Review: Contemporary Spanish Gothic

Posted by Timothy Jones on May 16, 2017 in Uncategorized tagged with

Contemporary Spanish Gothic: A Review

Davies, Ann. Contemporary Spanish Gothic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Reviewed by Rocío Rødtjer


In the article ‘Madrid Has Died’, the author laments that:

Madrid has died, like Vienna, Saint Petersburg, Lisbon and Constantinople. There are no longer populations, but one population built or modified according to the layout of Paris and distributed throughout the globe in copies of different sizes

Were it not for the disappearance of Constantinople, such an archetypical elegy on the homogenising effects of urbanisation – leaving a trail of replicants in its wake – could have come from countless contemporary critics. Instead the despondent pen belongs to José Fernández Bremón, writing in 1870 for one of the many magazines that had appeared in the late nineteenth century, propelled by the very modernity that Fernández Bremón denounces. The author of darkly humorous, often Gothic, short stories, Fernández Bremón would in retrospect be seen as part of this homogenising wave. Populated by mad doctors, monsters and other miscegenations, his work was dismissed as a copy of Edgar Allan Poe, a simulacra of an invading Anglo-American modernity that diluted Spanish culture. This narrative of Spain as an adaptor of trends (including the Gothic) rather than an originator remains a prevalent one. So equally does the fear of an all-encompassing modernity, now called globalisation, bent on blurring boundaries and devouring everything in its path.

Ann Davies contests both of these enduring tropes in her new study Contemporary Spanish Gothic, part of a revisionist wave that has in recent decades sought to expand the cultural cartography of Spain. Rarely mentioned in Spanish literary histories, and neglected in favour of labels like ‘fantastic’ or ‘late Romantic’, such cataloguing reflects a hierarchy: who owns the Gothic, which country produces Gothic, and which country is Gothic. For a long time, Spain was Gothic, synonymous in the Protestant mind with superstition and a cruel Inquisition. The peninsula became a favoured setting for foreboding castles and cackling counts in the Gothic novel popularised by Ann Radcliffe. Two centuries later, as Davies convincingly shows in her study, Spain has graduated from a mere backdrop to become a recognisable exporter of the genre, attested to by the success of films like The Others (2001) or the publishing phenomenon that is Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind (2001).

Divided into five chapters, the volume addresses different contemporary manifestations of this Spanish Gothic. Central to all of them is the idea that being rather than a mere replicant, these films and stories constitute a nexus for the Gothic. Instead of a passive recipient, Spain becomes a meeting point for several threads, some of them international and others recognisably local. Together they form a complex tapestry that unsettles and questions borders whilst simultaneously marketing the final product as distinctly Spanish.

Not only does this nexus circulation model produce a kaleidoscopic view, it also helps Davies contend the notion of the Gothic mode as eroded after more than two centuries of recycling and reassembling the same tropes. Just like Fernández Bremón bemoaned that globalisation would ultimately deface Madrid’s distinguishing features, some critics see contemporary Gothic as falling prey to a similar dilution.

This ominous vision of the Gothic eating itself conjures the image of Saturn devouring his son, immortalised by Goya in one of his Black Paintings, and now itself a canonical Gothic image endlessly disseminated and geographically dislocated with each reproduction. As Fernández Bremón’s obituary for Madrid  shows, this anxiety about a cannibalising capitalism and excess in circulation that blurs borders and regional distinctiveness is nothing new. Counteracting such a perennial trope, Davies argues that ‘I am not so readily inclined to assume that the Gothic has become meaningless and toothless simply because it is widely circulated’ (16). Instead ‘[t]he very circulation of the Gothic, far from instilling passivity in its observers, might just as easily render international and transnational circulation uncanny’ (17). Goya exemplifies this, hailed as a Spanish shibboleth yet at the same time an infinitely marketable and pliable figure, proved by an ongoing international fascination with the painter. He forms the basis of the first chapter that considers three Goya biopics as part of ‘heritage Gothic’. Davies shows how these films were marketed to both a national and international audience, in particular Goya’s Ghosts (2006), directed by Milos Forman and with Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård in the role of Goya.

