Contemporary Literature 45.3 (2004) 516-537
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"The Capitol of Darknesse":
Gothic Spatialities in the London of Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor
Haunted places are the only ones people can live in. . . .
Ancient things become remarkable. An uncanniness lurks there, in the everyday life of the city. It is a ghost that henceforth haunts urban planning.
Through the lens of the postmodern, the return of the repressed in gothic urban spaces looks ever less like the conventional longevity of the sins of the fathers that we have come to expect, and ever more like the general condition of urban historicity. Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor (1985) interrogates historicity in a London that precedes the subject and that furnishes a palimpsestic complexity transcending the subject's grasp. It posits a London replete with forgotten places that repress the excess traditionally apparent in the popular and in the feminine, and that offer the possibility of social relations unmediated by modern capitalism or national history. When these places reemerge in the uncanny, they open a space for popular voices, and they realign the urban subject's relation to urban history by fracturing its apparent seamlessness. In the process, Hawksmoor offers a rejoinder to theories of the postmodern urban condition by suggesting that it is a condition that has never ceased to be. Theories of the postmodern, then, are symptomatic in Hawksmoor both of a materiality constitutive of the historical urban cityscape and of an all-too-successful [End Page 516] repression of this materiality by a complex of political and scientific strategic powers extending from the Enlightenment's Christopher Wren to the Thatcher administration of the 1980s.
Peter Ackroyd's critical significance to late twentieth-century English literature seems only to have increased over time. Recent years have seen the production of many articles on his work, as well as several book-length studies. Hawksmoor won Guardian and Whitbread fiction awards, and it won Ackroyd's work significant popular and critical attention. The novel has spawned numerous articles and appears frequently in studies of postmodern historiographic metafiction and of the gothic. Roger Salomon even quotes Nicholas Dyer, the novel's eighteenth-century narrator, for the title of his recent typological study of the gothic, Mazes of the Serpent (Hawksmoor 56).
Hawksmoor tells Dyer's story. He is a fictitious alternative to Nicholas Hawksmoor, the eighteenth-century architect who designed several London churches after the Great Fire. Dyer designs the six that the historical Hawksmoor designed and that one can still see in London today, as well as a seventh church, Little St. Hugh, that is entirely fictitious. Entrusted with building these churches for the good of the city, Dyer, a secret Satanist at war with Enlightenment reason emblematized in his employer, Christopher Wren, works into the design, construction, and location of his churches a secret occult code and dedicates each church with the sacrifice of a "virgin" boy. The chapters detailing Dyer's exploits alternate with chapters that take place in twentieth-century London where corpses start to appear on the grounds of Dyer's churches. A detective named Hawksmoor tries to unravel the mystery. The novel closes with no resolution to the mystery, Hawksmoor rushing to Little St. Hugh to prevent, witness—or perhaps even commit—the final murder.1 Once there, he merges enigmatically with another, mysterious being.
Hawksmoor registers an anxiety that the plurality of possible modes of existence in the London ecology is growing increasingly endangered. Indeed, many of Ackroyd's essays and lectures make [End Page 517] explicit his long-standing fear for the loss of spaces that are not completely subject to the flow of capital. However, in a lecture on William Blake, Ackroyd points to the occult as a potential site for the localization or the tactical creation of "some kind of reality beyond the world of the manufactory and the workhouse" ("William Blake" 361). In Hawksmoor, occultism offers a means of response...