Say whatever else you will about goths: they’re tenacious bastards. For a movement that should’ve died some time around 1984/85, it’s managed to ride out the storms of critical mockery, changing fashions, and bad makeup jobs and bad hair to continue to flourish, albeit in somewhat subterranean fashion. If nothing else that’s more than can be said for the New Romantics, with whom the early goth scene was basically contemporaneous. Hell, these days even the bands in the gothic scene aren’t automatically afraid of being associated with it.
Goth is a harder thing to pin down than people perhaps think. It’s said that if you ask a hundred goths what they think Goth is you’ll get 76 different answers: 25 of them will each give a different answer and the other 75 will just say they don’t know. There have been previous attempts, most notably the various books by Mick Mercer, at books on this nebulous thing called Goth, though not many; and what media coverage it does attract tends to be pretty poor in quality (cf. some of the press stuff surrounding the Columbine shooting).
Gavin Baddeley has now provided what may well be pretty much the definitive Goth book, Goth chic : a connoisseur’s guide to dark culture. It doesn’t offer a simple, reductionist answer as to what does or doesn’t constitute Goth, and takes a very broad view of the subject. One thing is certain, though; if you do read this book, you should come away from it convinced that it is not simply about suicidally depressed teens who only wear black clothes and listen to The Cure a lot. (If you don’t, may I respectfully suggest that is not the fault of Baddeley.)
Baddeley’s survey of everything gothic is broadly historical, starting properly with the original Gothic movement in the mid-1700s. This Gothic movement (and the nascent Romantic movement of roughly the same period) was something of a reaction to the prevailing ideas of the Age of Enlightement in the 18th century, a deliberate adopting of what was considered to be bad taste in rebellion against the endless evident tastefulness and rationality of the times. Much as the current Goth scene seems to be most closely associated with music, the 18th century Gothic movement was a mainly literary one, most notably expressed in the works of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Matthew Lewis and Charles Maturin.
The original Gothic novel was a bit of a dead duck after about 1825 or so, though that dark strain remained present in the weird literature of the 19th century and beyond. This tendency manifested itself in such figures as J.S. LeFanu, Edgar Allan Poe, and culminated at the end of the 1800s in that gothic archetype, Dracula. The whole “vampiric” subset of modern Goth begins with that book. In the 1900s, the gothic strain would find itself working out in the writings of M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker and Anne Rice, among numerous others. At the same time, gothic forms continued to flourish in historically less reputable but populist ways, like the chapbooks and serials of the 19th century, the pulps of the 1900s, and comic books.
Gothic manifestations also began to crop up in the new 20th century medium of cinema. It was the German cinema of the 1910s that provided the earliest examples of same (films like The student of Prague, 1913, or The cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1919), and American cinema initially proved somewhat resistant. The release of Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931 marked the real beginnings of the American horror film. Baddeley devotes no fewer than three chapters to the various cinematic and televisual manifestations of the gothic tendency, including the output of Hammer Films, Tim Burton, The Addams Family, Dark Shadows and The X-Files.
As I’ve noted, though, modern Goth is most closely associated with a fashion style and form of music. The longest chapter in Goth chic is the first one on Gothic music; Baddeley admirably continues to take the broad view and begins with such 19th century manifestations of gothic as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, making an interesting case for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as perhaps the progenitor of gothic in popular music.
Baddeley then takes into consideration the likes of the Velvet Underground, Roky Erickson, The Doors, Alice Cooper and David Bowie before coming at last to the musical origins of the modern Goth scene out of the ruins of 1970s punk. Tracing the emergence of this scene and its gradual differentiation from the rest of the post-punk scene in general, Baddeley ends the chapter with Goth being identified, puffed up, and finally (in the mid-1980s) declared fair game for attacks by the British music press that helped spawn it.
That’s not the end of the story, of course, and Baddeley does a good job of then bringing us up to date with where Goth is at these days. Suffice to say that if you didn’t have much knowledge of the workings of Goth prior to reading this book, you should’ve gained some useful insights once you’ve finished with it. Add to that the fact that the book is well-illustrated throughout in black and white and you’ve got a winner.
I was a big fan of Gavin Baddeley’s previous book Lucifer rising, so had high hopes for this one when I first heard of it. Having finally been able to track a copy down, I’m happy to say those hopes and expectations were essentially met.