BOOKS From dark forests
With erudition, wit and infectious enthusiasm, this illuminating and stunningly illustrated work is a distillation of decades of research
An Illustrated History
Thames and Hudson 2021
Hb, 288pp, £28, ISBN 9780500252512
“An Illustrated History” runs the subtitle, but “A Global History” – while perhaps not giving due credit to its stunning images – might also have served as a summary of this illuminating and wide-ranging book.
As Roger Luckhurst sets out in his introduction, the Gothic may be commonly associated with Northern European settings (dark forests, formidable mountains, Victorian cemeteries etc) “but if these are some of its places of origin, it has since exploded across the planet”.
To Luckhurst, the Gothic has never been a static form, and its original meaning in architecture and literature has strained at the leash ever since the concept was formalised in the 18th and 19th centuries, eventually escaping original categories and flowing into other cultural spaces. If the term now has a certain ubiquity, for Luckhurst that’s a sign not of its immobility but its adaptation.
To uncover how this came about, Luckhurst tracks the shape-shifting nature of the Gothic through a collection of “travelling tropes”, arranged into four sections – Architecture & Form, The Lie of the Land, The Gothic Compass, Monsters – each containing five illustrated essays.
There’s a clear thesis throughout, with the author frequently showing how these Gothic tropes shift across time and place, being reinterpreted back and forth from culture to culture.
To take one example, he demonstrates how Lacfadio Hearn’s early 20th-century English translations of traditional Japanese ghost stories were then reinterpreted and retold back to a Japanese audience in the classic horror film Kwaidan (1964), which was directly inspired by Hearn’s work.
The book condenses and enlarges on themes from Luckhurst’s recent publications.
Architecture & Form builds on and extends the creative reading of familiar spaces that he undertook in his Corridors: Passages of Modernity (2019). The analysis of the four cardinal points of The Gothic Compass adds to the cultural constructions of “the East” that he explored in The Mummy’s Curse: The True Story of A Dark Fantasy (2012), and in the Monsters section, he ends the book by returning to the theme that he expounded upon in Zombies: A Cultural History (2015).
This could equate in some writers to “playing the hits”, but not here: there’s a freshness and concision to the text which is allied to a distillation of decades of research. With such expansive scope, the book’s range of references is dizzying, with TV shows, films, books, contemporary art and computer games abounding.
The essay on the Labyrinth, for instance, begins with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and ends with the computer game DOOM (1993), but on the way takes in the bewildering world of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), art works by Man Ray and Mark Wallinger and the constrained spaces of Pac-Man and The Shining (both 1980).
Such rich essays could easily slip into a knotty list of references or a confusing array of disparate strands. But Luckhurst’s combination of erudition, wit and infectious enthusiasm ensures this does not happen, and he is as comfortable untangling the roots of the online Slender Man legend as he is on the ruined, fragmentary nature (in poetic style and material form) of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
One natural (if acceptable) challenge with the book is that you are soon breaking off to track down many of Luckhurst’s references; or you try to second guess the author, seeking out a relevant book, film or programme he doesn’t refer to. No luck there though. I foolishly thought I’d found one when the first series of HBO series True Detective (2014) did not turn up in the trawl through the swamps of the Southern Gothic in the Gothic Compass section, only to find it later referenced in the Cosmic Horror essay under a description of the work of Thomas Ligotti, whose short stories formed one of the inspirations for the show’s creators.
An erudite overview, a visual pleasure, an educational guessing game… just like the shifting cultural form it describes, Gothic: An Illustrated History is many things at once.
Maybe though, with Luckhurst’s “travelling tropes” in mind, we could see it as an intellectual travel book, packed with illustrations of strange destinations you may want to visit for the first time, or revisit once again.
It would certainly give the wary traveller advice on what to look out for when journeying into new territory, and would have proved a better guide than a Baedecker, for Jonathan Harker’s travels to Castle Dracula…