Introduction to the Gothic Series: Welcome to Hell

Clive Bloom

Clive Bloom

In 2019, London was host to an immersive zombie exhibition at the Truman Brewery, Brick Lane in East London attached to the television show ‘The Walking Dead’, a new play about Dracula was staged at the London Library and an art installation, sponsored by the Ben Oakley Gallery and called ‘Monster’ by Giles Walker, featuring headless clowns and other freakery, was set to be held in an empty warehouse near Greenwich later in the year if sufficient crowd funds could be raised.

Exotic drinks and fried insects may be consumed at tables inlaid with skeletons at the Victor Wynd Museum and cocktail bar in Hackney and elsewhere in East London the enthusiast may visit the Jack the Ripper Museum in Cable Street or eat at the Serial Killer Café in Brick Lane, or even shop at a Romanian convenience store called ‘Dracula’ in the suburbs.

In front of the prestigious Royal Academy, Cornelia Parker exhibited a scale model of the Bates Motel (called ‘PsychoBarn’), whilst ‘The Woman in Black’, Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel has been playing since 1987 and has been in the West End since 1989, the second longest-running non-musical after Agatha’s Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’.

George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was yet another example of immersive theatre, playing during May of 2019. Last and most significant of all, is the Grand Guignol of The London Dungeon, a horror experience originally devised as a “wax museum” now a horror venue currently with nineteen shows, twenty actors and two thrill rides.

One may multiply examples from around the world, but in London alone, the gothic experience seems alive and thriving.1 With the appearance of Covid-19 in 2020, London became, for a moment, an empty space: a dead city of a gothic apocalypse.

Every new medium, from film to television to the Internet and social media, has remoulded gothic tropes for a new generation. At the same time, older gothic tropes are constantly revisited and reworked in new contexts.

The gothic sensibility saw the rise of science fiction through Mary Shelley, detective fiction through Edgar Allan Poe and dark romance through the likes of the Bronte sisters.

Vampires, wolfmen and zombies fill our screens, video gaming platforms and social media. Frankenstein’s monster make-up, as created by Frank Pierce for James Whale’s film of the same name is perhaps the most important gothic image of the last century, influencing everything from films to toys, to Halloween costumes; and then there is ‘Dracula’ (1897).

Bram Stoker’s tale has not only become the most influential Irish novel, but its protagonist is one of the most popular fictional characters, influencing literature and culture in ways thought most unlikely when the book made its first appearance. Such monsters are the nightmares of modernity.

It is a genre that may be deeply serious or simply entertainment of a most visceral kind. Moreover, the very nature of its often popular and pulp appeal is the fact that the very seriousness it avoids allows for serious issues to emerge as a latent set of subtexts, not necessarily fully understood by its author(s), nowhere more obviously than in the work of H. P. Lovecraft who now has a commanding place in gothic and steampunk culture with numerous novelistic homages to the Cthulhu mythos, as well as in pulp video games, artworks and tabletop gaming.

Above all, the Gothic is both high culture and a low culture experience of mere pleasure (often at the same moment), destroying barriers of taste and refinement to allow for intellectual debate which incorporates both.

Nowhere is this more obvious that in the packed lecture theatres of prestigious universities where the Gothic has become as important in literary, cultural, media, film, feminist and sociological studies as more traditional subjects.

Despite the fact that gothic entertainment had flourished in both literature and film from the start of the century to the early 1940s, a taste for atomic, alien and radiation monsters almost extinguished the genre.

Now audiences had to “watch the skies” (the last line from Christian Nyby’s 1951 science fiction film, ‘The Thing’ from another Planet) rather than watch their backs and horrors from outer space replaced terrestrial monsters.

Horror and gothic filmmaking were out of favour, but films such as Alberto Cavalcanti’s ‘Dead of Night’ (1947), with its iconic ventriloquist’s dummy, kept interest alive.

The 1950s were also a lean time for gothic fans although later in the decade the taste revived, heralded by the new Hammer horrors and by Jacques Tourneur’s ‘Night of the Demon’ (1957) based upon M. R. James’s ‘Casting the Runes’ and rather sillier stuff such as the comedy thriller, ‘The Bat’ (1959) directed by Crane Wilbur who adapted the story from a book from 1908.

‘The Bat’ ran as a double bill in the United Kingdom with Terence Fisher’s ‘The Mummy’ (1959). By the late 1950s, Hammer Films had reinvented the gothic horror genre, going back to the Universal film classics and remaking them as Victorian melodramas, and in so doing recreated ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ for the “modern” age.

‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957) was followed by ‘Dracula’ (1958) and ‘The Mummy’ (1959).

The new terrors were themselves only able to exist because of the success of Hammer Horror’s profitable adaptations of the science fiction television series ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ (1953). The series was first reworked as ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ (1955) directed by Val Guest and capitalised on the new X rate horror category.

