Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library


Charles Dickens is the perfect figure to usher us into the Victorian world, and into the dark, narrow and crowded streets of the rapidly expanding, noisily industrial capital. A clip of the recent BBC adaptation of Bleak House, with Gillian Anderson as a ghostly Lady Dedlock, shows us the scene in which Jo the crossing sweeper takes her to the gates of the paupers’ cemetery. The bones lie on the surface in some parts, and Jo remarks of the man she is searching for (known only as ‘Nemo’ at this point) that ‘they put him wery nigh the top. They was obliged to stamp upon it to get it in. I could unkiver it, with my broom, if the gate was open’. He then excitedly points out a rat, which runs into the ground to feast. This depiction of the bodies of the dead protruding from their shallow graves, seen through the eyes of a streetchild for whom it is wholly unremarkable, is a grim Gothic touch which Dickens drew from factual observation. Victorian London was, for many, a Gothic city, but one marked by poverty and squalor rather than elegantly decaying castles and crypts. A staggered pile of booklets on display were a reminder of the part published format of the book, episodically issued in 1852. The public would devour the story in monthly instalments, eager to discover what happened next.

Woman in Black - Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House
Gothic had become a flavour or shade which could be added to the kind of multilayered work of which Dickens was a master. It might be associated with a a particular character, plot strand or setting. It was a transferable style which could be employed in a variety of contexts. Dickens wrote a number of ghost stories as well, including The Signalman, an enduring classic of the subgenre, and the collaborative collection The Haunted House, whose framing story (written by Dickens) introducing separate tales anticipates the Amicus portmanteau films of the 1960s and 70s. It was a form which would become increasingly popular as the Victorian period progressed. It was an era much preoccupied with mortality and the memorialisation of the dead. The great necropolises which were built on the outskirts of the rapidly expanding urban centres were themselves like miniature cities of the dead. They would prove ideal Gothic locations, particularly as the years added attractive layers of gentle ruination and ivy entanglement. For Dickens, the Gothic could also encompass an element of social comment or psychological portraiture. The graveyard in Bleak House is disturbing for its exposure of appalling poverty as much as the rat-gnawed bones of the dead. Lady Dedlock drifting blankly through Chesney Wold and Miss Havisham presiding over the cobweb-strewn Satis House in Great Expectations are both spectres prematurely haunting their decaying homes. They are portraits of mental and moral paralysis.

For Dickens, the true Gothic locale was not a remote, ruined abbey or centuries old castle but the dark alleys and dilapidated houses of London. Its gaslit Gothic atmosphere is perfectly captured in the engravings Gustav Doré produced for the book London, A Pilgrimage, a journalistic record of travels through the city which highlighted the huge gulf between the rich and poor. Plates depicting the rookery of Bluegate Fields, the night-time pavement sellers of Harrow Alley in Houndsditch, the ragged wraiths working in the Lambeth gasworks and the mazes of back to back terraces in the sooty shadow of arcing railway viaducts are densely shaded with an almost palpable darkness.

The Gothic followed in the wake of mass migrations from field to factory and relocated to the city. Urban Gothic was formed in the choking fogs of London; fogs like those described in the opening scenes of Bleak House, in which Dickens imagined the possibility of encountering ‘a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill’. The primeval swamp seeps through into the streets of the modern city. Urban Gothic bred its own monsters and mythologies which were promulgated in the rough pages of the Penny Dreadfuls and Penny Bloods. These episodic works featured sensational cover illustrations which dramatically depicted scenes of horror and bloodshed. Precursors of the EC comics of the 50s, their potential effect on the minds of the masses who read them occasionally troubled the moral guardians of Victoria’s realm. But they generally fell so far below the literary lighthouse beam that they escaped any real censure. The dreadfuls introduced the likes of Varney the Vampire, with his impulsive thirst for blood; Sweeney Todd, the demon barber and fresh meat merchant; and Spring Heeled Jack, a proto-supervillain who could effortlessly leap over the rooftops of London, and who gradually morphed into an enigmatic superhero in the Batman mould. A copy of The Mysteries of London by George WM Reynolds was also on display, explicitly inviting the reader imagine their city as a labyrinth of hidden terrors, lurking and ready to spring. The prolific Reynolds also wrote an early werewolf tale with his 1846-7 series Wagner the Were-Wolf. Some of Dave McKean’s original full-colour illustrations for the Batman story Arkham Asylum were displayed as an example of a modern version of the urban Gothic of the Penny Dreadfuls.

