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Strange beauty

Costume, performance and power in 1953

Lisa Mullen

This chapter shows how the garments of ritual and conquest created gothic disruptions in place and time, and instantiated power and status even while they occluded the humanity of the person wearing them. Questions about power and resistance informed key cultural artefacts of the period, from Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 fairy tale The Red Shoes to Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net (1954); and from the 1951 Ealing Comedy The Man in the White Suit to Benjamin Britten’s Coronation opera Gloriana (1953).

In Under the Net, Murdoch teases open fault-lines in the constructed persona of a woman who runs an avant-garde mime theatre, and finds herself literally buried under a deluge of theatrical props and costumes. In The Red Shoes, meanwhile, a dancer’s costume becomes impossible to take off, stitching her into a fatal encounter with the inhumanity of art and spectacle. These stories raise related questions about the materialization of power and presence at the Queen’s coronation in 1953.

This intimate imbrication of subject and object sheds light on Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana (1953), which depicts a queen who comes untethered from the material glamour of royalty. The chapter then traces how synthetic fabrics challenged class distinctions in The Man in the White Suit, and the British Everest expedition in 1953.

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Rubble, walls and murals

The threshold between abstraction and materiality

Lisa Mullen

Modernism, with its enthusiasm for bricolage and fragment, might seem to have predicted the blitzed ruinscape of the 1940s; yet, arguably, it was modernism itself which was ruined by the cultural rupture, and this chapter traces the ways in which its aesthetic schemata collapsed under the sudden actualization of its metaphors.

The search for an aesthetic ratification of the suffering and destruction of the war is traced through six cultural responses. The Blitz stories of William Sansom (published between 1944 and 1948) are full of falling walls, fires and bombed buildings which become uncannily alive, haunted by a non-human agency. Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth (1944), meanwhile, is read as a troubling account of art’s destructive power. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), a neurotic nostalgia erupts from the ruins of an English country house, and this is placed into dialogue with the oneiric bombsite odyssey of Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness (1950).

The murals of the Festival of Britain on the South Bank, notably John Piper’s An Englishman’s Home (1951), are also considered, alongside Hugh Casson’s campaign to preserve and aestheticize the ruins of London’s bombed churches as monuments to the Blitz. A striking picture emerges of tumbling walls as an image of revolutionary remaking instigated by the uncanny power of art.

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Neophilia and nostalgia

The trouble with gentrification

Lisa Mullen

This chapter examines narratives about uncanny objects which disrupt private domestic space, focusing in detail on two novels: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) and Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953).

Both authors were interested in a domestic gothic in which lost, dazed and traumatized characters must negotiate with the things they chose – or chose not – to surround themselves. Bowen’s novel – and the short stories she wrote concurrently and published as The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945) – depict the domestic spaces of wartime as stripped of personality and affect, while the people who haunt them are made spectral by the abolition of the present tense in a city under aerial bombardment, which leaves only ‘a grinding-together of past and future’.

The abolition of temporal order inspired narratives about superannuated objects which push insistently through the membrane of linear time in order to trouble the present. Eerie antiques become reservoirs of authenticity and value, and Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue is read as a critique of post-war gentrification, and the disruption of value and history that it entailed. The gentrified and haunted chaise longue weaponises its own narratological power, and the gothic intimacy it achieves attests to the change that took place in the relationship between women and things in the mid-century.

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Mid-century gothic

The uncanny objects of modernity in British literature and culture after World War II

Lisa Mullen

Mid-Century Gothic defines a distinct post-war literary and cultural moment in Britain, lasting ten years from 1945 to 1955. This was a decade haunted by the trauma of fascism and war, but equally uneasy about the new norms of peacetime and the resurgence of commodity culture. As old assumptions about the primacy of the human subject became increasingly uneasy, culture responded with gothic narratives which reflected two troubling qualities of the newly assertive objects of modernity: their uncannily autonomous agency, and their disquieting intimacy with the reified human body.

This book offers original readings of novels, plays, essays and cinema of the period, unearthing neglected texts as well as reassessing canonical works. The post-war decade has often been defined either as the bathetic terminus of high modernism, or as the stiflingly hidebound context from which later countercultural and avant-garde movements erupted. Yet historically, this was an important and resonant cultural turning point, as still-fresh war trauma intersected with new paradigms of modernity. By looking beneath the surface of its literature and culture, it is possible to resurrect a sense of this decade as a moment of urgent cultural crisis, rife with repressed tensions which could only be expressed in a gothic mode.

By bringing these into dialogue with mid-century architecture, exhibitions, technology, and material culture, Mid-Century Gothic provides a new perspective on a notoriously neglected historical moment, and paints a picture of a decade roiling with intellectual and aesthetic upheaval.

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Machines and spectrality

The gothic potential of technology

Lisa Mullen

This chapter presents a new reading of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and unearths its latent gothicism by examining it within the context of the mid-century philosophies of the mind, scientific experiments in neurology, and the technological applications of cathode-ray imaging.

The chapter begins with a discussion of how new types of telepresence began to disrupt spatial and temporal order in the mid-century, producing an uncanny effect that supercharged both material objects and abstract images with gothic possibility. Via an analysis of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) as a meditation on the links between radio, spectrality and neurology, the chapter proffers a detailed examination of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a mid-century gothic text. It shows how the panoptical medium of the novel’s telescreens challenges the recursive historicism of old objects.

