- Gothic Fiction and the Invention of Terrorism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Fear in the Age of the Reign of Terror by Joseph Crawford
It is no secret that the eighteenth-century gothic novel has become a popular subject with academics in the last few decades. Several specialist journals for the gothic now exist, and numerous books focusing on the topic are published annually. This proliferation of gothic scholarship resulting in a voluminous body of criticism has enabled the study of this genre to prosper in once unthinkable ways. While a scholar might feel some reluctance to pursue yet another study on the gothic given the already sizable quantity of literature available, it would be unwise to ignore Gothic Fiction and the Invention of Terrorism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Fear in the Age of the Reign of Terror. Presenting a detailed revaluation of late eighteenth-century gothic, Joseph Crawford’s study examines the gothic’s development with the sudden emergence of terrorism as a political concept. Crawford demonstrates that the “[French] Revolution created gothic, transforming a marginal form of historical fiction chiefly concerned with aristocratic legitimacy into a major cultural discourse devoted to the exploration of violence and fear” (x). The correlation between the French Revolution and gothic fiction is more complicated than what previous critics have asserted, for over the course of his study Crawford notes the establishment of both terror as rhetoric and written political conspiracy theory, which he views as directly connected to the gothic. These genres, all of which Crawford argues are connected to each other, arose out of a need to express mutual concern over the extremities of human malevolence, an [End Page 400] expression he rightfully notes as previously unseen in the eighteenth century, but which has remained since the 1790s in various forms, such as the twenty-first-century American War on Terror.
Gothic Fiction and the Invention of Terrorism consists of an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. After a brief introduction, which is prefaced with two quotes, “La Terreur est à l’ordre du jour” from the Declaration of the National Convention in 1793 and “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there” from US President George W. Bush in 2001 (vii), Crawford’s study starts with its first chapter, “Terror Before Terrorism,” on the early gothic novelists, including Horace Walpole and Clara Reeve, and other influential figures such as Edmund Burke and William Collins. This chapter focuses on the manner in which eighteenth-century writers, such as Joseph Addison and Daniel Defoe, wrote about fear and violence before the establishment of the gothic, as well as the factors that resulted in the gothic’s development as a literary genre. Crawford observes that “when we now read The Castle of Otranto, or Vathek, or The Old English Baron, our readings of them are inevitably coloured by our knowledge of what happened later, and our awareness that they stand at the fountainhead of a genre which would go on to have major significance for Western culture as a whole” (30). Crawford argues that as late as 1789 the gothic genre was nothing more than a product derived from a mid-century interest in the Middle Ages. Gothic fiction would likely have disappeared had it not been for “a series of cataclysmic historical events [that] brought horror, violence, fear, and the unnatural squarely back into the centre of every reader’s concerns” (30). These events, which transformed and gave permanence to gothic fiction, were the direct result of the French Revolution, the major focus of this study’s second chapter.
Crawford begins chapter 2, “The Reign of Terror,” by discussing the jubilant sentiments expressed by much of the British public at the outbreak of the Revolution, when it was still hoped that France would move from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. This chapter is primarily concerned with the connection between the gothic...