Sisters of mercy

Goth Chic: a connoisseur's guide to dark culture

Gavin Baddeley <em>Plexus, 288pp, £14.99</em>

I

''Gothic," writes Gavin Baddeley, "is one of those curious terms we think we understand . . . Placed under the microscope, however, it writhes and squirms, proving difficult to pin down." And this is because all sorts of things are gothic - there are gothic churches, and gothic-revival churches. There are municipal buildings designed in a neo-gothic style. There are also 19th-century gothic novels, and horror films inspired by these novels, and girls who pierce their nipples and go out to nightclubs wearing rubber underwear. There is Alice Cooper. There is Nick Cave, formerly of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who once recorded a rather gothic single with Kylie Minogue. Gothic culture, or, as Baddeley calls it, "dark culture", is all around us. So you wouldn't blame him for not being able to pin it down.

Still, he does a pretty good job. The layman's idea of the gothic, says Baddeley, who is also the author of Lucifer Rising and Dissecting Marilyn Manson, is "something to do with bats and graveyards". In fact, the term is derived from the Goths, a Germanic tribe who "swept into western Europe in the fourth century to carve a kingdom from the decaying remnants of the Roman empire". So the word "gothic" came to mean "barbaric". The gothic sensibility, says Baddeley, is similar to Susan Sontag's idea of camp - "a mockery of conventional wisdom, a sophisticated satire of virtue and duty". Those with a gothic sensibility are attracted to the sublime rather than the beautiful (or ridiculous), the night rather than the day. They favour thunderstorms, narcotics, PVC clothing, piercing, and piercing guitar riffs; in short, anything that the early gothic novelist Horace Walpole might have described as having "gloomth".

And why did people want gloomth? Writing in 1800, the Marquis de Sade explained his belief that gothic literature was an effect of the French revolution - in the post-guillotine world, "it was necessary to call upon hell" to arouse the reader's interest. In the best bit of the book, Baddeley takes us on a tour of the early exponents of dark literature. There is Sade himself, who "enjoyed whipping and being whipped as well as anal sex with partners of both genders", and Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk, a story about an abbot seduced by a "demon in human form", which was "something like the American Psycho or Exorcist of its day". There are good potted accounts of the lives of Mary Shelley, who described her book Frankenstein as her "hideous progeny", Sheridan Le Fanu, who wrote in the middle of the night, jotting down his nightmares, and Bram Stoker, whose novel Dracula may well have been the product of a nightmare brought on by a meal of dressed crab.

The rest of the book describes the process of "dark culture" moving into the mainstream. Upon seeing the early Schauerfilm ("shudderfilm") The Golem, the young Vincent Price wet his pants; after this came an unabated deluge of horror, all of which Baddeley lists: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which looks comical today, the early Dracula films, which look comical today, the Hammer horror films, which looked comical at the time. Interestingly, it was, according to some critics, the American killer and grave robber Ed Gein - who dressed in human skin and made a belt by stringing nipples together - whose activities unwittingly got the horror genre back on track, particularly in America. Did his arrest in 1957 inspire Robert Bloch to write Psycho, and Thomas Harris to write The Silence of the Lambs? Probably.

In the end, this is a book that will have a minor appeal to film buffs and students of gothic literature, and a huge appeal to lovers of pierced nipples and rubber pants. There is a lot of material on the history of gothic and neo-gothic bands; Baddeley includes Joy Division, the Cramps, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, as well as Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy, in his round-up. It's interesting, but it's not as interesting as his analysis of de Sade and Walpole and Stoker; pop fans like being gloomy and wearing black and taking drugs just because they are teenagers. "Many Goths," writes Baddeley, "wear black simply because it looks good."