Fortean Times

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

Roger Luckhurst

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…

Ross MacFarlane


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