Terror and Wonder – a fantastic Gothic exhibition at the British Library

Day two of Childtastic’s Advent Special looks at the British Library’s wonderful ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ exhibition.

On a cold, dank December day, I made my way from Oxford to London to visit the exhibition. Talk about pathetic fallacy with the weather. I couldn’t have asked for better, unless of course I went at night in the middle of a thunderstorm.

I’d never been to the British Library before and was duly impressed by the outside alone. It’s a large building with a lovely courtyard (massive) with statues and benches and, amusingly, ping pong tables.

The exhibition is in the PACCAR Gallery, which had been made dark and mysterious to complement the displays, with gauzy black curtains draped between entrances and exits to different parts of the exhibition. A clip from an old Boris Karloff ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ movie played on a loop, emitting a high-pitched scream every couple of minutes or so. It was kind of like a literary haunted house ride at a fun fair.

Gothic origins

The exhibition starts by looking at the origins of the Gothic, particularly in literature. This is generally believed to stem back to Horace Walpole’s novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ but the curators recognised Walpole’s debt to his predecessors, such as William Shakespeare, whose plays often contained elements of the supernatural – particularly MacBeth and Hamlet.

Horace Walpole created his own ‘dream home’ by filling his mansion – Strawberry Hill – with Gothic artefacts and knick-knacks, as well as influencing its architecture and decor. It was so popular as a visitor attraction in his own time that he had to devise a ticketing system! You can still visit the house nowadays, and it’s on my to-do list.

What was the Gothic?

Before I go any further I should probably explain what the Gothic form meant to Walpole and his contemporaries. The Gothic was characterised by stories:

– with religious and ruined settings

– where much of the sinister action took place in darkness

– that were often set in castles in the countryside

– with innocent heroines, often pursued by evil characters

The exhibition defined the Gothic by saying that it had elements of the beautiful and the sublime. What I found fascinating was that ‘sublime’ here meant not perhaps what we think of nowadays – sort of a heavenly character – but instead relating to terror of the unknown. Therefore, there is an edge to its beauty, and not always a very reassuring one.

The Romantics were influenced by the Gothic and arguably one of the genre’s greatest examples came from this period. I am talking of course about Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ – a fantastic piece of writing, especially by someone so young and who had lived a relatively sheltered life. Alongside an early manuscript and various scribbles by Mary Shelley (how wonderful is that: seeing original documents!), were letters from Byron about his stay with Shelley and her husband and friends and their competition to write ghost stories.

The Victorian Gothic story

This was of particular interest to me, as I am writing a ghost story with a link to Victorian times. I was intrigued to read how Charles Dickens changed the norms of the Gothic genre somewhat in his stories, setting them within urban surroundings rather than the countryside and using the genre to socially critique the plight of the poor. The more I read about Dickens, the more I admire the man. ‘Bleak House’ was cited as a good example of Dickens’ use of Gothic elements in his writing, and it’s on my ‘to-read’ list.

The Gothic became rather lurid and sensationalist around this time, with the appearance of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ and stories such as Sweeney Todd in the public domain. Robert Louis Stevenson published his famous story of schizophrenia – ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ which also became a theatrical success. One of the actors portraying the role did such a good job that people believed he was Jack the Ripper, when the atrocious murders hit London. Alongside this, the exhibition had a genuine letter written by the Ripper on display, penned in red ink. In this, the Ripper promises to cut off the ears of his next victim – a couple of days later, a woman was found with an earlobe removed. Frighteningly, the Ripper spoke of how much he loved his job and mocked the stupidity of the police.

The Modern Goth

The Gothic genre is still going strong nowadays. Unfortunately I started running out of time at this point (one and a half hours in!) but saw familiar books on display – ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson (marvellously spooky book), Daphne du Maurier’s classic ‘Rebecca’, and Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ (on my ‘to-read’ list). It was incredible to see a prop from the film ‘The Shining’ there – a scrapbook of ‘The Overlook Hotel’, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s annotated copy of Stephen King’s script. The book and film still terrify me, even though I know the story inside out now.

Gothic children’s lit

By the time I reached this section, I was seriously running late for my train. Somewhat ironic, considering I specialise in children’s literature! But there was a helpful explanation of how the Gothic has featured in books for children, with a note that while parents might worry about their young ones reading scary tales, the main characters of Gothic stories are often children. The genre is tied with youth perhaps because books for children often contain themes of loss, sexuality and loneliness. In this way, the Gothic is quite similar to fairy tales by providing a literary mirror of the issues that most trouble children and young adults. Examples of authors who write in this genre include:

– Neil Gaiman (eg ‘Coraline’)

– Stephanie Meyers (‘Twilight’ series)

– Chris Riddell’s ‘Goth Girl’ stories

– Chris Priestley’s works

– Patrick Ness (‘A Monster Calls’)

You’ve got to love a bit of Goth!

I was very glad to have had the chance to visit this exhibition and urge anyone with an interest in Gothic literature to do the same. I’ve discovered so much from wandering around looking at the manuscripts, paintings, relics, photographs, props, video clips and posters and now feel more fired-up to write my story. The exhibition runs until Tuesday 20 January 2015, and you can find out more about it here. It is OK for children, but I would only really take someone older than nine as some of the content might be a little frightening for little ones.

Please let me know if you have visited the exhibition or plan to do so. I’d love to hear your views!



  1. I’d enjoy looking around this – not least because of Dave McKean’s amazing illustrations in the advertising – do they feature more in the actual exhibition?


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