Or, Bela Lugosi’s dead…
I mentioned in my NaNoWriMo Hacks post that I visited the Gothic exhibition at the British Library recently. I’ve got some pretty strong gothic credentials as the first short story I ever wrote (the result of a school project many moons ago) was a Poe tribute – though I didn’t actually take writing seriously until a fair few years later – and for a couple of years in the late 90s I played keyboards in a band called Purity of Decadence who looked like this:
The exhibition, called Terror and Wonder, is definitely a stop off if you’re into the weird or fantastical, and it’s worth picking up the accompanying book – it goes into a lot more detail than the captions could manage in their limited space – I’m going to have a very long reading list when I’ve worked my way through it.
Amongst the novels and images and artefacts was an object owned by Horace Walpole, the author of the first generally accepted gothic novel (The Castle of Otranto). A piece of polished obsidian, jet black in a darkened glass cabinet. It might have been quite easy to miss, there were certainly lots of other great images and objects tearing at the attention. Fortunately I was being thorough, because it turned out to be John Dee’s Aztec spirit mirror, one of his primary means for contacting the dead, either for his own ends or for Elizabeth I for whom he sometimes worked. I caught my reflection in it, but nothing more – I wonder how many visitors see something other than themselves in there?
What struck me about the exhibition was the way the idea of the gothic has changed as the centuries have rolled past, starting off with classic haunted medieval castles in novels that claimed to be translations of ancient manuscripts, through to burnt heathland, into fog-cloaked cities and even in to body mutation. What seems to be the linking factor is the idea of location and atmosphere, a pregnant sense of dread hanging over proceedings.
That’s something that I think I’m writing towards, but can definitely stand to bring further toward the front. The sense of location is quite important in the novels I’m working on – in A Calling-on Song it’s a calmingly familiar town whose charms start to rebel against the protagonist, and in Lord of the Dance it’s pretty much the opposite; a town which functions as a prison for my protagonist starts to reveal secrets that end up making the place alluring.
Or failing that I’ll stick an ancient Aztec spirit mirror owned by a long-dead mystic into my characters’ hands early on and see what happens. The exhibition is on for a while still, so pop along if you’re in London and let me know what you think.