Review: Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright

Posted by Maria Cohut on October 15, 2015 in Blog, Maria Cohurt, Reviews tagged with , , , , ,


Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright
by Chris Riddell
Macmillan 2015
ISBN-10: 1447277899
ISBN-13: 978-1447277897

Portrait of Ada Lovelace (1836) by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Portrait of Ada Lovelace (1836) by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Following the ‘gift’ booklet released on the occasion of World Book Day this year, Macmillan have published yet another instalment in Chris Riddell’s ‘Goth Girl’ series: Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright. Right in time, too, for the celebration of the Ada Lovelace Day on the 13th October (happy belated Ada Lovelace Day!), with another story about her fictional namesake, Ada Goth, ‘the only child of Lord Goth, England’s foremost cycling poet’, also prominently featuring Charles Cabbage, the inventor of the ‘calculating machine’. Charles Cabbage has been a background presence in the previous books, Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse, and Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death, but now he becomes much more substantial. Unlike Ada, who perhaps does not have all that much in common with her historical ‘twin’, the Countess of Lovelace, Charles Cabbage is a more faithful descendant of mathematician Charles Babbage. With him, he shares not only the scientific prowess, but also a strong dislike of ‘[t]he music of organ grinders in the street [which] is the worst public nuisance of them all’. (A great fictionalised account of Babbage’s hate for street musicians can be found in Sydney Padua’s online comic, Lovelace and Babbage versus the Organist!) The book, however, does not dwell solely on Babbage-related themes; as always, classical authors and literary tropes (especially of the Gothic kind) are a favourite topic. Once again Riddell treats us to a feast of cross-references of the most diverse kind, from visual arts, to literature, to popular culture. Even the book design has a ‘meta-‘Gothic feel to it, with the trademark pattern on the endpaper – a skull framed by intricate vegetal motifs – reminiscent of William Morris’s wallpaper designs, especially the iconic Acanthus leaf pattern.

William Morris's 'Acanthus' wallpaper pattern (1875)

William Morris’s ‘Acanthus’ wallpaper pattern (1875)

The title of the book itself, Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright, is an obvious reference to Emily Brontë’s iconic Wuthering Heights, although it does not have much else in common with it apart from a loving fixation on ‘the moors’ as a poetic space.

Page from serialised 'Wagner the Wehr-Wolf' (1857), by G. M. W. Reynolds

Page from serialised ‘Wagner the Wehr-Wolf’ (1857), by G. M. W. Reynolds

More than just parodying or referencing Brontë’s book, in fact, the title seems to be a self-conscious allusion to the various funnily dark rewritings of staple nineteenth-century novels, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Slayre, or Little Vampire Women. What Wuthering Fright holds in common with the books just cited is a certain understanding of the Gothic mode, an exploration of the genre through humour and metafictionality and -textuality. Wuthering Fright is, essentially, Neo-Victorian fiction with a penchant for complicit nudges and hearty laughter. In “‘Fear Is Fun and Fun is Fear’: A Reflexion on Humour in Neo-Victorian Gothic” (in Neo-Victorian Gothic), Christian Gutleben points out that humour, in Neo-Victorian fiction, counterbalances fear without necessarily extinguishing it. The social issues that, in classical Gothic fiction, are explored via devices like terror and horror, are dealt with just as efficiently, but more lightheartedly in some Neo-Victorian works through humour and ‘intertextual and metatextual games’, Gutleben contends. Chris Riddell continues to work with the idea of ‘ludic’ Gothic tropes wonderfully as he addresses, in Wuthering Fright, three very serious issues – bullying, child neglect, and coming to terms with all the aspects of one’s identity – in a playful and heartwarming way. I will not go into too many details about which character is dealing with what issue and why, so as not to spoil the story for prospective readers. I can tell you this, however: it involves ‘snow-traying’ and lycanthropy! On that note, from Wagner the Wehr-Wolf  by George W.M. Reynolds and all the way to the Native American werewolf from the Twilight saga, lycanthropes have been one of the staples of horror, Gothic, or dark supernatural fiction, possibly because the image of the man (or woman) who turns into a dangerous wild beast every full moon has been a convenient image through which to look at gender stereotypes, bestiality, and identity issues. Riddell taps nicely into this resource although, as always, with a comic twist that allows him to explore some of this trope’s potential whilst also containing and ‘domesticating’ it.

