London Gothic: Place, Space and the Gothic Imagination, Lawrence Phillips and Anne Witchard, eds.

Posted by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes on November 24, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , ,

London Gothic: Place, Space and the Gothic Imagination, ed. by Lawrence Phillips and Anne Witchard. London: Continuum, 2010. ISBN: 9781441106827.

Reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes, Lancaster University.


Anyone who has lived in the capital for a substantial amount of time will agree that the nominal compound ‘London Gothic’ is an entirely plausible one: from its architecture to its representations in text or its recirculation of a disingenuous touristic heritage, London is a city embedded in Gothic discourses, saturated with them to the point where geography collapses into history collapses into fiction. Drawing on and expanding the variegated papers offered at the Westminster conference that kick-started this project in 2009, the present collection explores London’s often overlooked Gothic underbelly transhistorically and through different media: literature, films, documents, journalism, and even cartography are all considered and studied meticulously within its pages. The high quality of the material was to be expected – some of the contributors to this edited collection have previously produced key texts in the field (Wolfreys, Luckhurst) – but it is rare for an edited collection to touch on so many different socio-cultural loci and still break new ground, especially when the exhaustion of the Gothic genre has been constantly prefigured over the last decade (Botting 1999, Punter 2001).

The first section, ‘Victorians to Moderns’, traces London’s connection to the Gothic in the nineteenth century, and is particularly preoccupied with the role of the city, and more specifically its suburbs, in geo-psychological constructions of identity. Wolfreys’ chapter identifies a certain type of subjectifying process that takes place as a result of an encounter with London and its Gothic sensibility. This, Wolfreys defines in terms of the sublime through the sense of awe imbued by the city’s constant transformation, and as an ontological status inevitably grounded in ‘terror’ and ‘abjection’ (12). Using Dickens’ journalistic writings, Wolfreys starts what he envisions as a phenomenology of the historical/historicised subject, via Derrida, that is concerned with the excess of representation so inherent to Gothic discourses and which, in this case, might end up permeating the historiographic and aid our understanding of possible ‘Gothic structures of the imagination’ (21). A similar approach is adopted by Anne Witchard, whose chapter focuses on the possible influence that the growth and development of London’s suburbs might have had on Gothic writings of the city. Documenting the transition to an urban Gothic inflected by a ‘division of the civilized from the barbarous’ (26), Witchard proposes that we understand the contemporaneous sprawl of the suburb as a form of ‘othering’ that intrinsically alters the meaning of ‘being’ a Londoner (29). Drawing on Warwick (2007), Witchard seeks to show how the Gothicizing of the suburbs can be understood as a ‘metaphor for dynastic, physical or psychic crisis’ (36). This idea is further explored through a study case in Amanda Mordavsky Caleb’s chapter, which centres on Arthur Machen’s fascinating The Hill of Dreams (1907). In this novel, Mordavsky Caleb argues, the sense of isolation encouraged by the metropolis finds its paragon of abjection in the case of the suburb, which is depicted as exceeding definitional, temporal or spatial representation and as conductive to hysteria and anxiety. Markedly different is Roger Luckhurst’s attempt in this collection to expand on his previous work on occult London and to ‘gazetteer the ghost’, or map the supernatural, in mid to late nineteenth-century Bloomsbury. Through an examination of various socio-historical instances, Luckhurst concludes that, not only is the discourse of the occult not necessarily a subversive one in terms of its investment in the social divide and its perpetuation of class-based stasis, but also that its interstitial knowledge – what he terms the ‘supplemental occult’ (60) – is necessitated as a way of counter-acting modern secularity.

Such cartographic-spiritual concerns are laid to rest, but not completely left aside, in the second part of this collection: ‘Contemporary Prose Narrative’ opens with Alex Murray’s piece on Stewart Home. Although this chapter seems more preoccupied with establishing an anti-essentialist counter-analysis that will disavow hauntological and revenance discourses in their production of a London Gothic (even if Murray’s claims of the Horror genre are no less problematic or essentialist), Murray’s journey from London Gothic to Horror to Weird, as it culminates in what Home names a ‘hallucinatory nihilist novum’ (78), is one worth considering even if just for its disruptive critical potential. Catherine Spooner’s article offers an equally localised-yet-extrapolative account of the ghosts around the M25. Using Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel and her psychic novel Beyond Black (2005), Spooner engages with the Gothic intricacies of the socio-geography and psychology that this narrative explores in order to conclude that the types of hauntings it foregrounds are simultaneously inscripted on the human and social bodies (89). Nick Freeman’s chapter emphasises a similar bodily preoccupation in the novels of Derek Raymond: the sustained focus on London’s decay and entropy to be found in his Factory novels could be seen as a mirror for a certain postmodern fascination with nihilism and the post-mortem body (100, 92-93). And from human bodies to animal ones: Jenny Bavidge’s chapter closes this section with a fascinating study of the London rat and its Gothic lineage. Both statistically and metaphorically, the rat stands in for a ‘rhetoric of swarming, infinite reproduction, abjection and uneasy slithering between one state and another’, ‘a discourse of ratness’ (110). In her emphasis on the ecogothic implications of the malleable figure of the rat, Bavidge adds to what the other critics in this section seem to be championing: a destabilisation of hauntology as a critical tool and a general awareness of the complications of reproducing a unique type of London Gothic. From ghosts to rats to nihilism, London is not easily conscripted by the Gothic, but rather orbits around it, M25-style.

