REDEFINING GOTHIC FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

[NOTE: this post is available in Spanish at https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/]

There is no volume called An Introduction to Gothic. The closest title is Nick Groom’s The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction (2012), though it could be said that the real introduction to Gothic was David Punter’s The Literature of Terror (1980, expanded into two volumes 1994 and 1996). In contrast, there are a few introductory volumes bearing the word ‘companion’ in their title, a concept that mystifies me. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘companion’ as “the type of book that gives you information on a particular subject or tells you how to do something”, and this seems to me to include both the introduction and the handbook. I have checked WordReference for a synonym of Spanish ‘introducción’ to make sure there is no equivalent of ‘companion’, and there is none (‘compendio’ seems to be as similar as possible but it is not used as frequently as ‘companion’ is, nor in the same sense).

I am thinking of this matter after having read and enjoyed very much Maisha Wester and Xavier Aldana Reyes’ edited volume Twenty-First-Century Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (2019), now new in paperback (at the very affordable price of 25 euros, what a miracle!!!). I want to discuss here not only this volume but, a little bit, the history of the companion in the field of Gothic studies. As far as I know, the first volume of this kind was David Punter’s edited volume A Companion to the Gothic (Blackwell, 2000), re-issued as A New Companion to the Gothic (2012). By definition, companions are collective volumes because no single scholar can cover the whole field under analysis (though, of course, single-authorship is more common in companions focused on a narrower field, or topic). Next came Jerrold E. Hogle’s The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (2002), and this was apparently the last companion to deal with Gothic in general. From Hogle’s own The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic (2014) onward, the word Gothic carries some adjective in the titles of companions. This holds for Andrew Smith’s The Victorian Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (2014), Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic (2017), Joel Faflak and Jason Haslam’s American Gothic Culture: An Edinburgh Companion (2017), Angela Wright’s Romantic Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (2016) and Carol Margaret Davison and Monica Germanà’s Scottish Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (2020). David Punter’s The Edinburgh Companion to Gothic and the Arts (2019) is slightly different. And the novelty in Wester and Aldana Reyes’s volume is that the title refers to a century, not a period (Victorian, Romantic, Modern).

Reading this volume I realize it has created for good a new entity, so far unknown: there is talk of 19th century Gothic but we need to start thinking now of 20th century Gothic as a distinct entity beyond being the chronological predecessor of 21st century Gothic. This is 2021 and, logically, there is sufficient ground to think of contemporary cultural movements as different from 20th century currents. Yet, two factors complicate matters: one is that at least half the Gothic scholars, if not two thirds, working right now are old enough to remember the 1980s (and even the 1970s or 1960s) as part of their life experience; the other is that in Gothic terms the distance between 1980 (when Punter published his seminal volume) and 2021 is much smaller than the distance between 1940 and 1980. Before you think I am crazy what I mean is that although, for instance, there were in the 1980s remakes of classic 1940s Gothic films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), The Wolf Man (1941), Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), a) there was a clear perception that they belonged to a distant period/cycle, b) the 1980s generated many new horror stories. In contrast, the new Alien TV series now shooting is being produced by Ridley Scott, the same man who directed the first title in the franchise back in 1979. The series might be 21st century Gothic but it is at heart a 20th century product lagging behind its time. This does not mean that cultural time has become completely static, but that recycling has now a weight it has not had in previous Gothic periods.

Xavier Aldana Reyes was not even born when David Punter published The Literature of Terror and he can be said to be a third-generation Gothic scholar (taking Punter as part of the first, and I myself as part of the second, though I can no longer call myself a Gothic scholar). Maisha Wester appears to be of the same third generation. At any rate, what worries me is not the age of the editors but the age of most readers of the companion who are more likely to be, I think, young students than ageing scholars. Of course, it might well be that I am totally wrong given the undergrads’ disinclination to buying books. My point is that I am old enough to have read Punter’s 2000 pioneering companion when it was published and this new companion, which means that I have a more or less complete historical overview of the whole Gothic genre. My doubt, though, is whether undergrad or post-graduate readers of the 21st century companion will go back to the Punter and the Hogle companions to understand what went on before the 21st century. Ann Radcliffe, to cite a canonical name, is mentioned twice in the new companion, which suggests that it is aimed at readers who have done their homework and do know the classics, but I constantly worry that presentism may destroy any wide-ranging, historical approach and that, in short, younger scholars may know The Walking Dead but never read The Castle of Otranto, where Gothic did begin.

