Review: Terror and Wonder at the British Library

As someone who once spent six months looking forward to a Marilyn Manson concert, I was delighted when the British Library announced their new exhibition: Terror and Wonder, about the origins of the gothic imagination. The exhibition is part of a bigger project which also involves the BBC and has, so far, led to delightful documentaries on the development of an artistic style which is instantly recognizable.

It did not disappoint. The structure is largely chronological, so the first rooms are devoted to early gothic(-ish) works of art. There are – not surprisingly – manuscripts, but also paintings and models of sadly-collapsed cathedral-like manors. After this, the narrative jumps forward to the big novels, displaying the original manuscript of Frankenstein but also contextualizing it by mentioning Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a gothic parody. In fact, I quite enjoyed the unusual connections the exhibition made. Charlotte Bronte’s work has been read as gothic in the past, but the connection between the gothic and Charles Dickens was new for me. The final rooms show a delightful mashup of Hammer film aesthetics, Christopher Lee, pulp fiction, and Hitchcock movie posters. All in all, a great overview of a movement which still inspires artists, as the pictures taken at the Whitby Gothic Festival show.

Some reviews I read before going complained that the exhibition was too mainstream and general. Well, as the British Library is a public institution I would be offended if they hadn’t made an effort to make the exhibition appealing to the general public. Of course, due to space restrictions not everyone’s tastes are catered for. Personally I missed references to writers such as Anne Rice – even though I don’t particularly like her work, her influence on the genre is hard to deny. Then again, there were displays on Stephen King and Alexander McQueen, so all in all there are very little reasons to be grumpy.

Is this exhibition worth a visit? Yes, if you’re even remotely interested in the gothic imagination. This exhibition offers something for everyone and caters for hardcore bookfetishists and eyeliner-wearing ghoullies alike. I left the building with many books added to my perpetually growing reading list. Once I’ll finally get to reading The Monk. Hopefully. Once I’ve finished Journey to the End of the Night, and survived it.

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