Beasts Beyond Borders:
Gothic – An Illustrated History
by Roger Luckhurst
Johnny Restall explores the global gothic with Roger Luckhurst’s fascinating new volume Gothic – An Illustrated History.
A graveyard, wreathed in fog and silent but for the cry of an owl. A castle, perched vertiginously on a mountainside, its towers silhouetted against the swollen moon. A creeping figure, skulking through darkened streets to corrupt and defile the innocent and the respectable.
Such images might spring to mind at the mention of the word ‘gothic’. It is perhaps less likely that many would immediately think of the surrealist Man Ray or the sci-fi film Arrival (US, Denis Villeneuve, 2016). Yet images from both these sources grace the very first pages of Roger Luckhurst’s Gothic – An Illustrated History (Thames & Hudson, 2021). Placed before the Contents, these pictures make it clear that the book has ambitions beyond the standard well-worn cliches.
Luckhurst, the Geoffrey Tillotson Professor of Nineteenth Century Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, takes an admirably international approach to his topic. While his introduction acknowledges the Northern European origins of several key aspects of the gothic, he defines the genre today as ‘a collection of “travelling tropes”… embarked on a journey in which they are both transmitted and utterly transformed as they move across different cultures’. This approach may infuriate some traditionalists, but I would argue that it makes for a refreshingly open-minded and genuinely thought-provoking read.
The book, a lavishly illustrated and hefty hardback volume, is arranged into four long chapters, each consisting of five sub-topics: Architecture & Form, The Lie Of The Land, The Gothic Compass, and (last but not least) Monsters. As he explores each subject in turn, the author builds a persuasive case for the gothic as a ‘weird, wonderful new hybrid’ beyond narrow cultural boundaries.
The first chapter traces the development of gothic architecture and forms, highlighting the fascinating and often under-acknowledged influence of ancient Islamic and Christian structures in Syria and Israel on European gothic design, particularly in the use of pointed arches and rib vaults. Among the buildings discussed is the Palace of Westminster, rebuilt in the 19th century by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin; the multicultural origins of its design thereby stand as a pleasing (if inadvertent) rebuke to the UK Parliament’s more nationalistic denizens. The ruined remains of architecture have also proved a constant inspiration within the genre, and their global resonance is covered via a range of haunting images, from Palmyra to English abbeys to Hiroshima and modern Detroit.
The key environments of the gothic are investigated in ‘The Lie Of The Land’, moving through the forests to villages and cities, and even to modern suburban ‘edgelands’, haunted by their own ‘bland absence of history’. The author links the emergence of British folk horror to the enclosures of the 18th century and beyond, which rendered multitudes destitute and landless, forcing them to choose between relocating to the industrialised ‘modern’ cities or festering in an increasingly neglected rural past. In such settings, the gothic works to undermine ‘prettified conceptions of the countryside by invoking the historical violence of dispossession and the blood soaked into the land’. Luckhurst expands this fracture between antiquity and modernity to uncover the global gothic essence beneath the settings and themes of works as diverse as Picnic At Hanging Rock (Australia, Peter Weir, 1975) and Troll Hunter (Norway, Andre Ovredal, 2010).
‘The Gothic Compass’ is mapped out in the following chapter, from the terrors of the frozen poles, to the racism underpinning colonial thinking and fears of the ‘yellow peril’ in the East, and the brutal genocides behind Western expansion. Despite the weight of these topics, the prose remains accessible and highly readable: informed and educative without becoming overly dry or didactic. The book wears its erudition lightly, effortlessly moving from history to literature to art and film, finding unexpected links between sources selected from a wide range of disciplines.
The final section covers the most conventional ground: ‘Monsters’. The familiarity, however, does not render it any less engrossing, as Luckhurst explores the ways in which ‘what any social order excludes as monstrous can become an unexpected point of identification for the outcast and abused’. He moves through discussions of Godzilla and fairies to werewolves and zombies, by way of Freud, fungi, and even tentacle pornography, always with an eye on the way in which these gothic transgressions determine the boundaries of society and the human body.
Inevitably, the sheer scope of the book does sometimes mean that individual nuances are neglected, with wildly differing works brought together within very broad overarching themes. More disappointingly, there are a few errors which will hopefully be corrected in future editions – most glaringly, a double-page spread credited as illustrating Wolf Rilla’s 1960 Village of the Damned instead displays a still from John Carpenter’s 1995 remake, while there are other occasional inconsistencies regarding names and dates.
Overall, the book stands as a fascinating and thoughtful attempt to establish an international definition of the gothic, laudably ambitious, and written and designed with skill and enthusiasm. There is a huge amount to enjoy here and significant food for thought, both for the beginner and the seasoned horror fanatic.
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