BOOK REVIEW / All the blood that's fit to spill: 'The Picador Book of the New Gothic' - Ed. Patrick McGrath & Bradford Morrow: Picador, 15.99

THIS is an anthology with attitude. Not one of those meek compilations of compliant subjects (sex, marriage, death) for a captive audience of Christmas-gift- recipients; nor one of those scholarly compendiums fated to become library wallflowers. The Picador Book of The New Gothic has, to adopt a metaphor close to its heart, argumentative blood in its veins. In their introduction, the editors, Patrick McGrath and Bradford Morrow, write that 'Gothic fiction, in its earliest days, was known by the props and settings it employed, by its furniture. Dark forests and dripping cellars, ruined abbeys, riddles with secret passages, clanking chains, skeletons, thunderstorms and moonlight . . . '

Courtesy of Edgar Allen Poe's writing, this 'gloomy hardware' then fed into a fascination with interior entropy, the ruined abbeys and mansions offering themselves as symbols of an ever more deranged mental landscape. A modern Gothic sensibility was born: 'Now hell is decidedly on earth, located within the vaults and chambers of our own minds,' they conclude.

Such a thesis overlooks the fact that this subtext was already alive and kicking within early Gothic writing, and that 20th-century literature has already assimilated this and other key Gothic tropes. The Gothic, defined so baggily, may well have defined itself out of existence. Nevertheless, with Francis Ford Coppola's refurbished Dracula movie looming, and countless other cinematic and novelistic exhumations of both Dracula and Frankenstein massing behind it, McGrath and Morrow are on to something. And it this way comes.

So who makes up the traipsing zombie ranks of their anthology? The editors have stitched bloody chunks from genuine horror writers like Peter Straub and Anne Rice, added the odd crime writer (Ruth Rendell), strapped on some literary muscle filleted from the work of Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson and Martin Amis, and zapped it with a polemical introduction. Is there a flicker of life in there, somewhere?

In the Amis extract, 'Horrorday', the day of the eclipse in London Fields, Keith Talent gets up, stubs 'a horrortoe' on the bed, catches his scrotum in 'the seized teeth of horrorzip', and ventures out of his flat only to step in 'horrorturd'. Essentially Gothic conventions are used as a rhetorical paper bag for Amis to blow up and pop. The same goes for Angela Carter's short story, 'The Merchant of Shadows'. Their inclusion makes for an entertaining but misleading game of hunt-the-horror.

Between Straub and Amis, however, there lies a third category, comprising those fully paid-up but equally wised-up practitioners of self-consciously Gothic writing - Janice Galloway, McGrath and Morrow themselves, William T Vollmann - and it is they who provide the best and the worst writing in this anthology. An intelligent bunch, they can be relied upon for neat little updates of the Gothic tradition - vampirism / Aids, millennial angst / the greenhouse effect - but these bright ideas can shine too brightly and endanger the sort of murky burrowings and borrowings which are the true signs of Gothic life.

There is a fair amount of adolescent pimple-squeezing here. Fluids, effluence, excrescence, ectoplasm, discharges and bodily spillages of all sorts drip steadily from the pages. Rotting bodies feature in four stories, decrepit pensioners in three. Early McEwan is unaccountably absent, but in his place the forensic probing of John Edgar Wideman's plague apocalypse, 'Fever', provides a steady flow of 'bile, vomit, gushing bowels, ooze, sludge, seepage'.

Janice Galloway's 'Blood' shows what happens when you follow your own gut rather than unravelling somebody else's. Kicking off with the painless but sickening wrench of a dentist's pliers, the female protagonist wanders home, molar in pocket, attempting vainly to staunch the pump of blood from her mouth, only to have the added embarrassment of having to scavenge paper towels for her period. She takes a longer route home to avoid leering builders and kindly inquiring glances. The story garners together discomforts natural and unnatural, physical and mental, and plays it up for all it's worth against the backdrop of a threatening city- scape. It's a trick that Ruth Rendell pulls off with equal skill in her account of an underground journey turned nightmare, extracted from King Solomon's Carpet.

Women writers, particularly when writing from the cloistered attic of the 19th century, have long found a home amid the claustrophobic involutions of the Gothic landscape, and are responsible for many of the classics of the genre - Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, George Eliot's brilliant novella The Lifted Veil and, going out on a limb but not completely severed, Northanger Abbey. The Gothic furniture may indeed have been cleared out since then, but even a bare room can benefit from a woman's touch, as Emma Tennant, Jeanette Winterson and Janice Galloway prove here.

The men are the let-down. If Galloway writes with convincing ominousness of pre-menstrual tension, too many of the male writers in this collection seem intent on parading their gratuitous bouts of pre-millennial tension. There are too many phantasmagorical skits, drunk on the sort of boozy fluency that can come with first-person narration, particularly if that person is mad or dead or immortal. In a story by Paul West, Banquo's ghost traverses the centuries, overseeing death and mayhem, and musing, 'Do they know they have a hideous travelling companion, versatile, relentless, insatiable, fathered by Shakespeare upon Mary Shelley? Or was it another monster, Stoker's, who escapes me?' Do we care? Buttonholed by yet another bolshy and overbearing madman taking us on a guided tour of his dark heart, the reader is inclined to ask, simply, 'Why are you telling me this?'

And here is the main problem with modern Gothic: everybody dabbles in it now. For every genuinely Gothic writer or film-maker, there are a dozen wannabes revelling in their 'dark' reputation; for every Thomas Harris, there is a James Ellroy. So adept is he at hamming up the horror that Ellroy fills every book-signing with seasoned sound-bites, such as 'this book will rot your brain' - which is what he wrote in the front of my copy of The Black Dahlia.

Traditionally, Gothic literature has been painstaking and scrupulous about who it pours its heart out to. Think of the Chinese-boxed narration of Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein, in which reader-proxies are held in appalled thrall to an Ancient Mariner narration. One of the best pieces here is an excerpt from Peter Straub's novel The Kingdom of Heaven, in which a young Vietnam foot-soldier, recruited to help identify bodies, is wound up by his colleagues: 'Either because of what they had endured in the field or because their job made them handle bodies all day, their stories were always of death . . . '

Straub is in an interesting choice in this anthology because he is normally frowned upon for writing straightforward horror. The 20th century has not been kind to the Gothic tradition. Modernist literature assimilated many key Gothic preoccupations - its fascination with self-conscious narration, with entropy, with abnormal psychology, with the fragment as a formal device (think of the structural and thematic similarities between Heart of Darkness and Frankenstein) - and then cast horror- writers out into the wilderness. But look what happens when Straub or his one- time collaborator Stephen King ignore their fans and stray from the supernatural: you get quality fiction like Straub's The Kingdom of Heaven or King's short story, 'The Body', a sad omission here.

This nervy symbiosis explains the impossibility of identifying a modern 'Gothic' tradition. It also argues against an anthology being the best form in which to map it, for editors' polemic has a way of turning extracts into examples. Perhaps a full-scale critical post-mortem would have been a better idea. But this should not be construed as too depressingly elegaic. As the editors should know, just because something is dead doesn't mean we've seen the last of it.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice