A Collaborative Review of Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

Posted by Kelly Gardner on January 16, 2015 in Reviews, Uncategorized tagged with , , ,

On the 5th December 2014, a group of Stirling’s Gothic students began a voyage of macabre delight. Journeying to the British Library for a Goth-infused weekend that included an evening of Gothic Tales, the Gothic Study Day, and of course, the Terror and Wonder Exhibition. This post serves as a collaborative review of the experience. Our heartfelt thanks go to the University of Stirling’s Professor Douglas Brodie and Dr Dale Townshend for making the trip a possibility.


An introduction by Sonja Zimmermann and Marina Pérez:

In the autumn and winter of 2014, a year that marks the 250th anniversary of what is commonly considered the first Gothic novel, and an emblematic symbol of the Gothic fiction, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the British Library is hosting an exhibition titled ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’. Focusing on all things dark and spooky, the exhibition offers an historical journey from the origins to the modern period of this literary tradition. Arranged chronologically, the exhibition takes you all the way from the beginnings of Gothic Literature in the 18th century, the famous goings on in the Villa Diodati in the Summer of 1816 and the horrors of fin de siècle London, to the genre’s more modern representations in film, music and youth culture of the 20th and 21st century.Fonthill Abbey

The exhibition illustrates 250 years of Gothic creativity personified in 250 exceptional objects that fascinate the public for their singularity and significance with respect to the literary tradition concerning them. From original manuscripts by Walpole, Byron, Poe and Shelley (and even an original letter from a possible Jack the Ripper) to the most recent cultural references of horror fiction, all depicting a fascinating Gothic scenario that evidences the relevant role of the Gothic fiction from late XVIII century on. Displayed are not only original manuscripts and first editions of various famous Gothic novels, but also everything from letters and newspaper articles of the time, an 18th century model of William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, visuavictorian vampire slaying kitl representations of the Gothic in paintings, photographs and video clips, to oddities such as a Victorian Vampire Slaying Kit and the stop motion puppet of Wallace and Gromit’s Were-Rabbit.

The greatness of this exhibition lies in the possibility for the audience to contemplate, in first person, those original symbols that gave sense and origin to the Gothic aesthetics. It was particularly fascinating for our group, as it constituted a materialisation of all the contents and ideas that we had been discussing in class throughout the first part of our master program, being an unforgettable and enriching experience whereby we concluded our first semester.

Tracy Hastie’s reflections on the Gothic Study Day

Music, Absinth, Lace: Goth Club Culture – Isabella van Elferen, Kingston University 

In a day grounded in discussion of literature, Professor van Elferen’s paper on Goth Club Culture was an interesting unexpected highlight. Of an age to remember the heyday of the post punk spirit of the London club Batcave, I couldn’t help but be excited to hear where Goth had gone since I left the black eyeliner behind in my 20’s.

Prof van Elferen gave an overview of the different types of Goth culture that exist: from the old-school of my teens, encompassing the Victorian and Medieval before meeting the 21st century with Cyber – Goth. Each has its own distinctive music and outfits; its own distinct identity.

Illustrating each sub section with an example of music led us from Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows- Ich wollte hinaus in den Garten ( I Wanted to go Out into the Garden) from the 1999 album Dead Lovers Sarabande – Face One. Dark and haunting, the lyrics follow the desire of the narrator for his recently deceased lover. Although the topic may seem a little macabre – we are however students of the Gothic – the intro takes one back to the medieval sounding intro of the Sisters of Mercy This Corrosion, with vocals reminiscent of the Bauhaus.van elferen

The exploration continued into a branch of gothic music that is more introspective, moody, emotional, and artistic – the dark electronic sweeping sound of Darkwave illustrated by the band The Beauty of Gemina and their 2007 track Suicide Landscape from the album Diary of a Lost.

Followed with the sound of Xandria who seemed to combine a heavier rockier tone and dark lyrics juxtaposed against a contemporary pop structure in their track She’s a Vampire from the 2007 album Salome – The Seventh Veil.

Finally Prof van Elferen led us to the explosion of sound which is cyber-goth. Converter, Asche and Morgenstern’s In Hell created much head nodding and foot tapping; a recording which layered dark ambient drones, hard pounding rhythms with processed samples.   Listen to it yourself and see if you are drawn in as we were:


Prof van Elferen expressed the intricacies of the music far more eloquently than I can hope to, however she opened the world of the Gothic to one that goes beyond beyond literature, to a world that is vibrant and passionate, inspired by the art of the Gothic and expressed through both dress and music.

Now where did I put that black eyeliner…?


Terrors and Wonder – Fanny Lacôte

 What a difficult task to write about one’s favourite part in such a wonderful exhibition… I wish, however, to relate one particular moment of emotion — amongst all those terrors and wonders — when I encountered, after a detour in shadowy alleys marked out by dark curtains, the Northanger novels, taking pride of place on in their imposing glass case. As I made my way towards them, I recalled Isabella Thorpe’s words to Catherine Morland, in Nortanger Abbey:

“Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind to you.”

“Have you indeed? How glad I am! What are they all?”

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book: Castle of Wolfenback, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid. Are you sure they are all horrid?”

“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, — a Miss Andrews, — a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1903, pp. 38-39.

How magical to finally lay one’s eyes upon these first editions, reunited for the first time, and imagine them in the hands of 18th century readers, “sweet girl[s]” such as Isabella, Catherine and men such as Henry Tilney, sitting by the fire on a particular windy night, “with [their] hair standing on end the whole time.” [Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Op. cit., p. 127.]

seven horrid novels

For a long time, these seven Gothic titles were thought to be Jane Austen’s creation, to serve her purpose in her parody of the genre; until Michael Sadleir, — “The Northanger Novels: a footnote to Jane Austen,” The English Association Pamphlet 68, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1927 — and Montague Summers — A Gothic Bibliography, London: Fortune Press, 1941 — rediscovered their existence in the first decades of the 20th century. Since then, the authors were proved to be quite prolific in the Gothic genre and enjoyed a certain popularity at the time.

The Northanger novels were republished in 1968 by the Folio Press, edited by the scholar Devendra P. Varma, and are today made available to contemporary readers by the independant publishing house Valancourt Books[1]. These seven “horrid” novels were all — apart from The Midnight Bell — published by the Minerva Press, renowned for its lucrative market in sentimental and Gothic fiction. Surfing in Ann Radcliffe’s and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s wave of success, these fictions date from 1793 to 1798, the golden age of Gothic fiction. Thus chosen by Jane Austen, amongst the most popular of the genre, not only do they represent a perfect “essential guide to Gothic fiction,” but they are also evidence of the public’s taste at the time, like the interest for German tales and folklore, for example. Indeed, out of seven titles, two of them — i.e., The Necromancer; or The Tale of the Black Forest and Horrid Mysteries — are directly translated from German, and four of them have their plot at some point located in Germany. The Mysterious Warning, The Midnight Bell and the Castle of Wolfenbach are even respectively subtitled “a German Tale” and “a German Story”.

One last thing to relate, before I pass the pen over to my fellow Gothic comrades for another piece of account: almost all of these first editions are enriched with frontispieces illustrating one of the most dramatic scenes — such as the imprisonment of Eugenia, Count M*** and their child by the baron S***, represented in the frontispiece of Mysterious Warning’s original edition —, quite an interesting thing to behold, considering that not all novels were illustrated at the time.

Fanny Lacote


Victorian Gothic and a reflection on Gothic Tales – Janet Chu

Across the threshold of the exhibition section of the Victorian Gothic, it was noted that the shift of the Gothic tendency was pithily introduced as the transition from the early Gothic to the Victorian Gothic. Different from the early Gothic’s reminiscence of the medieval past, the Victorian Gothic tends to plumb the contemporary urbanised life and the concomitant crime problems. Charles Dickens’s and Wilkie Collins’s Gothic works and related letters were in display as the early paradigms of the Gothic of that period.

Stepping deeper into the exhibition, I stopped by the section of Edgar Allan Poe, who is the representative of the American Gothic during the Victorian era. In addition to the exposition of the pieces such as “The Raven,” “The Oval Portrait,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe’s connection with the British cultures was illustrated. His early experience of staying five years in Britain, and his application of certain Gothic motifs, which can be traced back to the Gothic of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, indicate that Poe might inherit some legacy from his British Gothic predecessors. On the other hand, Poe made his own contribution of psychological exploration to the Gothic field. His adoption of Gothic conventions and his innovation in Gothic writing is something I am working on in my thesis, and I expect myself to further my knowledge of the Gothic context to delve into the depths of this topic.

Apart from the exhibition proper, the exhibition guide offered at the entrance to the exhibition also grabbed my attention. With the succinct introduction to each historical period of the expression of the Gothic, as well as the delicately printed Gothic poster of the 1890 play Manhood on the back, the guide itself was a very good and worthy possessing summary of the Gothic and memento of the visit to the Gothic exhibition.


The Gothic Tales:

Gothic talesThe Gothic Tales was a reading event run by six writers and actors: Charlie Higson, Matthew Holness, Stewart Lee, Audrey Niffenegger, Reece Shearsmith, and hosted by Natalie Haynes. Each of the guests read either certain passages of a Gothic tale or an entire Gothic piece to (re)introduce classic or modern Gothic works. With the theatrical modulation of the guests’ voice in reading, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower,” Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” and W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” were aurally and vividly presented to the audience and set us in the mysterious and gruesome atmosphere of the Gothic narratives. It was like a Gothic feast, where a group of people assemble together to listen to a story-teller telling an old and incredible story, just like the representation of the Gothic convention that many of the narrators say: “Let me tell you a story…”

After the event, Exotic Gothic 4, the Exotic series of Gothic and horror stories, were generously provided by Danel Olson (the founder and the editor of the Exotic Gothic series) to the attendees of the event as a perfect ending of this wonderful Gothic evening.


Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination – A Brief Review by Benjamin E. Noad

The Terror and Wonder exhibit maps out a historical dreamscape in which the authentic (and often inauthentic) monuments of Gothic production are hauntingly brought to life. Its visceral presentation is not about representing a gallery of horrors; it is a showcase of carefully selected documents which enshrines the progress of a continuing aesthetic movement.

Following a uniquely dedicated weekend celebrating 250 years of Gothic’s legacy, it is challenging to do justice to the exceptional efforts which brought this sublime imaginary to life. Nonetheless, in relating my own (considered-with-great-difficulty) ‘key moments’ of the occasion, I hope to emphasise the universal impact of such events. Most importantly of all, however, I highly recommend a visit!

Part of the joys of archival research is, for me at least, viewing and handling data that has often been forgotten or critically overlooked. Those moments of coming face-to-face with the handwritten manuscripts of renowned (or sometimes unknown) authors are at once awe-inspiring and unforgettable. It is for this reason, perhaps, that I revelled most in the earlier sections of the exhibit: a wealth of history is preserved behind these enticing glass cabinets. As I blissfully regard Matthew Lewis’s own amendments to his infamous scandal par excellence, The Monk (1796), it is refreshing to see this contextualised against the author’s wider socio-political interests, not just those relating to the French Revolution but also to his progressive (yet still conflicted) attitudes pertaining to slavery.[2] Before allowing myself to rush towards the cries of screened human sacrifices in (incidentally my favourite film of all time) clips of Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Man (1973), I have time to witness the fears of human decline underpinning the fin-de-siècle. A letter by Jack the Ripper and the medico-social impact of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) presents an appropriate phantasmagoria of Victorian degeneracy.

In the later part of this spectral evening, a number of publically recognisable figures come together in a special, one night-only event to read ‘Gothic Tales’. As Reece Shearsmith narrates W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw (1902), its publication date provokes surprise from the audience: has this chilling legend only haunted our imagination since 1902? Likewise, Gothic is engraved and entombed in culture and cultural production. The Terror and Wonder exhibition is a testimonial of the resistances and subversions that are a driving force of our attraction to the Gothic mode. I am deeply looking forward to returning. The event runs until the 20th January 2015 but Gothic will be entrenched to linger in our dark imaginary for evermore.



In Closing – Kelly Gardner

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination serves as a titillating introduction to the Gothic Genre. The darkened hallways, lined with Gothic artifacts, guide the visitor further into the exhibition with billowing black curtains offering a glimpse of what awaits around the next bend. The visitor, like the many gothic characters featured in the exhibit, finds herself wondering what lies beyond the veil, what terror awaits in the shadowed corners. The eerie sounds of selected horror films serve as the soundtrack to the exhibition, fluctuating in volume as the winding corridors guide the visitor in and out of earshot. By the time the visitor enters the final room, bright white walls lined with photographs taken by Martin Parr at the April 2014 Whitby Goth Weekend, the full extent of the Gothic Imagination becomes evident in the Victorian styling of contemporary Goth outfits. The energy of the exhibition is lifted by the minimalist styling of the final room, which allows for the emphasis to be redirected from “Goth” adorned walls, to “Goth” adorned persons. There is an evident shift from an exhibition of Gothic, to the way the Gothic is exhibited in the highly stylised outfits of the Goth attendees.

 This final part of the exhibition serves as a space to consider the Gothic heritage of contemporary horror culture. The echoes of the past are always lurking in the shadows, crouching in the corners of popular culture familiarity; the exhibition allows the visitor to lift the veil of that familiarity and delve into the rich literary history of an under-appreciated genre that finally seems to be receiving the recognition it deserves.



The exhibition is accompanied with a detailed book that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the heritage of Gothic literature. Available for purchase from The British Library and Amazon.

There is also the addition of a well-stocked Gothic inspired gift shop, also available online, so you can leave with a reminder of your visit.

 As previously mentioned, the exhibition will run until 20th January.

PACCAR Gallery
The British Library
96 Euston Road

See more at: http://www.bl.uk/events/terror-and-wonder–the-gothic-imagination#sthash.z8bCkJAQ.dpuf

[1] http://www.valancourtbooks.com/jane-austens-northanger-abbey-horrid-novels.html.

[2] See: Margaret Baron-Wilson, The Life and Correspondence of M.G Lewis, Author of The Monk, Castle Spectre etc. In Two Volumes, (London: Henry Colburn, 1839), p.158. The codicil to Lewis’s will demanded that the inheritors of his plantation made special effort to visit it and ensure the wellbeing of his slaves. In spite of this, while he improved conditions on the plantation by banning corporal punishment, Lewis never actually made any attempt to free his slaves. For further information see: D.L. MacDonald, Monk Lewis: A Critical Biography, (Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2000), p.53.

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