The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction

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OUP Oxford, Sep 27, 2012 - History - 184 pages
The Gothic is wildly diverse. It can refer to ecclesiastical architecture, supernatural fiction, cult horror films, and a distinctive style of rock music. It has influenced political theorists and social reformers, as well as Victorian home décor and contemporary fashion. Nick Groom shows how the Gothic has come to encompass so many meanings by telling the story of the Gothic from the ancient tribe who sacked Rome to the alternative subculture of the present day. This unique Very Short Introduction reveals that the Gothic has predominantly been a way of understanding and responding to the past. Time after time, the Gothic has been invoked in order to reveal what lies behind conventional history. It is a way of disclosing secrets, whether in the constitutional politics of seventeenth-century England or the racial politics of the United States. While contexts change, the Gothic perpetually regards the past with fascination, both yearning and horrified. It reminds us that neither societies nor individuals can escape the consequences of their actions. The anatomy of the Gothic is richly complex and perversely contradictory, and so the thirteen chapters here range deliberately widely. This is the first time that the entire story of the Gothic has been written as a continuous history: from the historians of late antiquity to the gardens of Georgian England, from the mediaeval cult of the macabre to German Expressionist cinema, from Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy to American consumer society, from folk ballads to vampires, from the past to the present. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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To be honest, I have never given much thought to the whole concept of the “Gothic.” On the surface of it, there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between an ancient Germanic tribe, medieval architecture, Victorian literature, and modern alienated high school kids that dress completely in black. In “The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction” Nick Groom aims to explain how all of those seemingly disparate phenomena are in fact connected and are part of one unbroken historical and cultural thread.
This book is part history, part cultural analysis, and part literally and film theory. Groom seems to be equally comfortable within each one of those fields and throughout the book presents his considerable erudition. The book is organized historically, and it starts off with the history of the Gothic tribes and their significant impact on the late Antiquity, that infamously culminated with the sacking of Rome and the end of Western Roman Empire. It continues through the Middle Ages, especially in England, and it covers the devastating impact that the turmoil of the sixteenth century had the English culture and its relationship to its own past. The book goes on to talk about the Gothic influences and themes in English and American literature, twentieth century film, and modern music culture.
The writing style is very fluid and engaging, and this book is immensely fun to read. It’s as far from a dusty academic tome as they come. Groom tells an interesting story and manages to keep the reader intrigued and informed at the same time. Unfortunately, after reading this book I am still not persuaded that various peoples, styles and cultures that bear the name “Gothic” are part of a single undivided whole. Groom relies greatly on rhetoric and masterful narrative, and doesn’t pay much attention to the careful analysis. There has been no attempt at any point to even try to define the term “Gothic,” and at too many points throughout the book I felt that it had been applied liberally to any social or artistic genre that suited the author’s fancy. Groom makes many sweeping generalizations and grand statements, often without even a hint of trying to give a justification for them. For instance, all of the American nineteenth century literature had been reduced to a veiled issue of race and/or slavery. This does grave injustice to the innovative and complex storylines of Poe or Melville. Ultimately, I feel that this introduction itself is very “Gothic.” It relies more on melodramatic elements than a clear and straightforward narrative. It obscures and enlightens, often at the same time. Like Frankenstein’s monster it is made out of many disparate parts that are stitched together, but the sense of organic whole is never achieved. It employs a heavy dose of the favorite ghouls of modern academic writing – race, class, gender. I still immensely enjoyed reading this book, but it’s far from an ideal source of information of what’s really meant by the term “Gothic.”

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About the author (2012)

Professor Nick Groom is Chair in English at the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus, and Director of ECLIPSE: the Exeter Centre for Literatures of Identity, Place, and Sustainability. He has published widely for both academic and popular readerships, and is the author and editor of manybooks, most recently The Forger's Shadow (2002), Thomas Chatterton: Selected Poetry (2003), and The Union Jack (2006).

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