We live in an age in which popular culture is obsessed with the transcendent, or with a sort of negative sublime that is its mirror image. The argument of Victoria Nelson's interesting, flawed book is that we should not hang around waiting for a revival of spirituality, or regard organised religion as central to such a revival. The books people are reading, the films and television that they are watching– this "new Gothic" is that revival, in itself.
The books of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer, say, are a great awakening that fills the emptiness in people by proposing an often godless spirituality that is all about becoming better and stranger. Or else it expresses fear and trembling not through images of eternal damnation but with the terror of the zombie apocalypse - of being trapped in decaying, mindless, rotting meat.
Nelson acknowledges pre-emptively that she has selected her evidence carefully - rather worryingly so, given the number of crucial texts that she sidelines, some of which she has read far less carefully than one might hope. Mazikeen, the female companion of Lucifer in Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Mike Carey's Lucifer graphic novels, is neither half-rotten nor a ghoul, but rather half-flayed and, in Carey, a daughter of Lilith. To point this out is not mere geek pedantry; Nelson has largely ignored two texts which counterpoint the self-destructive Byronism of their protagonists with characters who prefer picking up the pieces to smashing the world to achieve personal growth.
She is good at close reading when she wants to be: her account of the appeal of the Twilight books makes the very valid point that they are not, as one cliché reading states, mere propaganda for sexual abstinence, but based far more profoundly in Stephenie Meyer's Mormon beliefs.
The transformation that comes over Bella Swann is very precisely a version of that which the Latter Day Saints hope for all of the saved: a sort of personal godhood. This is where a parallel reading of Carey would have been useful. His Elaine ends up running three universes when God and Lucifer both abdicate. She would rather hang with her friends, but someone has to do the job.
Nelson is similarly good on the cheery nihilism of those who think that the return of HP Lovecraft's gloomy tentacled gods is literally imminent, or Grant Morrison's argument that superhero films are a foreshadowing of spiritual transformation. She has her finger on the pulse, but her diagnosis is too simple. She ignores the element of sexualised play in the modern Gothic, the explorations of gender and the game of kink. More importantly, people want change, but not always just for themselves. Superheroes have not power alone, but also responsibility. The generation that grew up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer would rather fight vampires in the name of the weak than become selfish and solitary gods.
Roz Kaveney's 'Superheroes!' is published by IB Tauris
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