There’s something that compels a large number of people to consume material in the horror genre. Whether it takes the form of movies, books, or music, it is a genre widely spread. The gateway to adult likes seems to be in childhood. As a young person I read about how many adults wanted to “re-live their childhood” and at the time I wondered why. Now, as an adult of long standing, I think I can begin to see the answer. In any case, my gateway into appreciating horror was the Gothic. But what is gothic? Like many abstract concepts I know it when I see it, but what exactly is it? I’m not sure Nick Groom has fully answered that in The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction, but then the reason may well be in the “very short” part. Nevertheless, this is a remarkably broad treatment of the subject in not so many pages. It also helped me to understand my own fascination a bit better.
Groom begins with the historical Goths. Like the Celts, they are a people without a prodigious written record, so the imagination takes over. They valued freedom above all else, and that, it seems to me, is the beating heart of the Gothic. Recognized through its architecture, especially in notable cathedrals, the incipient Romanticism in the style made its way into works of fiction. In that realm it is remarkably widespread. Shakespeare participates in it. It becomes more fixed in later generations, but it still returns in popular format even today. At several points in this brief treatment I found myself wondering at the connections. Gothic is so huge and sprawling that it informs quite a lot of literature that isn’t even categorized with that title.
The story Groom sketches takes the Goths from their Germanic roots to their Anglo-Saxon influence in England. For English readers, the genre really takes shape in Britain before spreading out into the many forms in which it exists today, including several species of American Gothic. While the modern mind tends to turn toward the dark and melancholy aspects—and they are clearly there—the underlying theme of freedom comes through. Thus the separation of ways between “Classical” culture with its rules and strictures and symmetry and the Gothic with its mystery, wonder, and romance. By the end we’ve passed through Poe and on to modern horror. And through it all I catch glimpses of what drew me to all this in a childhood of longing for freedom.