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Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination opens today at the British Library


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Whether we consciously know it or not, the literary Gothic has been hugely influential to modern culture – and 250 years on from the seminal Gothic text, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, The British Library’s newest exhibition is set to take us on a journey from 1760s Twickenham to the 21st Century via Jack the Ripper, Henry James, Angela Carter - and yes, Twilight.

Starting in 1764 at eccentric Horace Walpole’s south London Villa, Strawberry Hill, the Gothic is a genre that thrives on secretive, haunted houses, monsters lurking in the shadows, corruptible young females in peril, and mysterious gentlemen swooping in to save them.

It’s informed much of our current popular culture (zombies are fairly popular at the moment, we’ve heard) that it’s impossible to ignore, even if you know nothing about the history behind it.

This exhibition has collected film clips, paintings, contemporary news clippings (including those reporting on the murders of Jack the Ripper), and even the manuscript of Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre.

There is a focus on British Gothic, purely because of space constraints – although there are mentions of the German tradition (“Northanger Horrids”, courtesy of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey) and there are some American aspects – most notably Edgar Allen Poe, too vital to the genre to be left out, as well as Henry James and Stephen King.

We can also view letters from Jack the Ripper, set against the background of Victorian macabre and degeneration, as depicted in Dorian Grey and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and My Hyde. Tying later Victorian literature into the real life horror of the Whitechapel murders if 1888, the exhibition illustrates how the Gothic reflected aspects of real life for the impoverished, especially in the East End.

And then there’s Twilight – a side note towards the end of the exhibition, alongside an explanation of how its marketing attempted to introduce its fans to Wuthering Heights through the guise that it’s “Bella and Edwards’ favourite book.”

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is a hugely interesting journey through the history of the Gothic, especially as it leads us almost right to the present day – closing the exhibition is a selection of photographs taken at 2014’s Whitby Goth Weekend (Whitby, of course, is the setting for Dracula.) If you don't know anything about the subject (or even if you do) the exhibition is a fascinating introduction, and is well worth your time.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination runs until 20th January 2015.

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