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The Literature of Terror: the Modern Gothic is the second volume in David Punter's impressive survey of gothic writing covering over two centuries. This long awaited second edition has been expanded to take into account the latest critical research, and is now published in two volumes. Volume One covers the period from 1765 to the Edwardian age while Volume Two discusses modern gothic, starting with the 'decadent' gothic writing of Oscar Wilde and continuing through the twentieth century. This two-volume set (see Volume 1: The Gothic Tradition) by David Punter is more than simply a history of the gothic form in American and British literature. It's an ambitious attempt to redefine the word gothic so that it encompasses most of fantastic fiction and film for the past 200 years under a unifying theme: a preoccupation with fear. This is, of course, an extremely broad definition, so don't be surprised if you find yourself taking the theoretical sections of the book with a grain of salt. Also, since the book was first written in the late 1970s, much of the discussion of language and symbol relies on rather outdated Marxist and Freudian theories. Punter apologizes for the latter in the preface to this (the second) edition, saying that rather than doing a massive revision, he decided to "leave it largely as an 'unrestored' period piece, with its own characteristic style, silhouette, and mood"--while adding additional material on the contemporary gothic.
Those caveats aside, however, The Literature of Terror is mostly successful as a comprehensive study. And it's an enormously useful reference for anyone with a more than passing interest in horror literature. Plus it benefits from being the work of a single author: Punter is an extremely well-read scholar who perceives fascinating connections between a wide variety of books and films, and he explains his ideas lucidly enough that you can judge for yourself how far you agree with them.
Some of the high points are Punter's overview of what the word gothic means in other fields (such as architecture); his summaries of the roles of graveyard poetry, the sentimental novel, and the theory of the sublime in the development of the gothic concept; and his inclusion (as gothic and even horror writers) of such notables as Isak Dinesen, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Thomas Hawkes, and Robert Coover. If that's not enough to tempt you, the footnotes and bibliography alone offer ample yet well-chosen pointers to authors whose entertaining fiction you may not have discovered yet.
Best of all, The Literature of Terror is written in English--that is, not loaded down with annoying words such as transgressive and trope that mar so much of postmodern criticism. You can browse for information about specific authors or dip into it at your leisure without losing the thread. And for an academic work, it's darn fun to read. (Be sure to get both Volume 1 and Volume 2.) --Fiona Webster
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