Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin

By Richard Davenport-Hines

North Point. 438 pp. $35

It's not often that one discovers an author with a real flair for chapter epigraphs. This may seem a minor talent, but the apt and unexpected quotations that Richard Davenport-Hines scatters through his study of the Gothic sensibility illuminate his more lackadaisical pages like tapers in a castle dungeon. By the third chapter of this rambling, sometimes labored volume, I found myself actively looking forward to such observations as this one from Paul Valery: "A leader is a man who needs others." Or this aphorism from Chamfort: "All passions exaggerate: it is only because they exaggerate that they are passions." Even William Burroughs provides a typically haunting and disturbing apercu: "The face of evil is always the face of total need."

In fact, Davenport-Hines resolutely explores the implications of all these cunning insights -- for instance, he examines in some detail the master-slave relationship, noting how the Gothic sensibility frequently demonstrates the aristocrat's absolute, if often unsuspected, dependence on his servants -- but as the pages go slowly by, one yearns for a clearer, more definitely stated thesis to the book and a sprightlier prose style from its author. Gothic aspires to be one of those popular summas of the kind Edmund Wilson used to write, but lacks the zestful vitality of, say, To the Finland Station, the American critic's famous study of 19th-century socialism. Instead one is here instructed, all too pedantically, that 18th-century country estates were "power houses" meant to impress the tenants; that aesthetic decisions almost always conceal some deep political purpose ("Vampires provide a metaphor for capital accumulation . . . The Draculan monopolist personifies the fears of late nineteenth-century capitalism: He subordinates his existence to the constant, repetitive demands of accumulation and reinvestment"); and that the Gothic typically verges on the comic or even soap operatic.

These are all useful data, but shouldn't a book about "excess, horror, evil and ruin" be a little more provocative, even a bit . . . slutty? Shouldn't it titillate, horrify, seduce and disorient? Certainly, Davenport-Hines's subtitle would suggest such 3-D effects, but only in the last chapters -- on contemporary horror writer Poppy Z. Brite, filmmaker David Lynch, singer-songwriter Robert Smith of the Cure, and artists such as the Chapman brothers -- does one feel the quickened rush of authorial excitement. In the several hundred pages previous we are, alas, dutifully marched past a half-dozen architectural follies from Strawberry Hill to Charleville Forest (all pretty boring, in my view); offered abbreviated accounts of figures as various (and familiar) as Sade, Goya, Piranesi, Fuseli, Mary Shelley, Poe, Stoker and Stevenson; and periodically treated to the usual commonplaces about the Gothic, including its penchant for "dark and gloomy caves, subterranean labyrinths, the despair of incarceration."

To be fair, readers utterly new to this material will find Gothic a competent survey, but anyone already familiar with this subgenre of the romantic sensibility will be troubled by missed opportunities: In his passing mention of James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner -- surely the mostly deeply disturbing and uncanny of Gothic narratives -- Davenport-Hines fails to note that the entire novel is about one of his central themes, spiritual duality. Little details are sometimes gotten wrong: In Henry James's "The Jolly Corner" -- contrary to the one-sentence account given here -- the narrator really does meet his doppelganger, not an evil stranger but the self he might have become. Some of Davenport-Hines's critical lacunae are perplexing: Why no mention of John Berryman's classic interpretation of M.G. Lewis's The Monk? Or of Nabokov's famous lecture on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Surely, an expert on the Gothic could be a little more surprising, too: The chapter on vampires, for instance, might have considered not only Le Fanu's lesbian "Carmilla" and Stoker's capitalist Dracula but also their contemporary Vernon Lee's just as powerful and apposite text "Amour Dure," about a vampiric personality who reaches out from the dead past. Not least, how can a history of the Gothic sensibility conclude without discussing Angela Carter? Or, but for an epigraph, William Burroughs? Why choose Brite and Patrick McGrath and not Tanith Lee or Robert Aickman?

In general, these seeming oversights may result from the book's lack of clear definition. How does the Gothic differ from the Romantic, the decadent and the horrific? You'd be hard-put to answer. In his prologue Davenport-Hines writes, "I explore the fascination with twisted and punished desires, barbarity, caprice, base terrors and vicious life which has underlain the revival of gothic since the eighteenth century." He goes on to point to the Gothic taste for "irrationalism, pessimism and latterly anti-humanism," speaks of decay, ruins and mutilation, mentions the genre's inclination toward theatricality, indicates the prominence of inversion, "where the subordinate characters and submissive people attain a power which the powerful never realize." Given these criteria, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and pornographer Pauline Reage should arguably be ranked as central figures of 20th-century Gothic, yet they're never mentioned at all.

Sigh. This ought to have been an utterly enthralling book, a volume to place next to Mario Praz's The Romantic Agony, that classic (if occasionally over-emphatic) study of the erotic sensibility in the 19th century. Instead, Gothic presents itself as a thing of shreds and patches. There is, for example, a good opening chapter on the sublime and Vesuvian terrors of Salvator Rosa's paintings, a suggestion that Goya might have been indirectly influenced by Sade, an insightful linking of Poe's "House of Usher" with E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Entail," and a delightful observation about 18th-century garden designer William Kent, who instigated "one of the great defining acts in the revival of gothic: the decision, when improving the grounds of Kensington Palace, to plant a dead tree." At one point, Davenport-Hines also notes that Darth Vader recalls the sinister Italianate villains of Ann Radcliffe; at another, when discussing Isak Dinesen's "The Monkey," he suggests that Seven Gothic Tales should be considered the genre's modern masterpiece. These seem spot-on, but one would welcome a little elaboration. Similarly, we are reminded, without much critical ado, that three of the major Gothic texts were written by very young authors at the dawn of their careers: Mary Shelley was 19 when she started Frankenstein, while Lewis and William Beckford were 21 when they wrote The Monk and Vathek, respectively. By implication, the Gothic sensibility may be an aspect of youthful angst and rebelliousness.

Throughout these 400 pages Davenport-Hines seeks to give a political dimension to his chosen genre, speaking of "usurpation" as the original Gothic subject, commenting on the political naivete of the apparent reconciliation of capitalist and worker at the end of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," and asserting that sex, for the Goth, is "preferable not as repetitive acts of righteous marital union . . . but as theatrical, playful, arbitrary, and impious" (a quartet of neatly chosen adjectives). Those who object to such horrific works as the Chapman brothers' tableau of mutilated corpses, "Great Deeds Against the Dead," says Davenport-Hines, "confuse art, which exists to make people uncomfortable and to spur them to new thinking, with entertainment, which is meant to gratify, relax and confirm preconceptions of decorum, prettiness or good citizenship." This is a hard principle, well expressed, and one with which I agree -- but it comes late in this vexing and sometimes stimulating book. It seems to extend the Gothic into all forms of counter-cultural, "epater le bourgeois" activity, from surrealism to punk rock to performance art.

Which may be Richard Davenport-Hines's goal. Certainly, Gothic is a loose and baggy monster of a book, a Frankensteinian text made out of all kinds of graveyard bits and pieces, and that may be enough for many readers. But others will finish the last page still hungering for more, and more than slightly unsatisfied, like Dracula after a long day in the coffin.

Michael Dirda's Internet address is

CAPTION: An unattributed 16th-century German painting of Vlad the Impaler