Harry Clarke's illustration for Poe's William Wilson
Edgar Allan Poe was a central (perhaps THE central) figure in mid-19th century Gothic literature, and his morbid sensibility spread like an enervating virus, distilling fever dreams from the unconscious underworld of a motley spectrum of writers and artists, from French Decadents through Edwardian illustrators of children’s books to subversive Surrealists. One of Poe’s letters was on display, allowing us to inspect his neat handwriting and feel a sense of communion with the man who wrote it. Truth to tell, it doesn’t provide a very edifying portrait. Addressed to Fanny Osgood, one of a series of women with whom he became obsessed in his short lifetime, and whose patronage and hospitality he frequently called upon, its fulsome and fawning praise of her literary efforts is embarrassingly transparent in its bid for her favour. Poe’s influence on the late Victorian and Edwardian imagination is clearly visible in the illustrations from various editions of his work. On display here were Edmund Dulac’s plate for The Raven, Harry Clarke’s for William Wilson, Arthur Rackham’s for The Oval Portrait and John Buckland Wright’s woodcut for The Tell-Tale Heart. Presiding over this gloomy Poe corner was the magisterial voice of James Mason, narrating the expressionistic 1953 animated interpretation of The Tell-Tale Heart, with designs by Warner Bros. background artist Paul Julian, who would, appropriately enough, go on to work with Roger Corman. Mason explains his actions in a patient and scrupulously rational manner: ‘it was his eye, yes, that eye. His eye, staring, milky white film. The eye, everywhere in everything. Of course I had to get rid of the eye’.

Aubrey Beardsley's illustration for The Masque of the Red Death
Poe’s work certainly informed the Yellow Book Decadance of the fin de siecle period, the dying days of the Victorian period. A copy of the Yellow Book was on display here. And indeed its cover was an exquisite shade of yellow, an instantly distinctive object to be seen with tucked under your arm, connoting an all-embracing aesthetic worldview. One of Aubrey Beardsley’s Poe illustrations was also on display, a depiction of a scene from The Masque of the Red Death, full of leering, deformed grotesques and limp, opiated beauties. Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray was presented as the emblematic story from this movement, a self-reflexive myth for, and about, its participants. It’s a mythic encapsulation of the cost of the pursuit of excess and all-consuming sensual indulgence cast in Gothic form. The figurative is made manifest and hidden away in the attic. Wilde was the public spokesman for the Aesthetic movement (French-style Decadence in all but name). His elegant dandyism and elevation of the passing witticism into an exquisitely crafted artform promoted the idea of art as an all-encompassing worldview, affecting mannerisms and modes of dress as much as any actual creative artefact which might be produced in time remaining. This was a philosophy which would resonate throughout the 20th century, finding expression in the theatricality of latter day Goths as well as the self-reflective (or obsessed) art of the likes of Gilbert and George and a number of the YBAs. Indeed, there were some works by the Chapman Brothers later in the exhibition. Wilde’s own penchant for the Gothic, as well as his conflation of life and art, were displayed in the calling cards he had printed after he emerged from Reading Gaol. He cloaked himself in the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth, adopted from Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer. Wilde thereby cast himself as the cursed exile who had made an ill-advised pact with the Devil and is now fated to tread a lonely, immortal path through the world.

