We start with the Germanic tribes of Goths, invading the Roman Empire in
the days of its decline, eventually under the Visigoth (western Goth) leader
Alaric sacking the city of Rome itself in the year 410. Like other
barbarian tribes - the Huns, for instance - the Goths became rather unfairly a
byword for destruction and pillage. Eventually, however, they carved their
own kingdoms out of the ruins of the Empire, settled down, were converted to
Christianity, and eventually disappeared as separate peoples.
In the very late 1000s, Suger, Abbot of St Denis in Paris, rebuilt the abbey
church and introduced revolutionary pointed arches which he and his stonemasons
discovered could bear weight far better than old-fashioned round-headed
arches. Presumably they got the idea from the Arabs settled in Spain. Within a
hundred years every new building in Europe had pointed arches and the
style began to affect other forms of art too. It was the 16th-century art historian
Giorgio Vasari who first blamed pointed-arch architecture on the Goths
(he'd never heard of Abbot Suger) and called it 'German' as a term of abuse,
contrasting it with the harmony and order of Classical Greek and Roman
buildings. Before long 'German' turned into 'Gothic', and the word came to include
everything dark, barbaric, superstitious and chaotic. Today, we look at Gothic
art differently. It expresses something sublime and uplifting, the human spirit
soaring upward to reach the eternal glory of God. And yet the arch comes
to an abrupt stop as its two arms ram into one another at the apex ... so
there's a sort of strain and anxiety in the shape as well.
From the 1760s, first in England and later elsewhere, a new form of horror
literature made its appearance. The first to call itself 'Gothic' was Horace
Walpole's yarn The Castle of
Otranto (1764) which he described as 'A Gothic Story'. Gothic fiction
borrowed a lot from medieval romances and the more violent bits of Shakespeare,
and abounded in ghosts, murders, abductions, and all sorts of disagreeable
happenings. Gothic novels were commonly set in the castles and abbeys of the
Middle Ages - hence the reasons for calling them 'Gothic'.
The first wave of Gothic fiction was over by about 1820 - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is
often taken as the end-point - but its themes kept resurfacing until the word
could really be applied to anything horrific, unsettling, dark, or
bizarre. Writers and artists, and eventually people working in new genres like
film, continually referred back to this growing body of work and so its
scope was extended more and more.
Finally, in 1978 and 1979 in Britain the punk-rock movement began to
offshoots of dark and pessimistic music which were described by a
press as 'Gothic' in contrast with the general run of pop. The
the centre of this - Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Damned,
- became the core of a subcultural style which used a huge range
influences from the past to signify melancholy, gloom and glamour. The
first wave of Goth was pretty much petering out by about 1992, and for
some time the Goth was a rara avis indeed, although
you can still find plenty of people about who were active in those
days. By the time things began to turn up again about ten years later
Goth had developed a broader aesthetic sensibility. Now we seem to be
collapsing into another cyclical down-turn, and where that will lead is
More On Gothic
a great variety of books, some academic and some not, to help you
explore various aspects of Gotherie, should you so choose.
|Gothic by Richard Davenport-Hines (4th Estate, 1997)|
subtitle ('400 Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin') may be
deliberately over-the-top and lurid for an over-the-top and lurid
genre, but for
my money this is still the best account of what Gothic is about.
Davenport-Hines is a very entertaining writer and I was
astonished at the amount he'd managed to uncover and describe in such
amusing detail. Pretty good in its pictures and visuals, as well, which
helps it score over similar books. I have some quibbles with D-H's
basic argument about the history of the Gothic sensibility, and I think
there could have been a little less about 18th-century landscape
gardening, but excellent despite that.
|A Companion to the Gothic, edited by David Punter (Blackwell, 2001)|
weighty and academic, this - a collection of essays by experts in the
'Gothic Studies' field covering not just literature, thankfully, but
para-narrative genres such as film. It's a good introduction, if you
can plough through it, to the academic study of Gothic and all it
entails, but it's still fairly closely tied down to literature, really.
|Goth Chic, by Gavin Baddeley (Plexus, 2002)|
is very deliberately intended to fill in the gaps in Davenport-Hines's
book, which are largely the popular culture side of Gothic, so here you
get more pulp comics, modern fiction, and deathrock bands than
18th-century heroines in dark castles: a catalogue of the sensational
and sometimes extreme (but then, wasn't The Monk both?).
