Review: Goth Girl and the Ghost of A Mouse

Posted by Chloe Buckley on February 14, 2014 in Blog, Reviews, Uncategorized tagged with , , , , ,

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse
by Chris Riddell
Publisher: Macmillan (Sep 2013)
ISBN-10: 0230759807
ISBN-13: 978-0230759800

Review by Chloe Buckley

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse is a beautiful and wonderfully silly book. I confess: it is one of the most enjoyable books that I have read for some time. However, beyond my immediate response as a newly converted Chris Riddell fan, I would argue that the pleasures offered by Goth Girl are timely and pertinent in terms of understanding why contemporary children’s gothic continues to flourish as a popular and literary form. The success of the book speaks of a renewed attention to and appreciation of the silly and the frivolous in literary circles, a trend that critics of gothic and children’s fiction alike should welcome.

 

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The first point to make about this book is that it is a beautiful object in itself. Riddell’s stylish and witty illustrations aside, the hardback edition is lavishly presented in a sumptuous gothic palette of black, silver and purple. The pages are gilded with purple – a nostalgic gesture that recalls the antiquarian, but with modern Goth twist – and the inside covers are decorated with a faux brocade print of curled leaves and skulls. Gorgeous, Goth Girl promises to be a sumptuous aesthetic treat as well as an imaginative one, and one cannot help feeling it is as much a must-have Goth accessory as well as a great novel.

From its cover art to its thematic content, Goth Girl is a book about the gothic aesthetic and it celebrates the surface trappings of literary gothic alongside the pleasures of gothic style. Reviews of the book have tended to emphasize its artwork and aesthetics, and note that its witty, silly plotting will inspire delight in adults and children alike. For these reasons, Goth Girl is an unlikely winner of the 2013 Costa Children’s Book Award. In the past three years the award has been given to Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, Moira Young’s Blood Red Road and Josh Wallace’s Out of Shadows. Maggot Moon and Blood Red Road are both dystopian novels and Josh Wallace’s debut is a thriller touching on Zimbabwean politics and the brutality of war. All three are worthy past winners, but also reveal a tendency in children’s literature publishing and criticism to value the grim and the serious over the silly and the frivolous. Given this bias, the triumph of Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl is even more remarkable, and indicative of a welcome change in perceptions of literary value. The award also recognises the fact that gothic has become one of the most popular forms of contemporary children’s fiction. The book and its success serves as a timely reminder to scholars of the gothic of ways of reading and writing gothic that deserve further consideration. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out, the gothic is a mode that directs the reader’s attention to surface trappings and aesthetics. Despite this, readings of children’s gothic in particular remain invested in ‘uncovering’ a text’s unconscious depths. Serious texts and serious modes of reading have their place, of course, but critics often forget that gothic is a mode that has engaged in playful self-parody from the outset. As Horner and Zlosnik argue, the gothic has always been bound up with the comic.

The novel is about Lord Goth and his daughter, Ada. Lord Goth is ‘mad, bad and dangerous to gnomes’ and when he is not taking pot-shots at the garden’s ceramic inhabitants with his blunderbuss whilst riding his ‘hobby horse’, he spends his days writing flamboyant poetry and avoiding the company of his daughter. Ada, forced to stomp about the ancestral home in “clompy” boots so she can be ‘heard and not seen’, makes her own amusement: she befriends spectral mice; finds abandoned polar explorers in the ice-house; and joins a nightly ‘attic’ club of child misfits inhabiting the unexplored nooks and passages of “Ghastly-Gorm Hall.” The main plot revolves around a conspiracy at the heart of Ghastly-Gorm Hall that threatens to ruin Lord Goth’s annual fashionable house party. Luckily, with the help of a vampire governess and some plucky ingenuity, Ada saves the day.

 

Goth Girl illustration by Chris Riddell.

