Johan Höglund, The American Imperial Gothic: Popular Culture, Empire, Violence

Johan Höglund, The American Imperial Gothic: Popular Culture, Empire, Violence (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 224pp. Hb, PDF, ePUB £95.00. ISBN: 978-1-4094-4954-6

Reading Höglund’s The American Imperial Gothic in the current political climate is an uncomfortable experience. In his preface he states that ‘the border between good and evil is often absolute in the American imperial gothic. If you are not with the power of goodness, you are with the terrorists’ (p. ix). Following the 2015 debates in the British House of Commons regarding the decision to bomb areas of Syria in order to counteract ISIS, these words seem particularly pertinent. It is hard not to consider the cultural impact of American imperial gothic, as defined by Höglund, in not only Britain but across the globe. In order to argue that the American imperial gothic is present, and influences, a vast number of texts - including those which are not traditionally considered to be gothic - Höglund uses Catherine Spooner’s proposition that (the) gothic is a mode rather than a specific set of texts. This allows him to consider narratives that fit within other genres such as science fiction and also non-fiction texts such as George Bush’s speeches following 9/11 and during the subsequent invasion of Iraq.

In the introduction Höglund defines American imperial gothic using Patrick Brantlinger’s 1988 study The Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. He parallels the anxious British gothic at the end of the nineteenth century with the growing self-awareness of the American identity as a global democratic force and the concomitant American imperial gothic narratives. This model is then used through Höglund’s exploration which returns to British gothic authors such Bram Stoker, Richard Marsh, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling as a site of comparison to their American counterparts. The introduction acknowledges the difficulties of discussing imperialism in the context of an American empire. Höglund eloquently puts forth the argument that whilst America has not had an empire along the same lines as the British Empire, historians both past and present have acknowledged the imperialistic tendencies of the USA. The chapters then chronologically follow the impact of American imperial gothic, starting with the frontier gothic of Charles Brockden Brown and ending with post-apocalyptic texts such as AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010- ) and Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy (2010–2016) which have had increasing popularity in the new millennium.

The chapter ‘Cold War Horror’ follows the rise of monster in seminal and influential filmic texts such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), as well as in Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend (1954). In doing so it considers the USA’s growing self-awareness as a global power and its role in policing the behaviour of other countries. Following the devastation of World War 2, the USA was financially and politically more stable then much of Europe. Höglund suggests this led both to a sense of confidence and a growing fear of the potential threats to America’s position as a global power. The idea of being beset with danger is linked back to British gothic texts in particular Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Marsh’s The Beetle (1897). These novels enacted the fear of ‘reverse colonization’, to use Stephen D. Arata’s term, as a consequence of British complacency in light of their imperial power.  Following this, in Höglund’s words, during the 1950s ‘the war on the gothic Other [in America] takes on an Orwellian, permanent quality’ (p. 65) which went on to influence later forms of American imperial gothic. However, this section misses an interesting possibility regarding America’s imperialistic tendencies and cultural empire. With rise of teen culture during the 1950s and increasing influence of Hollywood in film-making, the USA was becoming a major exporter of cultural iconography. Though Höglund suggests why America can be considered to be imperialistic, connecting this to the cultural empire of America would have shown the larger impact of American imperial gothic worldwide.

Whilst the book charts the American imperial gothic from the arrival of the Puritans to the New World until the years following the invasion of Iraq, it is in the chapters that consider this mode from 9/11 onwards that are most engaging. Here Höglund’s argument is at its most persuasive and pertinent. Generally, these discussions are able to remain objective with only some moments where the political bias of the author comes through. Although the early chapters are important in explaining the key tropes of American imperial gothic and how it functions, the later chapters deserve more attention. They offer, without fully exploring it, the possibility of comparing the psychological impact of the millennium on American imperial gothic with fin-de-siècle British gothic novels. Höglund acknowledges in the preface the difficulty of covering all possible texts, however, it is during these later chapters that this limitation becomes more obvious. The texts discussed in the earlier chapters - Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799), captivity narratives, the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creature features of the 1950s, and slasher movies - have received more previous critical attention. Höglund’s engagement with the later texts is when The American Imperial Gothic is at its most original. Moreover, the analysis here is often more subtle. The historical events that influence popular culture have yet to be entirely simplified into easily understandable narratives despite, as Höglund shows, the many attempts of American imperial gothic to do so.

Using Van Helsing (2004), Höglund makes an important point regarding the gothic Other and the transformation of self. He argues that in order effectively to fight against the potential invasion, the American hero must take on the qualities of the ‘monster’ against whom they struggle. This allows them to temporarily transgress the moral standards of the West in the name of the greater good. It is in this chapter and those that follow, covering the militarisation of the gothic and torture narratives, that The American Imperial Gothic makes for the most discomfiting read. In an epoch defined by ongoing concerns regarding terrorism, justice and the need to prevent further humanitarian disasters, Höglund’s work serves as a stark reminder of the conservative and reactionary possibilities of the gothic. As the conclusion of this work suggests, the West is perhaps not as far removed from its imperialistic tendencies as it may hope.

Kaja Franck, University of Hertfordshire

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