Fred Botting and Catherine Spooner (eds), Monstrous Media/Spectral Subjects: Imaging Gothic from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2017) 192 pp. £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8977-0
Fred Botting and Catherine Spooner’s edited collection Monstrous Media/Spectral Subjects: Imaging Gothic from the Nineteenth Century to the Present is the latest installment of Manchester University Press’s International Gothic series. One of the most promising qualities of this series is its expressed purpose of publishing scholarship covering 'the ever-expanding range of international "Gothic" fictions from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century' (vii). The international, interdisciplinary, transtemporal nature of the International Gothic series in general and Monstrous Media/Spectral Subjects, more specifically, offers scholars and students alike a more complex, nuanced understanding of the impact the Gothic mode has made across the often restrictive boundaries of country, art form, and time period.
The book is organized into three parts: 'Between Text and Image', 'Sounding Spectres', and 'Moving Media'. While each of the sections centers on studying the use of the Gothic mode as focused through a different medium, they share a common goal of 'animat[ing] monstrous and spectral figures in order to explore emergent media from the magic lantern and the photograph in the nineteenth century to the digital forms of the twenty-first' (6). From early twentieth-century poet Wilfred Owen’s undead World War I soldiers to the human bodies rendered into data in the Doctor Who episode 'Silence in the Library', Monstrous Media/Spectral Subjects interrogates the connections between visceral, metaphysical, and technological hauntings.
The first section, 'Between Text and Image', seems the most unified, topically and theoretically. The four essays in this part examine the developing image-based technologies of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries – like photographic negatives and the handheld video camera – in order to map their influences on a variety of fictional Gothic texts. Each chapter addresses the eye, the gaze, or visual media in ways that, when combined, contribute to a richer understanding of the Gothic’s dependence on images, regardless of the time or place in which a text is situated. Elisabeth Bronfen’s first chapter, entitled 'Gothic Wars – Media’s Lust: On the Cultural Afterlife of the War Dead', is notable for its sophisticated analysis of 'uncanny infestation[s]' (16), where the unclaimed bodies of foreigners, like the soldiers featured in Rupert Brooke’s poetry, decompose and recombine with the native soil, marking the grave as a technological site that can absorb and spread cultural contamination via the decay of physical remains. The third chapter, Paul Foster’s 'Kingdom of Shadows: Fin-de-siècle Gothic and Early Cinema', also seems particularly valuable for its reassessment of well-read Victorian texts The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Island of Dr Moreau, and Dracula as texts that incorporate and, in some ways, anticipate, early cinematic technology.
Entitled 'Sounding Spectres', the second part of Monstrous Media/Spectral Subjects seems an outlier in the collection. Containing only two essays, the section is described by the editors as 'explor[ing] the ways in which the monstrous properties of contemporary avant-garde popular music engage listeners in ways that are haunting and haunted' (8). Steen Christiansen and Dean Lockwood each contribute chapters that focus on examining Tom Waits’s album Bone Machine, and the music of the post-punk band Throbbing Gristle, respectively. While both essays engage with monstrosity, sound, and sonic technologies in thought-provoking ways, the 'Sounding Spectres' section as a whole seems rather anemic, especially when compared to the more robust first and third parts. Furthermore, Christiansen's interactions with the Gothic are quite tenuous, though Lockwood extensively applies the idea of a 'sonic gothic' (94) to Throbbing Gristle’s musical productions. On their own, the essays in this section have the potential to promote reconsiderations of monstrosity in music. However, situated as they are in the middle of Monstrous Media/Spectral Subjects, they are interruptive of the stronger connection between the first and third parts.
The final section, 'Moving Media', focuses heavily on Gothic engagements with media like ballet, film, and magic shows that rely heavily on performance. In this section, Dorothea Schuller’s '"Nineteenth Century (Up-to-Date) with a Vengeance": Vampirism, Victorianism, and Collage in Guy Maddin’s Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary' is a standout chapter for its nuanced analysis of Maddin’s ballet alongside its musical score while simultaneously linking the performance to silent film conventions and examining its aesthetic potential. For those interested in storytelling or performance magic, reading Jean-Francois Baillon’s 'Spectrality and the Deconstruction of the Cinema in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and Steven Millhauster’s Short Stories' and Nik Taylor and Stuart Nolan’s 'Performing Fabulous Monsters: Re-inventing the Gothic Personae in Bizarre Magick', alongside one another invites readers to explore the Gothic as a method of mediation between reality and illusion.
While scholars working at the intersections of various fields are likely to appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of this anthology, the issues addressed in each chapter vary drastically in their temporal, national, and textual scopes. The essays as a collection seem unlikely to be useful to any one researcher. Instead, it is likely that scholars interested in media and the Gothic will read a chapter or two in isolation from the rest of the book, an act that removes the articles from the broader contexts that seem to be the purpose of the International Gothic series. This, at times disparate, nature of the volume is felt most intensely with the anthology’s second part, 'Sounding Spectres'. While the essays contained in this section seem valuable in their own right, their contributions might have been better exhibited in a different volume with other, more similar pieces. Though Monstrous Media/Spectral Subjects impressively refuses to flatten its probings of the relationship between various media and the Gothic, it is also this wide-ranging breadth that undermines the volume’s cohesiveness. Still, the volume serves as an apt reminder of the productive potential that lies in continuing to reconsider artistic modes that rely on intimate connections with the past – like the Gothic – alongside emerging technological advances.
Natalie Monzyk, St Louis University