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Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, Eds., Modern Gothic: A Reader. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0-7190-4208-9 (paperback). Price: £12.99.

  • Rebecca E. Martin

…more information

  • Rebecca E. Martin
    Pace University

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This new collection of essays, Modern Gothic, edited by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, sets itself a truly Gothic task in tracing the survival of the Gothic in post-war culture, specifically in fiction and film. For the most part, the essays succeed, with the best opening up the Gothic mode to significant scrutiny far beyond the author or work under discussion. The best also explicitly retain their grounding in the earlier manifestations of the mode, resisting the current tendency to see the Gothic in every shadow, which renders the term meaningless. The collection opens with one of the best definitions of Gothic recently offered, first nodding to the venerable practice of offering a laundry list of conventions as a substitute for definition:

Evidently, the Gothic is not merely a literary convention or a set of motifs: it is a language, often an anti-historicising language, which provides writers with the critical means of transferring an idea of the otherness of the past into the present.

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Though the essays move readily between literature and film, the focus is on the language of allusion, a rich language that confers the "paradoxical ability to flaunt and camouflage itself" (2), through which the Gothic survives.

Lloyd Smith's opening essay provides a controlling force for the collection as a whole and subtly thematizes readers' responses to the essays that follow. Nothing argued in the other twelve essays contradicts his imaginative analysis of the connections between Gothic and Postmodernism based on the following categories: indeterminacy, epistemology/ontology, surfaces/affectivity, nostalgia/archaism/history, pastiche/reflexivity, criminality/the unspeakable/excess, science/technology/paranoia. Of course, not all of the authors discussed are legitimately Postmodern; if any author is a touchstone for the collection as a whole, it is Isak Dinesen. Dinesen figures centrally or obliquely in three essays, one of them—that by Ros Ballaster on Dinesen's "The Monkey"—particularly notable for its well-argued rejection of the "hysteric" as a figure of female resistance; the body, Ballaster insists, does not exhibit displaced sexual desire, but conceals through hysteria the "relations of power and property by displacement into internalised struggle over the repression of sexual desire" (68). Aficionados of Seven Gothic Tales will be interested in this collection, which also includes an essay by Helen Stoddart on story-telling and gravity in Dinesen and an essay by Judie Newman that invokes Dinesen as the starting point for a fruitful consideration of postcolonial Gothic, but the group for whom the work will be truly worth having is those interested in the Gothic and film.

The essays on film are the most provocative offerings in the collection. Laura Mulvey uses "The Gothicism of Blue Velvet" to discuss the film in Oedipal terms and in the process illuminates the film, the myth and the Gothic genre. Saying that Freud "transforms Oedipus from a figuration of human reason into a figuration of the human subordination to unreason" (49) she traces the film's weaving of the instinctual and the rational in the eventual triumph of the film's young Oedipus over the "monstrous paternal" (45); but in a move that conjures up many melancholy Gothic endings, the young man will now live in a "new darkness" (46) and the dark, uncanny world that he has experienced will never be far away from consciousness, from "erupting into . . . symptomatic behavior" (46). Blue Velvet, in this estimate, was itself an eruption "restor[ing] the uncanny to American culture" of the 1980s. David Seed's essay on the "body snatcher" plot in literature and films is a definitive account of that plot's movement from specificity toward, currently, a sense of threat "that is dispersed across the whole natural environment" (168), and is required reading for those familiar with either Jack Finney's 1955 novel or its various cinematic incarnations, but it would have been much richer for a closer connection to the Gothic. The survival of the Gothic in modern movie monsters such as Freddy of Nightmare on Elm Street's apparently endless permutations and serial killer Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs is the subject of Peter Hutchings's essay, but in the allotted space Hutchings can only be suggestive and leaves the reader unsatisfied. Special mention is deserved by Judie Newman's "Postcolonial Gothic: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the Sobhraj Case," which startles with originality and informs at every turn in its examination of "the ideological consequences of the transfer of a European genre to a colonial environment" (171) as it traces the journalistic and television mini-series (the dreaded word "faction" is introduced in quotes) portrayals of Indian smuggler and serial killer Charles Sobhraj. Newman argues convincingly from this case that

The duplicity of Gothic—its propensity for crossing boundaries, violating taboos, transgressing limits, together with its sense of blockage, privation and prohibition against utterance—makes it the perfect means to dramatise the horrors of the relationship between the social group which sanctions its actions by cultural forms, and the excluded from discourse, who speak by deeds. . . . By its intertextual nature. . . it prevents the univocal from holding sway.

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It is the text's standout essay and offers a unique model from which much new analysis will profit.

The collection illustrates the near impossibility of discussing the Gothic today without reference to films, but the connection is discussed only in thematic terms without noting the ways in which Gothic on film echoes its literary predecessors in technique as well as theme. Mulvey approaches the subject, noting that the "Gothic is closely tied to the protocinematic" (51), but does not return to it, leaving unexplored the uncanny anticipation by early Gothic novels of precisely the combination of spectator, spectacle and narrative that Mulvey herself introduced, with lasting effect, as a major concern of modern film theory.

The collection is rounded out by contributions from David Punter (whose own book on the modern Gothic is a coherent, chronologically-organized supplement to this) who brings a welcome thoughtfulness to the treatment of Stephen King and his portrayal of trauma, memory and forgetting, the stuff of Gothic iteration, as well as Victor Sage, Susanne Becker, Liliane Weissberg, and Giles Menegaldo. Beate Neumeier's essay on Angela Carter's powerful, transformative linking of the real and the symbolic is particularly strong.

If I may be allowed one testy remark? This book contains an unconscionable number of typographical errors, many of which are far from minor and some of which utterly destroy the sense of a passage, as when we are informed that Toni Morrison's "reworking of a British tradition" may be a "deafening" act (117). "Defining," possibly, "deadening," arguably, but "deafening" makes no sense at all in the context. Elsewhere we are told that The Castle of Otranto was published in 1794, not 1764. One would look in vain in any catalogue for the work of Terry "Gastle." Robert Miles' fine book on Ann Radcliffe from this publisher had a similar problem. These authors are not well-served and aggravation of nearly brutal proportions is added to a reading experience that should reward both (patient) generalists and specialists.