By Jonathan Greenaway Theology, Horror, and Fiction: A Reading of the Gothic Nineteenth Century (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 202 pages). ISBN 9781501351785
Religious symbols and persons, whether powerful or in a state of decay, are frequent tropes in the Gothic; but Dr Jonathan Greenaway’s new book on Theology, Horror, and Fiction seeks to bring the underlying theology in such texts to light, placing the Gothic and theology ‘into productive dialogue’ (p. 2). Greenaway argues that while theology deepens our understanding of Gothic texts, the Gothic provides a site for exploring theological ideas outside the confines of religious orthodoxy, allowing such practices to ‘be contested, challenged and explored’ (p. 123). Having published an edited collection with Elle Beal entitled Horror and Religion in 2019, Greenaway signals his solo entrance into the field of theology and Gothic. He joins such renowned critics as Alison Milbank, Simon Marsden and Zoë Lehmann Imfeld to continue this field’s growth in recent literary criticism. Greenaway makes a compelling argument for the Gothic’s role in unearthing faith’s trickier aspects, including doubt, questions of free will, and the problem of evil. In doing so, he demonstrates that ‘like the cathedrals of the past, the Gothic ultimately reflects back upon human subjectivity, in all of its theological and material instability, contingency and fragility’ (p. 24).
The book moves chronologically from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897, spanning a range of texts across the nineteenth century. Having outlined the book’s distinct methodology for applying theological ideas as a form of literary theory, Greenaway moves into a detailed textual analysis of Frankenstein using St Augustine’s thinking on ‘the ontological state of evil’, or why we sin. He indicates that Victor is the closest thing to that ‘negation of being’ rather than his creation (p. 45; 53). Chapter two showcases theology’s imaginative capacity in the Gothic by using James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Calvinist theologies to problematise textual sources as the only site for religious revelation, thereby complicating the Bible’s singular authority as a sacred text and leaving the Gothic to uncover ‘the instability inherent’ in systematic theologies (p. 58).
By chapter three, Greenaway focuses his analyses on Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s novels to reveal how they use the Gothic to critique the limitations of social, religious practices by seeking a personal relationship with the divine in nature instead. Here, he builds on his established methodology to recontextualise Gothic novels in their ‘specific social and political configuration[s]’, expressing how theological ideas permeate nineteenth-century literature and culture (p. 76). The fourth chapter continues this project, drawing on short ghost stories to demonstrate that the nineteenth century had no singular, homogenous Christian religion. Instead, the same theological ideas are utilised and interpreted in various ways; while one ghost acts as a path to conversion, another ghost comments on a person’s ‘religious and short-sighted’ mind caught between ‘scientific rationality […] and an authoritarian religion’ (p. 121; 120).
Drawing on Stoker’s Dracula as a text combining Protestant theologies with Catholic iconographies, Greenaway packs the final fifth chapter with numerous textual examples and reveals interwoven, diverse discourses between Christian religion and theological thinking. As such, Greenaway speaks back to those scholars who read the Gothic novel as the usher of secularism. For example, in this concluding chapter, he re-figures the role of Charles Darwin’s degeneration theories from The Descent of Man in Gothic novels through theology. Using case studies from Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Grey and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Greenaway demonstrates how theological understandings add depth to degeneration readings. He argues that ‘there is a kind of theological logic still at work even within the ostensible secular and scientific theories’, suggesting that, more than the fear of biological generation, Wilde and Stevenson’s texts are haunting because they reveal something of humanity’s evil. (p. 126). By the book’s conclusion, Greenaway’s initial distinction between ‘religious content’ and ‘the theological issues that surround and underpin’ these Christian practices is unsettled, demonstrating the Gothic’s power to disrupt traditionally held beliefs and find new ways to seek the divine (p. 7).
The book’s great strength is its fresh perspectives on these often over-analysed texts in the Gothic canon. In particular, the first chapter’s use of St Augustine’s work to examine monstrosity and identity in Shelley’s Frankenstein is compelling and robust. Through referencing the thinkers who influenced Shelley, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Greenaway brings together strands of philosophy, theology, and textual analysis with agility and skill.
While making the theological concepts used accessible, this book does require prior knowledge from its readers of the Gothic and its distinction from horror. In this way, the book’s title of Theology, Horror, and Fiction feels like a misnomer at times, lacking clear parameters of what comprises “Gothic” and “Horror” within the confines of this study. The book opens with the scene-setting ‘[r]uined churches, crucifixes, mysterious priests, and closed orders of nuns’, recalling the ‘familiar tropes within the early Gothic’ (p. 1). Opening with what Catherine Spooner termed the ‘”shopping list”‘ of components’ approach to defining Gothic, more critical discussion on the Gothic is weaved throughout (2007, p. 155). For example, in chapter four, Greenaway summarises that in the Gothic, ‘the possibility of return, of renewal, is always present (p. 111). Given the book’s expansive range of Gothic texts, it would have been helpful to see a little more on this critical discussion and cite those critics who have informed his understanding of the Gothic. Rather than focusing on what Gothic does in these texts to make them a rich site for theological discussion, the book takes Gothic fiction and analyses them through a theological lens, emphasising what theology can do for the Gothic.
Overall, John Greenaway’s new book is a remarkably accomplished solo entrance into the world of Gothic literature and theology. It is a must-read for scholars interested in religion and literature and those looking for a refreshing approach to well-loved stories. Prior knowledge and familiarity with the field are advisable for readers. Even so, Greenaway offers a compelling argument for theology’s capacity to ‘manifest in shocking new ways’ through the Gothic and horror (p. 17).
Review by Ruth-Anne Walbank