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The American Imperial Gothic

The American Imperial Gothic: Popular Culture, Empire, Violence by Johan Hoglund (Ashgate, 2014), 211 pages, ISBN: 978-1409449546 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1409449553 (e-book PDF),ISBN: 978-1472406477 (e-book)

Stephen-ConnorAbout the reviewer: Stephen Connor is a final year PhD student at the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds, where he has taught on the Centre’s undergraduate programme. He studied for his BA in History and Politics at Leeds Metropolitan University and received his MA in World Cinemas from the University of Leeds. His research, which draws on the work of Guy Debord, Fredric Jameson and Julia Kristeva, focuses on the development and articulation of an apocalyptic aesthetic in American cinema.

This ambitious book constitutes an attempt to contextualise and historicise the increasingly dominant trend in American popular culture towards the figuration of catastrophe and the deployment of gothic tropes. The titular concept of American imperial gothic through which this trend is analysed is derived from Patrick Brantlinger’s influential book The Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (1988), in which he identifies the existence of ‘imperial gothic’ narratives in the Victorian and Edwardian novel, that embody contemporary fears and anxieties concerning the decline of the British Empire through the mobilisation of elements of both the adventure story and the Imperial-Gothicgothic tale. In transposing Brantlinger’s concept of the imperial gothic to an American context, the author follows Catherine Spooner’s practice, in her Contemporary Gothic (2006), of defining the gothic as a trans-textual mode rather than as a literary genre, which leads him to focus on narrative as the over-arching manifestation of the imperial gothic. Thus the American imperial gothic is defined by Hoglund as a series of narratives that ‘negotiate the ascent, eclipse and decline of US empire through gothic images of conflict and disaster’ (3). The relationship between the development of these imperial gothic narratives and the trajectory of US imperialism is investigated within an ideological framework that is informed by postcolonial studies, world-systems theory and the revisionist approach to US history characteristic of recent developments in American studies.

The form that this study takes is that of a chronological survey of imperial gothic narratives from a wide range of texts including films, novels, comics, political speeches and video games, beginning with Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Edgar Huntly of 1799 and ending with Hollywood zombie blockbuster World War Z (2013). This chronological survey is heavily skewed towards the analysis of texts from the immediate post-9/11 period up to the present, to which five chapters are devoted comprising almost half of the book.

One of the author’s stated aims is to ‘demonstrate how American popular gothic culture converges on themes similar to those of British popular culture of the late-Victorian period’ (141), and it is where he sticks closest to this theme that the book is most successful. Particularly strong, in this context, are the early chapters covering the periods of slavery, reconstruction, and the pre-World War II phase of US imperial expansion, although the author best demonstrates his convergence thesis in the stimulating analyses of the films King Kong (2005) and Van Helsing (2004) in chapter seven. The least successful chapters, in which the concept of the American imperial gothic becomes somewhat overextended, are chapter four on the Cold War and chapter six dealing with 9/11 and its immediate impact, two periods in which the correspondences between British imperial history and culture and the US experience are weakest. The attempt to draw direct connections between George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric and the narratives of post-9/11 Hollywood films in the latter chapter is particularly unconvincing, relying as it does on a slightly simplistic conceptualisation of the relationship between politics and cultural production. The analysis of the 1950s creature feature films in chapter four also fails to convince, largely because the author does not draw on a wide enough range of written sources, omitting reference to key texts by Susan Sontag and Vivian Sobchak. The lack of reference to Geoff King’s vital analysis of the role of the frontier myth in the Hollywood blockbuster in his Spectacular Narratives (2000) is another serious omission, as is the absence of any mention of Roland Emmerich’s film Independence Day (1996).

… an important contribution to the field of American cultural studies

Despite these shortcomings, the utility and timeliness of the concept of the American imperial gothic outlined in this book makes it an important contribution to the field of American cultural studies and it will surely be widely cited in the literature, and deservedly find its way onto undergraduate reading lists across a range of disciplines.

Stephen Connor

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