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Gothic Realities: The Impact Of Horror Fiction On Modern Culture by L. Andrew Cooper

01/01/2012. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy Gothic Realities: The Impact Of Horror Fiction On Modern Culture in the USA - or Buy Gothic Realities: The Impact Of Horror Fiction On Modern Culture in the UK

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pub: McFarland. 211 page indexed small enlarged softcover. Price: GBP29.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4835-7).

check out websites: www.mcfarlandpub.com and www.eurospanbookstore.com

There seems to be something in the American psyche that makes them want to unleash their dissertations and PhD theses onto the unsuspecting public. There also seems to be a school of thought that decrees that such academic works should consist primarily of the collected writings of those that have gone before. Original interpretations of data are best left to scientists. This book is no exception.



The introduction attempts to define the parameters of the work and the terms used in it in order to argue whether gothic literature affects modern behaviour. There is a feeling that some academics just like the sound of words rather than actually making the text accessible to a reader. In cloistered halls this is fine but for the general reader this can be too intense.

Gothic literature is a little like Art Deco. Although there is a distinct period to which the term should properly be applied, it has been used as a catchall for material influenced by it. Properly, the Gothic period was from the 1760s to the 1790s, from Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle Of Otranto’ to Anne Radcliffe’s ‘The Italian’, though there are always those who will argue differently. The importance of the tradition is that it sparked debate. Critics then argued that this kind of literature led readers astray as it was believed then that literature should instruct. Gothic fictions might prompt young people to enact their fictions and was therefore dangerous. Critics of the period used reviews to weed out dangerous texts and they looked for threats that might render a book unsuitable for general readership. These were threats to the young, to gender norms (the critics did not like early feminist tropes), of superstition and of revolution (this was the period of the French Revolution). Cooper draws heavily on the discussions of Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’, which fails on all counts and is therefore extremely seditious. This is compared to the reception received by Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries Of Udolpho’ which fares much better.

While this first part of the text looks at the perceived threats of Gothic literature on the sensibilities of a susceptible readership, the second part examines sexuality. One of the potential threats was the undermining of sexual norms and the roles that men and women were supposed to play in society. In this section, Cooper dwells on passages that appear to promote homosexuality as a Gothic trope bringing the sensibility out into the open. The argument was that there was a fear of pathological reproduction, examples of which include Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, Charles Maturin’s ‘Melmoth The Wanderer’ and Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’. In each of these examples, ‘life’ is created without recourse to sex. The argument given is that each of these is dangerous because they are actually inducing homosexuality.

Cooper continues this theme in the following chapter by seeing the persistence of 19th century notions in contemporary pop culture. By this he means cinema where he equates the monster in film as homosexuality. Since Cooper is still using other authors works to promote these views, I find it strange that he does not venture a counter or alternative view as the acknowledgements suggest he lives with a male partner.

The third part of the book delves into the differences between real and fictional ghosts, especially as many of the Gothic tales are written in the friend-of-a-friend idiom pretending to be actual events related to the author. These were considered dangerous as they purport to create belief in the supernatural and thus encourage heretical belief. Cooper appears to believe in the actuality of ghosts and that many of the stories that he discusses are true, although he does acknowledge the unreliability of the narrator, especially where the sceptical narrator is converted to belief in the supernatural. Here he seems to be wandering away from the original brief of the volume as discussed in the introduction, especially when he begins discussing the activities of real life ghost hunters.

Many sources have tried to link various high school massacres such as Columbine and Virginia Tech to Goth culture with the media trying to link the perpetrators to the music of Marylyn Manson which they relate directly to original Gothic literature such as ‘The Castle Of Otranto’. The suggestion is that the Columbine massacre has become a gothic event due to the way it has been written about. Cooper goes on to discuss the use of Stephen King’s ‘Rage’ as a blueprint for murder as in two cases the perpetrators appear to be acting out that scenario. The analysis of ‘Rage’ appears to one of the few sections where Cooper seems to have an opinion not culled from his extensive reading.

Media and films it is suggested in the final section of the book give the vulnerable ideas to commit crimes. Cooper’s book, though, does not draw together the strands of his arguments and, those of others, into any kind of conclusion. We are told what critics have thought in the past about the influences of Gothic fiction but since most of the volumes from that literary period are not widely read today, the case has not really been made for their influence on today’s culture. Too many other things compete for that and sufficient case has not been made for the historical continuation of the ideas that were considered so dangerous to the weak minds of the readers.

Overall, this is a book that may have interest to American academics but only the bibliography will be of much use to modern students of gothic literature. An academic work of worth should influence opinion and start controversy rather than regurgitate those of others.

Pauline Morgan

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