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Gothic Music: Sounds of the Uncanny, by Isabella van Elferen (Cardiff UP, 2013)

I came to this book initially excited by the prospect, was then dismayed, and finally won over. Let me explain.

It's nothing if not ambitious. Dr van Elferen notes right at the start that 'Above all, Goth music is described by those who make it, those who distribute it, and those who listen to it, as dark' (p.2) but that this 'darkness' is very seldom analysed or given content. She sets out to do this by defining Gothic sounds not so much in reference to their intrinsic qualities as by their function, what they do in particular contexts. Nobody has tried this before, we think, so it should be fun.

We have to pay by forging through some tangled cultural-studies academic jargon, but that's not unfair considering the milieu the book emerges from. More seriously, I think Dr van Elferen is misled by her own philosophical terms (using Jacques Derrida's idea of 'hauntology') into overstating the essential uncanniness of music itself; all music is uncanny, she says, because it recalls into phantom presence feelings, reflections, or realities which aren't there (pp.15, 26-8). Arguing this underestimates the specific nature of the Gothic uncanny, the hint that something bad is about to happen to a character in a narrative - and by implication might happen to a consumer of that narrative, a reader, viewer, player or listener. Not all music suggests imminent damage or madness; furthermore, Gothic relies not just on hint and implication, but also on the occasional revealing of the horror which threatens. These methodological misapprehensions affect some of the argument (such as the dogmatic statement that Hammer films contain 'nothing Gothic' because they are too explicit and consequently not uncanny enough (p.51)).

However, once the book moves on to considering the precise ways Gothic music functions, in literature, film, TV, gaming, and finally the Goth scene, the verve and originality of the analysis overcomes any shortcomings. The culmination is the dazzling chapter on Goth clubbing and Goth music itself, which boldly stakes a claim that Goth, far from being a jejune offshoot of the great Gothic tradition of literature and para-literary narrative, is in fact the most radical expression of that tradition because it enables participants to immerse themselves physically in it: 'the Goth club night can be described as a ceremonial enactment of 
Gothic heritage that seeks to playfully explore and transgress the limits of self, here and now' (p.136). Well; bravura enough?

Yet you only discover what Dr van Elferen is really up to right at the end of the book: finding in Gothic (and therefore most especially Goth) a chance to rediscover metaphysical philosophy. Again, this section takes some getting through, but the basic idea is clear: Gothic confronts not only particular psychological or social fears - such we know already - but the very limits of human thought, the possibility of nothing and how such nothing relates to being, and Gothic music does this especially profoundly. It sounds impenetrable, but sentences like 'God is a DJ: phonography is hauntography, and the music it creates announces the sonic annihilation of finite Being' (p.188) are sheer delight, and for them you can forgive much.

Sorry this has taken so long, but it was necessary. You're unlikely to find out about much you didn't know in Gothic Music, and persisting with the book may not be easy; it isn't about imparting information, but building an argument. Yet if you do persist, your own sonic landscape will never be the same. You'll be haunted in an entirely new way by the Gothic sounds around you.


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