Clive Bloom, Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on January 03, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Clive Bloom, Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present (London and New York: Continuum, 2010)

Reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes, Lancaster University

It is difficult now, 11 years after the first issue of the main journal in the field was published, to write an original and accessible account of the Gothic genre. Critics like Punter, Davenport-Hines, Miles, Botting and Spooner, among others, have done much to chronicle the Gothic’s changes and permutations over the centuries, and Clive Bloom himself has produced at least two previous Gothic and Horror readers with relevant textual selections. In that respect, his Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present may, at first, seem somewhat gratuitous or expendable in its aim (do we really need another history of the genre?), but its title already points to a possible solution: we are not in search of a metanarrative, a regimental backbone on which to lean future research, but on the lookout for alternatives to it.

If Gothic Studies have majorly advanced the analysis, appreciation and understanding of various cultural products over the past decade, they have also laid bare a certain sterility in the genre’s nature; they have made evident the inadequacy of the term ‘Gothic’. In its current use the word becomes either an all-embracing substantivised adjective, in which case everything can be studied under a Gothic lens (and hence Punter’s pertinent question during the last International Gothic Association: what is not Gothic?, which incidentally, seems like a more interesting and nuanced question to ask), or else it becomes a historically-bound nominal constraint whose feudal baggage cannot be shaken off and which forces us to trace its tropes and conventions in a post-apocalyptic present of fragmentation. In order to do either, however, we necessarily need to understand the Gothic as a recognizable genre, which is a conclusion Bloom wisely side-steps.

For all its canonical and linear set up, and after all Gothic Histories does partly adhere to a, by now, well-honed tradition of scholars who have seen in the Gothic a certain narratological continuum, Bloom seems to be reaching out for a new understanding of it, perhaps even a new language that will supersede the existing one. He invariably describes what is ‘gothic’ (and notice the lower case and its use as an adjective throughout the book) as a different ‘sensibility’, ‘feeling’ (p. 2), ‘a new sense of the imagination’ and even a ‘mood’ (p.4). If the precise description of what, if we are to follow the books’ title, we should above all consider a ‘taste’, remains rather inconclusive and slippery throughout, Bloom does raise the need for a closer and more intimate dialogue with the genre – if this is the right term to use – that will let it breathe and regenerate. In order to do this, he traces a tentative, and necessarily partial, history of its pluralities, from literature to stage, to cinema, to urban subcultures.

The early sections in the book deal with the obligatory figures (Radcliffe, Lewis, Maturin, Fuseli, Poe), but Bloom’s episodic and anecdotal style do not only make these accounts fresh and enlightening, but also fun to read and accessible. This, and the fact that Bloom absolutely makes do with academic jargon and theoretical approaches, is something that the non-specialised reader will particularly cherish. In that respect, Gothic Histories can be seen, in part, as a perfect introduction to the genre: it both charts some of the most important periods (from graveyard poetry to Romanticism, from American additions to the contemporary) and tropes (the ghost, the haunted mind, the vampire) and poses some interesting questions – i.e. what about the role of emotionality? (p. 8), why do we not study German gothic more thoroughly? – making these the potential loci of further study.

If the later sections do not particularly open new ground, and some subsections are decidedly threadbare, Bloom has been great at pinpointing those areas that have most preoccupied and still currently concern gothic scholars: the figure of the ghost (although perhaps ‘hauntologies’ would have been a more interesting choice), Gothic film (this chapter is bite-sized, I am guessing due to spatial constraints, but still offers an interesting overlook of the early Gothic period of cinema more widely charted in studies like Pirie 2007), the vampire phenomenon (especially post-Twilight), and video-games (again, this topic is only granted a couple of pages). If one cannot help but feel that these ideas and topics could have been further developed, we must also acknowledge the scope and the aim of Gothic Histories: Bloom never sets out to analyse any of these (epi)phenomena in detail, but rather to showcase them; to bring these para-sites back from the periphery and onto the central stage.

It is in this endeavour that Gothic Histories is at its most successful. It surveys the field, but it also opens up new promise of further study. The figures are there, the structures are in place; what the genre needs is scholars willing to pull the strings away from generalisations and into the particulars of authorial works and trends. Gothic works, Bloom seems to be arguing (albeit between the lines), are undeniably linked, but tracing those synaptic connections is less interesting than apprehending them individually and teasing out their own problematic nature(s).  Can we speak of a Gothic genre anymore, or should we address and map the need for a different type of approach? What are the more precise dangers of such a course of action? This seems to me to be the real preoccupation underlying this publication, not the charting of the genre as such (something that, nevertheless, Bloom proves himself more than capable of achieving), and one I wish had been confronted more directly. Bloom’s new book decidedly puts the finger in the wound, prods it until it bleeds, but ultimately, and perhaps consciously, only leaves the hope of a bandage.

Gothic Histories will attract the casual genre aficionado, it will aid and guide the student, and it will both amuse and irritate the gothic scholar. Whichever the case, readers will be taken in by the writer’s charm for, if nothing else, Bloom’s new addition to the canon makes for that very rare breed of scholarly work: thoroughly entertaining and informative academic writing.

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