Richard Mansfield as Jekyll...and Hyde
Another key work of the late Victorian period was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, originally published in 1886 as a Shilling Shocker (a complete work as opposed to the Penny Dreadful’s serialisations – hence the slightly inflated price and altered alliteration). Stevenson’s story is a subtly suggestive study of the duality inherent in the human psyche, its terrors remaining relatively subdued. It was the hugely successful theatrical production of 1887, written by JR Sullivan and starring Richard Mansfield in the twinned title role(s), which changed the tone of the story, and set the pattern for future adaptations. The bifurcation into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ selves, or rather selves which suppressed the desire for sensual pleasure and gave it full, destructive reign. Jekyll and Hyde became another myth of fin-de-siecle Decadence, a companion piece to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Richard Mansfield’s performance was particularly noted for its remarkable transformation scene, aided by theatrical lighting and make-up. A photograph displayed here gives us an idea of the thrills which the Victorian theatregoers would have experienced. Using the developing room magic or double exposure, we see the upright Dr Jekyll, face a saintly picture of benevolent intentions, transformed into the hunched, bestial figure of Hyde, hands clawed and poised to grab whatever they can grab a hold of. Hyde really does appear to be a shadow self in this photograph, a parthenogenetic homunculus tearing itself free from its noble progenitor.

The theatrical production of Jekyll and Hyde, which Stevenson professed to hate, was running at the time that the Jack the Ripper murders began to impinge on the public consciousness in 1888. The two became superimposed in the minds of many, Jack and Edward Hyde becoming mirrored selves. Theatrical fiction and factual speculation percolated together to form the beginnings of the potent myth which distilled the dark essence of late Victorian London. The city of terrible night, its narrow Whitechapel streets filled with the stench of poverty and despair. One of the most startling exhibits was a work of fiction purporting to be fact; another example of the fakery which seems to play such a prominent part in the history of Gothic (and which lives on in ‘found footage’ horror movies). A letter written in red ink boasting of murderous exploits and promising more horrors to come is signed Yours Truly Jack the Ripper (‘Don’t mind me giving the trade name’). Undoubtedly a hoax, it has nevertheless accumulated a certain amount of legendary cachet, being the first of a welter of such fevered missives, stoked by sensationalist newspaper reportage. Alan Moore, in his kaleidoscopic Ripper epic From Hell, has two journalists from the Daily Star compose the letter in a Wapping flat, giving the public a fiend whose luridly outlined exploits they can gorge themselves on (in the page of The Star, of course).

Robert Bloch’s story Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper draws on the letter’s signature, and imagines Jack as an immortal who surfaces in various eras to commit his ritualistic killings, which serve to keep him alive. The subsequent pairing in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 Dangerous Visions anthology of Bloch’s A Toy for Juliette and Ellison’s own A Prowler In the City At the Edge of the World takes as its basis the way in which ‘Jack’ was transformed into an almost supernatural figure, an elusive trickster constantly eluding his pursuers with mocking ease. He was an inheritor of the powers of Spring Heeled Jack, and a precursor of the regrettable archetype of the superhuman serial killer in modern culture. Harlan Ellison reduces him to a pathetic puppet of greater, more debased forces at the end of his story, a conclusion which has considerable moral and allegorical force, and once more addresses the role of the media in creating and feeding an appetite for such atrocities.

Laird Cregar in the 1944 version of The Lodger
The Ripper murders, as filtered through Jekyll and Hyde and proto-tabloid journalism, gave rise to Belloc Lowndes’ 1911 novel The Lodger. The entrance of Ivor Novello’s titular character in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 film version, face disguised beneath the mummifying wrap of a scarf , ragged wisps of illuminated fog dissipating behind him, is an electrifying expressionistic rendering of the mystery and fear fuelling the ever-expanding Ripper mythos. Actually, the 1944 version of The Lodger, with a mesmerising performance by Laird Cregar at its heart, better evokes the social gulfs within Victorian society which the Ripper murders so horrifically exposed. It’s also interesting to note the narrowing gap between literary source and cinematic adaptation. Only 38 years separate The Lodger from the Ripper murders and Richard Mansfield’s theatrical transformation into Hyde (and 32 from the 1920 John Barrymore film), the cinema from the music hall, the gas lamp from the electric light, the horse drawn Hackney cab from the motor car. They really do seem worlds apart.

