A fascinating exploration of 250 years of Gothic lore
The recently opened exhibition at the British Library, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, is a fantastic multimedia exploration of the genre. The exhibition is bursting with objects representing 250 years of Gothic lore (it is after all the largest ever Gothic exhibition in the UK). This is intriguing from a historical and literary point of view, but it also generates deeper questions, such as why are humans so attracted to the macabre and the sensational? How is it that dark creatures (monsters, zombies, vampires) continue to fascinate and allure audiences? What do these stories and objects reveal about our own fears?
In true Gothic novel fashion, the ambiance of the exhibition space is dark and stormy with the sound of howling wind, rattling chains, and shrieking damsels from the audio-visual displays. Although macabre artistic and literary works existed long before the eighteenth century, the publication in 1764 of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto is said to be the official starting point of the Gothic genre. The exhibition begins with Walpole's personal first edition copy of the text juxtaposed with a screen playing the first attempt to capture the novel on film.
Many artefacts from Walpole's Gothic style house are also on display, including a Thomas Becket reliquary (Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in the twelfth century). Iconic Gothic texts include handwritten versions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Clive Barker's Hellraiser, as well as the published texts of Edgar Allan Poe and the Graveyard Poets (e.g. Thomas Grey).
The Victorians had a particular love for curiosities and the macabre. Items on display from the period include a household memento mori, a vampire slaying kit, and the 2005 film adaptation of Dickens' Bleak House. An especially creepy artefact is a letter signed by Jack the Ripper. Scrawled across a few pages of yellowed paper, the writer describes the details of his next murder. The police force received many such letters, but this one matches the exact details of the murder of Catherine Eddowes.
The exhibition concludes in a bright white space filled with photos of the Whitby Goth Weekend by the award-winning photographer Martin Parr. The exhibition does not seek to provide answers to the questions it generates, but perhaps the essence of the Gothic attitude is that experiencing the macabre actually relieves the fear of it.