inquiry. With varying degrees of success, the thirteen essays in this volume explore the nature of this generic consanguinity and offer undeniable evidence that, especially in the last thirty years, the Gothic has proven to be a very resistant literary strain. It has moved, essentially, from a position of marginality to becoming "one of the central languages of the popular contemporary" (5). With interpretations of works by Isak Dinesen, Iain Banks, John Banville, Angela Carter, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Ramsay Campbell, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and David Lynch, one would be hard-pressed to find a more eclectic smorgasbord of artistic criticism than is presented in this collection.

Briefly delineating the basic similarities between what they term old Gothic and postmodern neo-Gothic, Sage and Smith claim that both engage in a textual negotiation with history. Both forms are also, generally, extremely self-conscious in their borrowing of literary conventions; and, finally, both are apocalyptic in their visions. While the prospect of annihilation as a result of uncontrollable science or technology is sometimes at the forefront of the new Gothic, this new genre "strikes a darker and more disturbing note" (5) than old Gothic, because, among other things, hell is now decidedly located in the mind.

Allan Lloyd Smith’s speculative, theoretical essay, "Postmodernism/Gothicism," opens the volume. It seems to be the product of a postmodernist who was later introduced to the Gothic and doesn’t really understand the ideological underpinnings and sociohistorical context of that genre’s emergence. While he, probably correctly, maintains that "the postmodern condition seems to be occasioned by transformations determined by technology" (15), he propounds a popular, erroneous claim about the Gothic, namely that "indeterminism is a narrative necessity" (7) of that genre, a necessity that is equally prevalent in postmodern texts. His late-twentieth-century lenses are especially and problematically obvious when he argues that in both Gothic and postmodern texts "we confront the embattled, deconstructed self, without sureties of religion and social place, or any coherent psychology of the kind observable in both the Enlightenment or modernist traditions" (7). Most works—particularly those by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew G. Lewis, the two most important Gothic writers of the 1790s—fail to support this generalization. While the Gothic offers some interesting challenges to some Enlightenment ideas, it neither sacrifices a sense of religious certainty nor a sense of coherent psychology in order to do so. Moreover, a clean break does not occur between the Enlightenment and Romantic ideology. There is much crucial overlap, and Smith would do well to peruse Aidan Day’s introductory book on Romanticism (Routledge, 1996) in order to better comprehend this point. Smith would also have been well advised to provide specific textual examples in order to support such a claim.

Due to their focus on specific writers and filmmakers and even specific literary and cinematic texts, most of the other essays in this collection are not over-generalized theoretical readings. In fact, a sensitivity to, and awareness of, the nature and implications of various theories characterizes most of them. At least two—Ros Ballaster’s "Wild Nights and Buried Letters: The Gothic ‘Unconscious’ of Feminist Criticism" and Judie Newman’s "Postcolonial Gothic: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the Sobhraj Case"—provide cogent thumbnail sketches of the complex theoretical issues that must be negotiated when the Gothic is brought to bear on, respectively, feminist and postcolonial texts. Other fine chapters include Victor Sage’s piece on the fiction of Iain Banks and John Banville, and Liliane Weissberg’s examination of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). The latter text has been frequently misread by gothicists unaware of the African-American traditions to which that novel also talks back. Aficionados of the horror film are also well rewarded by this collection. Two of the most entertaining essays are Peter Hutchings’s "Tearing Your Soul Apart: Horror’s New Monsters"—covering the slasher films of the late 1970s and early 1980s—and David Seed’s "Alien Invasions by Body Snatchers and Related Creatures."

Finally, William Hughes’s and Andrew Smith’s Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis and the Gothic, a collection of twelve specially commissioned essays penned by notable gothicists, is nothing if not precise in its agenda. Beyond providing some new interpretations of Stoker’s Dracula (1987), it aims to re-theorize Stoker’s writings and to expand the domain of Stoker studies by considering works beyond his classic monsterpiece. The editors note that "at the moment when the critical future of Dracula seems assured by the apparent collapse of the exclusivity of canon" (5), a problematic "new orthodoxy" has arisen that holds that Stoker was the author of only one work of note. This volume also scrutinizes the major critical approaches to Dracula—described here as "the Freudian text par excellence" (3). While psychoanalysis has been the predominant theoretical approach to the book—one that, some contributors note, remains valid and useful—the discourse analysis that proliferated after Foucault has tended to concentrate on the power relations and epistemologies that underpin the novel.

Among the new approaches to Dracula presented here, perhaps the most provocative is Marie Mulvey-Roberts’s reading of Stoker’s monsterpiece as "a menstrual narrative" that responds, in a reactionary fashion, to the Suffragette movement and plays out, by way of the vampire and his victim, "the relationship between the Victorian male doctor and the female hysteric"(80). Generally convincing, Mulvey-Roberts does, unfortunately, push the psychobiographical envelope when she claims that since Stoker’s wife Florence was "thought likely to have suffered ‘bad menstrual disturbances’ which probably thwarted Stoker’s libido": in Dracula "Stoker subconsciously tries to control and even eliminate the dysmenorrhoea that was blighting their marriage" (85). Alison Milbank’s interpretation of Dracula as an expression of Stoker’s views on Ireland is, ultimately, confused, as she reads Transylvania as analogous to Ireland and the novel’s final moment in England as one where Mina enacts a literal "Home Rule." One wishes that Milbank could decide where, precisely, Ireland is located in this text.

In terms of the editors’ second declared intention, only one of this collection’s essays—David Seed’s provocative examination of Stoker’s "mummy narratives," entitled "Eruptions of the Primitive into the Present: The Jewel of Seven Stars and The Lair of the White Worm"—actually resists comparing Stoker’s other works to his monsterpiece. Lisa Hopkins’s "Crowning the King, Mourning his Mother: The Jewel of Seven Stars and The Lady of the Shroud," offers a prime example of how Dracula continues to tyrannize Stoker studies. According to Hopkins, The Lady of the Shroud (1909) essentially "rewrites" Dracula. David Punter’s reading of The Lair of the White Worm (1911) follows suit, and Victor Sage concludes his timely essay "Exchanging Fantasies: Sex and the Serbian Crisis in The Lady of the Shroud," with the claim that that narrative advocates a similar ideological stance to the one upheld in Dracula. According to Sage, in the face of the rising tide of female emancipation, Stoker issues a "clarion call to a flaccid Edwardian bourgeoisie, advocating a return to patriarchy before it was too late" (131-32).

In the domain of reexamining theoretical approaches to Dracula, Robert Mighall’s controversial essay "Sex, History and the Vampire," packs a very powerful punch. Arguing that the popular modern reading of Count Dracula as a sexual threat is grounded in the flawed modern view of the Victorians as repressed, Mighall examines works by Stoker’s sexologist contemporaries wherein the vampire is represented as unerotic. Mighall’s point that Dracula’s threat as a figure of supernatural evil has been glossed over and even denied in recent criticism in favor of his role as a sexual threat must be conceded. He fails to recognize, however, that, in its semiotic history, evil has long been associated with perverse sexuality. How fin-de-siècle sexologists interpreted the vampire is of interest but doesn’t ultimately determine what is behind Stoker’s representation of the vampire. The vampire trades on desire and seduction, and if the several graphic sequences featuring the vampire in Stoker’s novel are not to be termed erotic and titillating, what can we call them?

In sum, these four books prove that Gothic studies is a booming enterprise, a situation that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

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