Intelligently written, as Mr Baddeley is a bright cove, but I think it
skates rather across the surface of the Gothic phenomenon, albeit
making impressive patterns in the ice.
|Goth - Identity, Style & Subculture, by Paul Hodkinson (Berg, 2002)|
is Paul Hodkinson's sociology doctoral thesis, and full points to Berg
for publishing it. Looks very nice indeed. Of course it suffers for
being precisely a sociology doctoral thesis - that is, it spends a long
time telling you what you may already know. But good for recording the
ins and outs of Goth culture in a way the chaps of the International
Gothic Association might actually find intellectually respectable.
by Catherine Spooner (Manchester University Press, 2004)
Another doctoral thesis, but we applaud Catherine even more for managing to
produce something which synthesises literary and visual influences on the
Gothic - rather like the quite groundbreaking interdisciplinary work she did at
Luton and Goldsmiths College. The big drawback of this account of deathliness
in dress is that for a fashion history there AREN'T ENOUGH PICTURES! But that's
a cost consideration, I imagine.
|The Gothic, by David Punter & Glennis Byron (Blackwell, 2004)|
academic Gothic Studies, but I think intended more for the Eng.
Lit. undergraduate who's about to do a term's worth of
their special subject, so not as heavy as A Companion to the Gothic ... A short encyclopedia of Gothic writers, and very useful from that point of view.
|What Is Goth?, by Voltaire (Weiser, 2004)|
very funny sketch of Goth culture from someone involved in it, this
time replete with pictures and a gently scathing commentary on Goths
and all their subcategories and little quirks. Good-looking, but short,
and you won't find a new copy for much less than twelve quid.
Voltaire's also written Paint It Black, an equally amusing guide to Gothic living.
|The Goth Bible, by Nancy Kilpatrick (Plexus, 2005)|
guide to the whole of Gothicness including gardening, drink and
visiting cemeteries as well as art and books. I really applaud this
book, although there are a few little errors here and there. Ms
Kilpatrick has taken the time actually to speak to about a hundred
participants in Goth culture (including the superannuated) and include
their views and ideas. She has a wonderfully broad and compassionate
approach to the whole thing. Very well done indeed, we think!
|Goth's Dark Empire, by Carol Siegel (Indiana University Press, 2005)|
Siegel has made a great and commendable effort to bring together
comment about film, literature, and modern society with the Goth boys
and girls she obviously feels a great affinity for, and the book is
nowhere near as grimly incomprehensible as I feared - but it does bear
the heavy marks of its Stateside context, in that for Siegel Goths are
first and foremost sexual radicals challenging conservative morals. Not
what I find at all.
Contemporary Gothic, by Catherine Spooner (Reaktion,
At last! A book on Gothic, by an academic, which doesn't try to claim that
it's 'about' any one thing in particular, and acknowledges its multifarious and
contradictory aspects; which isn't disfigured by acco-speak; and which is
excitingly transdisciplinary. Just what we expected from Catherine. Of course
it can't cover everything, but what a delightful set of insights into the
performativity and presentations of Goths and modern Gothic. A longer review here.
The Gothic Reader: A
Critical Anthology, compiled by Martin Myrone (Tate Gallery, 2006)
This book hung around on
my shelves for well over a year after I bought it at the Tate's 'Gothic
Nightmares' Exhibition - dutifully, really, because I wasn't looking forward to
a collection of dry or barely-readable 18th-century texts. In fact, it's great
fun, and traces the development of the Georgian Gothic sensibility from
pre-existing materials to its full expression in literature and art. A longer review here.
|Goth: Undead Subculture, edited by Lauren Goodlad & Michael Bibby (Duke U.P., 2007)|
in the same vein as Catherine's books, and if anything even more
exciting because drawing on the expertise of a range of contributors it
casts its net more widely (actually Catherine, Carol Siegel & Paul
Hodkinson all have essays in this book). This approaches the Goth
phenomenon sensitively and with insight, as one might hope when several
of the contributors are Goths or former Goths. The essay by the
gentleman who spent a while as a Gothically-glossed exotic dancer in an
LA gay club has to be read to be believed. A provocative collision of
the personal and the analytic. Longer review here.
