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Marie Mulvey-Roberts, ed. The Handbook to Gothic Literature. Houndmills, Macmillan, 1998. ISBN: 0-333-67069-8 (paperback). Price: £12.

  • Glennis Byron

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  • Glennis Byron
    University of Stirling

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As the editor of The Handbook to Gothic Literature suggests, handbooks are often seen as rather comforting things, even if the comfort they offer is ultimately deceptive. The 'impulse to catalogue and classify in the spirit of Augustan taxonomy', Mulvey-Roberts writes in her introduction, serves us with the illusion of gaining control over the otherwise uncontainable' (xv). Faced with the 'formless mass of Gothic space' (xv), surely anyone could be forgiven a desire for the semblance of such control. This Handbook in many ways admirably fills what has until now been a notable gap in Gothic studies. Sixty five contributors, many of whom are the leading scholars in their fields, have contributed what are frequently engaging, surprising, and provocative entries on a wide variety of subjects, and all, in their differing ways, contribute towards the discussion of two basic issues: what is Gothic and what is Gothic literature? The handbook allows the student to get both a sense of the big picture - there are, for example, concise and informative overviews for such entries as 'Gothic Novel' 'Scottish Gothic' and 'Female Gothic' - but also to find more detailed information about many of the authors or terms mentioned in the overviews by looking up the more specific entries.

It is always difficult to decide the level at which to pitch such a handbook, and, particularly when the entries are being written by a wide and varied group of contributors, to impose any consistency is problematic, and probably not desirable. The editor suggests the Handbook 'purports to be introductory, referential and innovatory' (xvi-xvii), and my overall impression was that the Handbook would indeed be most useful for those students just beginning to engage with Gothic literature. There is, however, quite a variation in the level of complexity and detail found in the entries. While some discussions of 'minor' writers offer no more information than one might find in any competent guide to English literature, the majority of the key Gothic writers are treated in some detail, and the entries on such authors as Ann Radcliffe and Edgar Allan Poe go far beyond any kind of quick summary to offer excellent and extensive treatments of the key issues in the works and to suggest a wide variety of possible critical approaches. Similarly, while a few of the entries on key terms seem a touch too basic, even for an introduction, the majority, after clearly setting out the main points, encourage further exploration of the terms by engaging with some relatively complex theoretical issues, and provide very useful examples of how these terms and theoretical issues can be talked about with reference to a selection of texts. The contributors for 'Horror' and 'Terror', to name just two of many clear yet quite challenging discussions, pack quite a startling amount of information into a relatively short space. Entries like these mean that more advanced students will also find the Handbook of interest. All the students in our taught postgraduate course in The Gothic Imagination at Stirling, for example, have a copy. They do, inevitably, seem to use it in a somewhat oppositional manner, frequently disagreeing with the contributors' assessments and explanations. Nevertheless, by engaging in this kind of dialogue with the contributors, they are effectively identifying and refining their own positions on the Gothic.

One of the main strengths of this handbook, in fact, is the way is promotes such provocative dialogues, even between its contributors (read the entries on 'Horror' and 'Terror' for a good example of this). It is through close attention to this dialogue that, as the editor notes, a 'working definition of "Gothic" and "Gothic literature", with its polyvalency and slippage of meaning, may be gleaned' (xvi). Of course, as Mulvey-Roberts goes on to note, 'while trying to lock onto the Gothic co-ordinates, one can end up chasing a zero vanishing point' (xvi). What makes a text 'Gothic'? A few contributors tend to avoid the issue with rather loose claims about Gothic style (can such a thing really be nailed down?) or Gothic conventions, or make unexplained and unsupported judgements assertions about what is or is not 'true' Gothic. On the whole, however, the contributors posit a fascinating collection of answers and it is the variety and the frequently conflicting nature of these answers, that makes this handbook most interesting. At times I did wonder if the term Gothic has become so all-embracing that any text can be squeezed to fit. In the entry on English-Canadian Gothic, for example, while agreeing with the claim that the Gothic 'has been turned to in order to speak particularly unpalatable social realities by contemporary authors' (51), I found myself a little uneasy with the placement of Joy Kogawa's Obasan as a Gothic text. 'The story of the dispossession and incarceration of the Japanese-Canadians', the contributor notes, re-writes the idyllic sense of the Vancouver setting, and makes a lie, in particular, of the hideous notion that Canada is without ghosts'. True, but my immediate response was to counter that perhaps in some cases ghosts do not always a Gothic make. On the other hand, such claims do force one to start attempting to refine one's own definitions as a result, and the next time I teach Obasan I will certainly be looking at it in a new light. And if ghosts do not always a Gothic make, then what does? This Handbook may not ultimately offer any definitive answers, but it will certainly challenge any readers who come to it with fixed preconceptions of their own. After reading such entries as those on 'Australian Gothic', for example, I certainly found I had to revise and expand my own views of what constitutes the Gothic. As the editor notes, Angela Carter once observed that no matter how much the Gothic changes, it always retains 'a singular moral function - that of provoking unease' (xvii). And perhaps this is also the real function of a good handbook: not in fact to comfort, to offer us 'the illusion of gaining control over the otherwise uncontainable', but, like the Gothic itself, to provoke unease. This Handbook, I think, manages to be both informative and disturbing.

To end with my one main problem with the Handbook: the overall organisation. The book is divided into two sections, focusing in turn on what is identified by the editor as the 'predominantly mainstream' and the 'primarily peripheral' (xvi). In theory, this may seem quite a useful division to make; in practice, the effect is undeniably odd. This oddness is partly the effect of a striking disproportion in the division. The first section, which focuses on Gothic Writers and Key Terms, accounts for two hundred and sixty out of two hundred and eighty nine pages; the second section, devoted to Gothic Specialisms, is relegated to the remaining twenty nine pages, creating the unfortunate effect of a section of afterthoughts. One suspects the division does not actually serve any real function, and this suspicion is intensified by the fact that the underlying grounds for deciding to put an entry into one section or the other are not always clear. I found it curious, for example, that such terms as 'transgression', 'uncanny' and 'Doppelganger' were placed in the short section on Gothic Specialisms, along with such other issues as 'Porphyria', 'Lycanthropy', and 'Cyberpunk', and dealt with in one page or less. On the other hand, 'wizards', 'the imagination', and the 'Marquis de Sade' enjoyed the more prominent position of being associated with Gothic Writers and Key Terms and were dealt with in more detail. I would have thought that the uncanny and notions of transgression far more important to the Gothic than this suggests; surely, as the contributor for this entry rightly notes, the Doppelganger at least is 'a recurrent motif in Gothic and horror literature' (264), and deserving of being identified as a Key Term. Of course, one person's peripheral is always going to be another's mainstream, and even here, to steal a line from James, the reviewer's views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be.