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A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. ISBN: 0 631 20620 5 (hardback). Price: £60.00 (US$124.95).[Record]

  • Douglass H. Thomson

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  • Douglass H. Thomson
    Georgia Southern University

Chris Baldick's and Robert Mighall's provocative attack on the state of Gothic criticism cleaves a sharp divide among the many and various attempts to "understand" the Gothic in this collection of critical essays on the subject. With something like the bemused detachment of Henry Tilney warning Catherine Morland about the perils—and just plain silliness—of over-interpretation, Baldick and Mighall find most of twentieth-century Gothic criticism "radically misguided" (p. 209), prone to melodramatic misreading, and marred by an elitist contempt for bourgeois complacency and patterns of consumption. Although critics, they argue, wish Gothic "novels to be excitingly subversive or, failing that, to be scandalously reactionary, the sad truth is that they are just tamely humanitarian: they creditably encourage respect for women's property rights, and they imply that rape, arbitrary imprisonment and torture are, on the whole, a bad thing" (p. 227). Theirs is a supremely progressive approach to the Gothic, finding it more a product of than a protest against Enlightenment rationalism and an endorsement of "Protestant bourgeois values as 'kinder' than those of feudal barons" (p. 214). One can only conclude from the spirited essay that Baldick and Mighall would offer a somewhat negative review of the volume in which their essay on "Gothic Criticism" appears. For many of the essays in A Companion to The Gothic do find the Gothic "excitingly subversive" or "scandalously reactionary" in ways that allow interpreters to articulate the abject or monstrous other haunting modern paradigms of progress and sanity. Take as a prime example this observation from David Punter in his editor's "Introduction" to the volume: " . . . Gothic has come to serve as a kind of cultural threshold, or as a repertoire of images that fatally undercut the 'verbal compact' on which, among other things, the modern state rests" (p. xiv). Here, indeed, is high drama: the Gothic no longer as a genre but as a proliferating repertoire of images, fatally undermining the premise of the modern state, a perfect instance of how, according to Baldick and Mighall, "Gothic criticism now functions as a 'Gothic' form of discourse in its own right." One leaves these mainly British readings with a comfortable sense that the Gothic is not that strange of a thing after all: it tactically uses conventions of the supernatural to explore issues of national identity; knowingly advances the agenda and aspirations of a progressive and Protestant bourgeois; and saves its fiercest stigmatization for those forces opposed to progress. But many of the essays in A Companion to the Gothic begin with a by now more familiar and very different premise: the Gothic as a reservoir of disturbing images that undermine Enlightenment ideals, express the deepest fears of the emerging bourgeois (especially in terms of sexuality), and haunt modern myths of progress. While Baldick and Mighall find the recurrent notion of "fear and trembling in the bourgeois psyche" largely an invention of the "Whiggish melodrama of modernity in conflict with the dark age of Victorian repression" (p. 224)—"there is no evidence that [the middle class] sleeps less soundly after curling up with a titillating anthology of vampire tales" (p. 226)—contributors like Glennis Byron in her "Gothic in the 1890's" reach the opposite conclusion: "the transgressive monsters of Victorian fin de siècle" ("all" of who embody Kristeva's sense of the abject) "confront the reader with the spectacle of dissolution [and] repeatedly challenge the stability and integrity of the human subject" (p. 141). Her study of beast people, shape-changers, and doppelgängers in the fiction of Stevenson, Wilde, Machen and Wells convincingly demonstrates that "late Victorian Britain had become all too aware of …

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