Goth Culture: Gender,
Sexuality & Style, by Dunja Brill (Berg, 2008)
Goths are a humourless, self-involved lot,
aren't they? Well, we know this isn't the case, but they do sometimes like to
think of themselves as ultra-tolerant, self-expressive, gender-transgressive social subversives.
Dunja Brill's book, written from the inside, suggests this may not be quite as
true as first appears, and instead marshals an impressive case that Goth
culture is subtly (and in some cases not so subtly) gendered, and is more a way
of negotiating with mainstream values rather than subverting them entirely. Engaging, humane stuff. A longer review here.
|Goth: Vamps and Dandies, by Gavin Baddeley (Plexus, 2009)|
Mr Baddeley's second venture into Goth culture and a far superior one to 2002's Goth Chic.
With an abundance of visual illustration this tome traces Goth's 'DNA'
down from the literary, artistic, musical and televisual influences
which converged in modern Goth about 1979-81, and then the people,
bands, books and movies which have skewed its development since. It's a
near-impossible task - yet Gavin Baddeley pulls it off. A longer review
|Worldwide Gothic, by Natasha Scharf (IMP, 2011)|
time we had a new book, and this tackles a slightly new subject as
well, looking at the global spread and generic sprawl of Goth from its
UK origins, and how it came to penetrate all corners of the globe (and
quite right too). It's a real achievement to gather together all this
abstruse material into one place for the first time. A longer review here.
|Gothic Music: Sounds of the Uncanny, by Isabella van Elferen (Cardiff UP, 2013)|
dense, heavily academic work that encompasses much theorising on the
nature of music (not all of it convincing) but which not only deserves
points for even beginning to tackle the topic but builds towards a
conclusion which is not only lyrical but positively metaphysical.
It's not an easy read, but it'll reward amply the reader who tries. A
longer review here.
|Terror and Wonder, edited by Dale Townshend (British Library, 2014)|
A big book to accompany a big show - the British Library's exhibition celebrating the 250th anniversary of The Castle Of Otranto,
no less. Taking Gothic from its origins to the modern epoch, this is a
familiar story but very well told, with lots of interesting material
and some insightful essays. The book ends with a photographic evocation
of Whitby Goth Weekend - a bit awkwardly! A longer review here.
|Gothic: Evolution of a Dark Subculture, by Chris Roberts and contributors (Goodman, 2014)|
glossy and full of pictures, this is a bit of an oddity. It comprises a
series of essays on Gothic art, architecture, music and so on, but not
bound together into an overarching narrative, and with oddly
contrasting styles between the contributors. I'm not sure who it's
intended to appeal to - but visually it's fantastic. A longer review here.
|Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace, by A Harriman & M Bontje (Intellect Books, 2014)|
wonderful, moving book, recounting the first flood of what then wasn't
even called Goth, but 'post-punk', not so much in words as in the
photographs of the brave and curiously unselfconscious young people who
formed the movement; a do-it-yourself fashion and music subculture
which was done by 1992 or so, morphing into something rather different (and more expensive). A longer review here.
|The Art of Gothic, by Natasha Scharf (Omnibus Press, 2014)|
if you want heavy and glossy and full of pictures, Natasha Scharf's
second book is for you - about a foot square and weighing - well, I
haven't weighed it, but it's substantial.
Looking at the ways Goths express themselves through what they make and
consume, this is a groundbreaking and beautiful book, sumptuously
designed and making a real historiographical contribution in its
interviews with subcultural producers. A longer review here.
|Exuviae: A Fragmentary Grammar of Gothic, by me (Umbra Press, 2004)|
And then there's this, which comes with the highest possible recommendation. Find out more on the Sales page.