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Gothic delights

Exploring the history of a genre that first bewitched Elizabeth as a teenage Joy Division fan

Here’s a quiz question for your festive table. What connects 1550s “Bloody” Queen Mary and 1970s band Joy Division? Answer: “gothic”. Gothic reaches into all parts of British culture, especially in midwinter, when the landscape is ghostly with hoarfrost and we reach for the unearthly thrill of MR James. You find it in the works of our most celebrated novelists – Mary Shelley, the Brontë sisters, Austen, Dickens, Wilde, Conan Doyle, du Maurier – as well as countless murder mysteries on stage and screen. Gothic links Hammer Horror and Alfred Hitchcock to movies such as The Omen, The Exorcist and The Woman in Black. But this is not a recent phenomenon: Britons have drunk deeply from the gothic goblet for centuries.

The meaning of gothic has had a curious evolution. The truth is, historians know very little about the original Germanic Goths, apart from their role in the fall of the Roman Empire, led by Alaric in 410. Yet, thanks to being both powerful and enigmatic, they’ve had a huge impact on our historic imagination, linking medieval architecture to the post-punk British pop scene. As a young teenager I fell in love with gothic music – Bauhaus, The Cure, The Sisters of Mercy – because I was looking for drama, magic and escapism. Gothic expresses the wilder elements of our untamed nature –feeling haunted, beguiled, isolated, yearning. It is the power of the night; it is looking into the abyss but not falling; it is the definition of emotional excess.

Above all, gothic is monumental. Originating in the hands of Norman stonemasons, their motifs of Romanesque design developed into the full-blown cathedrals of the Frankish Capetians. The architectural style was held in contempt by sixteenth-century art historian Giorgio Vasari who, because of the sack of Rome, revived the notion of the Goths as barbarous thugs, turning gothic into an insult that stuck. Vasari believed all post-classical architecture to be a disordered, Goth-influenced intrusion. His resurrection of this ancient grievance was the butterfly-wing movement that culminated in our idea of gothic chaos.

Vasari’s English contemporary, the historian John Foxe, introduced “Bloody Mary” to the gothic canon when his 1563 Book of Martyrs depicted her execution of more than 300 high-profile Protestants who’d refused to renounce their faith. The book’s horribly graphic woodcut illustrations, tinted with vivid reds, personified the macabre in England’s popular imagination. While some historians now believe Mary’s reputation to be unjust – England’s first female monarch was making a final attempt to reassert Catholicism by repealing her father’s Act of Supremacy – Foxe’s Tudor bestseller successfully conflated all the pain, torture and death her people had suffered under Rome’s power. His ideas were explored in later gothic literature, spooking readers with invocations of Catholic cruelty. English plays became steeped in murder and vengeance. Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris (1593) is a classic post-Foxe, anti-Catholic story based on the events of the 1572 St Bartholomew Day Massacre, depicting Catholics as ruthless and deceitful murderers, and Protestants as blameless saints. English Protestants relished all these sixteenth-century tales of retribution, murder, hauntings, madness, dreams, graveyards and the blurred boundaries between real and unreal.

For the gothic aesthetic, we must look to – where else? – Italy. The renegade seventeenth-century Neapolitan artist, Salvator Rosa, held a particular fascination for the English aristocracy, who brought his canvases back from Grand Tours to hang on the walls of their ancient piles/great houses. Growing up in the aftermath of a Mount Vesuvius eruption, his paintings of rural scenes make you shiver rather than sigh. A classic Salvator Rosa portrays desolate mountains, caverns, dead trees and moody skies, but he was perhaps most famous for illustrating the occult. Witches at their Incantations (1646), purchased by the first Earl Spencer and now in the National Gallery, is a feast of disturbing images. And if it turns the stomach today it must have caused convulsions 400 years ago, when the notion of satanic witches getting up to night-time tricks was all too real. Salvator Rosa refined and distilled the Book of Martyrs’ vivid horror show into a dark spiritualism rooted in the natural world and seeded a new sorcery.

