restricted access The Horror, The Horror: Recent Studies in Gothic Fiction
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Modern Fiction Studies 46.3 (2000) 789-799

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Review Essay

The Horror, The Horror: Recent Studies in Gothic Fiction

Anne Williams

David Punter, ed. A Companion to the Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. xiv + 323.

Glennis Byron and David Punter, eds. Spectral Readings: Towards a Gothic Geography. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. x + 256.

Valdine Clemens. The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Horror from The Castle of Otranto to Alien. Albany: SUNY P, 1999. vii + 274.

Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik. Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity, and The Gothic Imagination. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. xi + 235.

Kathleen Brogan. Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1998. x + 228.

Just as Gothic castles from Udolpho to Gormenghast exist in a world where there are no maps, where halls, corridors and stairways go on forever, where rooms that were there in the night have vanished by morning, so Gothic itself challenges that very process [End Page 789] of map-making by means of which we might hope to reduce the world to manageable proportions; while, of course, it remains constantly fascinated by the very impossibility which it so convincingly propounds.

-- Glennis Byron and David Punter, Spectral Readings:
Towards a Gothic Geography

Ever since its origins in the late eighteenth century, the Gothic has provided Anglo-American culture with a space of monstrous "otherness." Gothic fiction has from its inception been a commodity and a marketing phenomenon. These public nightmares have shown a remarkable ability to colonize and flourish in new media: what would the history of film be without Frankenstein or Dracula? But until about twenty years ago, the Gothic was ignored by serious literary critics; those publishing on the Gothic were usually either enthusiastic antiquarians such as Montague Summers and Devandra P. Varma or philologists bent on cataloguing, which produced some earnest but dull histories and biblio- graphies. Literature's unspeakable "other" was also usually unspeakable in the classroom as well. Twenty-five years ago when I was in graduate school, those of us studying the Romantics never heard the word "Gothic" uttered in conjunction with "The Eve of St. Agnes" or "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Gothic was assumed, not so tacitly, to be a disreputable set of conventions that could not possibly have been of any real use or interest to those great poets, John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

But in the past twenty years, Gothic studies have been transformed. Though I am doubtless prejudiced, it seems to me that some of the most interesting criticism being produced today often takes some aspect of the Gothic as its subject. The generation of critics who saw critical methodologies proliferate during this same period is putting these approaches to good use. Critics of the past often felt the need to apologize for their interest in so marginal and unrespectable a form of literature. But these days the specter of the "marginal" or the "popular" no longer frightens critics. Feminisms of various kinds, revisionist psychoanalysis, and cultural studies have provided a new set of lenses through [End Page 790] which to read the Gothic. Nowadays the field attracts some very sharp critical intelligences. Indeed, there is an emerging canon of critics who have established their own professional society, the International Gothic Association, founded in 1991. The books reviewed in this essay both demonstrate just how far Gothic studies have come since 1980 and also predict some interesting turns that Gothic studies may take in the near future.

In 1980 David Punter's The Literature of Terror was published; it is the only critical work on the Gothic that has, so far as I can recall, ever been issued in a second edition (as opposed to a reprint). Its publication marked a turning point in Gothic studies, which also happened to coincide with the appearance--some would say "invasion"--of new literary theories and a new fascination with theory itself. As the generally excellent essays in Punter's A Companion to the Gothic show, critics of the Gothic these days are highly...