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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[Record]

  • Chris Baldick

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  • Chris Baldick
    Goldsmiths' College, University of London

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 At once it superseded those embarrassingly eccentric and critically wayward 'authorities', Montague Summers's The Gothic Quest (1938) and Devendra Varma's The Gothic Flame (1957),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 …