Catherine Spooner, Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic. Reviewed by Diana Edelman.
University of North Georgia, Gainesville
In 1764, Horace Walpole famously described The Castle of Otranto as a “new species of romance,” a hybrid blend of “the ancient and the modern.” In addition to this hybridization of genres, the novel, Walpole claims, blends both the comic and the serious in a way that tends to “excite smiles.” In her latest work, Catherine Spooner demonstrates that an essential feature of twenty-first-century Gothic is this tendency to “excite smiles”: “There are a growing number of Gothic texts that are distinctly celebratory in tone, which hybridize Gothic with comedy or romance, or which convert Gothic to lifestyle. Contemporary Gothic can increasingly be described as comic, romantic, celebratory, gleeful, whimsical or even joyous” (p. 3).
While the history of Gothic criticism has tended to focus on the ways the Gothic evokes the darker side of human nature and human history, Spooner uncovers the “celebratory” nature of Gothic beyond camp and parody (although certainly including both). Spooner draws on a variety of sources and methodologies, from sociological studies of Goth subculture and tourism to academic definitions of camp, to reveal what exactly Gothic is doing in these celebratory moments. One of the goals of the study is to push back against the tendency of scholarship to create a dominant narrative of the Gothic that downplays and dismisses, not surprisingly, the works of popular culture often geared towards women and young girls. As we all know, the Gothic was dismissed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as “sickly and stupid” (thanks, Wordsworth!) and as merely the “trash” of women’s fiction. Gothic criticism has elevated the genre to canonical status within the academy, but in doing so, as Spooner rightly argues, it has ignored the work of “marginalized audiences” (p. 9).
The range of sources that Spooner uses to uncover this strand of Gothic and the work it’s doing in the twenty-first century is as impressive as the primary texts that she explores throughout the book. She takes us first to Gothic as a lifestyle as evidenced in interior design and other lifestyle television shows (including a Gothic cruise) in chapter one, which explores the conflict between the idea of a subculture and its very clear connection to consumer culture. Chapter two reviews the influence of filmmaker Tim Burton’s aesthetics on post-millennial Gothic and argues that his work places an emphasis on the visual over content and even argues, delightfully, that stripes and spirals have taken on a Gothic whimsy. Chapter three treats the Gothic-influenced fashion at shops like H&M and Marks & Spencer, while chapter four addresses the ways in which monsters, particularly vampires, have shifted from evil “other” to assimilated participants in mainstream culture, a shift that reflects the conflicting desires of Goth subculture to offer an alternative lifestyle while at the same time seeking acceptance. Chapter five turns to images of teenage girls in Gothic commodities such as dolls, comics, and young adult fiction to explore the ways in which the Gothic girl is a “means of revising the conventional romance” (p. 26). In chapter six, Spooner uses theories of comedy and camp to unpack the shift from monsters as frightening outsiders to sympathetic creatures who share bonds of friendship. Just as chapter five explored Goth girls, chapter seven turns to the male Goth in makeover shows and sitcoms demonstrating that, while “girl goths” are revising the traditional romance, male Goths are transforming the image of the male Goth as feminized to male Goth as hero. Finally, chapter eight takes us to Goth Weekend in Whitby, England where two elements of happy Gothic converge—“mainstream leisure and alternative pleasure” (p. 27). In this space, tourists encounter the slippage between the “high” Gothic Whitby Abbey and the “low” Gothic of mass-produced chocolate coffins. Through each of these chapters, Spooner uncovers the roots of these post-millennial manifestations of Gothic while at the same time exploring their implications for gender and genre, masterfully arguing that celebration is a key element of the genre in its current manifestation.
While the celebratory, comic, and whimsical are clearly a part of the texts Spooner explores, there is an undercurrent of trauma and tragedy that frames part of her argument. Spooner links the emergence of Goth in the mainstream to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, when the term “Goth” became associated with the two young shooters and their “dark” ideas and violent impulses. At this moment in history, she argues, Goths had to “justify” themselves to the world in ways they had not before. Goths were dragged into the mainstream but successfully demonstrated that their impulses are more about creativity and individuality than about violence and rebellion. The success of their efforts becomes clear in the sympathetic response to Sophie Lancaster, a teenage Goth who was murdered in 2007. At that point, eight years after Columbine, the narrative had shifted from Goths as violent to Goths as tolerant and creative. I am not suggesting that these two historical links take away from Spooner’s argument regarding the celebratory (they don’t); they are merely part of the socio-cultural landscape that helps Spooner uncover why and how happy Gothic emerged as it did.
The most important work that Spooner does here (besides linking Hello Kitty to the Gothic) is revising what we think about when we think about Gothic. Instead of seeing Gothic as a fixed thing (which nobody thus far has been able to pin down anyway), she approaches the material from the standpoint of what Gothic does. In this way, she has successfully done what she set out to do: “It certainly will not detach these narratives from the culture that produced them, or indeed cultural anxieties where they are appropriate, but neither will it assume that Gothic always and only responds to anxiety or that Gothic has no other stories to tell” (p. 17).
While Gothic continues to tell these “other stories,” I will be booking my trip to Goth Weekend in Whitby.