Books: A walk on the dark side

Gothic fiction, says John Sutherland, is a moving target; A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History's Nightmares by Robert Mighall OUP pounds 45
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A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction, as the aridly unsexy title and two learned footnotes per-page indicate, began life as a doctoral thesis. I've examined many such dissertations and in my professional (Professor Dryasdust) capacity I would be happy to award Mr Mighall his cap and gown - cum laude.

The author, however, did not follow the green signal into academic life. He went into publishing. He now runs Penguin Classics. He makes literature. As a publisher, Mighall will be well aware that Gothic (with its sibling Horror) is one of the five principal genres, or categories, of popular fiction. The others are: science- fiction, male-action (war stories, westerns, thrillers), women's romance, and crime. In one form or another, these genres are perennial and apparently indestructible.

Of the great genres, Gothic has the deepest and most intricate roots. One of Mighall's primary theses is that although it began in the 18th- century, Gothic received its formative influences in the Victorian period.

It's a persuasive argument. But this book suffers somewhat from the scholarly disciplines which promted it. One would like more analysis of the twin procreative sources of English Gothic. One is M G Lewis's "terror" Gothic, as magnificently expressed in The Monk, which leads directly to slasher, snuff, Tarantino movies, and American Psycho. Mrs Radcliffe's "domestic" Gothic, epitomised in The Mysteries of Udolpho, leads to Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and the bodice-ripper.

Mighall's tight thesis leads to a regrettable myopia when it comes to the overseas product. It is odd in a study of 19th-century Gothic for there to be not a single mention of Edgar Allan Poe; as odd as not mentioning H G Wells in a historical account of science fiction. And, crucial as the 19th century is for the evolution of the genre, it would have been entertaining to have had some glance forward to Stephen King, James Herbert, Dean Koontz, V C Andrews, Peter Blatty and Clive Barker.

Not to rewrite Robert Mighall's book for him, this remains an important and robustly argumentative definition of Gothic. His main contention, stated with slogan prominence in the book's preface and conclusion, is that "the Gothic is not an essence". It is not, that is to say, something fixed. It makes more sense to use the term "Gothicisation"; because Gothic is a way of looking at the world around us. And as the world changes, with historical and social evolution, so do its gothicised images. And the images which the canonical Gothic texts throw back at us similarly change. The genre, as Mighall neatly puts it, "bears the burden of our ever-changing desires". It is a moving, not a fixed, target.

Mighall goes on to contest the fashionable view that the genre can be understood backwards - that a 19th-century classic such as Dracula is best understood, for example, with the 20th-century tools of psycho-analysis and Marxist-feminism. If we are to understand Victorian fiction, we must understand the Victorian ideologies that produced it. According to Mighall, 20th-century criticism has largely misread Stoker's book. Because it found no reflection of its "own ostentatious sexuality", it assumed - borrowing a Freudian concept - that Dracula is motivated by "silenced or repressed sexuality". Mighall convincingly rereads the text in terms of 19th-century sexology.

Mighall applies this relativistic analysis to other classics of British Victorian Gothic. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is read in the context of 19th-century ethnography. Edward Hyde is the "savage within civilisation"; one of the paradoxes of empire was that primitivism existed on its periphery (in Africa's "heart of darkness") and simultaneously in the East End of London (as witnessed by the Jack the Ripper murders, a year after Stevenson's "shilling shocker" was published). Mighall's approach is shown to most dazzling effect in his analysis of the other most famous gothic text of the period, The Picture of Dorian Gray. One has become wearied with exegesis of Wilde's fantasia as an allegory of homosexual guilt and persecution. That is to say, a fiction which prefigures our late 20th- century preoccupations.

Dorian Gray is read here, brilliantly I think, as a direct product of late 19th-century anxiety about onanism. Gray is, in the terminology of the leading authority of the day, "an inveterate masturbator". Mighall directs us to a remark by Dorian's good angel, Basil Hallwood (who creates the picture), that "people talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands, even."

Mighall clinches his reading of Dorian Gray as a gothicised fable of self-abuse (as the Victorians understood it) with an illustration from an anti-masturbation treatise of the period which shows two pictures. The first is of a "fine example of healthy manhood before the habits of secret vice had begun to tell on him". The partnering picture shows the hideous transformation "after he had become an inveterate victim of the vice!"

A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction, the reader should be warned, is no beach book. But whether one agrees with it or not, it redraws the critical map.