Gothic: 400 Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin
Richard Davenport-Hines, 1998
Davenport-Hines begins with the Goths in Eastern Europe in 410AD when the sacked Rome. In the 1300s, the word Goth came to denote the architecture of that flourished in France, Germany and eventually England. The buildings had sharp angles, jetties, narrow lights, large statues, lace and other cut work, thick walls, clumsy buttresses, towers, sharp pointed arches and doors as well as turrets. The revival of this architecture in later years was an expression of counter-enlightenment.
“Images of power have always been paramount to the meanings of gothic revival, symbolism: the power of nature forces over men, man’s power our nature, then power of the autocrat, the mob, the scientist for much of the 20th century, the power of Goblins to torment one’s psyche, and in the 1990s the invasive power of health police, religious fundamentalists and child care vigilantes.” (2)
Beginning with the savage paintings of Salvator Rosa, Richard Davenport-Hines then traces the evolution of the gothic imagination. This history covers art, architecture, gardening, literature, photography, filmmaking, music, and clothing design, and takes in artists and creations as various as Byron, Horace Walpole, Goya, Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Jackson Pollock, David Lynch, The Terminator, and The Cure. It seems as if the darkness has always fascinated us. It isn’t just a recent phenomenon.
Davenport-Hines launches into a discussion about the symbolism of castles. Landowners wanted to take pride in their heritage instead of tearing down their ancient falling down homes. Arbury Hall, Halgey Hall, Henell Grange and Halsowen Grange were particularly famous fixer-uppers during the 1700s. He goes into great detail about the Duke of Argyll Archibald Campbell, who was the inspiration for Horace Walpole’s anti-hero.
The Marquis De Dade and Mathew Lewis were the next to take up gothic tones and themes in their writing. Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Mary Shelly and Emily Bronte soon followed. And although Bram Stoker’s Dracula is perhaps the most famous Vampire, James Malcolm Rymer, John Pagets, Sheridan La Fanu and Lord Byron all wrote about Vampires as well.
Gothic Literature started in England, moved to Germany and then back to England over the course of time. Eventually America caught the Gothic fever and came up with their own version of the genre. Charles Brockden Brown was perhaps the first, followed by Hawthorne, Poe, James and Faulkner who all wrote stories that could be considered Gothic. The Gothic genre was quickly picked up by the burgeoning film industry and soon Ghosts, Witches, Vampires and Monster were given a new life on the silver screen during the early 1900s.
Though Gothic Literature never completely died, it saw a slow resurgence throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Anne Rice wrote Interview with a Vampire and the New Goths emerged from Punk music. Souxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and The Cure ushered in a music genre. David Lynch and Tim Burton took the film version of Gothicism a new level. Then, by the 1990s, being Goth became a fashion statement and subculture all its own.
He explains that, “Body mutilation of the 1990s registers dissent from god’s arrangement for humankind; it expresses our self-disgust and death wish. It recognizes that demoralization is one of the most effective modes of seduction. It declares that adult acts of self-reinvention are ultimate acts of freedom, certainly as enriching and liberating as searching for an inner self through anxious introspections, or seeking a heavily mediated identity based on childish experience and childish perception.” (5)
Davenport-Hines covers his history pretty thoroughly; however, there isn’t much on the modern Goth. Even still, I would recommend this history to anyone who wants to know more about today’s trends and where they came from.