THE BOYS AND GIRLS IN BLACK

In the last days of the 1970s, in dark corners of England, something strange began to happen. In suburban houses across the country, young people were putting on dark clothes, listening to sombre post-punk music, and trying to persuade their parents to let them paint their bedrooms black. I was one of them, and it astounds me that, over 30 years later, gothic subculture is not only still alive and kicking but has gone global.

Even more surprising is that it all started in Bromley. This sprawling, non-descript suburb of London is not a likely setting for…well for anything.

Siouxsie Sioux, queen of Goth

Siouxsie Sioux, queen of Goth

The ‘Bromley contingent’ were a punk clique, followers of the Sex Pistols. Among them was Susan Ballion, later and better known to the world as Siouxsie Sioux. With her band, the Banshees, she would unleash the first truly gothic records on the world – Staircase and Playground Twist. She would also be the first person to use the term ‘gothic’ to describe the burgeoning music and fashion scene she was spearheading.

Well, at least, that’s one version of events. Others will tell you that, rather than being the dark offspring of punk, goth had its ancestry in the New Romantic movement. Furthermore, they will claim that goth culture as we know it today was spawned not in Bromley but in the appropriately gloomy northern city of Leeds. And they will pronounce the Bauhaus single Bela Lugosi’s Dead as the first goth record, and ascribe the first use of ‘gothic’ to that late, dark genius Tony Wilson, when referring to the music of Joy Division.

Another person will tell you a different story again. That’s fine. It’s perfectly appropriate that the origins of goth are arcane and lost in the shadows.

'Bela Lugosi's Dead' by Bauhaus

The iconic cover of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ by Bauhaus

My own first sight of someone who looked distinctly gothic was, predictably, at a gig. Less predictably, it was at a cricket club in a small town in Kent. Sitting in a shadowy corner that night were two girls in long black dresses, with long black hair, and deathly pale faces painted with spiders webs. But they were referred to as ‘gothic punks’. I didn’t encounter the word goth until much later…and it wasn’t exactly being used as a compliment.

Was I a goth myself? Well, I wore a lot of black clothes, dabbled occasionally with eye-liner, had a painting of the grim reaper on my bedroom wall, and had declared Joy Division’s Closer to be the greatest album of all time. I suppose it’s an open and shut case.

But would I have called myself a goth? No. Because what tends to get forgotten today is that, in those early years, it was often used as a derogatory term. The bands themselves were at best uncomfortable with the label. Why? In my view, as the genre expanded and new bands started up, gothic rock just wasn’t taken seriously. Songs about horror, death and the occult? Guys dressed in pixie boots and big black hats? These were painfully earnest times, and goth was dismissed by many as absurd. It wasn’t political or socially progressive; it was about emotion, drama, atmosphere, imagery.

japanese goths

These were qualities that some derided, but others embraced. They’d been waiting for a music that didn’t have to be taken too seriously for a long time. And once it had cut its self-conscious umbilical with punk, goth could become unashamedly, gloriously itself.

And so the way was clear for goth to become established as the internationally recognisable subculture we see today, with its own visual codes, uniforms and attitudes. These days the word goth is a badge worn by many with pride. And why not? It’s been around for a long time, and shows no signs of fading away. Goth’s not dead! Like Bela Lugosi, it’s undead, and therefore immortal.

WHEN HORROR MOVED OUT OF THE CASTLE

Where would get your vote for the greatest horror novel setting of all time? Castle Dracula? The Overlook Hotel? There are many possibilities, but there’s a good chance your answer would fall into the category of ‘old, scary building’. Buildings, as containers for fear, are absolutely crucial to the darker side of literature.

Recently, I read the book that started it all. And it’s not Frankenstein or Dracula. It was written more than 80 years before Bram Stoker was born. And its author was, of all people, a Member of Parliament. Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto gave us the prototype for every old, scary building that came after.

From page one, its inhabitants are terrified by surreal goings on in its shadowy chambers. The dark corridors and echoing crypts are full of whispers and shrieks of alarm. The castle is not only a setting for inexplicable and disturbing events but almost seems to be an accomplice to them.

The Castle of Otranto caused a sensation and this one short book launched an entire genre – the gothic novel, the forerunner of all horror and paranormal fiction. The gothic castle would remain the preferred setting for this kind of macabre entertainment well into the 19th century. And it’s still a powerful archetype today, even if sometimes in a tamer, friendlier form; isn’t Hogwarts just the Castle of Otranto echoing to the shouts of a rowdy school party?

Over time, the action moved into more modest, domestic surroundings. Which was lucky for writers in countries like America, where the only castles are the concrete and fibreglass ones belonging to Mr Disney. The vampires, spectres and monsters deigned to slum it in houses – as long as they were large, old and rambling. In Salem’s Lot, Stephen King places the Marsten House at the absolute heart of his narrative. It becomes almost a character in its own right, influencing events. This “beacon of evil” is not just the place where the vampire Barlow happens to end up – he has been drawn there, attracted by this powerful magnet of darkness.

So by the late 20th century horror had largely move out of the castle. Terror had down-sized. That’s perhaps because while the writers (and many of the readers) of 18th and 19th century gothic novels had occupied the upper echelons of society, modern writers tended to be ordinary people, living in ordinary houses, in ordinary towns.

This democratising of dark fiction had one very important and powerful side-effect: it brought it closer to us all; it brought it to streets and houses like our own, to our doorstep. And any psychologist will tell you that fictional narratives have a much greater impact on audiences if they happen against familiar backdrops.

Ancient battlements and secret passageways are all very well but they are not part of everyday experience for most of us. The horror that dwells in that empty house on the edge of your town is much more potent, relevant and harder to forget.