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Reviews

David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. Volume 1: The Gothic Tradition. London & New York: Longman, 1996. ISBN: 0-582-23714-9 (paperback). Price: £13.99

  • Chris Baldick

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  • Chris Baldick
    Goldsmiths' College, University of London

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It is no exaggeration to say that the appearance of David Punter's The Literature of Terror in 1980 formed a landmark in the literary-historical treatment of what has since become a suddenly flourishing area of Romantic studies, namely that of Gothic and related terror-fiction. It was the first substantial and serious investigation of this tradition in English since Edith Birkhead's The Tale of Terror was published nearly sixty years previously; and it undertook a more extended survey than Birkhead had attempted. At once it superseded those embarrassingly eccentric and critically wayward 'authorities', Montague Summers's The Gothic Quest (1938) and Devendra Varma's The Gothic Flame (1957), releasing the study of terror-fiction from the stranglehold of hobbyists into something more like the clear light of twentieth-century critical sanity. It was rightly welcomed by a new generation of students, teachers, and general readers for whom the fascinations of genre fiction (and its cinematic equivalents) were no longer disreputably 'marginal' but now worthy of serious historical exposition. Numerous general studies of Gothic have followed it, many directly indebted to Punter's insights, all at least indirectly benefiting from the wider interest his book attracted.

The first edition of The Literature of Terror was issued in one volume as a 'trade' paperback, which means that most of the copies surviving in the libraries are disintegrating from over-use. The house of Longman has now, for reasons best known to its marketing and accountancy departments, chosen to split the second edition into two volumes, the first covering the period from Smollett to LeFanu, the second (not submitted for review here) taking us from Stevenson to the present. It is in the second volume, in fact, that the most significant updating and expansion has been done: there is a new chapter on the contemporary Gothic, and a revised theoretical retrospect, as well as an updated bibliography. In the first volume, the initial eight chapters of the original text remain much as they were, although the bibliography has been brought up to date, and there is a useful new 'Appendix on Criticism' which briefly reviews twenty-six important studies of the relevant period of Gothic fiction that have appeared since the late Seventies.

Punter's Preface to this new edition modestly presents the largely unrevised work as a 'period piece', and of course in many respects it belongs to a specific moment at which literature in the British academy had begun to be both politicized and psychologized in new ways, but at which the ferment of continental Theory and of American feminism had not yet been digested into the discourses of literary history. The names of Bakhtin, Barthes, Foucault, Genette, and Kristeva appear nowhere in the index, while those of Derrida, Lacan, Sedgwick, and Todorov have surfaced only in this new edition. Any comparable work written ten years later would almost inevitably have been peppered with references to these theorists, and would probably have been dominated by their categories and terms. One of the pleasures of revisiting Punter's book, indeed, is that of enjoying the fluency and narrative continuity of a history uncongested by the burdens of Theory. Not that The Literature of Terror is in any damaging sense a naive or 'innocent' work: a post-structuralist (or perhaps just late-modernist) preference for narrative self-consciousness and for the scriptible has evidently filtered through in its critical stance; and more generally it has a theoretical programme and sense of direction, but one derived from a pre-Lacanian phase of the quest for a synthesis of Marx and Freud, perhaps most closely aligned with the position of Herbert Marcuse - the only post-war thinker noticeably invoked in the first volume. Its most active analytic terms, as Punter acknowledges - the Unconscious, repression, pathology, sublimation, paranoia - are obviously the Freudian ones, while Marx is brought in only intermittently.

