In The Shadow of the Library: Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination



This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”  

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock ;
Tu–whit !– — Tu–whoo !
And hark, again ! the crowing cock,

How drowsily it crew.

Cristabel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I hear her voice
calling my name
the sound is deep
in the dark
I hear her voice
and start to run
into the trees
into the trees
The Cure, A Forest

Crumbling ruins, moonlight, tree-lined walks, bats flitting, owls hooting, wolves howling, trapdoors and darkling cellar stairs… Ever since I can remember I’ve been attracted to things that might be termed ‘Gothic’. For that reason I have been looking forward enormously to the latest exhibition at the British Library: Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination.

So impatient was I to get along that I booked tickets for a day when I had to look after our youngest son on my own – having persuaded a somewhat reluctant staff member over the phone that if he disturbed other visitors with any hackle-raising scampering or horrific baby shrieks, we would make a swift exit. Thankfully, safely strapped up in sling, he slept through most of the experience, waking only after an hour in time to see some Lemony Snicket cover art.

If you approach the British Library from Midland Road alongside St Pancras, you can enjoy an appropriately Gothic view on route to the exhibition with the tower of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s recently restored Midland Grand Hotel (now St Pancras Renaissance) looming above the street. Inside, to the right of the bookshop you enter through a discrete door, pass a large Nosferatu silhouette and descend some steps into semi-darkness, where the exhibition begins in 1764 with Walpole’s The Castle of Ortranto.

My interest in the Gothic was first fired by reading ghost stories: initially things like the Aiden Chambers edited Third Armada Ghost Book for children and then the master himself M R James. Perhaps the greatest writer of ghost stories in English, it is interesting to note that MR James was not enormously fond of the Gothic mode in literature. In an article for The Bookman in 1929 ‘Some remarks on Ghost Stories’ James rather waspishly declared:

“the belted knight who meets the spectre in the vaulted chamber and has to say ‘By my halidom’ or words to that effect, has little actuality about him. Anything, we feel, might have happened in the fifteenth century.”

It is fair to say that there is a rather large stylistic chasm between the painstakingly crafted, everyday settings, (that is for somewhat closeted, turn of the century train-riding, auction-attending academics and antiquarians), of many of James’ short stories and the ivy-clad, virgin ravishing, perverted father-in-law-giant-head-haunted pseudo-medieval halls of the classic 18th century Gothic novel. What Terror and Wonder does brilliantly is to bridge that gap.

Starting with the dark castles, crumbling monasteries and cobwebbed gloom of early Gothic works, such as Walpole’s, the exhibition traces the evolution of the genre through several key stages in its history to the present day. Moving from Gothic Beginnings and a Taste for Terror, to Victorian Monstrosity, Decadence and Degeneration and on to Modern Horrors and A Weekend in Whitby, it becomes clear how the form developed from Walpole through Anne Radcliffe, Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, Henry Fuseli, Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and on to MR James himself and beyond.

These writers represent just a few key pre-20th century figures in the movement, many other writers and influences are covered in the various gallery sections, as the growth of Gothic is traced forward through time, these include Arthur Machen, Mervyn Peake, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allen Poe, Hammer Horror, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Sarah Walters, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Grant Morrison, Dave McKean, Ben Wheatley and Lemony Snicket. 15525886762_349af620c9_o copy Naturally the main focus of the exhibition is on Gothic in its written, fictional form, but major historic, cultural and social influences are referenced and explained to set the works in context. We also see how other art forms such as painting, architecture, comics, fashion, film, poetry, television and music have embraced, responded to, or set the Gothic agenda.

The gallery is designed and dressed wonderfully throughout, with dark drapes, Gothic style clothing, projections, TV screens and music adding hugely the atmosphere. I enjoyed the whole exhibition from beginning to end, but my highlights included: seeing numerous first editions and manuscripts replete with author’s notes – notably Matthew Lewis’ post public outcry editing of his extremely enthusiastic descriptions of the fondling of a girl’s breasts, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Overlook Hotel’ scrapbook, filmed interviews with the enthused, informed and witty Neil Gaiman and Sarah Walters, Dr Dee’s Mirror, or ‘shew stone’ – a black, reflective looking glass, brought to Europe from Mexico some time in the 16th century and later owned by Horace Walpole, a wonderful Martin Parr photograph of a Goth Football team and The Cure’s A Forest playing in the background as I walked through the Modern Horrors section.

Curator Tim Pye and co-curator Tanya Kirk have done a wonderful job. Fascinating, generous in scope, but rich in detail, anyone with even the most passing interest in the darker strands of English literary culture should get a ticket. You have until January 20th.

References and Links

 The Exhibition

Dr Dee’s Mirror

BBC Gothic Season
Including Andrew Graham-Dixon on The Art of Gothic – informed, entertaining and occasionally scathing stuff – as with amusing mock-outgrage in discussion of Chatterton’s Rowley forgeries:

My favourite bits I think are the drawings which are quite astonishingly naive in their handling…always with these sort of splats of staining. As if time could have done that. What, does time go around with buckets of tea in either hand going psssh psssh, now you’re an old document?

Also includes fascinating Dan Cruikshank doc on the Gilbert-Scott dynasty building some of Britain’s finest Victorian Gothic buildings.

Casting The Runes and other Ghost Stories
M. R. James, ed. Michael Cox, 1987, OUP.

2 thoughts on “In The Shadow of the Library: Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.