Horace Walpole, the creator of the first gothic novel, tuned into Salvator Rosa’s way of seeing when, on his own Grand Tour in 1739, he pronounced the French Alps as “lonely lords of glorious desolate prospects”. The son of Britain’s prime minister, Walpole built himself a dream-like gothic villa from which sprang the new literary genre. Over 44 years he lovingly perfected Strawberry Hill House, transforming a modest, seventeenth-century, Thames-side dwelling into a quirky, elegant, castle-like home with cloisters, crenellated towers and St Paul’s cathedral-inspired ceilings, molded with papier-mâché and 24 carat gold leaf; it was crowned by the only contemporary painting of “Serpent Queen” Catherine de’ Medici with her children. Walpole said his seminal novel, The Castle of Otranto, was written after experiencing a particularly vivid dream, including “an ancient castle…and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour.” This gothic caper contains the first sighting of Hammer Horror tropes, with a hint of Carry on Screaming!: there’s a giant, man-crushing helmet, a forbidding castle with subterranean tunnels, thunderstorms, an ancient prophecy, a ghost, a swooning heroine, a mysterious knight, a kindly friar and a raging, ambitious villain who is forever thwarted, along with what became an overarching theme of British romance novels: the hereditary estate.

At the end of the eighteenth century the gothic novel took a decisive turn as France lived a horror beyond all imagination, climaxing with the execution of King Louis XVI. From England’s ringside seat, the regicidal chaos of the French Revolution felt like a haunting from the past. The mass slaughter in the name of progress created a “creature” that was as much out of control as Frankenstein’s; the escalation in bloodlust on Parisian streets pushed the imaginations of English writers into the underworld. Gothic stories flooded the market, notably Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 The Mysteries of Udolpho which, set in the south of France in the late sixteenth century, has the melancholic, dream-like quality of a Cure song. Radcliffe distills the terror of the Revolution to a Salvator Rosa wald angst setting and builds atmospheric tension so overwhelmingly that modern horror plot devices can be traced back to this story: a heroine in mourning for recently deceased loved ones, documents containing a family secret, false starts of the imagination, isolation, wild woodland that exudes a magical and sinister presence, a shrouded mansion feared by locals, a foreboding staircase, mysterious rooms, and tranquillity that dissolves to dread. A sonnet Radcliffe composed for the novel depicts the bat as a fearful portent:

“Now the bat circles on the breeze of eve,
That creeps, in shudd’ring fits, along the wave,
And trembles ’mid the woods, and through the cave,
Whose lonely sighs the wanderer deceive”

Udolpho inspired a twenty-year-old Matthew Lewis to pen his precocious 1796 novel The Monk, though being a well-travelled young Georgian man-about-town in Paris he was also influenced by the rock ‘n’ roll figure of the Marquis de Sade, and his scandalous Justine. Lewis’s story opens with a mass of people in a Capuchin cathedral in eighteenth century Madrid listening to a sermon by the revered but secretly prideful abbot. By the end, all hell has been let loose – the abbot is a rapist and murderer, the crowd a violent mob out for revenge on an evil Prioress, and the devil revealed to be the creator of all the chaos.

De Sade noted that this new literary genre was “the inevitable product of the revolutionary shocks with which the whole of Europe resounded”, concluding “it was necessary to call upon hell for aid in order to arouse interest”. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was influenced by witnessing the fallout of Napoleon’s retreat in 1814 when, as a sixteen-year-old, she and Percy Shelley eloped and travelled through France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland. Horrified by what she saw, she recorded in her travelogue, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour the devastation Austrian and Russian troops had wrought in their pursuit of retreating French armies: “The distress of the inhabitants, whose houses had been burned, their cattle killed, and all their wealth destroyed, has given a sting to my detestation of war.”

