A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 03 January 1998
It's pointless to speak of a Gothic "revival" in our culture for the simple reason that the ghoulish genre never goes away. Gothic parodies have drawn squawks of recognition for the 200 years that separate Northanger Abbey from Addams Family Values. You could argue that the original Gothic - of gloom and ghosts and curses - can only now exist as spoof or irony, while the essence of the business dons another guise to reappear (for example) in a show like The X Files.
So it's hard to know how earnestly to treat Penguin's New Year stunt. Night Thoughts is a pounds 2.99 anthology of nocturnal ruminations culled from the Classics list, and adorned with a fetching lamplit still-life-with- a-skull. Just the thing for that teenage Austen heroine, then or now, to tote around the smart dives of Bath. The book amounts to an exercise in Gothic editing rather than a Gothic anthology per se, as it skips most of the 19th-century prose landmarks (Mary Shelley, Poe, Stoker, Stevenson). Instead, the great Metaphysical poets, tenebrous Jacobeans, and Romantic gloomyguts all contribute passages of sombre night-time cogitation. This looks more like an accoutrement for the flour-faced, gore-lipped, raven- locked Goth lifestyle (and a break from those Anne Rice novels) than a coherent package.
According to some critics, most of today's popular culture can fall under the enveloping shroud of a "Gothic" rubric. For a witty, lucid but fanciful essay in this vein, read Mark Edmundson's Nightmare on Main Street (Harvard University Press, pounds 15.50). To Edmundson, Gothic visitations from the buried powers of desire and destruction underpin not just the obvious works - Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King - but phenomena that stretch from the daytime talk-show (with its victims "haunted" by past loves, abuse or addiction) to the O J Simpson trial. (Simpson has, or is, a doppelganger, and the courts did indeed split persecuted O J Jekyll from "responsible" O J Hyde).
This is fascinating, smartly-written stuff, but you begin to suspect that when one hold-all concept can explain almost everything a bit, it ceases to explain anything very well. Besides, I can't really see dear Oprah as a bloodsucking Gothic harpie, "an apostle of fate worthy of Edgar Allan Poe". Now, Vanessa Feltz...
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