As for the abundance of ‘meta-‘ situations in Wuthering Fright, it leaves the reader wondering, rather, what kind of audience this book is aimed at. (In a good way.) Like its predecessors, Ghost of a Mouse, Fete Worse than Death, and Pirate Queen, the latest instalment in the Goth Girl series sets a fun challenge to its adult readers: ‘how many allusions and puns can you get?’ It

Inger Nilsson as Pippi Longstocking in the eponymous 1969 film directed by Olle Hellborn

Inger Nilsson as Pippi Longstocking in the eponymous 1969 film directed by Olle Hellborn

is a pleasure to sit down and read just to see how many fun bits you can spot, from the – perhaps surprising – Top Gun ‘I feel the need… the need for speed!’ reference, to tracing the literary or popular culture origins of the various characters. This is a particularly rich task, since Wuthering Fright details Lord Goth’s latest eccentric endeavour, that of organising a ‘literary dog show’ with such contestants in the spotlight as Sir Walter Splott and Ivanhoe, his Lanarkshire Lurcher, Plain Austen and Emma the Hampshire Blue Bloodhound, or Georgie Eliot (‘balletic wordsmith’) with Flossie, her Old Middlemarch Sheepdog. Even richer layers of allusion are reached when it comes to the referees of the ‘literary dog show’, Hands Christmas Andersen, and especially Countess Pippi Shortstocking, who appears to be a complex melange between the title character from the beloved children’s series Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and Princess Anna of Frozen fame. Riddell’s humorous metafictionality is taken even farther in Wuthering Fright by the introduction of the episodic character of ‘Sir Christopher Riddle-of-the-Sphinx R.A.,

Plain Austen and Emma, illustration by Chris Riddell

Plain Austen and Emma, illustration by Chris Riddell

canine caricaturist’ and ‘a founder of the Arts and Crufts movement’. This seems like a very ‘meta-meta-‘ gesture, but it actually leads back to a whole tradition of painters more or less subtly inserting self-portraits into their paintings, like Sandro Botticelli in Adoration of the Magi, or Diego Velázquez in Las Meninas, a gesture of auto-mimesis that acts not only as a signature, but also as a meditation upon authorship. This all sounds terribly academic, and whilst it may convince an adult readership that Chris Riddell’s book is full of intellectual goodies, why would a child be willing to read it? The book is, after all, promoted as targeting a readership aged seven to nine. The answer to this question is that, apart from all the ‘Easter eggs’, Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright is perfectly readable as a story in and of itself, following the adventures of Ada and the members of the Attic Club. Plus, the delightful imagery that Riddell creates is striking and funny, and would appeal to any age group; as an example: Maltravers, the ‘indoor gamekeeper’ and ‘outdoor butler’ has ‘a jumble of tombstone teeth the colour of tea’. And, as in the case of Ghost of a Mouse and Fete Worse than Death, there’s a ‘free teeny-weeny book inside’, a small but gorgeously illustrated extra booklet, another kind of ‘Easter egg’ for the readers to discover.

Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright definitely lives up to the expectations set up by the other volumes in the series: it offers a good deal of wit and entertainment without becoming farcical, and the story and illustrations feed into each other wonderfully and seamlessly. Not to mention that, as an object, it is at least as impressive as any volume one might get in the Collector’s library, with its gilded pages, its silky ribbon-bookmark, and sturdy hardback covers. No news so far of any more upcoming ‘Goth Girl’ books from Macmillan, but here, at least, is someone who is hoping for more sequels!

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