Review: The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic

“The Gothic hints at the obscure anomalies of its times during these modern periods even more than once it did in 1764-1765 and across the six decades afterward.”

Jerrold E. Hogle

The Cambridge Companion to the Modern GothicI’m always interested in sympathetic readings of texts that academia rarely takes seriously – especially the more modern SFF texts, which can be highly complex, intellectually dense creations full of interpretative potential. And I’m also always interested in treatments of the Gothic, another much-maligned mode whose horrific and imaginative potential forms a core part of my critical worldview.

Enter The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic.

The chronology at the front of the book was extremely promising, mentioning two of my very favouritest novels (Perdido Street Station and House of Leaves) as well as a host of other speculative fiction/Gothic authors (Junot Diaz, Patrick Ness, Isabel Allende), and I was really hoping for some kind of sustained engagement with novels I’d always felt were big and important but which I’d never really had a chance to discuss in any critical detail.

Perhaps inevitably, the Companion was a disappointment.

I probably should have anticipated this, having a certain amount of university-related experience with the Cambridge Companion series, which are really little more than primers delineating avenues for investigation. Most of the essays in the volume, then, read like lists of themes and works rather than detailed critical discussions. I liked Susan Chaplin’s essay on “Contemporary Gothic and the Law”, which felt like a really interesting slant on the growth of paranormal novels such as the Twilight series, but this was unfortunately an exception. Most of the essays in the book read like Katarzyna Ancuta’s essay on “Asian Gothic”, which states that

Gothic themes of madness, disease and degeneration, violence and cruelty, impossibility and loss, trauma, grief and mourning, otherness, the grotesque, inequality and oppression proliferate in Asian texts.

This list doesn’t, actually, tell us anything about Asian literature, or, indeed, about the Gothic. It’s a list of themes that we find in all literature, anywhere. And, yes, I do understand where she is going with this, sort of; but “sort of” doesn’t have a place in academic writing. Precision is important. Accuracy is important, especially when discussing the Gothic, which tends to the very opposite of precise and accurate. The harder something is to pin down, the more rigorous you have to be about pinning it down, and most of the essays in this book felt like they could do with at least one more round of revision, to clarify and hone and refine.

I’m convinced that it is actually possible to read the Gothic seriously, sensitively and academically, as critics like Adam Roberts do for SFF. Unfortunately, The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic only continues the current academic trend towards simplification and superficiality of the mode, cataloguing its features without engaging with what it is they represent – which is nothing less significant than the failure of representation. Academia’s inability to encounter that failure – which is, of course, also its own failure – head-on (I think I’m right in saying that David Punter’s Literature of Terror remains pretty much the only significant, mainstream work on the Gothic) is perhaps ironic, but it’s also deeply frustrating: complacency is a horrible, damaging place for any discipline to live.

I’m going to continue to look for well-written, rigorous books on the Gothic in the hope that academic publishers across the country realise how ridiculous they are being. This may be a fool’s hope, but I’m going to go on hoping it anyway.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic

  1. Thanks for the post. I almost picked up the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature this morning, but thought twice. After reading your review, I am glad I didn’t rush into that decision. I noticed you mentioned Literature of Terror. Do you have any other recommendations for academic studies on science fiction, fantasy, horror, gothic, weird, etc.?


    1. I have actually seen the Fantasy Literature one a couple of times and gone “oooh, that looks fun!” but I know that I will invariably be disappointed.

      Most of the good academic work on the Gothic/fantasy that I can think of is attached to other disciplines and isn’t the main focus. Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic is as far as I remember quite good on the Gothic, but is primarily a feminist work. Farah Mendlesohn’s Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition is also pretty good, but again that’s not really interested in fantasy as fantasy; it’s looking at it as children’s lit more than anything else. Adam Roberts’ collections Sibilant Fricative and Rave and Let Die are great on SFF, but are more reviews than academic studies.

      Hope some of these help 🙂 It would be great to know if you find anything else as well!


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