University of Wales Press, 2013, pp. 260, pb.£24.99
New paradigms in literary criticism, like the aesthetic modes they critique, emerge from and engage with changing cultural conditions: where the 1970s and 80s focused on text, espousing psychoanalysis and deconstruction, and complicating the idea of history and histories, the Internet generation is adept at detecting uncanny correspondences and conspiracies inscribed below a surface normality. When there are so many available influences, so many texts, films, games, so much television, graphic novels, fanzines, ezines, blogs... detecting the interaction of the single genius with a canonical tradition makes less and less sense, and meaning emerges, not in linguistic allusion, but through the kaleidoscopic refractions of the ordinary. The shifting terrain of the gothic enables a new cultural understanding of both literary and visual texts, making them comprehensible to an eclectic younger generation. This is not a matter of simplification but - in the age of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks - one that responds to a heightened awareness of the role of multiply-sourced intertexts in the construction of meaning.
The cover image on Jane Aaron's new book Welsh Gothic highlights the inescapable frames of reference that situate every act of interpretation. At first glance it seems an outdoor scene of peasant celebration. A white clad woman hands a plate of cakes to a half starved man seated behind a trestle table. His huge hand stretches to accept the offering. The exchange is framed by a circle of standing viewers, one holding a large glass of wine. But other elements insinuate themselves into our vision, repressed initially by expectations of festivity. The colours are subdued, the woman's face is sad, the other faces fixed with a kind of avid curiosity on the recipient. On closer inspection only the seated man is eating and - since the wine is also being handed to him - drinking; then, as the glance falls on the stylised skull and crossbones on its surface, the table is revealed to be a coffin. Under the homely exchange lies something deeply disturbing that takes a double take to distinguish: I.Havell's 1914 watercolour The Funeral depicts a 'sin eater', someone who swallows the sins of the dead along with the funeral meats.
It is the perfect cover for a tour de force, one that both unearths and summarises a huge swathe of little known texts selected from almost 250 years, traces links between them across two languages and re-maps more familiar texts. Suddenly history itself is Gothicised. Aaron's introduction explains her turn to the gothic mode as rooted in contemporary students' unfamiliarity with a strictly chronological framework of literary history. Mapping, making sense of a range of disconnected texts has long been part of interpretative problem of new literatures but when there is little shared cultural capital and where television reduces history to the simple brushstrokes of cartoons it is also a problem besetting canonical texts.
Aaron splits the book into two sections: the first four chapters work roughly chronologically (with some overlap); the last two focus on familiar Gothic tropes, tracing the continuity and development of folk motifs into modern popular culture. A new map emerges that roughly parallels the emergence of a post Enlightenment national literature – but it is one in which the public and political world is translated into sexual and dysfunctional familial relations.
The four historical chapters strikingly reveal an ongoing model of emasculation through domination that parallels one already traced in Irish and Scottish literary criticism. It is interesting that the tropes of the undead are applied early in Welsh language writing and frame the struggle for its survival that followed the infamous Blue Books report. Aaron points out that the re-evaluation of the ‘primitive’ in the late 19th century had particular significance for the Welsh: ‘Druidism is ... presented as an amalgam of the wisdom of the East, combined with the Christian lore of self-sacrificing love and a Darwinian understanding of evolution – to which the Welsh hold the key’ (pp.67-68). The association of Druidism with the occult had profound implications: ‘with the infusion of occultism into the representation of the Welsh, the ‘betrayal’ of the 1847 report has been reversed: what was seen as primitive is now seen as enlightened, what was backward is now the most progressive.’ (p.71) In this new map Machen no longer seems out of place. Aaron uncovers correspondences with Allen Raine as well as the more usual Caradoc Evans, and - despite his right-wing politics - to what Aaron terms the left-leaning ‘Coalfield Gothic’ of Rhys Davies, Gwyn Thomas et al. The fourth chapter, covering writing of 1940s – 1997, develops the treacherous undercurrents of a Gothic underworld into an extraordinary panorama of the undead, especially in Welsh but also in English. Ruth Bidgood’s chilling poem ‘The Zombie-Makers’ mourns the drowning of valley communities and I am indebted to Aaron for pointing it out. Its sense of powerlessness in the face of monstrous and faceless bureaucracy suggests ways of reading a virtual frenzy of zombie stories in both languages of this time.
The second section of the book moves from chronology to Gothic trope. These two chapters explore, first, the inheritance of motifs from Welsh folklore now part of the Gothic mainstream, and second, the history and extended life of the (possibly fictitious) ‘sin eater’ detected in Wales in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. It is in this mode that it is depicted on Aaron’s book cover. The chapter is a fitting conclusion as it marks the movement outwards of a Welsh myth into American popular culture where it has global reach. In today’s paranoid world scapegoats and victims become objects of fear and loathing and, as Aaron points out, in film, graphic novel and rock band, this is exactly what has happens to this figure. The demonization of the sin eater is yet one more demonstration of the potency of the Gothic to illuminate the injustices and dislocations of our contemporary world.
This is a groundbreaking study: endlessly fascinating, highly readable, a goldmine for little known names and texts and a new literary map of Welsh writing that draws together work in both languages. This is the kind of book that we need to enable students to reach back to older texts as well as read new ones, not in a simplified flight from history or politics but engaging with them in new and significant ways.
Jeni Williams is Senior Lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at University of Wales, Trinity Saint David.