BEFORE WE CAN BEGIN to take the measure of Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and The New Supernatural, Victoria Nelson’s vivid, compendiously learned study of recent developments on the dark side of popular culture, we need first to agree that there is no God. This might seem like a lot to ask in the first sentence of a book review, but I’ll need even more from you: a further agreement that Satan, witches, angels, fairies, zombies, ghosts and vampires don’t exist either. Okay? From God on down, it’s a cavalcade of fictional characters, figures, figments, tending either toward the “darkness” or the “light,” but none of them, in the conventional sense, real.
That it’s necessary to play the dogmatic-materialist-killjoy card in advance of any consideration of Nelson’s thesis about the Gothic is a testament to the weight of the evidence she offers to prove it: centuries of novels, high art fantastic literature, pulp fiction and film, and now reams of sexy vampire romances she knows well enough to interpret with admirable subtlety and sophistication. First offered at the outset of her award-winning 2001 book The Secret Life of Puppets and now updated to account for some of the Gothic bestsellers and blockbusters of the new millennium, her argument is that we discover “our repressed religious impulses by looking at the supernatural in fantastic novels and films [. . .] We can locate our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul by looking at the ways [fictional characters] carry on their roles as direct descendents of graven images.”
Nelson is not the first literary intellectual to demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the lowly cultural materials floating in what she calls the “sub-Zeitgeist,” but she is certainly among the bravest in coming so close to speaking as a fan, and among the boldest in laying out a Total Theory of what it all means. By the same token, re-stating the fact of the matter about the supernatural — that it is fictional — suggests a Great Wrongness in that Total Theory, a misinterpretation of what the Gothic tradition in culture actually betrays. To be sure, the incompleteness of the historical process of secularization has been a longstanding theme in theories of modernity, from Max Weber to Otto Rank to Charles Taylor, and Nelson’s reading of the Gothic fits nicely within that tradition. But I think she misses what makes the Gothic so interesting as a particular instance of that incompleteness.
For starters, a phrase like “our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul” rests on some unacknowledged assumptions. To buy it, we have to agree that “we” are repressing our religious impulses as opposed to, say, imposing them on others, as has been common enough throughout secular history and remains a constant irritation, even now, to strong religious skeptics. Consider the outlandish things you can believe and still be elected president of the United States, for example, and consider, too, the unlikelihood of electing an unashamed atheist to that office. Perhaps you have seen the statistics about how many Americans believe in God (82 percent) and the devil (62 percent); who reject the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution (82 percent) and beli...read more