Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination [exhibition]

Georgian satires of the readers of Gothic sensation novels
The British Library's new exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination opens today. I went to the press day yesterday and it was wonderful. I love the British Library anyway, as I've used the India Office collections in the past for researching family history, and they've put on some seriously good exhibitions over the years. This one, as you'd expect, is all about gothic fiction, and it's about as comprehensive as you'd dare to hope for, moving from Horace Walpole all the way through to the present. I started taking notes on my phone because there were so many standout items on display I wasn't sure I'd remember them all, then I realised I was noting down almost every exhibit.

It's an exhibition in one of the world's great libraries, so as you'd expect, books form the backbone of the exhibition. Because it's a 'legal deposit' library, and a copy of anything published in the UK has to be sent there by the publishers, and that's been part of English law since the 1660s, it's got a superb collection of first editions. Volumes that I was particularly excited to see include the 1897 edition of Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles in both its serialised form in the Strand magazine and as a hardback book, and a first edition of Rebecca. Jane Austen fans will love the case where all the gothic novels recommended to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, which parodied the Georgian sensation novel, are on display. I was surprised at how large the Illustrated Police News of 1888 was; having seen the cover reproduced in books on Jack the Ripper I'd always expected a pamphlet, but it was a full broadsheet. My pick of the books and periodicals, though, was the 15th century volume on the life of Vlad Dracul, open at the famous woodcut of Dracula. 
The first illustration of Dracula. Bram Stoker, Dracula by 
Bram Stoker. Leeds, 1901. Photo courtesy of British Library.

Where to begin? With one of the few remaining letters written by Ann Radcliffe? Or Stoker's original stage play script for Dracula? How about letters by John Polidori and Lord Byron (who had terrible handwriting!) written during that stay at the Villa Diodati that inspired both Frankenstein and The Vampyre? Perhaps you'd prefer Charlotte Bronte's manuscripts. Not modern enough? Stephen King's typescript of The Shining, made for Stanley Kubrick is on display, as is Clive Barker's for his short story The Hellbound Heart and his first draft for Hellraiser, the film inspired by that novella. It was fantastic to see all these things. The one letter that genuinely startled me, though, was the 'Dear Boss...' Ripper letter. That's generally accepted to be the work of the fraudster, so I suppose it is fiction, but in a room full of imaginary horrors this is something connected to a true horror, and I was taken aback to see it.

'Dear Boss' letter from Jack the Ripper. Letter to the Central 
News Agency, September 1888. The National Archives
The gothic has made its way from book to screen, and clips of films are shown throughout. There's The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wicker Man (which, frankly, is too loud; the sound carries through to the areas devoted to Walpole, Chatterton and Beckford, and hearing Edward Woodward burning to death loses its appeal after the eighth or ninth time), the recent BBC version of The Tractate Middoth scripted by Mark Gatiss from MR James' short story… There are clips from silent thriller The Lodger, Nosferatu, even Curse of the Were-Rabbit!

EDIT 5/10/14: Apparently the sound has been turned down on The Wicker Man! Apparently the curators thought it was a bit too loud too, and they've added a gothic soundtrack to the later rooms.

An original Hammer storyboard
And the good stuff keeps on going! My one criticism of the British Library's science fiction exhibition was that it was very book-heavy. This exhibition has all sorts of other things on show. Costume designers' plans for Frank Langella's Dracula and the film The Innocents. Storyboards for the Hammer films The Scars of Dracula and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. A sheet of Dave McKean's artwork from Arkham Asylum. The were-rabbit puppet itself! In the small case devoted to gothic music, they got it right - and you have no idea how much that surprised me - with items from the late 70s/early 80s 'Batcave' years, including a copy of the Bauhaus single 'Bela Lugosi's Dead'. There were two standout bits of kipple for me: first was the scrapbook Kubrick compiled to use in The Shining. The actual scrapbook as seen on screen. The other was a 'vampire hunting kit'. What appealed there was the placard beside it, which notes "most of the items in the kit date from the mid-Victorian era, but strangely, although there are around 80 such kits thought to exist, there is no evidence of their existence prior to about 1970." Nice bit of commentary on authenticity there without actually saying, 'we reckon a fraudster put this together'!
A fab Victorian clock

Anyway, there's much more than the things I've mentioned on display. It is a fantastic exhibition. I've been a little horror nerd for years - my university dissertation was on late Victorian supernatural fiction - and if I'd drawn up a wishlist everything on it would've been in the exhibition, plus there's more on top. If you have even a passing interest in this sort of thing and get the chance to go, do sieze it.

The BBC has a gothic season coming up, and I'll have more for you on that as soon as I've been able to dig out schedules. And now I'm going to spend the rest of October listening to Bauhaus.

Second and third images on this page are courtesy and copyright of the British Library; the first, fourth and fifth are mine.


  1. I must admit i would love this exhibition . but after the london experience last month im not rushing back..lol

    1. Oh dear!

      London still scares me a bit, but I've been learning to love the place in recent years.

  2. Replies
    1. You would LOVE it! No nicking the were-rabbit for your experiments, though...

  3. Can't wait to see this! But have to wait until my vampire-mad sister is here over Christmas. Glad to hear that it's definitely worth heading to

    1. It's not cheap to get in - a tenner - but everything that's there is absolutely perfect for the exhibition. It's worth going when it's not crowded so you have time to linger over things.

  4. The Wicker Man was the first really terrifying film I recall seeing as a child. It is the film against which I measure all others in the genre.

    I would love to see this exhibition, but won't be getting to London until late summer. Somehow, I am not at all surprised by Lord Byron's poor penmanship.

    My thesis was on witch finding movements, and I often had books with interesting titles scattered about my room. I remember my mother picking up a copy of," Vampires Burial and Death" and looking a bit shocked. Then, she spotted, "The World of the Witches" and quickly exited the room.

    I was surprised to see Haxan mentioned in your previous post.

    1. Oooh, you're coming to London?

      Hehehe, I like horror and silent films, so Haxan's been on my 'must-see' list for years. I've got the hardback of 'Vampires, Burial and Death', my dad bought me it when the book first came out. Brilliant book.

  5. This sounds fascinating and like there is a really great mix of things to see. There are do many exhibitions I want to see in London, wish it was nearer!


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