The signature of the book's 'moment' is perhaps most visible in its pivotal third chapter, on the three 'Classic Gothic Novels' of the 1790s - The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, and The Italian . Punter's boldest move here is to read these works 'in series', in effect as a kind of collaborative or at least dialogic trilogy. Before Punter, the figures of Radcliffe and Lewis had habitually been presented as antagonists in the supposedly crucial matter of the use of the 'explained' supernatural. And since Punter, these two romancers have been sundered even more drastically as founders of incommensurable 'female' and 'male' Gothic modes - as 'Mother' and as 'Monk'. The Literature of Terror stands out, then, as one of the few studies of Gothic fiction in which, while allowing for formal, tonal, and gendered differences, Radcliffe and Lewis are treated as interlocutors in a common language. On the one side, Punter's dismissal of the question of the 'explained' supernatural as an exaggerated distraction opens up other dimensions of their writing to new scrutiny; on the other, it now appears refreshing to find no implausible claims for Radcliffe's 'radicalism', and to see Lewis presented more as a formal innovator than as a blindly phobic misogynist. In this chapter, as in many of the others, it is clear that the real critical work is being done not at the level of commentary or of 'readings' of texts (for which there is, in a survey of such scope, little room), but at the level of the collocation or clustering of them - a process which of course involves an 'interpretation' of a silent but powerful kind. Punter works well with either three texts or three authors to a chapter: thus the seventh ('Early American Gothic') covers Brockden Brown, Hawthorne, and Poe, while the eighth ('Gothic and the Sensation Novel') tackles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Sheridan Le Fanu. It is in the fifth chapter, though, that the interpretative collocation - of Godwin, Maturin, and Hogg - brings off one of the book's most interesting successes, bracketing Caleb Williams, Melmoth the Wanderer, and the Confessions of a Justified Sinner together as narratives of persecution, indeed as 'paranoiac texts' (p.138) in which, as Punter's commentary ably shows, the authors' overt moral purposes are in each case overwhelmed by darker obsessions. The most significant lost opportunity here is the exclusion of Frankenstein, which really belongs, formally and thematically, within this 'family' of persecution-novels rather than alongside the Romantic poets, where Punter wastefully strands it.

The more disappointing chapters of the first volume are those in which Punter tries to corral too loose an assortment of authors and texts into the same discussion. The sixth ('Gothic, History and the Middle Classes') rounds up Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer Lytton, William Harrison Ainsworth, G. P. R. James, and G. W. M. Reynolds, thus mixing together pseudo-chivalric romances, mainstream historical novels and urban sensational fiction in a rather aimless account of their various sources and debts. One has the feeling that Punter has expended a great deal of time on too many tedious third-rate novels, and needs to have something to show for his efforts, even if he is plainly unconvinced that these materials are either 'Gothic' or terrifying at all. The chapter does, however, throw up one tantalising retrospective observation:

Gothic in the last years of the eighteenth century was, as we have seen, partly an attitude towards history; more specifically, it clearly had to do with the ways in which a social class sought to understand and interpret class relations in the past.

P.144

It is a remark that could and should have been followed through more purposefully in several parts of the book, in which attitudes towards history are too frequently occluded by the preoccupations of a dominant depth-psychology.

A weak chapter of a different sort is the fourth, entitled 'Gothic and Romanticism', which embraces five of the six major English Romantic poets (the incorrigibly unGothic Wordsworth is set aside) along with Frankenstein and Polidori's 'The Vampyre'. The purpose of its arguments is announced thus:

One of the features of Gothic fiction which distinguishes it historically from many other forms of 'sensational' writing is the power which it exerted over this group of undeniably major writers; this is both part of its validation as a focus of critical interest, and also a major source of its continuing historical vitality.

P.87

As a 'validation' of interest in Gothic fiction, this is both unnecessary and unconvincing - a poeticized variation upon the more familiar and more plausible justifications of early Gothic as a precursor of Dickens or Dostoevsky or Kafka. Even as Punter attempts to illustrate the thesis in this chapter by adducing a small anthology of passages from the Romantics' minor works, it quickly becomes apparent that the connections between Gothic prose and Romantic poetry are both thematically unsurprising (Blake is interested in repression; so is Lewis) and genealogically indirect - which is to say that nothing more is demonstrated here than the well-known existence of a common body of 'pre-Romantic' materials behind both traditions: graveyard poetry, Ossianism, balladry, the cults of sensibility and the sublime. It takes more than a debt to Young or 'Ossian' to constitute a properly Gothic dimension of a poet's work; but in Punter's account there is a frequent slippage, and not just in this chapter, between the sources of Gothic and its achieved generic features, such that the label 'Gothic' can come to be applied to almost anything that contravenes the conventions of Augustanism. Before leaving this chapter, it is worth noticing that its treatment of Frankenstein is unusual to the point of perversity in regarding Mary Shelley's attitude to the creature as fearfully contemptuous. On the other hand, Punter's brief comments on 'The Vampyre' and its shaping of middle-class notions of the aristocracy are perceptive and well balanced.

