John C. Tibbetts’s ‘The Gothic Imagination,’ reviewed by Michael Dirda
By Michael Dirda,
The cover of “The Gothic Imagination” depicts a futuristic city threatened by a glowering satanic figure framed against a starry night sky. While John C. Tibbetts may teach film at the University of Kansas and write often about classical music and theater, that painting — and several drawings scattered throughout his book — make clear that he’s also a talented artist. Still, the key to this volume of “Conversations on Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction in the Media” can actually be found in Tibbetts’s middle initial, C.
It stands for Carter.
Tibbetts’s father was an early science fiction fan who named his son after Edgar Rice Burroughs’s second great hero, John Carter of Mars. (The first, of course, is Tarzan, Lord Greystoke.) Unlike many sons, Tibbetts embraced his destiny and became a serious reader and collector of fantasy and sci-fi. The questions he asks in these far-ranging interviews — with H.P. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, artists Maurice Sendak and Gahan Wilson, 1950s television actor Frankie Thomas (star of “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet”), the cast of “Star Trek,” and a half-dozen important novelists from Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury to Kim Stanley Robinson — reveal a deep knowledge of what fans call, quite simply, “the field.”
The book opens with a preface by Richard Holmes, in which the noted biographer and historian of the Romantic era attempts to define the Gothic imagination. Holmes points to “a quite old-fashioned notion: the inexhaustible wonder of the universe.” A few pages later Tibbetts adds that the writers of fairy tales, horror stories, science fictional prophecies and steampunk novels focus on “terror and wonder” rather than “sentimental love and reason.” Theirs, he adds, is a transgressive imagination. Later still, Harold Schechter, an authority on the American Gothic, reminds us that “we thrive on the kinds of entertainments folklorists call ‘wondertales’: beguiling, gripping, swiftly paced stories that trigger a very basic and powerful emotional response in the audience: astonishment or terror, laughter or tears, suspense or erotic arousal.” He insists that we all have a hunger for “violent spectacle, to feed that primitive part of ourselves that William James called ‘the carnivore within.’ ”
Even more simply, Stephen King says, “I just want to make commonplace things as unsettling as possible.” The English writer Ramsey Campbell notes that in his own horror stories he’s actually writing about the decline of Britain, “about the frustration, meaningless, helplessness of seeing your environment change overnight around you.” The dapper Peter Straub reveals that John Ashbery’s “The Tennis Court Oath” inspired his own dark fiction: “That book made it possible for me to write. What staggered me about it and what really did change my life was that those poems seemed to make no sense at all! Yet, they were perfect. They had a sort of power and authenticity and rightness that was inexplicable to any of the means or techniques that I had been taught. . . . Well, my books are like these poems.”
By contrast, when Suzy McKee Charnas decided to write about vampires, she realized that she loathed the creature’s typically Byronic persona. So in her neglected classic “The Vampire Tapestry,” Dr. Edward L. Weyland is “not a Romantic hero, not a guy who’s lonely out there in eternity all by himself,” but is instead “a predator, a tiger, a sabre-toothed tiger — and we are the prey.” According to novelist and historian of science fiction Brian Aldiss, movie director Stanley Kubrick once asked him, “What do people do who don’t make films or write science fiction?” On the basis of “Dr. Strangelove,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Aldiss concludes that Kubrick was, in fact, “the great sf writer of the age.”
Such insights and anecdotes mingle throughout “The Gothic Imagination.” Bob Kane, creator of the DC Comics superhero Batman, recalls that he was inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci design for man-powered flight using bat wings and by his childhood memories of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as Zorro, “the most swashbuckling dare devil I’ve ever seen in my life.” Wilson Tucker, who invented the term “space opera” to describe intergalactic adventure fiction, observes that his own work tends to be people-focused, while some science fiction writers clearly prefer “concept stories.” If Arthur C. Clarke, he says, “writes about a space elevator going from the earth to the moon, his hero is really an elevator.” Frederik Pohl, now in his 90s, reveals how he collaborated with Cyril Kornbluth on their classic sci-fi satire “The Space Merchants” (1953), which focuses on Madison Avenue’s attempt to sell people on the idea of moving to inhospitable Venus. As Pohl wryly declares, “all fiction is lying, but advertising is pernicious lying.”
“The Gothic Imagination” isn’t just about writing, however. Art historian Tim Mitchell points us to Caspar David Friedrich, whose haunting landscapes and solitary figures disclose “a twilight world, vaguely existing between light and darkness.” (Later, Chris Van Allsburg mentions that Friedrich “was on my mind when I did ‘The Polar Express.’ ”) Albert Boime similarly considers the horrific art of Henry Fuseli (“The Nightmare”), Gericault’s depiction of the insane as well as his gruesome “Raft of the Medusa,” and the nightmarish late paintings of Goya, such as “Witches’ Sabbath” and “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
As an authority on both the classical repertory and the ghost story, Jack Sullivan lists his favorite examples of spooky music, from Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” to Scriabin’s late piano sonatas (No. 9 is called “Black Mass”) to Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho.” Sullivan notes that “the apocalyptic quality” of so much early 20th-century art and music — “the sense of an ominous building of un-containable forces about to explode” and the constant probing of “the darker recesses of the psyche” — was “symptomatic of a cultural malaise that many historians view as a premonition of the Great War, and that continued long after it.”
Given the plenty on offer in “The Gothic Imagination,” all but the most severe critics are likely to be forgiving of the book’s numerous typos and transcription errors. After all, here Joe Mugnaini talks about his unforgettable illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s early fiction; Douglas Greene, biographer of John Dickson Carr, theorizes about the psychological appeal of the locked-room mystery or miracle crime; Greg Bear and Gregory Benford argue the nature of science fiction; and anthropologist Cynthia Miller traces the social and artistic implications of steampunk. Memorably defined by James P. Blaylock as “Technofantasy in a neo-Victorian Retrofuture,” steampunk is for Miller nothing less than magic, “breathtaking and terrifying at the same time,” whether paired with “science fiction, melodrama, or even the Western.”
A sense of magic, “breathtaking and terrifying at the same time” — isn’t this yet another way of characterizing “the Gothic imagination” as well as much of the strongest fiction and cinema of our time?
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” has just been published.
THE GOTHIC IMAGINATION Conversations on Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction in the Media By John C. Tibbetts Palgrave/Macmillan. 422 pp. Paperback, $27