The mind control of the Thought Police is considered in the light of mid-century theories of mind, including the philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s empiricist description of consciousness in The Concept of Mind (1949), and the work by the neurologist William Grey Walter, and the thought experiments of Jacques Lacan, and Alan Turing’s computing breakthroughs.

Finally, the chapter returns to the cathode-ray screen as a domestic object, tracing the way television invaded and disrupted private space, and critiqued its own uncanny technological agency.

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Lost in translation

Migrant bodies and uncanny skin

Lisa Mullen

The 1946 exhibition of artefacts from the newly excavated Sutton Hoo ship burial presented the grave-goods as the cenotaph of a chieftain whose body was missing. New questions arose for a generation scarred by the absence of those killed in the war: if the residual charisma of long-buried objects could even fill in for an absent king, what kind of power might be invoked by the objects of modernity, which surrounded and interpellated the post-war consumer?

While the Sutton Hoo hoard evoked the pharoahic glamour of status and wealth, exhibitions mounted in the early 1950s by Barbara Jones and the Independent Group challenged the verticality of aesthetic systems of taste and value. Jones’s 1951 exhibition of popular art, Black Eyes and Lemonade at the Whitechapel Gallery, brought mass-produced objects – sweets, retail packaging, souvenirs, kitsch – together with unsettling one-offs like taxidermy specimens and tattooing patterns, into the space of art.

Skin is also made uncanny in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, in which a mid-century post-colonial gothic emerges via the hypervisibility of newly arrived people of colour. A new sense of home and what it means to belong in a city is also elaborated in the work of the Independent Group, and in Lorenza Mazzetti’s film Together.

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‘The world of things’: an introduction to mid- century gothic

Lisa Mullen

The introduction begins with a sketch of the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank, describing how this politically disputed and semantically overdetermined space was emblematic of the mid-century decade which produced it. A playground of ideas and disruptive potential, it told stories about unruly objects that modelled a kind of categorical recalcitrance by which subjects, too, might reassert their autonomy within the overwhelming discourses of commodification and reification which prevailed in mass culture.

T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), is cited as an example of the stagnant schema of cultural hierarchy which mid-century gothic opposed, and which this book will dismantle. A discussion of the dialogical relationship between gothicism and modernity situates the book in relation to Freud’s Unheimlich, Lukács’s concept of reification, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s defense of enchantment in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie. This section lays out the principal qualities of mid-century gothic: the troubling agency, and the uncanny intimacy, of the objects of modernity. These ideas are then put into practice in a radical reading of Marghanita Laski’s sentimental 1949 novel Little Boy Lost.

Finally, the introduction asks: how would the norms of society be redrawn by the upheavals of the post-war moment? Would value and authenticity lose their meaning? Would codes become illegible? Would objects break free of the present and begin to bleed history?

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Beyond the mid-century

Lisa Mullen

What became of mid-century gothic? As the 1950s progressed, its warnings about alien objects capable of infiltrating and intervening in the human realm were soon drowned out by the normative bellow of advertising and mass culture, and a new appetite for distracting pleasures took hold. An early example of this attitude can be seen in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954). Jim Dixon’s epiphanic yet tautological realisation that ‘nice things are nicer than nasty ones’ marks the moment when this turn begins in British literature. Non-commodities like rubble, junk and bombs recede from view; Dixon’s proto-countercultural rebellion is expressed in terms of a restless need for hedonic fulfillment which was arguably less subversive than the mid-century’s emergent critique of consumer desire.

Dixon is the archetype of a generation unhaunted by postwar trauma, and his insistence on grasping the available pleasures of the now is traced through Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957), Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.

Contemporary culture is increasingly alert to the power of autonomous digital objects, and uncanny agency and alien intimacy continue to focus our anxiety wherever the animate and inanimate become intermixed or interchangeable.

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Bombs, prosthetics and madness

The painful nearness of things

Lisa Mullen

The final chapter demonstrates how atomic technology resonated with anxieties about objects and intimacy, and follows this motif through various narratives about prosthetics and explosives. This completes a thematic cycle which began in the first chapter of the book, where we saw how bombs created new ecosystems of undead animation, and left behind object-witnesses and rubble that told human stories; this final chapter shows how old bomb-narratives were overturned by the spectre of nuclear war. In films including Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949), the Boulting brothers’ Seven Days To Noon (1950), and Michael Anderson’s The Dam Busters (1955); as well as C.P. Snow’s novel The New Men (1954) and Marghanita Laski’s play The Offshore Island (1954), bombs leave no ruins behind them; their ambiguous materiality is entirely eerie.

The Small Back Room exemplifies the parallels that can be drawn between the bomb-object and the prosthetic, and traces how, in the atomic age, the spectrality of the dematerialized body succumbs to the penetrative incursions of radiation. The chapter examines how blankness, absence and obliteration characterized atomic culture, replacing the silent and non-reproductive human with an uncanny technological entity.

The chapter ends by looking forward to the afterlife of the atomic uncanny, in both Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964).

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Svitlana Krys

This article discusses the manner in which the vampire fiction of contemporary Ukrainian author Halyna Pahutiak enters into a dialogue with the global vampire discourse whose core or ‘cultural capital’ finds its origins largely in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897). Through discussion of thematic, stylistic, and structural similarities and differences between Pahutiak and Stoker’s portrayals of the vampire myth, my paper sheds light on the conscious mythmaking strategies that Pahutiak employs to return the vampire symbolically from the West to Eastern Europe where it originated, and reassess the core characteristics of the Dracula myth.