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Imperial Gothic

Entry updated 23 May 2022. Tagged: Theme.

A term used mainly in literary criticism to describe a complex of motifs, venues and paranoia-inducing utterances whose main burden – that the Western world is under deadly attack from outside its borders – is sometimes narrated in nonfantastic terms, sometimes in terms expressive of Fantastika's not always temperate concern with who rules the planet (see also Gothic SF; Secret Masters). Patrick Brantlinger suggests, in his Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (1988), that the term might most usefully apply to a period beginning with the publication of H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), with She (1885) introducing the She figure whose mesmeric threat to the European way derives, at least in part, through an inadmissible marriage of Sex and power. Brantlinger also mentions Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), where loathing and loving embrace with almost insanely sexualized intensity (the Byronic Vampire reaches his apotheosis here). Brantlinger terminates his analysis World War One, though the example of some authors given entries in this encyclopedia, most conspicuously perhaps Sax Rohmer, demonstrate the longevity of a popular but potentially toxic "network of belief" that can too easily become a form of denial.

Brantlinger further argues that Imperial Gothic may be characterized an overt defense of Imperialist values couched in Social Darwinist terms (see Evolution; Social Darwinism), often interlarded with strains of the occult, whose detection often requires similar (but "white") contacts with the unknown [for Occult Detectives see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; a late example of this strain of paranoia, chastened by wit, is the film Doctor Strange (2016). He goes on to characterize Imperial Gothic in terms of Devolution (see also Decadence); and Invasions in the form of psychic infections, or physical violations of territorial integrity (see especially Yellow Peril). The nineteenth-century Future War tale (which encloses the Battle of Dorking subset) is not perhaps exactly Imperial Gothic except in its choice of enemies, though the language used to describe invaders of Britain (or of France, or of Germany) expresses similar fears of contamination from without. The form can also be described as a pattern of responses to the threatened loss of personal and imperial Identity as the much-heralded approach of some Great War ate away at European self-assurance.

Hints of dissent from Imperial Gothic's cartoonish assertions of fear that the world would infect Europe were clear from early on. H G Wells's early Scientific Romances – in particular The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898) – clearly interrogate typical formulations of the ethos and practice of late European imperialism. But the clearest antidote is probably Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (February-April 1899 Blackwood's Magazine), where imperial Europe is seen, metonymously, as a whited sepulchre.

But as a device to outsource the moral and civic degeneracy entailed through the maintenance of any empire (see Imperialism; Race in SF), Imperial Gothic remained popular and emotionally satisfying for three decades; its late climax can be seen in some of John Buchan's best novels, like Greenmantle (1916); his later, markedly uneasy use of some Imperial-Gothic topoi – including a too-easy Eugenics-inflected habit of defining the moral composition of characters in terms of their racial/geographical origins – signalled the end of their efficacy in literature of any ambition.

Twenty-first century instances of the form are likely to be nostalgic, and may be detecting in the underpinnings of much Steampunk; the adumbrations of Imperial Gothic tropes in a Television enterprise like the otherwise nonfantastic Frankenstein Chronicles (2015-2017) do not so much represent argument as appropriation through sampling. [JC]

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