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  • Contemporary Hauntings
  • Christine Doyle (bio)
The Gothic in Children's Literature: Haunting the Borders, edited by Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Popular contemporary children's literature may seem to be steeped in Gothic characters, tropes, and landscapes, from Lemony Snicket's Count Olaf to Hogwarts Castle and its environs. Indeed, as the editors comment in the introduction to this collection of thirteen essays, "in children's literature today, the Gothic is mainstream" (1). But it was not always thus. In fact, as Dale Townshend points out in the first chapter, children's literature as a form sprang rather pointedly from efforts to keep stories involving supernatural occurrences far from the minds of children. Townshend's essay begins with the rather startling coincidence that the year 1764 saw the publication both of John Newbery's The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes and of Horace Walpole's Gothic classic, The Castle of Otranto. Concerned that visions of horror would "imprint upon the tabula rasa of infancy a series of unfortunate yet indelible inscriptions" (19), the Rationalists rather quickly expelled images of the supernatural, insofar as was possible, from the "realms of respectable literature for children" (16). Townshend's informative and beautifully nuanced article traces the methods of this excision in the works of writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, and Sarah Trimmer, though he is careful to point out that Walpole himself felt it appropriate to include horror even in stories created for a nine-year-old child. He also includes discussion of Evangelical writers like Isaac Watts and Mrs. Sherwood, who, while still overtly eschewing imaginary horrors, nevertheless included "excruciating scenes of horror and terror" (26) in religious writings, presumably to scare children into virtuous behavior. Jean Jacques Rousseau, while no particular proponent of childhood reading generally, nevertheless proposed the counterview—not unlike Bruno Bettelheim two centuries later—that not exposing children to terror was a mistake that could "render[] the individual fearful through later adult life" (28). Some of the more readerly Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others—celebrated the notion of the "haunted boyhood . . . as the epitome of imaginative engagement" (30), while at the same time [End Page 244] dismissing the Gothic as an "aesthetically inferior form" as far as adults were concerned (29). Despite these champions of the imagination, however, "the Gothic in children's literature would long remain the object of extreme cultural concern" (33).

Cultural concerns notwithstanding, Gothic features continue to erupt in children's literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as the twelve ensuing essays in the volume demonstrate. The essays reflect the international flavor established by the three editors (all of whom make very strong contributions to the volume), who hail from Australia ( Jackson), the United States (Coats), and Canada (McGillis); both the contributors themselves and the texts they examine are multinational. The logic guiding the arrangement of chapters here is not immediately obvious—it's certainly not chronological, since an essay on cyberfiction immediately follows Townshend's historical one—although there seems to be some effort to group essays together that examine similar aspects of the Gothic, even while applying the concepts to a wide, international range of works for children. Three essays discuss classic Gothic literary structures—castles as metaphor for consciousness, the use of irony and parody, and intertextuality—in current fiction and cyberfiction. Three others analyze writers' efforts, with varying degrees of success, to adapt Gothic notions of time and place to settings beyond the nineteenth century and England. While the adolescent's exploration of identity is never far from consideration in any of the essays, six focus on these psychological elements more specifically, with two examining the development of the female protagonist in particular.

Nadia Crandall's "Cyberfiction and the Gothic Novel" begins the discussion of structures by pointing out close structural similarities between the Gothic classics Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula and works of cyberfiction, a genre generally agreed to have begun with 1987's Space Dreams. Crandall looks at the castle as a metaphor of psychic space, a dream-space or alternate reality, where boundaries are not perceptible and the self may be...


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pp. 244-250
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