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Post-Millennial Gothic by Catherine Spooner
Post-Millennial Gothic, by C Spooner (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Over the years Catherine Spooner has produced a series of books about Gothic which never fail to entertain and fascinate, from her doctoral thesis-based Fashioning Gothic Bodies to her chapter on the book as Gothic artefact in the British Library’s 2014 catalogue Terror and Wonder. But her brand-new work for Bloomsbury tops them all, and, in its staking-out of an entirely new territory in the field, virtually everything else as well. This is why.

The academic sub-discipline of Gothic Studies got going in the 1980s as members of university English faculties across the world decided that the trashy horror-and-thrill novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries could tell us important things about literature, society and ourselves, and that the condescension of the Eng Lit establishment over decades towards them was unjust. Some of the authors in the field began to recognise that the young men and women who wore black eyeliner and outlandish fashions and called themselves Goths (or were called it by others) were in some distant and ill-defined way part of the same sort of phenomenon because they played with the same imagery and occasionally even read the original Gothic novels too. By and large, the Gothic Studies academics tended to steer no closer to the Goth world than acknowledging its existence, although that stance was made a bit more complicated as Gothically-inclined people began making their way into the academy and becoming dons themselves.

Now, Gothic Studies is a serious business studying serious things, and has to be to justify research grants, thesis topics, conference fees and book contracts. But Goth isn’t: although everyone knows the stereotype of the morose teenage Goth hanging round the town War Memorial, living a Gothic lifestyle can’t be perpetually solemn: a lot of the time it’s quite frivolous and fun, burlesquing the very serious business of deathliness and fear, and just getting on with life but doing it with a particular aesthetic. The trouble for weighty old Gothic Studies is that Goth is the very filter through which modern Gothic tends to be produced, assimilated, and displayed to the general public, and that’s the bit of the story that Dr Spooner has grasped.

Hence the subtitle of Post-Millennial Gothic: ‘Comedy, Romance, and the Rise of Happy Gothic’. Happy Goths are likely to manufacture relatively light-hearted Gothic produce, and this and its reception by mainstream culture is what Dr Spooner writes about: as far as the world’s concerned, she points out, Gothic is what Goths do, rather than a strain of literature or a revivalist architectural style, and the elements of that representation with the highest profile include film director Tim Burton (who gets a chapter of the book to himself) and the approachable vampires of the Twilight series. Spooner delineates entirely new categories to analyse what’s going on, the ‘monstrous cute’ and the ‘whimsical macabre’, and traces them through Burton’s work and into street style and Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl series of books, among a welter of other influences and instances. The comedic representations of Gothic, she points out, have moved beyond using Goths merely as ridiculous figures of fun to sympathetic acceptance, a shift which parallels the emergence of ‘friendly monsters’ in young people’s fiction and the campaign for tolerance waged in the name of murdered UK Goth Sophie Lancaster (and even more radically Spooner hints at the sociological paradox such acceptance poses to the Goth community: when you demand acceptance, and get it, what happens to any sense of yourself as opposing a mainstream world you don’t feel part of? What becomes of Gothdom's appeal for the marginalised and lost?).

All the book’s chapters, dare one say, sparkle, but the first and the last are the most impressive of all. Distinguishing between ‘Gothic lifestyle’ (what Goths do) and ‘lifestyle Gothic’ (bits and pieces of Gothic paraphernalia imported into the lives of ‘ordinary’ people for decorative purposes), the first chapter traces how the one influences the other via TV shows and the press. The last chapter examines Whitby as the Gothic locale par excellence, its layered Gothic history affecting the way even strait-laced English Heritage presents the town.

There’s an occasional clunky bit of explanation necessitated by assuming, as one is supposed to, complete ignorance on the part of the audience (‘Whitby [is] an historic port and fishing village on the north Yorkshire coast’) but as we have come to expect of its author the book is refreshingly free of clotted technical language and written with a speedy clarity which cracks along at a positively novelistic pace. There aren’t any pictures, but Dr Spooner deftly writes around the lack of visual material. I even adore the index, which has separate entries for 'pink', 'glitter', and 'Lady Gaga'.

Post-Millennial Gothic isn’t a mass-market book, despite the appropriate levity of the lovely cover illustration by Alice Marwick – try to spot all the pop-culture references – and Goths themselves will probably be too busy actually 'doing Gothic' to fret overmuch about any sort of analysis. But here is a triumphant assertion of the validity of their experience, in their terms.

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