Book Review: Wiley-Blackwell’s ‘The Encyclopedia of the Gothic’
A couple of months ago I was invited to join the Reviewer Panel at the online New York Journal of Books. NYJB gives their official blessing and permission to reviewers who want to republish their reviews at their own sites, so that’s something you’ll start seeing here at The Teeming Brain in weeks and months to come. Books lined up for review by me include Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History by Richard Smoley, The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper, Age of Catastrophe: Disaster and Humanity in Modern Times by John David Ebert, and the forthcoming new edition of Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness with a new introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck.
My first assignment in this new capacity gave me the distinctly not-unpleasant task of reading and evaluating Wiley-Blackwell’s new encyclopedia of the Gothic genre that was published in January. My review of The Encyclopedia of the Gothic is now live at the NYJB site. For Teeming Brain readers, here’s an expanded version of it.
The Encyclopedia of the Gothic, edited by William Hughes, David Punter, and Andrew Smith. Wiley-Blackwell. Published January 22, 2013. 1152 pages.
Reviewed by Matt Cardin
Increasingly since the 1990s, modern technological societies have been profoundly informed and transformed by a popular culture that is oriented toward the fantastic, often in its darker, Gothic guise. In America, for example, film critic David Denby notes (with extreme disapproval) that fantasy motifs, themes, and storylines are showing up in all kinds of cinematic genres where they were formerly absent or rare, and at such a rapid pace that “In time — a very short time — the fantastic, not the illusion of reality, may become the default mode of cinema.” (See “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?” The New Republic, September 14, 2012.) A similar situation exists in the book publishing industry, where apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and horror-oriented themes have seeped through the category boundaries of science fiction and horror to infuse a growing swath of literature at large.
Nor is this fantastic metastasis limited to books and movies. In fact, it’s not even limited to art and entertainment as such. Victoria Nelson — to name just one insightful observer — argues in her books The Secret Life of Puppets and, most recently and pointedly, Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural that the fantastic, especially in the mode of the Gothic (or “Gothick,” as she styles it), forms a kind of American sub-zeitgeist that stands in direct counterpoint to the prevailing secular-materialist culture, and that this has now burst the bounds of entertainment proper and increasingly come to resemble a new kind of sleek, chic, and pointedly supernaturalist spirituality, thus giving us a glimpse of “what a post-Christian religion in America might look like.”
In the midst of such a situation, the publication of Wiley-Blackwell’s The Encyclopedia of the Gothic can only be described as “timely.” Describing itself as “comprehensive and wide-ranging,” and containing more than 200 original essays produced “by leading scholars writing on all aspects of the Gothic,” this two-volume reference work is intended to “provide comprehensive coverage of relevant authors, national traditions, critical developments, and notable texts that continue to define, shape, and inform the genre. . . . From American Gothic and angels to Wilde and witchcraft, The Encyclopedia of the Gothic is the definitive reference guide to all aspects of this strange and wondrous genre.”
As with any reference work, this one can be evaluated along two general lines: the quality of its contents and the comprehensiveness of its coverage. On the first count, the essays are generally well-written and interesting, with an occasional tendency to lapse into a mild academic-ese and “lit-crit speak” that’s stiff and distancing. Sometimes they provide moments of real and pleasurable insight. The essay on Charles Dickens, for example (written by Michael Hollington, one of the leading scholars in the field), starts by asserting that Dickens “effected decisive and lasting change in the history of Gothic fiction” by grounding Gothic terror not in fantastic settings but in the prosaic reality of his contemporary urban society. Then it ends by noting that Dickens’ possessed a “powerful sense of evil” that sets him apart from most English novelists and imparts a defining undertone of Gothic reality to his life and work: “No wonder, then, that Dickens’ public readings privileged sensation and terror, and he seems to have felt compelled to continue acting out Bill Sikes’ murder of Nancy against medical advice in his final years, very probably hastening his own death. ‘Terror to the end,’ he wrote in the margin of his performing copy of the text.”
Such moments are neat, and they recur throughout the imposing span of the encyclopedia’s 900-plus pages of essays — a testament, obviously, to the breadth and depth of knowledge about its central subject among the more than 130 contributing writers, and also among the three editors, each of whom is a significant figure in the field of Gothic studies.
But at the same time, it’s this very quality of general excellence among the contents and expertise/authority among the writers and editors that makes it so odd when, under closer scrutiny, a number of significant gaps show up in the encyclopedia’s overall coverage.
How is it, for example, that in a reference work on the Gothic, there are separate and lengthy entries on Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert, Anne Rice, Ramsey Campbell, Poppy Z. Brite — all of them major figures in the birth of the modern horror novel, and in the birth, boom, and decline of category horror publishing under that specific label in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s — but no entry on Peter Straub? According to the extensive index, Straub’s name is only mentioned twice in the entire encyclopedia, once in connection with the introduction he wrote to a fiction collection by Robert Aickman and once in a brief, passing mention of his novel Ghost Story in the entry “Ghost Stories.” But Ghost Story, first published in 1979, is one of the pivotal novels in the genre as a whole, a bona fide modern classic that achieved a kind of perfect balance between the classic literary ghost story and the newly born form of the mass market horror novel by elegantly and effectively channeling the spirit (no pun intended) of the former into the body of the latter. Straub’s additional body of work has also been quite distinguished. So why the snub by this encyclopedia and its editors?
