Review: The Gothic and death

The Gothic and death

Edited by Carol Margaret Davison, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017. 256 pages) ISBN 978-1-7849-9269-9

Whether we are conscious of it or not, death is an idea that dominates life. We seek to postpone it through diet, exercise or medicine; we dwell on the deaths of others, be they friends or strangers; we look to sidestep death by grasping at forms of immortality – memory, record or descendants. Editor Carol Margaret Davison argues that, in Gothic studies, death is often only discussed by implication (p.1). A volume exploring what Davison has dubbed the necropoetics and necropolitics of the Gothic, is then long overdue.

The collection is organised according to five themes: Gothic graveyards and afterlives (looking particularly at the appropriation of the Graveyard Poets), Gothic revolutions and undead histories (the politics of execution and torture in the Romantic period), Gothic apocalypses: dead selves/dead civilizations, Global Gothic dead, and Twenty-first-century Gothic and death. The longest volume so far in MUP’s International Gothic series, The Gothic and death features fifteen essays on a wide variety of subjects. Philippe Ariès’ seminal The Hour of Our Death (1977) casts a long shadow over the collection, as is perhaps understandable in a work that has cause to interpret and reinterpret the author’s ideas on death and modernity in western culture. Indeed, in her introduction, Davison posits competing cultures of death in Gothic literature. Though Davison’s argument relates directly to the opposition of Catholic and Protestant in the early Gothic, it has wider implications for the collection as a whole – that how we engage with death is a modern cultural statement, as much as it is a historical cultural artefact. As Davison herself puts it, “I mourn, therefore, I am”.

The collection begins with Serena Trowbridge’s essay, “Past, present, and future in the Gothic graveyard”, arguing that the early Gothic absorbed the atmosphere of the disparate Graveyard Poets and (as identified by Ariès) embraced an understanding of death focused on individual experience. Sibylle Earle also tackles the Graveyard Poets, in “’On the very Verge of legitimate Invention’: Charles Bonnet and William Blake’s illustrations to Robert Blair’s The Grave (1808)”. Earle argues that Blake’s visual language undermined Blair’s verse, ‘as it blurred the boundary between the literal and the figural and even distorted the boundaries of gender.’ (p.34) Bruce Wyse’s essay “Entranced by death: Horace Smith’s Mesmerism” showcases a forgotten novel, ‘an anti-Gothic Gothic text’ (p.48) that uses Gothic convention to combat the fear of death. Emma Galbally and Conrad Brunström’s “‘This dreadful machine’: the spectacle of death and the aesthetics of crowd control” explores the guillotine as a symbol on the British stage of the 1790s. Yael Maurer’s “Undying histories: Washington Irving’s Gothic afterlives” revisits the guillotine in Irving’s “Adventure of the German Student”. Irving, Maurer says, ‘presents the “historical” as a site of confusion and madness’ (p.77) and, in his key works, insists on the (perhaps unsolvable) ‘problem’ of American history. Adam White’s “Deadly interrogations: cycles of death and transcendence in Byron’s Gothic” offers a close reading of The Two Foscari (and to a lesser extent, The Prisoner of Chillon) that contrasts Byron’s idea of transcendent death with that of death as a final limit in the Radcliffean Gothic. In the final essay touching on eighteenth and nineteenth-century Gothic texts, Jennifer Schell confronts, “The annihilation of self and species: the ecoGothic sensibilities of Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne”, arguing that both authors emphasise the sublime aspects of nature that will ultimately bring about the extinction of humanity (specifically in The Last Man and “The Ambitious Guest”). Identifying a theme that underpins many of the essays in the collection, Schell notes that extinction threatens ‘symbolic immortality’ (p.107) – there are no offspring to carry on our genes, or future scholars to read our works.

The collection takes a turn for (nineteenth-century) pop culture with John Cameron Hartley’s essay on “Death cults in Gothic ‘Lost World’ fiction”, alluding to the birth/death motif in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887). Haggard’s themes of the sexual-political body and degeneration reoccur in the twenty first century in Matthew Pangborn’s piece, “Dead again: zombies and the spectre of cultural decline” which ties together revolution, Peak Oil, and the existential emptiness of ownership and consumption.

The Gothic and death includes a valuable section of essays addressing literature and film from beyond the Anglosphere. Christina Petraglia claims the Scapigliatura of the Italian unification period (1815-71) as a Gothic form that visits the themes of death, degeneracy and excess as much as any canonical Gothic author. Petraglia’s essay focuses on psychoanalytic mirroring: “A double dose of death in Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s ‘I fatali’”. The collection follows with Katherine Bowers’ “Through the opaque veil: the Gothic and death in Russian realism”, which argues that the more public experience of death that remained common amongst the Russian peasantry well into the nineteenth-century reflected the persistence of a medieval worldview that complicates western conflations of realism, materialism and modernity. Finally, Vijay Mishra’s essay, “Afterdeath and the Bollywood Gothic noir” explores the possibilities of the Gothic in a culture that assumes rebirth and reincarnation over undeath and the afterlife. Mishra looks closely at the films Nadiya Ke Paar (1948) and Mahal (1949) but considers Madhumati (1958) – with its dark memory of past life – as ‘the consummate text of the Bollywood Gothic noir.’ (p.182)

The last part of the collection brings the topic fully up to date, examining Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008) and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2011) in Michelle J. Smith’s “Dead and ghostly children in contemporary literature for young people”. The essay contrasts modern and (pseudo) Victorian approaches to child mortality – arguing that changing attitudes to death position the modern child reader to imagine their worth as a future adult, rather than to prepare themselves for mortality. Editor Carol Margaret Davison’s own contribution follows, in a wide-ranging and sometimes poetic essay that examines the cinematic transgression of the boundaries between living and dead, under the title, “Modernity’s fatal addictions: technological necromancy and E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire”. The collection ends with a look into the near future, as Neal Kirk discusses online presence as modern ghost story in “‘I’m not in that thing you know … I’m remote. I’m in the cloud’: networked spectrality in Charlie Brooker’s ‘Be Right Back’” (part of the Channel 4 series, Black Mirror).

The Gothic and death is an interesting and varied collection that explores many compelling cultural themes through a range of seemingly disparate texts. In doing so, the work achieves a rare unity for an edited collection – attempting perhaps the widest scope it could have, most students or scholars of the Gothic will find something of interest here. The topics of individual essays may not lend themselves immediately to the scholarship of others, but the ideas that run through the collection as a whole will likely speak far more broadly. The highest recommendation for The Gothic and death is that it lends itself to reading as a unified whole, and not merely as a collection of individual essays.

Review by Richard Gough Thomas

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