Terror and Wonder : The Gothic Imagination

Terror and Wonder at the British Library

I’m happy to admit that I’m not really one for Halloween. I can never be bothered with fancy dress, and trick or treating just doesn’t appeal, so I’ve largely tended to just ignore it, and treat the 31st October as I would any other day. This year I have at least made the concession of starting an occult/horror book in order to get a little bit in the spirit of things, but wait…there’s more. What better way for a Halloween miser to spend a (bizarrely sunny) Halloween afternoon than by visiting the British Library and its Terror and Wonder : The Gothic Imagination exhibition?! Huzzah! At last, something to do on Halloween that I can sink my teeth into! Ahem…sorry.

All terrible attempts at puns aside, the latest paid exhibition at the British Library looks at the history of the Gothic tradition, beginning with the earliest known work of Gothic fiction – The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. I’m not terribly well-read within this particular genre, my knowledge reaching as far as Dracula, Interview with the Vampire and a handful of other supernatural novels, so I had never really given much thought to the history of Gothic fiction. The chance to learn a little about its roots and what prompted Walpole and his contemporaries to begin writing these stories, and then to see its progression over time, is well worth taking. From Walpole you move through some of his contemporaries and then on to Austen, Dickens, Poe, and a whole range of authors who, some more obviously than others, were influenced by and carried on the development of this genre. It’s a little unsettling to be browsing through Gothic texts and creepy paintings while accompanied by shrieks and screams from various short films being played, but the atmosphere is certainly appropriate.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

The exhibition takes in music, film and art as well as literature, and while I’m not particularly a fan of Goth music, and I’m normally too scared to watch many horror films, it’s worth having these included as they’re valid and valuable parts of the journey that the Gothic has taken from that first novel, published 250 years ago. There are some amazing items on display, from first and second editions of The Castle of Otranto to creepily illustrated William Blake poems, examples of the wonderful ‘Northanger Horrid Novels’, a sample vampire-slaying kit and a puppet from Wallace and Gromit’s The Curse of the Were Rabbit. While I begrudgingly (teeth-grittingly) accepted the inclusion of one of the Twilight books, I was delighted to see references to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and was blown away by an Ian Miller drawing of Gormenghast that was about the most terrifyingly perfect depiction I’ve come across yet.

Gormenghast illustrated by Ian Miller

Gormenghast illustrated by Ian Miller

So if you have £10 to spare, I would absolutely recommend you take a trip to the British Library and take in this exhibition. If, like me, you’re not so clued up on the Gothic tradition, then you’re bound to learn lots and leave with a desire to get stuck in reading. I’ve already got a copy of The Castle of Otranto, and I’m seriously considering digging out my copies of the Gormenghast trilogy. If you’re already a big fan then I would imagine you’ll walk round with a smile on your face at the little gems on display, and simply enjoy it as a celebration of the Gothic. Either way, definitely worthwhile. If you still need convincing, have a look at the video trailer the British Library have made – genius.

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