Lucie Armitt, Twentieth-Century Gothic

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on June 07, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Lucie Armitt, Twentieth-Century Gothic, University of Wales Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes, Lancaster University

The critical mapping of what has come to be known as contemporary gothic has been troubling scholars for well over three decades. If academics like David Punter already tried to trace the modern incarnations of the genre as early as 1980, certain recent interventions in the field like those made by Bruhm (2002), Spooner (2006), Botting (2008) or Beville (2009) have sought to investigate the points at which Gothic discourses might be said to intersect with contemporary commodities, neo-liberal capitalism, youth subcultures and even whole theoretical and socio-cultural frameworks or movements like postmodernism. Lucie Armitt, whose previous work had already explored fantastic narratives, approaches this blossoming area in one of the latest instalments in the History of the Gothic series. Twentieth-Century Gothic (2010) interestingly meanders its way in and out of the complicated gothic mosaic of the last 100 years in its search for key concepts through which we can define the presence of gothicism in twentieth century literature and cinema.

This volume is divided into four main thematic parts, a survey of the field and a useful, if necessarily partial, annotated bibliography. The first of the thematic chapters provides the book with its major argumentative thrust in its consideration of the presence and implications of our cultural construction of the changing image of the child. In keeping with now canonical theorisations of horror as a genre constantly reinventing itself in order to match generational anxieties, Armitt suggests that the twentieth century becomes increasingly marked by a collective panic towards the notion of ‘child safety’ (13). She argues that the ensuing dichotomic interface between child as standing for innocence/vulnerability and the construction of the paedophile as gothic villain has permeated the majority of Gothic narratives, particularly those where a ghost is involved (from James’ Turn of the Screw: 1898 to Amenabar’s The Others: 2001). This section also delves into the lesser-known work of A.S. Byatt , Graham Joyce, Steve Szilagyi or the publishing success of childhood misery memoirs in order to conclude that contemporary readers are perpetually haunted by an unclear mixture of fear and fascination towards children emanating from paternal anxieties, and that this results in an inevitably paradoxical situation where the figure of the child abuser is both rebuked yet necessitated by the audience.

The second section of the book starts by considering Kosofsky Sedgwick’s discussions of Piranesi’s etchings in order to provide a nuanced analysis of the architectural landscape of the genre in the twentieth century. If the results of this investigation are somewhat predictable when compared to those of the previous chapter (the Gothic as linked to Freud’s notion of the uncanny or ‘unheimlich’), Armitt’s interesting choice of texts once again provides for a kaleidoscopic, intertextual and perceptive reading of the gothic’s recent atmospherics. Bowen’s ‘The Demon Lover’ is brought into a productive dialogue with films like What Lies Beneath (2000) in an attempt to ascertain the point at which traditional gothic settings like that of The Name of the Rose (1983) could be seen to meet with ‘post-industrial suburban culture’ (76).  Similarly, the third section makes use of texts like Doyle’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ (1902) or Barker’s ‘The Hellbound Heart’ (1986) in its survey of ‘gothic inhumanity’, a term that gains momentum as corporeal liminality is unpacked and ideas of bestial interstitiality in the work of Carrington or Hitchcock are brought into play. Armitt’s overview in the fourth chapter of how the Gothic has helped shape and queer the uncanny (115) makes for the perfect companion piece to recent publications in the same area of studies (see Haggerty: 2006, Hughes and Smith: 2009). Writers like Sarah Waters have been studied under a similar lens before, but it is in Armitt’s reading of Henry James’ ‘The Jolly Corner’ (1909) or McGrath’s ‘The Angel’ (1988) that this section is at its most convincing. The etiological implications of an AIDS rhetorics to the g gothic is particularly illuminating in this respect, and it provides some of the strongest ideas in the latter half of the volume.

If Armitt makes some very interesting points about the often confused nature of the gothic – her claim that we often conflate the gothic with the uncanny was much needed (146) – some overarching comments on the genre often loom dangerously over the more carefully-cratfed study of particular textual instances or practices. Assertions like ‘[Michael] Jackson has epitomised the twentieth-century Gothic’ (160) or that the Gothic offers self-gratification (63) are not just problematic (in the second instance, could we not say the same of any other form of literature, even of entertainment more generally?) but also perhaps slightly general for a book that is otherwise at pains to delimit its scope. It seems that this volume is at its most inspiring when it tries to push the critical and methodological boundaries that seem to be constraining the field (for instance, the overwhelming amount of work published in the area of psychoanalysis). An example of such crucial re-thinking is the conclusion that, as the genre pulls away from a fear of the occult, it is left with its pyrotechnical theatrics (‘costumes and role play’, 159) or the contention that there has been a cultural translocation in the image of the ghost from catalyst of fear to versatile metaphor (166).

Of equal critical interest is the author’s reconfiguration of the Gothic as, rather than a mode or a feeling (Warwick: 2007), a way of reading. If perhaps Armitt does not fully lead example here, preferring mostly to recognise narratives as gothic (96), the repercussions that such an approach might have on the field are endless.  In this respect, Twentieth-Century Gothic, might not just be lying down basic recognition patterns for the century behind us, but perhaps also pre-empting theoretical constructions of the one to come. For a discipline that has been perceived to be as exhausted and formulaic as the genre itself, Armitt’s refocusing of the gothic lens might be one to benefit future scholars of a genre that, in its most contemporary suit at least, can be said to still be very much in the making.

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