David J. Jones’s Gothic Machine, Reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes.

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on May 27, 2012 in Reviews tagged with

David J. Jones, Gothic Machine: Textualities, Pre-Cinematic Media and Film in Popular Visual Culture, 1670-1910 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011)

Reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes, University of Lancaster

As someone who is interested in the technological side of gothic, I was naturally attracted to the idea behind David J. Jones’ new book. Largely centred on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with their plethora of pre-cinematic media that blur the boundaries between magic, optical illusion and spectacle, Gothic Machine does not disappoint. Following the lead of recent publications like Robert Miles’s ‘Gothic Romance as Visual Technology’ (2005), Mervyn Heard’s Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern (2006) or Marina Warner’s Phantasmagoria (2008), Jones instantly takes command of the field and proposes that gothic might be understood as ‘the recurrent coalescence and subsequent collective operation’ (7) of the emerging visual technologies developed at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The different pieces that compose the gothic machine are thus envisioned as creating a form of ‘trans-medial synergy’ (7) that both affects texts and is affected by them. This idea has important repercussions for the study of what are now considered canonical gothic works. Most importantly, it reinforces the notion that gothic has always already been highly concerned with the media surrounding it, and that contemporary instances might be replicating what is, in essence, the hyperaffective extremes of that connection. Hence, perhaps, the book’s coda, which considers the recent filmic phenomenon popularly known as the ‘New French Extremity’ and is more an intimate nod towards the possibilities of future study than a real conclusion.

In Gothic Machine Jones thus argues that visual gimmicks like those implemented in phantasmagoria shows, the diorama or magic lantern performances have been constitutional to what we now understand as the genre. This does not simply imply that gothic texts such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) or J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s fiction make substantial references to visual illusions, or that they often express moments of terror through similar metaphors (1-2, 89-90). It also emphasises the fact that visual media are often imbued with a demonic or gothic discourse of dread. Early depictions of the printing process, for instance, are haunted by ideas of violence, as the first depiction of a print shop, published by Matthias Huss in 1499, would seem to suggest. In this image, the workers in a print shop can be seen wrestling with corpse-like figures come to either distract or destroy them. It is plain to see, Jones claims, that similar fears are still perceptible in the recent success of horror films like Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) or Geoffrey Sax’s White Noise (2005), with their gloomy treatments of the possible catastrophic consequences of new media (21). The relationship between technology and the gothic can thus be seen as symbiotic: phantasmagoria shows would often use slides inspired by gothic novels like M. G. Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and would borrow figures from popular horror tales. For their part, gothic plays like George Colman the Younger’s Blue-Beard or James Boaden’s Fountainville Forest (1794), would show the influence of lanternists in displays of effects that would enable the apparition of ghostly scrolls on stage (42). Even though gothic is more traditionally studied as a prose phenomenon developing from romance, or what Clara Reeve termed the New Gothic romance (1785), the reality is that for contemporary writers and critics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge or the Marquis de Sade there was very little difference between literary romances and lantern shows (48, 54). Recent critical interventions are trying to redress this situation: Robert Miles (2005), who has recently explored this territory, has already acknowledged such visual displays as part of the gothic, and Catherine Spooner (2007) has mentioned the importance of stage melodramas to a fuller understanding of the genre.

This is the territory covered by Jones’ book. Le Fanu, Bulwer-Lytton, Charles Dickens and Stevenson are only some of the authors to find their work presented alongside the visual innovations of their time. Their texts are thus interwoven into their media contexts, rather than reduced to historical, gender or class contingencies. For example, symbolist horror is explained through the ‘corporeal partitioning’ (126) championed by the chronophotographers, rather than through shifts in notions of the human psyche. The logic behind the choice of Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Tale (1862) to accompany the optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost is also accounted for, as is the use of diorama metaphors in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). These discussion become sometimes confusing, making it difficult to distinguish what, or if anything at all, is being prioritised in this study. I would propose that this is perhaps one of the intentions of Jones’ project, that is, to show how different types of media (visual, dramatic, cinematic and literary) are not always as easily separated as we might like to think. But Jones’ most important contribution with Gothic Machine is his challenge to popular beliefs around the phantasmagoria show. As he argues, relevant diary entries and the discovery of an important engraving and floor plans for the convent where the earliest performances by Etienne-Gaspard Robertson took place necessarily throw doubt upon traditionally accepted narratives like that of Terry Castle (1995). This new evidence shows that phantasmagorias, at least in their initial stages, had a different dynamic from the one we have assumed to be true and that, contrary to what we think, they did not start out in crypts (59). If nothing else, such a discovery lays bare the difficulties of researching audience response and impact, as well as the dangers of our own preconceptions as gothic scholars in search of overarching narratives.

Gothic Machine is an interesting piece of scholarship precisely because it refuses that type of chronological and even sequential structure. Instead, it prefers to relish on the interconnections between different forms of media and how their languages may coalesce and expand our meaning and understanding of them. Aside from being a very thorough introduction to the role of visual technology and optical illusion up until the release of the first Frankenstein adaptation (J. Searle Dawley, 1910), Jones’ book manages to achieve what only good academic volumes do: it creates an awareness of the pressing need to consider what had, until now, only been invoked as part of a niche area of study. Gothic Machine begins to question whether, in fact, we might be able to envision the gothic genre at all without also acknowledging concomitant advances in technology.

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