Productions like these highlight Goya as a free floating signifier paradoxically marketable because of a fetishised cultural difference. Similarly, the time of Goya is portrayed in popular historiography as the awakening of a national conscience against the Napoleonic invasion, capitalised for international consumption precisely because of this rejection of foreign influence. The period, characterised by national decline and a decadent royal family, has been Gothicised in the same way the later Spanish Civil War would be. In fact, the latter casts such a long shadow over recent history in both directions that everything risks being reduced to either a harbinger or an ensuing echo of the conflict.

It prominently haunts many readings of the international best seller The Shadow of the Wind set in a postwar Barcelona, as discussed in the second chapter. Davies does not discard these interpretations but warns against seeing everything through solely a national lens at the risk of producing excessively myopic readings. Instead genre is presented as a another approach that transcends borders, an angle that Davies observes ‘is often neglected even though genre can prove a ready vehicle for bringing ideas into a national culture while also allowing that culture to contribute to the sum of the genre’ (1). Ruiz Zafón’s novel borrows from a transnational pool of Gothic motives, amongst them the fascination with recovered manuscripts and their preservation and circulation, embodied by the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where the protagonist stumbles across a book called precisely The Shadow of the Wind. The fascination the book elicits and subsequent hunt it triggers reflect a yearn for authenticity embodied in the physical manuscript, and which informs both the Gothic and modernity. Whilst the fictional Shadow of the Wind remains a well kept secret circulated amongst a small circle, Ruiz Zafón’s story became a resounding success widely disseminated through countless paperbacks in airports and supermarkets. This commercialisation continues to taint the Gothic despite continuous efforts to revalue popular culture, expressed through the fear of excess circulation and consumption. Writing on the nineteenth-century novel, Stephanie Sieburth observes how ‘[m]odernity is associated with the dizzying proliferation of objects, papers, numbers, words, and even people. The fear that these quantities will become uncontrollable is just below the surface of the description’ (1994: 32). It implies that culture should be original, that it is mechanically irreproducible, and fixed geographically to avoid such promiscuous circulation.

To read everything in terms of national history becomes a popular way to root cultural production, the weight of the past lending gravity to proceedings. Such is the fate of the haunted house trope, which as Davies argues in chapter three, has been pared down to a metaphor for the ghosts of the Civil War and subsequent dictatorship lingering in national memory. Far from dismissing hauntology, Davies defends the nuances of the model popularised by Jo Labanyi, often lost in subsequent readings by other critics seduced by a simple overlap between national trauma and ghosts. ‘It is after all not simply national history that can supply trauma’ (85). Again Davies proposes the genre model to provide more complex readings for the enduring popularity of haunted house histories. Audiences might not only seek out these stories in a cathartic collective impulse to recover historical memory but also for the sheer thrill of terror promised by the genre. The aesthetic pleasures of horror, whilst not necessarily as noble as the confrontation of fascism, still need to be taken into account. Otherwise and in an effort to avoid frivolity and commercial appeal, we risk reducing the troubling complexity and very real horror of war and dictatorship to another trope.

This ongoing division between art house productions and blockbusters, and between national history and impersonal deterritorialised Hollywood fare is developed upon in chapter four, by way of the work of Spanish cameraman Javier Aguierresarobe. Having made a name for himself at home as one of the industry’s leading directors of photography, Aguierresarobe has subsequently enjoyed success in Hollywood, with such mainstream behemoths as New Moon (2009), the second instalment of the Twilight series. His trademark washed out murky aesthetic and experiments with chiaroscuro lend themselves well to the Gothic. It is a style that runs through his work, from his earlier efforts in films such as The Dead Mother (1993), firmly rooted in a sombre Basque Country, to New Moon, set in the Pacific northwest of America but actually filmed in Canada. In this way, Davies shows that the more ‘tasteful’ and unabashedly local The Dead Mother shares a similar aesthetic with the deterritorialised blockbuster that is New Moon.