Similarly — and astonishingly — there is not a single mention of Thomas Ligotti, a legend of a living horror writer whose status as both a cult figure and an author of real significance is evident from, among other things, the fact that he has already merited an entire volume of criticism and appreciation, 2003′s The Thomas Ligotti Reader.
“As a reference work that’s firmly rooted in and actively devoted to expressing the current state of academic scholarship about its area, The Encyclopedia of the Gothic shares all the virtues and shortcomings of that field, including any quirks of selective focus. It’s quite valuable for what it is, and illuminating for what it is not.”
The more one scans and digs, the more of these gaps, oversights, and omissions come to light. William Burroughs is given only a single mention, and then not in his own separate entry but in a brief sentence referring to the movie adaptation/interpretation of his Naked Lunch by writer/director David Cronenberg (who is given his own entry). Caitlín Kiernan, one of the most significant living authors of Gothic fiction in the specific mode of weird horror fiction, receives only two fleeting references.
The gaps extend also to coverage of the critical and scholarly realm. Everett Bleiler, the renowned 20th-century scholar and editor who made seminal contributions to the study of Gothic and horror fiction in particular and fantastic literature in general, is nowhere to be seen. S.T. Joshi, the scholar who is most responsible for having launched the still-growing field of Lovecraft scholarship, and who can claim a good measure of the credit for effecting Lovecraft’s transition to mainstream literary awareness and respectability in the early part of the new millennium, and whose contributions to other areas of horror and Gothic scholarship are significant, is mentioned only in a source note. This, despite the fact that there is an entire essay titled “Teaching the Gothic,” on the history of the subject’s scholarship and academic presentation to students.
Perhaps most astonishing of all is the resounding absence of Rudolf Otto and the concept of “the numinous” that he introduced in his 1917 classic The Idea of the Holy. This book is a seminal text not only in the fields of theology, religious studies, and the philosophy of religion but in the field of Gothic studies as well, for Otto drew a direct connection between supernatural dread in religion and its counterpart in literature by positing that both responses stem from the same primal source in the basic human sensibility: an ancient, inbuilt experience of “daemonic dread” that he saw as fundamental to the human consciousness. This concept has been widely seized upon by various scholars and theorists of Gothic literature over the past century. It even received a book-length treatment in S.L. Varnado’s 1987 study Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction. “Otto’s essay,” notes religion scholar Timothy Beal in Religion and Its Monsters, “has had a tremendous influence in studies of horror as religious experience.” Opportunities for mentioning or at least acknowledging this fact abound in The Encyclopedia of the Gothic; it would be entirely appropriate and relevant in, for example, the essays on “The Supernatural,” “Terror, “The Sublime,” and “The Uncanny.” So why is it absent here?
All of these questions bring us around both to the editors’ framing statements in the encyclopedia’s introduction and to this review’s conclusion. Hughes, Punter, and Smith introduce the project with an interesting but difficult and convoluted reflection on the nature and purpose of encyclopedias as such, narrowing down eventually to thoughts on the special difficulty attached to putting together an encyclopedia of the Gothic in particular. After beginning with a discussion of “the heyday of the encyclopedia” during the Age of Enlightenment, and then simultaneously clarifying and complicating the issue of the encyclopedic project as such by invoking the memory of “Michel Foucault’s account of his laughter on reading Jorge Luis Borges’ description of a possibly fictitious Chinese encyclopedia” (!), the editors explain that over the years their chosen subject has grown steadily more complex and fluid in terms of the “periods, places, people, and media” it encompasses, resulting in a situation where “the very growth in the Gothic has increasingly posed a problem for definition.” Thus, “This volume, while making claims to being appropriately definitive for the present moment, is not, in keeping with the rapidly changing nature of the Gothic and scholarship on it, going to be the last word on the topic.”
It’s that claim of “appropriately definitive” that is at issue here. Are we really justified in labeling the above-described exclusions “gaps” and “omissions”? Or does The Encyclopedia of the Gothic truly represent an “appropriately definitive” survey and statement of what “Gothic” encompasses at the moment, so that its value judgments about who and what to include and exclude are normative, or at least representative of where the field actually stands?
The answer lies, perhaps, in the same introduction, where the editors explain how the project had its origin in the 2007 conference of the International Gothic Association, as well as in the wider world of general academic scholarship on the subject. Similarly, according to the publisher’s description on the back cover, the encyclopedia’s scope and slant encompass “all aspects of the Gothic as it is currently taught and researched, as well as challenging insights into the development of the genre and its impact on contemporary culture” (emphasis added). So maybe in criticizing its exclusions we’re asking The Encyclopedia of the Gothic to be something that it manifestly is not and does not try to be. Maybe it really does represent the state of present academic scholarship in its area. Maybe these apparent lacunae, far from being incorrect, are instructive.
This might be a satisfying conclusion if it weren’t for the fact that it stands in tension with that other line from the back cover copy, already quoted above, that announces the encyclopedia as “the definitive reference guide to all aspects of this strange and wondrous genre.” The statement, it seems, is too broad for the book’s actual content, which seeks to cover not all aspects of the genre itself but all aspects of current academic scholarship about it. This is a worthy goal in itself, but it means that anybody approaching this encyclopedia in expectation of finding a comprehensive view of the Gothic as such — and the very boundaries of that definition are of course part of what the work addresses — will end up either disappointed or misled.
As a reference work that’s firmly rooted in and actively devoted to expressing the current state of academic scholarship about its area, The Encyclopedia of the Gothic shares all the virtues and shortcomings of that field, including any quirks of selective focus. It’s quite valuable for what it is, and illuminating for what it is not.