‘Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural’

John Edgar Browning

John Edgar Browning

‘Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural’ (2013) by Victoria Nelson, is an attempt to explain, as accurately and in the simplest terms as one can, the strange, subtle turn that has occurred with the Gothic in the still budding twenty-first-century. Ultimately, though, ‘Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural’ stands uniquely in contrast with the brand of similarly “fresh” Gothic studies treating the fin de siècle during the inauguratory decades of the twentieth-century, works which tended to peer darkly, nostalgically into the past from the safe vantage of the present.

Victoria Nelson’s book, by contrast, sketches out carefully, yet succinctly, the Gothic’s remarkable journey from its earliest roots through to the recent past, not in order to explain away its previous undertakings but rather as a means of elucidating — and rather convincingly so — the present state of the Gothic and, as Victoria Nelson shows, its revolutionary new direction.

I, too, began to notice by 2008 a strange phenomenon that was carefully emerging in vampire cinema, and when asked by various news outlets about my take on the current vampire trend, I was quick to highlight two areas.

Firstly was the intriguing, if curiously progressive circumstance that more than a few of the vampires in these narratives were not conventionaüy staked by the end; perhaps it was no coincidence, too, that many of the characters in these narratives were not really all that “bad” either, and yet nor were they completely “good” — in fact, it was “good” that was being interrogated by these films and television programs.

Secondly, I intuited, was the importance of the economic recession, the sort of event that in the past has long invited monsters and vampires into our homes and theatres for people bent on blaming, and more crucially laying siege to, some stand-in causality (take Universal Studios ‘Dracula’ in 1931, for example). Though, there was a particularly odd situation, because füm-goers were paying to see vampires they didn’t necessarüy want to see staked by the end as previous generations had. I just assumed it was some sort of new vampire thing, and when asked why it was happening I hardly knew what to tell people, except that we probably would not know what it all meant until given enough time and distance to see it all more clearly. Apparently, however, my assessment was too hasty and my vision too narrow, for Victoria Nelson, within the pages of ‘Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural’, has beaten everyone to the punch: as it turns out, vampires were not alone in this little conspiracy, and we (or Victoria Nelson, at least) did not need a couple of decades to understand what was going on.

Victoria Nelson opens the volume by asserting that the twenty-first-century “Gothick” (a variant spelling Victoria Nelson uses in the text to distinguish the Romantic, Victorian, and later Gothicks from the primogeniture of the Middle Ages Gothic, or “Old Goth”) is, with its “striking new features,” beginning to show “signs of outgrowing the dark supernaturalism it inherited from its eighteenth-century ancestor.” Rather, this new, millennial Gothick “is rehabilitating supernaturalism as an aesthetic mode — brighter, more Romantic, and more culturally heterodox within the framework of postcolonial global popular culture.” This radical shift in our sensibility toward the Gothick, in particular how we now use it to narrativize, has begun to allow it.

Victoria Nelson argues, to serve “as a vehicle for developing the frameworks of new religious movements” as the Gothick “nostalgicaüy reinvents” key components of a premodern Catholic worldview in which are fused simultaneously new elements of popular culture and antiquated folkloric beliefs from around the world.

Emerging from the Gothick subgenres of the twenty-first-century, as Victoria Nelson is apt to point out, is the “dark sublime’s antithesis”: beauty, uniting along the way “Gothick and Romantic traditions as this hybrid sensibility continues to morph to meet the changing consciousness of our culture.” No longer.

Victoria Nelson explains, do these “key new tributaries” to the millennial Gothick situate supernaturalism as a fundamentally “evil” and imaginary dimension existing outside of ordinary human experience. Rather, supernaturalism has become re-centralized in daily life, in effect returning us to a premodern Europe and in the process normalizing it in a way that “mutually reinforces an equally subliminal activity of new religion buüding in its contemporary subgenres.”

Some of Victoria Nelson’s prefatory remarks urge caution, however, as readers may well be disappointed to find that she does not cover (nor would she have room to do so even if she wanted) a number of obvious popular cultural artefacts or, conversely, contemporary highbrow exemplars. Further, Victoria Nelson also states from the outset that the “thread of logic” she follows relies more on intuition than straight analysis. She sets out to trace, in her own words, “a few strands [while] leaving out many others” in the “curious sprinkling of bright nodes in the Gothick darkness” from which she draws to offer sense to the millennial phenomenon chronicled in the book. She also omits, by her own admission, a comprehensive survey of Gothic scholarship and her position within it, nor does she proceed on the grounds of whether or not the literary and visual narratives she offers as examples first meet the standards of some critical valuation system. However, the latter constitutes one of Gothika’s better strengths, precisely because it does not rely on elitism and instead recognizes horror cinema and related works as legitimate genealogical branches of the Gothick that literary purists in the field often tend to shun outright; the former, on the other hand, while it permits her argumentative thread to weave unabated by the weight a book heavy on scholarship can produce, does at times prove problematic.

It was not, for example, George Andrew Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) which “laid down the foundational conventions for [the] new Gothick [zombie] subgenre” but, in fact, Richard Burton Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ ( 1954) (just ask George Andrew Romero), though George Andrew Romero did perfect Richard Burton Matheson’s design by including a very subtle change, a matter for another discussion; Victoria Nelson’s mistaken inclusion of the real vampire community in her argumentation might have been avoided, or might at least have been qualified differently, had she not relied primarily on one source; and finally, documentation has shown that Wikipedia’s “plausible if enormous” figure of two-hundred or more Dracula films is actually severely underestimated.

Regardless whether Victoria Nelson’s journey there was a perfect one or not, I scarcely see how anyone could have argued more convincingly so near in (temporal) proximity to the millennial Gothick’s epicentre, as it were. Plainly, Victoria Nelson’s Gothicka has laid the foundational roots and theoretical framework on which future miüennial Gothic studies are sure to proceed.

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