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
Saturday 10 October 1992
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.
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