First edition of Dracula in fin-de-siecle yellow book covers
The final work from the late Victorian period explored here is of such moment that it merited a whole room to itself. The visitor was obliged to make a detour from their natural winding progression through the exhibition’s dimly lit corridors, turning into this sealed off sepulchre which immediately felt like a sacred space. Indeed, so caught up was I in the cultural current leading me eagerly on from one thematic display to another that it wasn’t until I’d reached the end and exited into the light of the British Library’s lofty atrium that I paused and thought ‘hang on, there was something missing there’. Retracing my steps, I discovered the hidden sanctum which I’d initially passed by. The book in question is, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, first published in 1897. Its influence on the horror genre and on popular culture in general is pervasive and profound, and anything in this compacted space could offer a partial survey at best. The literary exhibits were particularly fascinating. There was a pleasing congruity to the inclusion of some of the books which Stoker consulted in the British Library whilst researching the background of his story. Perhaps some of them were even the same copies.

Of particular significance was a book written by William Wilkinson, Esq., ‘Late British Consul Resident at Bukarest’, which blended colonial memoir, history lesson and traveller’s tales, and was given the fustily prosaic title An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: With Various Political Observations Relating to Them. Stoker initially read this not at the British Library but in the subscription library in Whitby, the seaside town on the Yorkshire coast where he was staying for his summer holidays in 1890. The historical passages make reference to King Ladislas of Hungary forming an alliance with the Wallachian Voivode Dracula in 1444 to fight the Turks. It was in Whitby, therefore, that Stoker found the name for his vampire lord, although he would transform him from a prince (voivode) into a count. There was no such noble rank in Wallachia in the 15th century, but the baleful influence of Lord Byron together with the antics of his acolytes on the European continent had created an indelible impression. Vampires and Gothic villains in general had become strongly associated with dissipated Western European aristocrats.

The illustration included in the 1901 edition of Dracula
Stoker followed the established convention by ennobling his title character, even though he envisaged him as a stout military figure with a thick Central Eastern European moustache. This explicitly described appearance (roughly reproduced in the illustration in 1901 edition) would seldom be acknowledged in subsequent adaptations. Wilkinson also notes that Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil. This could connote evil, although it could also use refer to the folk devil as a trickster figure. As such, it could be used in a complimentary sense as a badge of bravery or ingenuity in warfare or matters of state. Wallachia was also entirely separate from Transylvania, but such cavils are irrelevant. Dracula is not a historical novel, and the local colour and geographical detail Stoker derived from Wilkinson’s book and other accounts of the area provided a richly mysterious and haunted backdrop for Jonathan Harker’s arduous journey to Dracula’s castle and the final pursuit through the Transylvanian landscape. The mountainous and thickly forested world which he conjured up from his reading room travels was shrouded in fogs of superstition and venerable custom. Journeying there was akin to falling back in time to a pre-industrial era, leaving behind the nascent modernity of the late Victorian period in which electric lighting was already beginning to banish the shadows and returning to the Middle Ages. It was a reiteration of the Gothic’s abiding delight in resurrecting the spectres of primitive (and imaginary) histories which contrasted with the comforts of the present.

The demons of Lewtrenchard
Another book which Stoker consulted, Charles Boner’s Transylvania: Its Products and its People, contained fold-out maps (one of which was spread out here) which facilitated imaginary exploration, mental expeditions into the Carpathian Mountains via the Borgo Pass. Also on display was the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves, a collection of legend and lore which provided the inspiration for the wolves Dracula heralds as ‘the children of night’, and for his own transformation into a great hound which leaps onto the shore of Whitby from the deck of the wrecked Demeter. Baring-Gould was the parson of Lewtrenchard church, nestled in the shady valleys west of Dartmoor. In addition to collecting local folklore and folk music, he was a dedicated antiquarian, endeavouring to save the church furnishings and decorations of the Gothic period which other Victorian clergymen were busy discarding and destroying. His small church is a treasure house packed with objects rescued from diverse parts, restored and refitted. And hidden on the side of the pulpit facing the east wall are a pair of grinning demons carved from wood by the Pinwill sisters, Esther and Violet, in imitation of medieval originals. They would certainly not have looked out of place in Dracula’s castle.