Twenty-First Century Gothic is subdivided into four parts: I. Updating the Tradition (with chapters on Postcolonial, Queer, Postfeminist, Neoliberal Gothic, and Gothic digital technologies), II. Contemporary Monsters (zombies, vampires, serial killers, ghosts, werewolves), III. Contemporary Subgenres (New Weird, Ecogothic, Comedy, Steampunk, Posthuman Gothic) and IV. Ethnogothic (South African, Asian, Latin American, Aboriginal, Black Diasporic Gothic). My favourite chapter was Joseph Crawford’s discussion of Gothic digital technologies because it was the one where I found the most innovative side of current Gothic. As you can see from the titles of the chapters about today’s Gothic monsters, there are no new additions to the classic gallery even though there may be many differences between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga. What has changed most radically since the 1990s, when I wrote my own dissertation on monsters, is that now most Gothic texts are TV series (that is one reason for my disconnection, since I don’t like series). In general, I felt pretty lost reading the volume particularly in relation to the last fifteen years, when Eli Roth’s gory porn-torture fest Hostel (2005) pushed me towards science fiction for good. As happens with any companion or introduction, then, I felt happy when I could follow the discussion and hopelessly disoriented when I could not, rather snowed under an avalanche of new titles. And here’s the main problem: one could catch up fifteen years ago, when novels and films were the rule, but now who can catch up with new Gothic when that requires watching series eight or ten seasons long…? A serious problem…

Regarding the ethnogothic segment, I am conflicted about how non-US/UK Gothic should be represented in companions. In Punter’s 2000 volume, there are articles on European (?) and Irish Gothic. In Hogle’s 2002 companion, there are chapters on ‘continental Gothic’ (for God’s sake!), Scottish and Irish Gothic, English Gothic (theatre) and ‘colonial and post-colonial’ Gothic. The 2012 revision by Punter of his 2000 companion includes chapters on ‘global’ Gothic, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian Gothic and, surprisingly, separate chapters for Asian and Japanese Gothic (so, where is Japan…?). Hogle’s Companion to Modern Gothic has a section called ‘Multi-cultural and Global Gothic’, with the essay “Gothic and the Politics of Race” by Maisha L. Wester herself, another one called “The Gothic in North American ‘subcultures’” (whatever that may mean) and yet again chapters on “The postcolonial Gothic” and “Asian Gothic” (by Katarzyna Ancuta, also the author of the marvellous “Asian Gothic” chapter in the 21st century companion).

As for ‘ethnogothic’ (or ‘ethno-gothic’), there is an article in the 2016 companion to American Gothic by Arthur Redding, which seems to have consolidated the label. In his blog Matthew Teutsch refers to the article “Deep Roots/Rich Soil: Race, Horror and the Ethnogothic” by John Ira Jennings and Stanford Carpenter in which it is explained that “the EthnoGothic deals with primarily speculative narratives that actively engage with negatively affective and racially oriented psychological traumas via the traditions of Gothic tropes and technologies”. The problem with this label, I think, is that I fail to see how concepts as diverse as South African Gothic, Asian Gothic, Latin American Gothic, Aboriginal Gothic and Black Diasporic Gothic can be dealt with from the same angle. If the angle is more or less the same one post-colonial used to cover, then the presence of imperialistic Japan in the discussion is odd. Considering language, I am not very happy with the inclusion in the same box of Anglophone and non-Anglophone areas. And the mixture of the geographical and the racial seems to me unstable. I am also made nervous by the categorization of non-white, non-US/UK writing as ‘ethnic’ as if white US-UK writers were not themselves part of ethnic groups, too. I know that Maisha Wester has done plenty of outstanding work on race and that she is much better qualified than me to deal with this question but I still find the label ‘ethnogothic’ extremely problematic. Think of where Spanish Gothic should be placed in a future companion to global gothic, and you will see where I am going with this.

I have in any case, enjoyed very much this volume, which announces itself as “the first transnational and transmedia companion to the post-millennial Gothic”, and responds very well to this ambitious presentation. It is very hard to take a snapshot of any given genre at a point in time, since, like naughty kids, texts and authors never stand still. The Castle of Otranto (1764) is now 257 years old and who could have imagined that Gothic would be still alive today, though in such a different shape? Or shapes, as you will discover from this excellent companion.