A retreat to Monkey Island

Gothic by Richard Davenport-Hynes Fourth Estate pounds 20
As Angela Carter used to say, we live in Gothic times. With Hildegard of Bingen still riding high in the classical charts, with Alfred Hitchcock's centenary coming up, with the Albert Memorial's expensive makeover, Gothic websites and Prosecutor Starr trying to play to the smouldering Puritanism of Middle America, this is certainly the right time to publish a book about the whole phenomenon. For Angela Carter, in Gothic fiction "characters and events are exaggerated beyond reality, to become symbols, ideas, passions - style will tend to become ornate and unnatural - and thus operate against the perennial human desire to believe the word as fact." So the moral function of the Gothic has always been to provoke a sense of unease.

Richard Davenport-Hines unaccountably fails to mention Carter - the finest exponent of neo-Gothic fiction - but agrees with some of this. For him, Gothic literature, architecture, visual arts and the individuals who were responsible for them tend to be out of synch with their times, backward-looking, usually camp and always oppositional in a reactionary sort of way. They are also commenting in some way or other on the theme that "submission is empowering".

Gothic has no time for more radical versions. William Morris, for example, who famously wrote "we must become our own Goths and break up again the tyrannous empire of Capitalism", is absent from the cast list of eccentric play actors. Instead, the focus is on such over-the-top personalities as Alexander Pope with his glittering grotto at Twickenham, the third Duke of Marlborough escaping the rigidities of Blenheim Palace by retreating to Monkey Island near Bray (today in the shadow of the old Hammer Film Studio), Horace Walpole dreaming of medieval Italy while obsessively collecting articles of clothing which once touched the bodies of famous historical figures, William Beckford building his doomed Fonthill Abbey, and the actor Ernest Thesiger who came to specialise in prissy Gothic roles during the interwar years of this century and who, we are told, "combined the mannerisms of a grande dame with consummate proficiency at fancy needlework". In between times, Richard Davenport-Hines takes some strange side-swipes at false memory syndrome, Freudianism, the health police, Oprah Winfrey, the "idolatory of Diana, Queen of Hearts", the culture of dependency and the euphemisms of political correctness.

His story begins not with the Goths of the fifth century, or the great cathedrals of 13th-century France (labelled "Gothic" as a term of abuse 400 years later), or even with the writing of Walpole's Castle of Otranto in 1764 (the usual starting-point). He begins with the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631 and the landscapes - with their caves, gnarled trees, ruins and itinerant banditti - of the Neapolitan artist Salvator Rosa. Three hundred and fifty years later he ends with the films of David Lynch, the southern Gothic fiction of Poppy Z Brite, Goth fashion and rock music and the mutilated wax mannequins exhibited by the Chapman Brothers at last year's Sensation show. The punch-line is that the Gothic has moved centre-stage in contemporary culture because it reacts against those whose "cultural aim is to infantilise, cleanse and control. New Gothic's resurgence has been provoked by the fundamentalists' sanitary controls".

Each section of the book consists of an anecdotal biography of a key player, a plot summary or description of a building/artwork and a selection of critical comments. The prologue is a reprinted article from the London Review of Books. There are a number of mistakes: the opening line of Rousseau's Du Contrat social is mistranslated ("man is born free" rather than "man was born free"), Voltaire's Candide is cited as an example of "Enlightenment optimism" (on which it was in fact a satire), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is treated as if it was explicitly about the terrors of the French Revolution (it wasn't), Bram Stoker is said to have found the name "Dracula" in a British Museum book (he actually found it in a book on Wallachia he discovered in Whitby Library and Philosophical Society), and Davenport-Hines's architectural history is shaky at times.

Gothic in short, is a scatter-gun of a book. It is excellent on the wild mood-swings of contemporary Gothic, better on literature than the visual arts, interesting, if too brief, on American Gothic and evidently in love with its subject. It also contains some choice anecdotes, like the one about Somerset Maugham saying to Ernest Thesiger - who had complained that Maugham never wrote a part for him in his plays - "but I am always writing parts for you, Ernest. The trouble is that somebody called Gladys Cooper will insist on playing them."

Davenport-Hines's restrictive definition of Gothic does not satisfactorily hold his account together. Gothic misses out some important contributors as well as the whole tradition of Gothic politics in Germany and England, and it squeezes some unlikely people (such as Pugin) into the mould. It even manages to include a story about Margaret Thatcher's views on "the Gothic monstrosity that is Grantham Town Hall". Apparently Denis Thatcher was about to make a sarcastic remark about the building when his fiancee Margaret said, "Daddy thinks it's wonderful," at which point Denis cautioned himself: "watch it, Thatcher." So she was a closet Goth, too. Better that, this book seems to suggest, than the blandness of the third way. If it had examined less camp - more serious - manifestations of the Gothic, and looked at genuinely subversive examples, it would surely have come to a very different conclusion.