This summary gives a glimpse into the wealth and variety of witty puns, literary references and parodic elements that comprise the novel. Goth Girl deconstructs gothic tropes and figures through playful pastiche, but avoids representing the gothic as empty, stale or used up. Though some critics have argued that parody and meta-fiction signal the doom of a mode, Goth Girl shows how parodic techniques and affectionate pastiche can invigorate a genre. More than this, Goth Girl reminds readers that pastiche and parody form a repertoire of gothic techniques themselves. Reviews of the book have compared it to Austen’s Northanger Abbey, an important early example of gothic parody. However, it is worth remembering that Austen’s novel does not parody gothic in a way that denigrates the form, but instead explores how gothic tropes, already half way to sending themselves up, might playfully interact with a realist mode and provide a useful way of imagining pressing concerns and anxieties. Goth Girl does something slightly different with gothic than Northanger Abbey, however, because its concerns are not with pressing social anxieties or issues of gender identity. Instead, Goth Girl willfully departs from social realities, serious moral debates, and what are commonly termed ‘issues’ in children’s literature. Goth Girl is concerned with the gothic itself, which it deconstructs and reconstitutes in a way that celebrates the form and promotes a canon of literary works for readers new to gothic.

I have talked before about how contemporary children’s gothic embraces patchwork techniques, reconstituting itself in innovative ways for a new generation of readers. In some ways, then, Goth Girl follows techniques established by writers like Neil Gaiman, Chris Priestley and F.E. Higgins in the way it recalls classic gothic settings and characters. The emphasis on aesthetics and silliness in Riddell’s book, though, represents a different use of intertextuality, one which more overtly intersects with the comic inherent in gothic. Bergson’s essay On Laughter provides one way of thinking about the comic gothic. For Bergson, any ‘arrangement of acts and events is comic which gives us the illusion of life and the distinct impression of a mechanical arrangement.’ Goth Girl’s many references to gothic texts, writers, clichés and tropes constitutes a form of repetition that makes the gothic seem comically mechanical, in the terms of Bergson’s essay. Through exaggeration, inversion and repetition, Goth Girl produces a mechanisation of gothic surface trappings that reveals their comic origins. Moreover, the gothic automatism produced in Riddell’s text is the opposite of the uncanny so often invoked by critics discussing the children’s gothic. This is an automatism that produces a pleasurable laugh, one that exploits the playful interaction of surfaces, rather insisting upon a fearful resurgence of repressed depths.

For Bergson, laughter provoked by the mechanical turns sour quickly. Happily, this is not the case with Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse. Frivolous though its pleasures may be, its parodic techniques never give way to cynicism. Instead, there is a determined celebration of many forms of gothic here. From the poetry and fiction of the late Romantic circle, to Victorian governesses and vampires, to the twentieth century dark fantasy of Mervyn Peake, Riddell proposes a delightfully broad canon of gothic fictions for younger readers to explore. Many reviews of the book have argued that there is a distinct separation in the way it addresses adults and children: it gives the adult reader lots of tongue in cheek jokes and references that are beyond the child’s frame of reference. One reviewer even goes as far as to suggest that the book is almost too good for children. I do not read the book in this way at all. Indeed, I would argue that Goth Girl imagines a child reader who is competent in reading gothic, and who has a variety of reading strategies at their disposal for deriving pleasure and humour from the many literary references, even if they have not necessarily read the works referenced.  Dan Harries has argued that parody gives a ‘quick lesson’ to its readers in whatever genre or mode it is operating, rather than excluding those without the requisite genre literacy. Indeed, Harries believes that critics should avoid imagining that there is any optimal way in which to interact with a parodic text. As Dare You –  a recent volume of YA authored fiction –  has shown, critics tread on dangerous ground when they assume that child readers lack sophisticated genre literacy. See:

http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/news/dare-you-new-anthology-challenges-notions-of-childrens-gothic-review/ http://lancsbeyondtwilight.wordpress.com/tag/richmond-park-academy/

Sadly, Goth Girl was always unlikely to win the overall Costa Book award. The only children’s book that has ever managed to overcome the bias towards adult fiction is Philip Pullman The Amber Spyglass, a hugely successful crossover novel that deals with sweeping philosophical and religious themes. Pullman’s novel also argues that readers need to take fantasy seriously. Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse instead suggests that seriousness is overrated. Through its entertaining play of surface trappings, the book opens out into a varied network of gothic texts that lead the reader down several enticing garden paths – reminiscent of the overgrown gardens that surround Ghastly-Gorm Hall itself. I urge readers to give into the temptations offered by the sumptuous packaging, and enter the delightfully silly world of Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse. Have fun exploring!

Links:

Watch the Metaphorical Bicycle Race

http://www.chrisriddell.co.uk/

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