I’d like to be able to write coherently about the British Library’s Gothic exhibition, but because I’m an inveterate goth, I’m at risk of listing my moments of “Oh God, I can’t believe they’ve got the actual original [insert artefact here]”, hand to pale brow. Bear me for a moment, because–
Mervyn Peake’s handwritten Gormenghast!
Doctor Dee’s Elizabethan scrying mirror!
Thomas Chatterton’s medieval forgeries!
Letters by John Polidori!
Not since 2012’s Pre-Raphaelites at The Tate have there been so many of my favourite things in a single room. Anyone who loves Gothic will lick their chops at The British Library. From the genre’s florid beginnings with The Castle of Otranto to The Sisters of Mercy crooning at girls who wander by mistake, the exhibition is a celebration of the pleasure Gothic’s many incarnations have brought people down the centuries – and how Gothic manages never to die.
Crumbling ramparts, impenetrable forests, double lives, and lashings of gore. Gothic has always toyed with what disturbs us – the secret lives of respectable personages in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, female sexuality in Carmilla, foreign invasion in Dracula. No wonder there was pearl-clutching at the thought of sensible Victorian girls devouring Gothic novels, letting their darkest desires run free. This breathless consumption of all things dreadful left early Gothic fans open to ridicule (try reading The Castle of Otranto without laughing), but the exhibition manages to convey Gothic’s steady evolution into a self-aware, perhaps even post-modern genre, taking us through to Edward Gorey’s playful macabre and the androgynous world of post-punk goth.
The hysterical quality of Gothic is where the fun lies. Because there’s that veneer of ‘wink-wink, we know this is daft’, the genre has the opportunity to introduce genuinely scary ideas in a setting we’re already comfortable with. We sign up to the horror of Gothic while we may shy away from brutal realism. Take the alcoholism and child abuse in The Shining. We talk about the bathtub woman or the bloody lift, but what’s really chilling is Jack’s likability while he terrorises his wife and child with a croquet mallet. Gothic is something that lurks beneath the ordinary; a sense of heightened, oversaturated reality where the family secrets are literally locked in the attic, scratching with broken fingernails at all that floral Victorian wallpaper.