by Chase Padusniak
Published by Harvard University Press, 2012 | 333 pages
On an appropriately stormy night in 1816, the consummate socialite and brooding Romantic poet Lord Byron proposed an infamous wager for the guests in his summer home at Villa Diodati. Inspirited by a group reading of Coleridge’s newly-published Gothic poem “Christabel,” Byron asked his audience to each concoct a terrifying story. Propitiously, present company included none other than fellow poet Percy Shelley, his wife Mary, John Polidori, and a dash of other assorted continental literati. From these humble beginnings two timeless monsters would emerge: Frankenstein and the vampire. As Victoria Nelson relates in Gothicka , it was here in Villa Diodati the Gothic genre is born.
For a literary event of such significance, the arrival of the Gothic was uniquely bereft of hoo-ha. After all, sexually-explicit, torturous narratives of the dangerous and supernatural have been around for some time – and derided for even longer; Wordsworth himself decried these as the “sickly and stupid German Tragedies” whose sentimental prose fails to measure up to the transcendental heights of verse. At the time, Byron’s wager was little more than the guilty-pleasure diversions of poets on their off day. In fact, Nelson tells us, Byron cared so little about his own vampire story that he readily “lent” it to Polidori, who eventually publishes the smashingly successful The Vampyre under his own name.
Nonetheless, Nelson argues for the crucial importance of the occasion, finding the Gothic to be an essential and unique branch of Romanticism, the epochal shift in human consciousness that marked the great assault on “reason” by emotion. In her account, Villa Diodati occurred at the tail end of the Enlightenment, in the period after the Newtonian mechanistic worldview that dominated the preceding century had crumbled the foundations of religion. Whereas people once trembled in awe of a God believed to be manifest in everyday life, the Romantics, in their desire to regain that emotional sublime, instead sought its secularized, aesthetically experienced form in nature. From majestic landscapes to cataclysmic disasters, nature becomes the site where awe blends seamlessly into terror, where the dethroned divine begets the transcendence of the natural.
To clarify the aesthetics of Romanticism and the Gothic – whose influence would reach out far beyond the purely aesthetic realm – Nelson provides a comprehensive account of the co-evolution of religion and Gothic literature in the last few centuries. Her genealogy is as follows: The Protestant Reformation had ushered in a Calvinist world in which God was no longer manifest in everyday life. Gone were miraculous portents, symbolic rituals, and accounts of divine intervention. Gone too, was the unique feeling of awe previously reserved for the divine: the sublime. The Protestant Reformation thus came to further, paradoxically, the Newtonian, mechanistic worldview. Intuiting this, writers in the eighteenth century, struggling to escape the recently perceived vacuum of manifest divinity, became increasingly interested in other means of charged experience. Some, like Edmund Burke and certain Romantic artists, looked for the aesthetically experienced sublime in natural landscapes (think Wordsworth, Turner, etc.). Others found it in what literary scholar Vijay Mishra identifies as the “Gothic sublime” – an aesthetic of terror. Gothic literature, born in the eighteenth century and continuing down to the present day, is the legacy of this latter school.
For most of its history, the Gothic monster has clearly functioned in the Western Christian iconography as a demarcation of evil, thus reinforcing the dominant Christian worldview. But, Nelson argues, in the historical shift into the Romantic period – a shift from belief to imagination – the fear of God and the fear of fictional creatures are found to be surprisingly transferable. The Gothic monster’s late twentieth-century and contemporary cousin thus comes to occupy a moral gray area between heaven and hell (quite literally, for example, in the case of Spawn, Todd McFarlane’s eponymous comic book superhero). In blending traditional depictions of good and evil and hybridizing monster and human, it offers a “weird subliminal corrective to Protestant Christianity,” Nelson suggests.
Consider the Great Awakening of the 1960s, when the secularization and atomization of modern society that extolled personal gnosis over organized religion saw a torrent of new religious movements that dabbled in science fictional elements, as in the “Primary Believers,” a pseudo-religious vampire organization. This crossover between sci-fi fandom and new age religion is, according to Nelson, a window into the state of religion, today (think Scientology, etc.) and since the Gothic’s founding. The growth of individual gnosis relative to the decline of organized religion, along with the increasing tendency to normalize the supernatural by conflating monstrous with the everyday, together explain why fan fervor for everything from Star Trek to Twilight has recently reached a fever pitch of religious intensity. The steadfast belief in some fictional worlds, in other words, has become a syncretic mythos containing overlapping bits and pieces of sci-fi imagination, Theosophist-oriented cosmology, popular culture, and old religious symbology. No longer does organized religion have a sole monopoly on the affect of the sublime; the Gothic sublime has interpenetrated all levels of society to serve as the new purveyor of the aesthetic.
Nelson’s comprehensive genealogy of Gothic literature finds an apposite companion in her astute summaries of complex historical movements. Her obligatory emphasis on the seminal works of Gothic literature does not detract from equal attention to breadth: she, with delightful acerbity, provides us with uproarious accounts of notoriously bad Gothic texts, from the scandalous excesses of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk to the gratuitous interspecial commingling in the HBO series True Blood.
Not only does Nelson find examples in both high and low culture, but she also demonstrates cross-media fluency by drawing from cinema, television, and gaming alike. The Gothic “was and is the ultimate mongrel form,” Nelson tells us, and in a manner in keeping with its form, herself readily adapts to the polyphonic valences of the Gothic, switching between the roles of literary critic and pop cultural pundit, historian and humorist. In one representative passage, Nelson relates today’s Goth subculture (think black attire and black makeup) to her account of the overall Gothic:
[The Goths] are deeply into music and feelings, frequent graveyards for the tranquility these places offer, and believe we must understand death before we can fully appreciate life. All these qualities could be equally ascribed to Thomas Gray or any other poet of the late eighteenth-century Graveyard school of poetry, though Gray, so far as is known, did not indulge in piercings or tattoos.
While Nelson’s genealogy of the Gothic is as exhaustive as it is entertaining, it may have its limits. Much of Nelson’s fascinating argument about the interconnected evolution of the Gothic sub-Zeitgeist and religious institutions is diluted in the chapters that follow, which are organized by subtopics varied and deep enough for their own anthologies. For instance, one chapter charts the use of faux-Catholic imagery in the Gothic over the years (exorcisms, holy water, crosses, etc.), while another explores the phenomenon of Halloween. One chapter looks at the rise and fall of Satan as a literary trope, while another provides a ten point checklist of the characteristics of the contemporary Gothic. In other words, although Nelson clearly outlines her ambitious project in her introduction, her chapters tend to digress from it, albeit in a unquestionably engrossing fashion. Then again, sometimes it is just these divergences that prove the most interesting: her inclusion of inconsequential but endlessly intriguing minutiae alone make this book worth reading.
Nelson’s work is an amply footnoted, well-researched tour-de-force that finds a winning ratio of one part didacticism and two parts fascinated enthusiasm. Gothicka, following in the wake of her equally thorough The Secret Life of Puppets , establishes Nelson as an authority in the field of Gothic literature while cementing her position as a humorist who can lighten even the most morose Gothic tale with her dazzling wit.
Allen Zhang is a PhD candidate and Mellon fellow in the English Department at the University of California Los Angeles, specializing in postcolonial literature, speculative fiction, and the digital humanities. He was the recipient of the Arthur Feinstein award at Dartmouth College for his work on Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa.