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  • Cited by 15
  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: May 2006

13 - The contemporary Gothic

Summary

My title suggests a rather straightforward enterprise: I want to account for the enormous popularity of the Gothic - both novels and films - since the Second World War. However, the title proposes more questions than it answers. First, what exactly counts as “the contemporary Gothic”? Since its inception in 1764, with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the Gothic has always played with chronology, looking back to moments in an imaginary history, pining for a social stability that never existed, mourning a chivalry that belonged more to the fairy tale than to reality. And contemporary Gothic does not break with this tradition: Stephen King’s IT (1987) and Anne Rice’s vampire narratives (begun in the 1970s) weave in and out of the distant past in order to comment on the state of contemporary American culture, while other narratives foreground their reliance on prior, historically distant narratives. Peter Straub’s Julia (1975), Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (1988), and John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (film version: The Village of the Damned [1960]) all feed off The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James, itself arguably a revision of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762), a treatise on the education of two children at a country house. And as many contributors to this volume demonstrate, the central concerns of the classical Gothic are not that different from those of the contemporary Gothic: the dynamics of family, the limits of rationality and passion, the definition of statehood and citizenship, the cultural effects of technology. How, then, might we define a contemporary Gothic? For to think about the contemporary Gothic is to look into a triptych of mirrors in which images of the origin continually recede in a disappearing arc. We search for a genesis but find only ghostly manifestations.