Hughes, William and Ruth Heholt, editors. Gothic Britain: Dark Places in the Provinces and Margins of the British Isles. (University of Wales Press, 2018. 272 pages) ISBN 9781786832337
This collection by Hughes and Heholt sets out to bring together writing that explore dark or gothic places through a range of writings from various places in the British Isles; some of which are not usually regarded as obviously gothic locations such as the Isle of Mann or Cornwall. It includes not only examples from old tales but modern literature, film and even tourist spots. The collection is subdivided into 3 sections: “Re-imagining Gothic Landscapes: Folklore, Nostalgia and History”, “Unnatural Gothic Spaces”, and “Border Crossings and threat of Invasion”. These three sections demonstrate the importance of geographic place in gothic works but also the often uncanny or otherness of these places and the importance of locating historical place within the gothic. The nature of the gothic within different cultural settings is also examined, with the introduction priming the reader to look for these different aspects within the chapters. The introductory chapter draws out the notion that Victorian British writers often used regional settings rather than European ones, but this is not limiting as there is still plenty of travel to unknown and unfamiliar places within gothic writing as the works go to places on the margins. This introduction also encourages the reader to look at the subsequent chapters in an urban versus countryside context, as leaving the city and journeying into the wild is a frequent theme.
The first section contains chapters that focus on the importance of specific geographical locations within gothic writing and how unknown, unfamiliar or rural places are key features of British Gothic. The first chapter by Catherine Spooner focuses on the Northern gothic and the work Elizabeth Gaskell which introduces several themes that reoccur in later chapters. Chloé Germaine Buckley then explores The Haunted Book by Jeremy Dyson and the importance of psychogeography in the gothic.
Interestingly ‘Spook Business’ by Richard Storer is the counter point to the previous chapters because it explores the Manx Gothic that never was. This first section then finishes with Gioia Angeletti exploring Scottish gothic through the 2008 book, The Testament of Gideon Mack. Angeletti’s exploration of this particular type of national gothicness picks up on the tensions that Mack feels as a Scott and how this compares to his bigger crisis of faith, and reflects the tension of having several aspects of self. This feeling of being torn or conflicted comes back in several other chapters.
The second section “Unnatural Gothic Spaces” starts with an analysis of the works of Robert Aickman. Interestingly it is as much his advocacy and non-fiction as his fiction works that are analysed by Timothy Jones, which is very in keeping with the book, as he does not just focus on the usual gothic fiction texts. This is followed by Minna Vuohelainen’s exploration of University Gothic between 1880 and 1910, and the isolated heterotopic, archaic, and claustrophobic feeling that comes from the university town or campus. Next comes the only London-focused chapter intriguingly titled ‘Vampiristic Museums and Library Gothic’ by Holly-Gale Millette. This chapter is quite different to most of the others in the book and explores the differences (and similarities) between Gothic tourism and dark tourism through an exploration of two very different locations in the Whitechapel area; and the blurring of heritage, knowledge and dark tourism that exists within the location.
The third section is titled “Border Crossings and the threat of Invasion” and like Angeletti’s early chapter, Jami Mustafa also explores the tensions within Scottishness, as felt by the author Walter Scott and the ambivalence of Scott’s personal position; his national pride which sees his country as unique and gothic but in an unequal but pragmatic partnership with England, with the more powerful country threatening Scottish national identity due to the 1707 Union. Mustafa demonstrates that Scott often used the metaphor of unequal relationships and partnerships in his stories to explore this relationship as the Union could be seen as protective and useful but also damaging and destructive. Mustafa is careful to note that Scott rarely mentions the 1707 Union specifically in his fiction and the undercurrent of gothic tension between the pragmatic and otherworldly is how Scott explores it and his own uneasiness with his complicity in not denouncing or discussing it more openly.
It is then on to Ben Richardson’s analysis of Mary Shelley and how her writing expressed concerns not only on cholera and disease spread, but also the loss of localism to global trade and imperial commerce in The Last Man. It is followed by Ruth Heholt’s chapter which focuses on Cornwall and its otherness by using the only two Cornwall-based Hammer films The Plague of the Zombies (1966)and The Reptile (1966). Heholt uses her discourse on these films to demonstrate Cornwall’s uniquely gothic, foreign and othered aspect, despite the fact it is in England, due to its ruggedness and remoteness and perceived lack of civilization.
The final chapter examines xenophobic rhetoric through the lens of the imperial gothic and specifically focuses on Kent with Sarah Ilott using two modern novels Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching and David Dabydeen’s Disappearance to address questions around British nationalism and invasion using Kentish gothic. Sarah Ilott argues that the gothic is particularly suited to comment on the fear of and the discourse around immigration, and its connection to otherness and invasion. Like The Last Man there are references to contagion and invasion but in this study, it is often coming from within and therefore perceived versions of Britishness are challenged.
This book offers fresh insights into the gothic and new approaches for those interested in not only the literature but film and other mediums. Gothic Britain is definitely a book which is a source that readers will return to frequently as it gives a fresh and different range of viewpoints and aspects on the topography of the uncanny and the cultural concerns within the British gothic.
Review by Janine Marriott