More demons lodging in Lewtrenchard - call for the Rev. Sabine-Gould, demon hunter
Also included here was a manuscript Stoker wrote for a theatrical version of his novel. Scrappily assembled, with passages cut and pasted from the printed page, this was evidently dashed off with great haste. It was an exercise to establish theatrical copyright and prevent others from hijacking his ideas, distorting them and profiting from the thinly veiled results. Perhaps he had the success of JR Sullivan and Richard Mansfield’s Jekyll and Hyde in mind. It also suggested that Stoker was highly conscious of the fact that Dracula was a work which had the potential for broad popular appeal. The script formed the basis for a theatrical reading at the Lyceum Theatre in 1897, staged concurrently with the novel’s publication. Present in the select audience was Henry Irving, the actor-manager for whom Stoker acted as personal assistant and factotum in all things. Irving was an imposing figure, an archetypally demanding and egotistic theatrical, and a dominant force in Stoker’s life, source of both reverence and fear. Some have claimed him as a model for Dracula. Its certainly likely that some of his characteristics found there way into the portrayal of the commanding count. His approval or even mild encouragement was vital for Stoker; but all he received after the show was brusque brush-off. The self-absorbed Irving had no time to dispense the words of praise he demanded and required for himself.

Projected onto the back room of the Dracula room were scenes from the finale of FW Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, expressionist shadows taking on a life of their own, extending grasping claws ahead of the rodent-toothed creature casting them. Stoker’s worries about the unauthorised appropriation of his material seems to have been justified, since the German company who produced the picture, Prana Films, had made no effort to seek approval for their adaptation. The widowed Florence Stoker’s attempts to gain recompense merely resulted in the company going bust. In order to discourage further such incidences, she managed to get a court order requiring all copies to be destroyed. Fortunately, this celluloid auto-da-fé wasn’t altogether thorough in its execution, and surviving prints resurfaced in later years. As a result, we can still enjoy what has become established as an enduring classic of German expressionism and cinematic Gothic. Stoker’s character and vampiric lore would soon spread with the exponential infectiousness of a blood-borne virus, putting it well beyond any possibility of containment.

The exhibits here briefly sampled the cultural shadow cast by Dracula over the long decades of the 20th century. His looming presence was in some ways a counter-reaction to the forces of modernism and rapid technological progress; a renewed example of the Gothic finding inspiration and escape in a time of social transformation through the resurrection of the past. The character as Stoker envisaged him was eager to embrace the possibilities afforded by new technologies and economic channels. That was the reason for his move to England. But this is one of a number of the novel’s aspects (including his Eastern European military bearing) which have been abandoned in successive cinematic incarnations. Christopher Lee’s repeated pleas to the Hammer hierarchy to return to the book as a direct source fell on deaf ears.

Vampire - Edvard Munch
The female vampire had already found its way into the broader European literary and artistic stream as a symbolic character. In Baudelaire’s poem The Vampire it stands as a very French metaphor for the destructive nature of love, and the fear of the devouring woman. It was also a stock pre-Freudian fever dream figure in Symbolist art, an image to set alongside the many personifications of Death in chill Nordic and Baltic landscapes. Edvard Munch’s Vampire, aka Love and Pain (1894), could almost be an illustration for Baudelaire’s bitterly misogynistic poem. Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire was a rather surprising inclusion in the exhibition, serving as a representation of these literary adoptions, and another version of the vampire as belle dame sans merci. Appropriately enough, it was written in 1897, the year of Dracula’s publication. He’s certainly not somebody you’d associate with such Decadent company. But then he’s a writer to whom many misconceptions have become attached over the years. The printed poem was accompanied by an illustration by Philip ‘son of Sir Edward’ Burne-Jones, an explicitly erotic tableau which bears some relation to Fuseli’s Nightmare. It was this image which gave birth to the poem in Kipling’s imagination, an example of visual art exerting a direct influence upon literature.

