Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

Welcome to the dark side. Awash with dim lighting, billowing chiffon drapes and the distant echo of haunting screams, the British Library is dressed to kill in this fascinating venture into the mysterious histories and futures of the Gothic imagination.

Starting at the very beginning, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto sets the scene for the surreal, the imaginative and the downright terrifying as whispers of supernatural, mysterious visitors, grand and desolate castles and giant hands grace the yellowing pages of the original Gothic novel.

As one would expect from the British Library, books are given pride of place, bringing together some of the finest examples of Gothic fiction with manuscripts of classics like Frankenstein and Dracula. Sitting alongside, Jane Austen’s own warning against the perils of Gothic immersion, Northanger Abbey, complemented by the seven ‘horrid novels’ themselves including Clermont and Necromancer of the Black Forest.

Illustrating the exhibition, art highlights are undoubtedly Nathaniel Grogan’s chilling ‘Lady Blanche Crosses the Ravine’, inspired by Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ‘Exquisite Corpse’ series – no doubt inspired by the depths of the Chapman’s own gruesome Gothic stylings.

Lifting the Gothic off the page and on to the screen, a terrifying animated film of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart read by a frenetic James Mason, a clip from Hitchcock’s The Lodger, a wide-eyed Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England and Wallace and Gromit and the Were-Rabbit. What? One of the highlights of Terror and Wonder is its embracing of Gothic and all its creators – from the pioneers to the fanboys and girls. Having said that, one glimpse at Angela Carter’s annotated manuscript for Company of Wolves and Stanley Kubrick’s typescript for The Shining certainly unleashed my own inner fan-girl.

Closing the exhibition, we’re propelled into the present day with Neil Gaiman, zombie adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Siouxie Sioux and the punk gothique. Martin Parr provides a vibrant collection of candid photography celebrating the characters of the Whitby Goth Weekend, home to Dracula and the heart of the British Goth scene.

While books, and plenty of accompanying reading material, certainly dominate the exhibition, it’s fascinating to follow the progression, creeping like any Gothic hero from the cerebral to the flesh-eaters, swooning ladies-in-waiting to feisty wolf-lovers, uncovering the influence of Gothic throughout the ages in literature, film and culture.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is showing until Tuesday 20 January at:

British Library
96 Euston Road

Image: Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma by Henry Fuselli c Tate

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