This idea is further developed and over-turned in J. S. Mackley’s study on the statues of Gog and Magog that monitor and survey the city from the Guildhall. Spear-heading the third and last section, ‘Sites, Performances and Film’, Mackley’s article argues, drawing on Derrida and through a historical reappraisal of the statues and their possible readings, for an understanding of hauntology based on the Pagan ‘Other’. This ‘Other’ brings about a moment of ‘etymological migration’ (135): in its construction as a ‘forgotten construction’ whose history has been silenced and lost, past and present are disjointed and a certain ‘longing for the primeval’ is projected onto the material objects (137). This sense of an artificially-constructed haunting also resonates in Emma McEvoy’s chapter on London’s Gothic Tourism. Through an insightful look at the recent proliferation of Gothic-themed tourist attractions, from the London Dungeon to the Clink, these sites forge their own histories: they use, misuse, abuse and even ‘supplement’ or ‘supplant’ history (150), perhaps challenging normative conceptions of a valid, monumental past. However, and because each site performs this type of ‘recasting’ of tropes in a particular manner, it is hard to point to a successful or normative type of Gothic attraction, particularly when one bears in mind the genre’s own tradition of feigned manuscripts and forgery.

The last two essays in the collection explore the darker side of London as it has been represented in film. Fred Botting’s chapter on 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later contextualises these films in terms of their relation to neoliberal consumption (the link between the zombie and a self-cannibalising society), the advent of digital technologies (which is mirrored in the speed of the zombies) and the advent of biopolitical power (as reflected in the obsession with quarantine and policing). Making some fascinating use of the works of Hardt and Negri and Virilio, Botting’s essay draws to its token closure: the moment of overcoming the threat ‘is not an exit’, there is no escape from the new world order. Following on from this sense of entrapment where the vastness of London is somehow contained, Lawrence Phillips focuses on that other under-documented instance of London life that is deeply connected to excess: the London Underground. Through a look at Death Line (1972) and Creep (2005), films that base their horror around the humanoid creatures that live in the tunnels through which Londoners travel daily, Phillips argues for a theoretical uncovering of social rejecta, of ‘that which lies buried, abject, and forgotten’ (172) and which he reads as a Gothic regression to an atavistic past. Simultaneously, for Phillips, this overground/underground binary reinstates and dynamises a specific type of class politics of occupied space where the working class is evacuated from the social stratum, literally pushed underneath (179).

As we can see, the driving force behind a number of the pieces in this collection is the critical need to bring to light hidden parts or frequent misunderstandings of the connection between London and its Gothic past/inheritance. If nothing else, it is clear from reading these articles that a new critical vocabulary needs to be developed in order to enable scholars to analyse London Gothic phenomena as varied as its geo-politics, its entertainment industry and its conscious recycling of its own past, in a manner that will both depend on, but also exceed, common structures in place like that of hauntological approaches. Articles like McEvoy’s, Botting’s or Spooner’s all seem to be also pointing towards the need for a new idiom that will encompass the physical body as much as the social and historical one. If assessing a collection that covers cultural products as distanced by time and production methods as Dickens and zombie films incurs its own risks, I think that it is only by delving on the various areas here presented from innovative theoretical positions that a new productive epistemic enclave might be achieved. By adapting a counterargumentative narrative, the articles in London Gothic problematise the inherently transgressive discourses that have often simplified the study of the Gothic, and place them alongside a much more elaborate cultural materialist and new historicist frame. The Gothic genre, as well as accounts of London and its representation, is thus invested with a more nuanced dialectics that encompasses cultural, economic and historical production: a frame that I feel is necessary to supersede its arguable state of stagnation.


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