The principal value of The Literature of Terror, it is worth recalling, is that it takes the story of Gothic fiction well beyond the border of 1820 behind which most previous accounts had restricted it. And in attempting such a prolonged narrative, it needs to be sensitive to shifts and transformations in an evolving tradition. From this point of view it is not just convenient but essential that Punter avoid fixing a tight definition of 'the Gothic' at the start. Instead we have, in the opening chapter, a survey of the various meanings and 'dimensions' of the term as it has been understood, but no attempt to sift or decide among them. This subsequently allows Punter to range fairly freely among different generic and national traditions (the American and Irish short story, the historical romance, the sensation novel) and thus to trace the various ways in which the Gothic legacy has coloured the literature of the last two centuries. This necessary flexibility has its costs, however, in the form of a repeated uncertainty about the applicability of 'Gothic' to many of the texts surveyed. Sometimes Punter will declare forthrightly that a particular novel or novelist is not Gothic (Scott, for instance); at others he concedes that a text's relation to the Gothic is open to debate (as with Frankenstein ); and towards the end of this volume he refers to Le Fanu's Uncle Silas (1864) as 'the first properly Gothic masterpiece in Britain since Melmoth the Wanderer ' (p.201) - which would make more sense (whether or not Dublin is in Britain) if we had been provided with a more secure ground for distinguishing proper Gothic from its impure offshoots. Without such a preparation, we are left with the impression that British and Irish fiction of the period 1820-1864 comprises works that are either Gothic but not masterpieces (Confessions of a Justified Sinner ?) or masterpieces but not properly Gothic (Little Dorrit ?). We are also presented with some curious choices of texts for illustration: the section on Dickens, for instance, is devoted almost entirely to Oliver Twist on the basis of its extreme violence rather than for any more specifically Gothic feature.

Another way of approaching the same recurrent problem is to say that there is a tension in this work between the terms of its main title and those of its subtitle: are we tracing the history of Terror or of Gothic? In so far as this history holds itself together, it does so by characterising (without ever actually defining) Gothic as Terror: 'Gothic fiction has, above all, to do with terror' (p.13). Yet the implied identification of Gothic with Terror is disputable. It is possible, although uncommon, to have a Gothic novel or tale that is not above all to do with terror, so long as certain minimal conditions (apprehension, confinement, and the claustrophobic pressure of the past) are active. The two masterpieces of Charlotte Bronte - the most glaring omission from this volume - are cases of this kind: both Jane Eyre and Villette are truly, if also idiosyncratically, Gothic novels, and yet terror is not of their essence. The same might even be said of Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest .

Punter often indicates that the essential features of Gothic fiction are psychological: derangement, obsession, nightmare, the eruption of the irrational. This is surely true - a non-psychological Gothic fiction is unthinkable - but just as surely misleading if it is allowed to dispose of other striking elements of the genre. In the fifth chapter especially, Punter tends to contrast the real psychological preoccupations of Gothic with its incidental 'environmental trappings' (p.116) - a model of trivial surface and serious depth that is upheld throughout this 'psychologizing' work. Of almost all accounts of Gothic fiction, this is the least interested in the familiar 'surface' decor of the genre: its castles, underground passages and creaking doors, its stock-in-trade abbots and servants. In this respect, it misses the opportunity to integrate the 'trappings' with the major obsessions. In particular, it is blithely unconcerned with the religious and sectarian dimensions of the genre, with all their historical resonances. The question of anti-Catholicism goes unmentioned for the first fifty pages, and at one point Punter even remarks that Maturin displays 'an anticlericalism, surprising in a priest' (p.124), as if Protestantism had nothing to do with this. It has taken works of a more clearly historical tendency - notably Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (1988) by Victor Sage, Punter's former colleague at the University of East Anglia -to correct such imbalances, but the historicist camp has yet to produce an extensive history of Gothic that could rival the lucidity or stimulating power of The Literature of Terror.