Hardcore Gothic fans will be pleasantly surprised by the comprehensiveness of the British Library’s Gothic exhibition. Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, generally agreed to be the first Gothic novel, it takes visitors on a smooth chronological journey, venturing off the tracks every now and then to explore briefly other historical phenomena that had a bearing on the development of the genre.
For example, we veer briefly away from Ann Radcliffe to compare her use of the sublime with that of the Romantic poets, and away from The Monk to explore the impact of the French Revolution. The moment when the Gothic moves from expansive countryside castles into the squalor of the city (largely thanks to Dickens) is an interesting turning point, as is the point when nature suddenly becomes powerful and terrifying again in the twentieth century (think The Wicker Man). The exhibition shows a deep understanding of the way the Gothic survives because it is irrevocably tied up with the mood and anxieties of the present moment.
Of course, the exhibition is largely formed of books lying open at significant pages with helpful explanatory notes, but there is also a good use of other media, from drive-in movie posters, to paintings (Fuseli’s Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma is deeply unsettling to see up close), prints, the talking heads of such authors as Neil Gaiman and Sarah Waters, and loops of film adaptations – the Bride of Frankenstein gives an appropriately chilling scream in her film loop, which sends a chill down the spine every thirty seconds or so as you walk around the exhibition.
There are many wonderful examples of handwritten manuscripts, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein draft, scribbled over with Percy Shelley’s corrections, to Horace Walpole’s own copy of Otranto with a watercolour of his eccentric Gothic mansion Strawberry Hill bound in after publication, as well as the hands of Ann Radcliffe, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte’s fair copy of Jane Eyre. One particularly unsettling handwritten letter glows with faded red ink beneath its glass and reads: “I wanted to write in blood, but it went thick like glue. Red ink is fit enough I hope. Ha. Ha.” It is a letter sent to the London police by Jack the Ripper.
The exhibition remains tirelessly full and broad as it moves through the twentieth century to the present day, displaying the excitable scrawlings of Stanley Kubrick on the typescript of The Shining: (“Mirror reflections – INTRODUCE BATHROOM LIKE THIS”), as well as a were-rabbit puppet from the recent Wallace and Gromit film. Squeezing in some teen-vampire lit, and the bizarre modern trend of ‘zombie mashups’ such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the exhibition leaves us with some eccentric and humorous photos from last year’s bi-annual Whitby Goth Weekend.
The exhibition is absolutely essential viewing for those with a taste for the macabre, but also an incredibly useful resource for anyone with a general interest in English literature. The focus is upon the classic Gothic works, but there is enough contextual material to be valuable in its own right. The exhibition seems to suggest that we are in the midst of another Gothic revival, but the genre seems to have reared its head in every decade since its first outing in the eighteenth century. How can the Gothic genre ever be ‘revived’ if it is itself ‘undead’?
The Terror and Wonder Exhibition is showing at the British Library until 20 January 2015. For more information and tickets, please see the British Library website.