Edward Gorey’s Dracula toy theatre brought his mordant drawings to marvellous pop-up life, and demonstrated the broadening appeal of the whole mythos. The sets are actually models for the stage designs he produced for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula. His lugubriously amusing figures prove eminently suitable to the novel’s characters and scenarios. A slight element of mockery is appropriate given their familiarity at this stage, but is obviated by the beauty and care with which they are drawn. And his Dracula has a moustache! A lovely artefact for Gothic children to exercise their morbid imaginations upon – the cardboard Lucy Westenra’s head can easily be stuck back on with sellotape.

It’s but a few short steps from here to Sesame Street’s delightfully numerate Count, the vegetarian vampire duck of Cosgrove-Hall’s Count Duckula and the vampire grandpas and uncles-next-door of The Munsters and Alan Moore’s Bojeffries Saga The latter features the wonderfully weird Uncle Festus Zlüdotny, whose spluttered speech-bubble utterances are rendered in the undecipherable symbols of a mysterious yet somehow inherently violent alphabet. A vampire slaying kit, with tools and substances covering most recommended means of undead extermination, was on display in its own standalone cabinet, its components housed in a neatly portable valise whose compartments concertinaed out with ingenious pragmatism. It had no apparent provenance, and its presence was therefore rather anomalous, but fun nevertheless.

Christopher Lee endures the Scars of Dracula
A design for Frank Langella’s Count in John Badham’s 1979 film of Dracula suggested future developments of the character, and of the vampire in general, as a romantic figure. The animalistic bloodsucking and viral furtherance of the undead plague were increasingly relegated to the background, incidental details eclipsed by the old fashioned seductions of the irresistible Heathcliff anti-hero. Alas, there was nothing here to match the display of Christopher Lee’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness costume in the BFI’s Gothic display a couple of years ago. Hammer was represented (and represented it simply HAD to be, of course) by more of Scott MacGregor’s set designs, this time for Scars of Dracula. Indisputably the nadir of Hammer’s Dracula cycle, and quite possibly of its Gothic output at large, the designs indicate just how far the studio (and director Roy Ward Baker) was prepared to go in its determination to keep up with contemporary trends and add new elements of explicit gore. In the bedroom set, a bloody corpse sprawls across the four-poster, severed body parts scattered to the side along with the saws and knives which have been used in this clumsy dissection. The echoes of the grim finale of Witchfinder General are all too evident. Perhaps thankfully, this scenario was never realised in the completed film. Christopher Lee’s Dracula merely leaps into the chamber and stabs Anoushka Hempel’s vampire seductress with a knife whose rubbery flexibility is all too plain. It’s a gratuitous scene which is as risible as it is illogical and inexplicable. MacGregor’s set for the castle roof is an atmospheric Gothic arena, a stage for dramatic confrontations. Sadly, the final realisation fell far short of his vision, the greatly reduced budgets of the 60s and 70s more than usually evident.

As with Frankenstein, Dracula made it through to the vinyl age too. Displayed here was the cover of the Studio2Stereo LP Dracula with Christopher Lee, a compilation of Hammer soundtracks. A real treat, this one, with James Bernard’s stirring score for the original Hammer Dracula set in context by Lee’s narration. It also features cues from Bernard’s score for She, as well as contemporary composer John McCabe’s music for the 1972 psycho-thriller Fear in the Night, Harry Robinson’s lushly romantic themes from The Vampire Lovers and extracts from David Whittaker’s score for the stylish Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, wittily scripted by the late Brian Clemens. The 70s provenance of the LP was clear from its use of a promo still from Dracula AD 1972 on the cover, Christopher Lee tucking into the jugular of poor old Caroline Munro.

Leaving the Dracula room, we also take our leave of the 19th century, and enter a new era in which the medium of cinema, with its large, darkened palaces, would prove a perfect site for the expansion of the shadow worlds of the Gothic. But those shadows often originated and drew their raw sustenance from the archetypal monsters, human and otherwise, which emerged from the gaslight illuminated fogs of the Victorian imagination.


Keith Seatman said...

Having now read pt 1 and pt 2 I am thinking of getting the book from the British Library. 2 absolutly fantastic posts.

Jez Winship said...

Thanks Keith. MR James, Shirley Jackson, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Angela Carter and Mervyn Peake to come. It was a really wonderful (and terrible!) exhibition.