The Hammer horrors followed. Technicolour blood and gore, overt sexuality and psychopathic violence were key features of films whose modernity was a peculiar form of nostalgia for an attenuated Victorianism.

Nevertheless, a “debased” and often plagiaristic form of the genre was also invented for children during the 1950s. The appearance of the subculture of gothic comics such as ‘Weird Science’, ‘Tales from the Crypt’ and ‘The Haunt of Fear’ brought writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft to the attention of younger readers (through highly plagiarised rewriting) who then were free to source the original stories.

Despite the horror comic scare and legislation brought in by the British government in 1955 (partially initiated by the Gorbals Necropolis “vampire” scare), gothic tales were back for a new generation.

Meanwhile, Roger Corman went back to Edgar Allan Poe to produce a series of films whose gothic look influenced (quite unconsciously perhaps) the gothic fashion of the late 1980s. His colour-coded use of mise en scene and strange hallucinatory dream sequences remain part of a psychedelic age.

In the 1970s, the production company Amicus went back to ‘Weird Tales’ for its anthologies of shudders, often borrowing Hammer stars like Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee to play in their portfolio stories. Occasionally they even borrowed directors too.

As Corman created sensuous landscapes so William Castle created three dimensional gimmicks that have been reinterpreted in even more gothic terms and, of course, in the 1960s with the television reruns of the Universal series and renewed interest in Charles Addams, the supernatural and Gothic became central to children’s television with series like ‘The Munsters’ (1964–1966), ‘The Addams Family’ (1964–1966) and ‘Scooby Doo’ (original series, 1969), not to mention ‘Bewitched’ (1964–1972) and ‘I Dream of Genie’ (1965–1970), all being must-see programmes after school. Whilst for many years’ The Simpsons’ have produced amusing Halloween specials.

Before the growth of academic studies of the Gothic there were dedicated bibliophiles such as Montague Summers, collectors such as Michael Sadlier and enthusiasts such as August Derleth, whose cause was the author they loved or the rare volumes that they catalogued.

The extraordinary growth of both the gothic industry and gothic studies is largely due to a combination and coincidence of factors. The academic study of gothic books had at least to wait until the revival of the weird, ghostly and horrific in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Pan, Panther and Corgi, as well as other paperback imprints, revived the likes of Arthur Machen, R. E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft (without whom we would not have a gothic Batman whose nemesis lives in Arkham Asylum!).

This led to the revival of writers like Denis Wheatley whose ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1934; film 1968) ‘To the Devil a Daughter’ (1953; film 1976) and ‘The Haunting of Toby Jugg’ (1948; film 2006) made both a literary and filmic comeback.

Wheatley’s lifelong interest in Satanism, the occult and black magic were later published in his non-fiction account ‘The Devil and All His Works’ (1971), a book that influenced a generation of younger readers.

Ghost hunters such as Harry Price and his investigations at Borley Rectory in the 1940s were rediscovered in the 1960s and 1970s, his books reprinted and his life reassessed in books such as Paul Tabori’s ‘Harry Price: Ghost-Hunter’ (1974) published by Little Brown in the ‘Denis Wheatley Library of the Occult’.

The incredible rise in the fortunes of the occultist Aleister Crowley were such that he ended up, alongside Edgar Allan Poe, on the cover of the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1968), not least because Wheatley referenced him in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and other novels.

Crowley’s own books were reprinted and his ideas widely circulated, whilst novels such as ‘Moonchild’ (1917) and ‘Diary of a Drug Fiend’ (1922) were reprinted in American paperbacks in 1970 and 1972. Cheap and lurid paperback covers lured teenagers and young adults to Edgar Allan Poe whilst an older counter culture embraced Poe, Crowley and Tolkien.

Because of YouTube, it is possible to watch the melodramas of Tod Slaughter or the delights of the films of Val Lewton and fit them into the “lost” history of British or American gothic film and popular entertainment.

In the case of Tod Slaughter, a world of forgotten working-class melodramatic entertainment and values is again revealed (his version of ‘Sweeney Todd’ was played by his company ‘The Barnstormers’ at the Independent Theatre Club, in Great Queen Street, London). In the same way it is possible to watch an Alexander Mc Queen gothic catwalk show or gothic animation. Gothic imagery flourishes in the new social media.

Music videos are readily available on numerous platforms, and such platforms allow for new gothic culture to emerge in the animations such as ‘Lenore the Cute Little Dead Girl’ or the vlogs of entertainers and lifestyle gurus such as Aurelio Voltaire (‘The Lair of Voltaire’) or the impassioned arguments of amateur horror film critics or television aficionados.

The possibility of gothic renewal and of nostalgic revisiting now seem endless. Indeed, the very definition of the Gothic as the expression of an atmosphere filled with anticipation or dread cannot, any longer, properly be applied to gothic lifestyle, fashion or music as it might have been only a few years ago.

