Gothic literature can be dramatic, macabre, and weirdly insightful. To my tired eyes some examples of Gothic, like Castle of Otranto are also unintentionally and refreshingly hilarious. Yet Gothic tropes persist in popular culture even as they were interrogated centuries ago, and continue to be. Since it is Rare Book Week in Melbourne I took myself off to hear the curator talk on Gothic’s Dark Imaginings exhibition at the Noel Shaw Gallery in University of Melbourne’s Baillieu Library.
It was a cold and blustery morning at the University as I wandered lonely as a non-student through the empty and melancholy between-semester grounds.
When I was a research student (at a different University) the campus without undergrads was calm and quiet. It’s like the buildings and gardens sighed in relief. I felt that today. However, nothing was portended, despite the Gothic inclinations of my surroundings.
Once in the quiet library, I examined the old books in glass cases, as well as the etchings and anatomists tools. Some Gothic writing is at best, angst ridden. The expression feels too over-wrought and even immature, but writers and illustrators were striving to induce either terror or horror or both without film or TV. Nowadays we have Twitter hashtags for this.
Yet Gothic literature also features psychological insights that still speak to us. This is one of the reasons Frankenstein remains popular.
Other reasons include Western taboos about death, body horror, and the divide between scientific knowledge and common knowledge, (if anti-vaxxers are anything to go by), which is yet to be bridged.
The allure of the Gothic is why there is the Scooby Gang, and Buffy, and any amount of vampires, werewolves and other beings that exist as human, animal and super being in art and literature.
But the Gothic allows us to experience, vicariously, things that are beyond of our every day reach. The Gothic is like a breach in the literary and artistic worlds that encouraged feeling fear and reading on anyway. To enter we must suspend disbelief.
The Gothic sought to reinvent and reinvigorate what was left of the Mediaeval world. Monks, Abbesses, abbeys often featured in scandalous situations that the likes of Coleridge critiqued. Who are we to joke about what previous writers made of the past, when our stories equally use and reinvent history.
We may have social media, but the world remains superstitious. And obsessed with superstition. We remain capable of feeling the thrill of fear and even dismay at the persistent mysteries of the medical world, let alone incorporeal spectres.
Telling stories to harrow the drawing rooms of the 18th century middle class was women’s work, even if women suffered through dire plots. Many a woman writer could and did make a good living conjuring diabolical exploits. Perhaps this is the source of some of the disdain the genre attracts.
Perhaps it was easier for some women to imagine archaic horrors when confronted with 18th century medical knowledge. That, coupled with the prospect of this knowledge being used on them during pregnancy. It’s easier to understand Frankenstein when living in a world where education gave rise to the industry of body snatching.
Anyway, if you too want to experience the olde world dark imagingings that continue to inspire, best go to The University of Melbourne Baillieu Library now as this exhibit closes in five weeks. Dress warmly.