When the Shelleys stayed with Lord Byron at Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva two years later, alongside Byron’s physician, John Polidori – author of The Vampyre – and Matthew “The Monk” Lewis, Byron challenged them all to think of a story. It was the “Year without Summer,” the tail end of a climate catastrophe caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. The blast of sulphur, ash and rocks covered an area of 24 cubic miles, killing ten thousand island inhabitants by direct impact, plunging a radius of 350 miles into total darkness and all of Europe into twilight. In the aftershock of another volcanic obliteration, Shelley’s inspiration came not from dead trees and desolate landscapes, but from electric storms, gloomy days and endless rain.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818 and endures above all gothic novels not only for Shelley’s gift for plot, suspense, and still futuristic science, but also as a metaphor for hubris. It will be relevant for as long as humans believe they can cheat nature; as Shelley writes in the introduction of the 1831 edition: “Frightful it must be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanisms of the Creator of the world.”

We can never know what Shelley had in mind as she wrote. It might simply have been the candlelit days and group readings of German ghost stories; perhaps it was the report of an experiment of electrical galvanism on a dead frog; maybe it was her unexplored grief at the loss of her firstborn, or her quiet determination to prove to her brilliant male company that she, too, had something to say. But Frankenstein’s attempt to push the boundaries of science mirrored the cutting-edge inventions that were then setting England ablaze, as Philip James de Loutherbourg depicted with vivid, fantastical beauty in his painting Coalbrookdale by Night (1801).

As a teenager I fell in love with gothic music because I was looking for drama, magic and escapism

The expansion of the once-bucolic towns of Manchester, Salford, Leeds and Sheffield – the factories, great chimneys, and the confusion of people who gathered there in their thousands to find work – threatened detachment from the rhythms of nature and, in the smoke-filled, half-light of this new industrial vista, making man secondary to the machine. The British aristocracy and middle classes became terrified of revolutionary contagion and mob violence. The West was on the cusp of building a new world with no care for the monsters they set loose in the process, not unlike the launch of the internet and social media in the 21st century, in which the worst excesses of human nature have risen like yeast: narcissism, self-aggrandisement, bullying, and an infantile coarsening in political discourse – more insidious even than the brutal, dehumanising working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. And though the monster of the mob never manifested in England, the sinister magnificence of mechanisation shattered forever the nation’s rural peace and serenity. The “monstrous” arrival they feared didn’t manifest in an uprising of the working people, but in the fetid waters and dark towers of its many Dickensian “Coketowns”, that like Salvator Rosa’s remote wilderness seemed to be godless.

In 2017, I visited Manchester to film a drama series and, as we drove away from the set at Blackley Crematorium, back towards the city centre, I was struck by the miles of mammoth, featureless, steel-and-glass buildings. A hundred years ago mills, factories and chimneys would have stood in their place. I pictured an overwhelming shadowland of a great, unseen power, and it made me shiver. From the 1950s to the mid 1980s there had been another scene in Manchester altogether; the point at the end of a cycle just before the corporate world steps in to tidy up, rebuild and seal off any latitude for dreaming. Roughly, six miles of dereliction once stretched from the centre of the city to its edges, west, north and east: a desolate reminder of historic fire, furnace and might.

As Manchester reached this post-industrial nadir another writer, a young man named Ian Curtis, described his singular disconnection in the 1979 debut album by Joy Division. Propelled by Bernard Sumner’s, Peter Hook’s and Stephen Morris’s interpretation of living in the aftermath of what Shelley had envisioned, and shaped by Martin Hannett’s sublime production, Unknown Pleasures is the musical embodiment of industrial emptiness. I first heard the album aged thirteen, having pilfered it from my brother’s record collection – not knowing what the hell it was or who it was by. It sounded to me as if the band was playing into an endless void.

Elizabeth Sharkey is an actress and voice-over artist. Her debut book “Why Britain Rocked: How Rock Became Roll and Took Over the World” is also available in audiobook. More info at whybritainrocked.co.uk

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