I’m digging deep today, with a review that appeared in the very first issue of Black Static, and barring acts of editing read exactly as it does here:-
GOTHIC FICTION: A READER’S GUIDE TO ESSENTIAL CRITICISM by ANGELA WRIGHT
Palgrave Macmillan paperback, 178pp, £14.99 www.palgrave.com
The focus of this book is on the Gothic novel’s first wave of popularity, between 1764 and 1820, with the emphasis on such key texts as The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Caleb Williams and the work of Mrs Radcliffe. In a series of themed chapters Wright looks at how critics have dealt with the genre and its tropes, along the way charting its standing in popular culture of the day.
The opening chapter gives a brief history of the Gothic novel’s origins and its reception by the eighteenth century public, with critics expressing concern at its popularity with female readers (and writers), and almost affectionate mockery of some of the most emblematic of its devices, this discussion broadening out in the second chapter with an attempt to define the sublime, those elements which made Gothic so effective regardless of the clichés inherent in the material, and to differentiate between ‘terror’ and ‘horror’.
The third chapter examines the effect of the French Revolution, the historical event of greatest significance in the genre’s development, with writers and critics both for and against social change enlisting the Gothic in their cause, finding within its pages the echo of their hopes and fears. Following on from this the Gothic’s attitude to religion is put under the microscope, particularly its supposed anti-Catholic stance, the chapter segueing into a consideration of how the novel reflected nationalist concerns. The fifth chapter opens with a comparison between the Gothic and surrealism, with the likes of Andre Breton finding common ground, then moving on to a psychoanalytic approach to the key Gothic texts. The final chapter attempts a feminist reappraisal of the genre and considers the role of gender in the Gothic novel, and writing as a means to empowerment for women such as Mrs Radcliffe.
Of course you don’t need to know any of this stuff to simply enjoy The Monk or The Mysteries of Udolpho, but for those who want to deepen their appreciation of the Gothic novel Wright is an articulate and intelligent guide to the critical minefield, digging up the most fascinating and representative texts and marshalling their arguments in a way that makes them accessible to the lay reader, with plentiful insights into the nature of supernatural fiction and its appeal. From my own perspective what struck me was how familiar some of this material seems, albeit in a contemporary context, as with the attempt to put water between ‘acceptable’ texts and their more sensational fellows (cue a Ramsey Campbell fan trying to explain to an outsider why Shaun Hutson is not representative of horror fiction), or critics mocking the scene in which, instead of running to safety, the heroine goes to investigate that strange noise back of the arras (cue just about any contemporary horror flick with teens in peril). Seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.