The term Gothic may have become broad and inclusive, but it must still retain its original features in order to be recognised even if the recognition proves false.

Gothic clothing developed in the post-punk atmosphere of do it yourself make and mend, defiantly defining its black clothing, tatty lace, jet black hair, white pancake make-up and kohl against mainstream fashion. It was a fashion of exclusion and alienation in keeping with the nihilism and economic depression of the late 1970s and early eighties rather than emulating the aesthetic nihilism of the late nineteenth-century.

The appropriation of gothic tropes for high fashion labels with its “heroin” thin models and edgy horror subject matter intended to épater le bourgeoisie was itself a form of aggrandisement into the world of youth culture.

Horror, now always associated with the idea of the Gothic, on the other hand, is a visceral consequence of anticipation and in that sense may or may not be Gothic at all.

It is perfectly possible to have a gothic film which is without horror (‘Rebecca’ [1940]; ‘Dragonwyck’ [1946]) and it is possible to have a horror film that has nothing of the Gothic (’28 Days Later’ [2002]; ‘Witchfinder General’ [1968]; ‘The Wicker Man’ [1973]), yet gothic horror as a term has existed long enough to make clear distinctions difficult and pedantic.

Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic storytelling always leads to a horrific revelatory denouement and as such may claim to be the first set of tales that may be explicitly designated gothic horror.

It is clear that definitions created by the original eighteenth-century writers have to be heavily qualified, stretched to breaking or abandoned in the face of the modern zombie which have no real origins beyond the 1930s and whose reinvention is a result George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968), a visualisation of events during the Civil Rights movement.

Study of gothic culture is, therefore, both dynamic and chronological and has to take into account cross-influences from diverse areas and be alive to the possibilities of homage, pastiche and irony.

The adolescent reading of future academics became a source of serious enquiry in the 1980s when horror and gothic pulp authors were revisited by post-modernist scholars and when psychological (especially Freudian ideas of uncanniness) and sociological readings (especially Marxist and post-modern readings of popular culture and literature) were in the ascendant.

The writers of horror were the “other” of F. R. Leavis’s canonical authors and a breath of fresh air in a restricted academy. This alternative canon was then opened to cultural studies, psychoanalytic readings and research from feminist and later ethnic researchers.

Gothic writers whose work had faded or been forgotten, now returned in new scholarly editions ready for dissection and there was a vogue for compilations of essays on the gothic and introductions to what was a fledgeling subject, whilst Edgar Allan Poe was given the full attention of French post-modern theory in the journal Yale French Studies.

The gothic tales of forgotten authors were republished, and their place in literary history rethought; the silent gaps were finally being filled. In this way, Ann Radcliffe and the writings of long-forgotten women gothic novelists were put back into the purview of academic research.

New terms were mobilised: the uncanny, abjection, liminality, to be replaced by further theorising in the world of disability, gender stereotyping and ecological studies.

Yet study could not really begin until the appearance of both published reprints of classic or lost works and the re-runs of Universal films on television. This led inevitably to nostalgic pastiches such as Mel Brook’s and Gene Wilder’s ‘Young Frankenstein’ (1974) (an almost Yiddish pastiche with undertones of Marx Brothers slapstick and verbal wit) and Richard O’Brien’s ‘Rocky Horror Show’ (play 1973; film 1975), a mash-up of science fiction and gothic film elements mixed with a dose of gender confusion and glorious cross-dressing.

The real turning point may be considered the appearance of video and Betamax, followed by the appearance of the televisual pause button, and the creation of YouTube uploads and other reproductive media, which allowed multiple viewing.

DVDs came with subtitles and commentary, and deleted scenes which could be evaluated and discussed by academics and enthusiasts alike.

The rediscovery of Carl Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ (1931) and the ability to re-run Hammer films allows for a serious re-evaluation of Jimmy Sangster’s scriptwriting, Terence Fisher’s directing and James Bernard’s music and what makes their work “classic”.

Video and disc technology is central to the re-evaluation of films like Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ (1977) and Don Coscarelli’s ‘Phantasm’ (1979) and reworking their themes would be difficult without this technology.

Even the return of Ed Wood’s campy low budget films has much to do with new technology.

Goth culture needed multiple stimuli that could be revisited and analysed.

That having happened, real debate could take place and facts and concepts checked especially with regards to ephemeral or peripheral material.

We live now in an age of international gothic where the genre has crossed borders, as much alive in Brazil as London or New York and where discussion of zombies and vampires is both an intellectual holiday and a serious focus of attention.

Nowadays, there is no single overarching definition we can bring to bear on a culture that encompasses literature and club culture, television and fashion, video games and urban studies. The fruit of all these years of focus has been the creation of an academic gothic community and a huge range and diversity of opinion. Yet the Gothic is always meant to entertaining as well as intellectually stimulating.

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