The Gothic, Romanticism’s gritty older sibling, has flourished in myriad permutations since the eighteenth century. In Gothicka, Victoria Nelson identifies the revolutionary turn it has taken in the twenty-first. Today’s Gothic has fashioned its monsters into heroes and its devils into angels. It is actively reviving supernaturalism in popular culture, not as an evil dimension divorced from ordinary human existence but as part of our daily lives.
To explain this millennial shift away from the traditionally dark Protestant post-Enlightenment Gothic, Nelson studies the complex arena of contemporary Gothic subgenres that take the form of novels, films, and graphic novels. She considers the work of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer, graphic novelists Mike Mignola and Garth Ennis, Christian writer William P. Young (author of The Shack), and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. She considers twentieth-century Gothic masters H. P. Lovecraft, Anne Rice, and Stephen King in light of both their immediate ancestors in the eighteenth century and the original Gothic—the late medieval period from which Horace Walpole and his successors drew their inspiration.
Fictions such as the Twilight and Left Behind series do more than follow the conventions of the classic Gothic novel. They are radically reviving and reinventing the transcendental worldview that informed the West’s premodern era. As Jesus becomes mortal in The Da Vinci Code and the child Ofelia becomes a goddess in Pan’s Labyrinth, Nelson argues that this unprecedented mainstreaming of a spiritually driven supernaturalism is a harbinger of what a post-Christian religion in America might look like.
[A] spirited examination of the role of pulp Gothic fiction in contemporary culture… Nelson’s overview of the origins of the Gothic genre and its later ramification into sub-genres such as the ghost story, vampire tale, esoteric thriller and post-apocalyptic survival narrative is lively and sharp. She is equally at home discussing high and low art, and is at her most persuasive when tracing the literary evolution of specific motifs.
In Gothicka, [Nelson] shows how contemporary films, video games, graphic novels and television series have reinvented and transformed the Catholic iconography of the late medieval period and how the Gothic has even offered ‘a vehicle for developing the frameworks of new religious movements.’
Nelson knows her turf and, unlike many academics who dine below the salt, she gives the impression of being genuinely affectionate towards her disreputable subject matter. She is sometimes thought-provoking and has clearly read more proper historians and solid thinkers than most pop-culture pundits.
Gothicka is a well-articulated, compelling argument towards a new understanding of the Gothic as a spiritual portal.
A fun, well-written and original read that offers flashes of insight.
With this brilliant encyclopedic study of gothic literature, film, and culture, Nelson continues the exploration of the gothic she began in The Secret Life of Puppets. Although (as she states) she does not try to survey, or position herself within, the area of gothic scholarship, her scholarship is solid, referencing major scholars such as Fred Botting. This is not dry, difficult reading; the book can be enjoyed by anyone interested in the gothic, including aspects of it that have not been extensively explored. Nelson focuses mainly on 21st-century examples, while providing an excellent background of earlier works and connecting them to contemporary works in unusual ways. In addition to cultural crazes such as Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and Dan Brown’s novels, she includes chapters on gothic performance art such as the Christian ‘Hell House,’ which she connects to the medieval European mystery plays. Including extended discussions of Guillermo del Toro’s films, William Young’s unusual Christian novel The Shack, and new interpretations of Lovecraft and his influence, the book provides a refreshing exploration of a subject that has in recent years tended to be overdone.
This highbrow yet accessible analysis of a genre dedicated to ‘outrageousness’ and ‘lowbrow ways’ will appeal to history, literature, and pop culture buffs in addition to studious devotees of the domain.
This is an admirable, strong, and original book, a worthy sequel to The Secret Life of Puppets. Nelson’s prose is clear and restrained, very winning and illuminating of the dark corners in 21st-century America and beyond in a stricken world. I can think of no rival works this substantial.
Where else can Vijay Mishra’s The Gothic Sublime trade shadows with Stephenie Meyer’s vampires and Guillermo del Toro’s grotesqueries except in the mysterium tremendum of Nelson’s astounding Gothicka? A book of delirious erudition that establishes the Gothic at the heart of our civilization and then proceeds to trace in our vampires, our saviors, our zombies, our medieval conspiracies, our superheroes and our monsters how the contemporary Gothic is shedding the dark supernaturalism of its origins, a brightening that not only reveals our present obsessions but also seems to portend the dawning of a new kind of post-Christian spirituality. Provocative, forward-looking and masterful.
There are other books in the field of religion and popular culture, but none really do what Nelson does, that is, point out that strictly secular, Marxist, materialist, or psychological readings will no longer do. This is the real genius or daemon of this book. Nelson’s voice is without peer in this domain—she is carving out a most unique and most brave stance.
Gothicka is a spirited and illuminating successor to Nelson’s highly original previous study, The Secret Life of Puppets. It picks up on many of the lines of thought in Puppets and applies them to opening up some of the most successful books and films of the last three decades, works which, while being read by millions, have not received much critical or scholarly attention. Nelson is preeminent in her knowledge of this field where the study of contemporary religion fuses with mass media and bestseller culture, and Gothicka is a terrific, original, eye-opening, and entertaining work.
- 2012, Winner of the PROSE Awards
- Harvard University Press
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