The misty penumbra of northern Spain has long been favoured as a Gothic setting by Spanish authors from Emilia Pardo Bazán in The Ripper of Yesteryear (1900) and Ramón del Valle Inclán’s Dark Garden (1920). Through the act of circulation, Aguierresarobe brings his Basque sensibility to American film, thus leaving a Spanish imprint on its cinematography. Yet at the same time he contributes to the uprooting of his regional identity by transplanting it to an international setting, one that substitutes an original location – Canada in New Moon and Cantabria (Spain) for the English channel in The Others.

The final chapter Gothic Medicine: Written on the Body continues to explore this tension between the local and the international as inscribed in the physical realities of our anatomy. Bodies become another nexus that ‘paradoxically suggests stability and instability’ (140). Amongst her illuminating examples, Davies closely reads the contours of The Skin I Live In (2011) by Pedro Almodóvar. Just like Goya, the Spanish director is feted as a Spanish signifier both at home and abroad, yet it is partly this endless dissection of his body of work that has contributed to his consecration as a national icon. Almodóvar has always recognised the many foreign elements that have influenced his oeuvre,The Skin I Live In – an Almodóvarian take on Frankenstein – being no exception. We meet the canonical mad doctor Dr Robert Ledgard, played by international Spanish symbol Antonio Banderas, who transforms the body of a man he believes to have raped his daughter into an exact copy of his late wife, with the expected hubristic outcome. Rather than possessing a fixed identity, the new hybrid creation Vera becomes a site for excess of meaning. It echoes the film as a site for a transnational Gothic flow, never entirely one or the other and as porous as Vera’s skin.

Drawing from a varied pool of material which she deftly manages, Davies shows the vitality of a mode that continues to sprawl, replicate, crossbreed and intermingle happily oblivious to that age old concern that ‘pop will eat itself’. As she admits herself, Davies’s field of expertise lies in contemporary culture, which might explain her less assured grip on earlier Gothic manifestations in eighteenth- and nineteenth–century Spain. Claims that the Gothic rarely made an appearance before 1850 have already been disproved by Miriam López Santos in The Gothic Novel in Spain (1788-1833) (2010) (yet to be be translated). Despite facing more censorship, press mentions, translations and a budding editorial business reveal a reading public mainly composed of a limited yet emerging middle class eager to be thrilled and titillated like their continental counterparts. Similarly the so-called ‘failure of Spain’ thesis has been thoroughly debunked by most mainstream historians. The underlying idea that insufficient industrialisation and an alleged weak political culture ultimately led to fascism in 1930s has been proven to be as misleading as the opposite, that excessive modernity led to Nazism in Germany. However none of these outdated narratives are central to Davies’ core arguments or focus on contemporary Spain. Here she displays an admirable bibliographical grasp and an ability to effortlessly navigate the cultural landscape producing refreshing reads on a mode that refuses to slow down despite repeated warnings on its impending collapse into simulacra. Contemporary Spanish Gothic makes a valuable contribution to Gothic Studies and an enticing invitation to those not fully familiar with the twisted delights of el gótico español.

Works Quoted

Fernández Bremón, José. ‘Madrid Has Died’ (‘Madrid ha muerto’), La Ilustración de Madrid, 27th January, 3–4, 1870.

Sieburth, Stephanie. Inventing High and Low : Literature, Mass Culture, and Uneven Modernity in Spain. Durham : Duke University Press, 1994.


Rocío Rødtjer is a research associate at King’s College London, from which she recently received her PhD. Awarded the AHGBI-Spanish Embassy Doctoral Publication Prize for 2016, ‘Women and Nationhood in Restoration Spain 1874–1931: The State as Family’ will be published by Legenda. Her main area of interest is fin-de-siècle Spain, and she has published on the Gothic incursions into the Spanish literary landscape of this period, Transatlantic literature, women’s political involvement, as well as the relationship between scientific discourse and Catholicism. She also holds an M.A. in Translation and Linguistics and has worked as a translator and editor.




Tiny URL for this post: