Gothic Pharmacologies. Poison and Cure when Gothic Takes Care



It is common to speak of the Gothic in relation to matters of social importance. Almost from the outset, how Gothic literature relates to its social environment has been discussed in material terms and as Carol Davison has shown, one notable medium in this regard has been pharmacological discourse. How critics have mapped Gothic’s rhetorical and aesthetic strategies of intervention and narration, affect and influence, have included pharmaceutical matters since its inception as a genre around 1800. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey discards the Gothic as a poisonous essence destroying the British character, while T. J. Mathias refers to the Gothic’s “depravity of taste”. In his famous review of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Sir Walter Scott – himself by no means immune to uncanny and spectral figurations in his own texts – can barely control his paranoid fear of the “feverish dreams” that are Hoffmann’s tales (On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition, 352). It is remarkable, however, that in recent decades the pharmacological valence of the Gothic has shifted towards a dominant narrative of Gothic’s socially positive effects – as an important corrective to the liberal, rationalizing inequalities of Enlightened bourgeois culture. Rosemary Jackson famously encoded the literary fantastic as a genre of subversion (see Jackson, Fantasy), while Fred Botting described 18th– and 19th-century Gothic as a Foucauldian alternative discourse to the bourgeois quotidian (see Botting, Gothic). Other critics like David Punter and Jerry Hogle have described the Gothic as abject negotiations of bourgeois identities in modernity (see Punter, Literature of Terror and Hogle 297). The Gothic is arguably one of the single most powerful reminders of what Jacques Derrida identified as the dual nature of the pharmakon – it is a power which is both dangerous and benevolent (Derrida 70).

A larger project on Gothic pharmacologies would be an interesting topic of study in its own right. On a thematic level, pharmaceuticals and poisons are a central concern within the Gothic around 1800; narratives such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk or Ann Radcliffe’s novels (see e.g. Miles 131-33 for discussion of the apparent poisoning of the Marchioness Villeroi in The Mysteries of Udolpho) deploy the use of medicines, drugs, poisoning, and intoxication as some of their most powerful plot devices. Where Lewis uses medicinals as a tool which enable the sexual depravity of the eponymous monk Ambrosio, Radcliffe frequently uses poisons to dispose of her villains, such as Father Schedoni in The Italian, the comparison of both authors reminding). Such a study would have to proceed, for example, through the nineteenth century and texts like De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, continuing on to look at the psychotic dual worlds in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch or Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in the 20th century.

It is notable that several recently successful Gothic graphic novels, films, and television series likewise focus on pharmaceutics and pharmacology as the core of their engagement with contemporary culture. The first film in the Resident Evil series starts with an infective agent produced by the shady pharmaceutical concern, the Umbrella Corporation; Channel 4’s Utopia is based around a pharmaceutical conspiracy involving not only a pseudo-inoculation actually designed to racially control the population by inducing infertility, but also a form of medication for a nervous disorder known as Deel’s Syndrome called Thoraxin which is later revealed to be an opiate which causes the symptoms it is purported to pharmacologically control. Finally Dominick Mitchell’s television series In the Flesh (BBC 3, 2013-14) features a form of medication, Neurotriptyline which reintroduces a state of consciousness into the zombified living dead, returning them to a state of quasi-normality.



            Of course, such proximity asks serious questions about the status of the Gothic and indeed Gothic Studies itself today, as there appears to be a migration into and out of Gothic’s once familiar generic and symbolic modes of representation. Neoliberal biopolitics and political economy emerge through uncanny narratives of their own; they trade with and in the undead to an astonishing degree – an instance of what, following Achille Mbeme, we might term ‘necropolitical economy’. According to Mbeme, necropolitics is the current regime of “generalized instrumentalization of human existence” (Mbeme 14), which is manifested in “the power and capacity to dictate who my live and who must die” (11). Medicine has gone about redefining corporeality (as a commodity form for which medical anthropology has developed the concepts of “biovalue” (Rose 32) and “bioeconomics” (Goven and Pavone 304-5; Cooper, Life as Surplus 45-9), redefining selfhood and consciousness as something solely somatic and protein based, located in the chemistry of the brain (see Lock, “On Making Up” 167; Rose 81 and198-203). This enables redefinitions of death so that our living flesh becomes materials to be upcycled or recycled as tissue ‘donors’ and as organ-containers to be harvested for those who can afford to pay for transplant medicine. This is a real neoliberal version of the uncanny. It is no wonder that zombies, vampires, monsters, and ghosts seem to be everywhere in the cultural production of the present day.

The Gothic has long been explained in terms of it being a mode of resistance, a counter-discourse. The programmatic core of the Gothic has included—at least according to the discipline of Gothic Studies that has developed since the early 1980s—a critical, and indeed subversive, depiction and radical interrogation of the rationally-based assumptions, envisioned goals and normative dimensions of the twin projects of enlightenment and modernity since the middle of the eighteenth century. A valuable critical assessment of Gothic Studies’ shaping of its objects of concern in this regard can be found in Baldick and Mighall’s excellent article “Gothic Criticism”. The essence I take from their discursive analysis of Gothic Studies as a discourse in its own right, is how the Gothic has been (re-)constructed as a pharmacological mode. With its fantastic and uncanny displacements of cultural discourses and identities, it is supposedly capable of offering an intellectual antidote to capitalist modernity. Where liberal Western society generates simplifying binaries and dubiously ‘naturalizing’ discursive tendencies, Gothic’s poisonous mechanisms threaten to create (intellectual) health by undoing dominant cultural and political narratives by stealth as a sly form of cultural therapeutics (Baldick and Mighall 210).

In a culture where trading with the undead is a source of economic optimism, a new speculative instance of venture capital, then it seems to be the case that Gothic Studies needs to consider the status of its reading and viewing practices as a cultural and political therapeutics anew. The current popularity of the Gothic suggests that it may in fact already have become normalized and subsumed within precisely these dominant industrial cultural idioms: a side-effect of the popularity which has been inherent to Gothic since its inception in the late-eighteenth century, as Dale Townshend has recently argued (Townshend, “Interview”).

In both the radical political rhetoric around 1800 and in more soberly conservative literary criticism of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the Gothic itself is considered a poisonous instance destroying the British character. Critics such as the Anti-Jacobin or T. J. Mathias refer to the Gothic’s “depravity of taste” (qtd. in Boening 342) and to the literary texts themselves as poisons produced by literary alchemists threatening the health of the British national body. In Austen’s novel Catherine Morland may believe that Henry Tilney and his father have killed her prospective mother-in-law and are out to imprison her now too, but according to Henry she has begun to interpret the world as a Gothic novel, thus slipping off into a phantasmagoric delirium induced by the poisonous pills of her Gothic reading (Austen 72) and the “dreadful nature of the suspicions” she has are in fact the product of a “riot in [her] own brain” brought on by her reading habits (128). What critics like Austen suggest is that the essential danger of popular literature and its moral and political nadir, the Gothic, resides in the uses and abuses of imagination in writing and reading such texts: the reader is tricked into accepting the phantasmagoric shadows of the literary world as real and in the worst case scenario they could lose contact with reality altogether. This danger is also at the core of Walter Scott’s ‘problematic’ relationship with E. T. A. Hoffmann, and hence the origins of what we now define as fantastic literature. Scott makes it immediately clear that in the Scottish writer’s opinion, Hoffmann had no business whatsoever on the literary market or in literary histories. He views Hoffmann’s works as “feverish dreams” that “scarcely have the seeming authenticity which the hallucinations of lunacy have” and claims they are like “the ideas produced by the immoderate use of opium” rather than “visions of a poetical mind” (On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition, 352). Of course, Scott’s own relationship with the Gothic is less clear-cut than he suggests here, and only several months after publishing this character assassination he publishes his own German Gothic extravaganza in the form of his play House of Aspen, a translation of Veit Weber’s Die heilige Vehme, not to mention his Doom of Devorgoil, The Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (all published in 1830, although the former two date from around 1800 and 1818 respectively). If the Gothic is a poison, it’s not always entirely against Scott’s taste.



            The problem here is that the Gothic has always been a popular draught since its inception. While Mathias, Coleridge, Scott, Austen and indeed almost 150 years of literary historians with them may have wished otherwise, Walpole, Radcliffe, and their likes were infinitely sellable. We may wish to believe – strangely enough, with Adorno (more on him in a moment) – that the Gothic and its horrors have been a literary and cultural form which simply transgressed the tastes of the bourgeois quotidian, but this assumption only works if we think that critics like Scott, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Austen did indeed speak for the shared and consolidated bourgeois tastes of the era. But middle-class audiences flocked to the illegitimate theatres around 1800 to watch Lewis’ Castle Spectre rather than Wordsworth’s The Borderers, something which annoyed the poet as much as it has irritated Romanticism Studies until only very recently. Any sense that the Gothic offers a transgressive, curative antidote to liberal (or now: neo-liberal) bourgeois (or now: global-cosmopolitan) capitalist (or now: zombie capitalist!) cultural economy needs to bear in mind that plenty a publisher, plenty a theatre-owner, and plenty Hollywood production companies have made their fortunes out of producing and publishing these materials.

zombie processing plant


Which brings me back to Adorno and his embrace of the Gothic as a means of representing the horrors of Dialectical Enlightenment and all forms of authoritarianism in the 20th century. In a review of a book I co-edited with Andrew Cusack called Popular Revenants, Christian Thorne cites the dialectical value of the Gothic in times of the capitalist horror of instrumental reason:

Here is as straightforward an argument as Adorno ever made: If you wish to find an art that is adequate to mass death […] you have a few different options. […] Better still would be an art of “incomprehensible horror” […] on the simple grounds that a tale of terror is more likely to rattle you than an exposé or maudlin vignette. Nothing will go as far to dent our perception of Adorno as fussy Brahmin than his embrace of Gothic literature, this one precious genre that puts violence on display and allows it to be horrible. The enormities of empire and a capitalism-without-pretenses do not in fact require that we abandon all of our storytelling conventions, that we start art over again from gory scratch, since we already have at our disposal a narrative form that forces us to say who is dying and how and at whose hands: scary movies and the weird menace of the pulps. (

Well, yes: precisely because the Gothic is an aesthetic that Capital has always capitalized on itself while the would-be representative voices of modernity have been trying to tell us the contrary; Gothic was mainstream culture even while it was never seen as representative. The ghosts, vampires, and zombies of the Gothic may be a medium wearing cherry chapstick, concealing rather than revealing the tales of horror and blood-sacrifices which Capital and now neoliberalism require as their structural necessities on a daily basis. When does/did the Gothic become consumerism, when does/did Gothic Studies become establishment, when does/did an alternative Goth sub-culture become assimilated to being a formation worthy not only of political and social protection, but which actually receives political and social advocacy? And where does that leave Gothic Studies appeal to its importance as a medium of cultural critique that is left-of-field to the rest of its disciplines of literary, film art, music, and cultural studies itself?

The task of Gothic Studies today could lie in determining how its own particular pharmakon can still work. The Gothic pharmakon is both poison and cure and if neoliberalism acts as though it can control and manage the Gothic’s pharmacology, then this is a pharmacological control that may still prove toxic to it. Thorne again: “The ‘radically darkened art’ that Adorno is proposing must do something more ‘than merely protest’; we need an art, rather, that ‘has taken the disaster into itself’ and that ‘identifies with it’, an art, indeed, that ‘has defected to the enemy’ – not horror, but gonzo horror.” It is the task of the critic to unlock this potential, rather than to simply assume it is given. The Gothic is so troubling because it is the ideal representation of a story of bourgeois culture which those writers didn’t want to tell themselves while they were trying desperately to turn themselves and their tastes into the canonical voices of the age, and whom the 19th and 20th centuries subsequently gladly obliged in this desire. Horror fiction, which we usually think of as beyond the pale may never have gone far enough in its brutality, its challenge to taste and reason.

Maybe we need to embrace the Gothic not as the fantastic abjection of normality but as more of a troubling doubling of the bourgeois quotidian’s own negative dialectic. Maybe this is one place to start thinking this through:

All images are taken from In the Flesh (dir. Dominick Mitchell, BBC 3 2014)

Cited Literature:

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Ware, Herts.: Wordsworth, 1993.

Baldick, Chris, and Robert Mighall. “Gothic Criticism.” A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Malden: Blackwell, 2008. 209–28.

Baldick, Chris, and Robert Mighall. “Gothic Criticism.” A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Malden: Blackwell, 2008. 209–28.

Boening, John ed. The Reception of Classical German Literature in England, 1760-1860. A Documentary History from Contemporary Periodicals. Vol. 1. New York, London: Garland Publishing, 1977).

Botting, Fred. Gothic. London: Routledge, 1997.

Cooper, Melinda. Life as Surplus. Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle, London: U of Washington P, 2008.

Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy”. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. London: Athlone, 1981. 61-172.

Goven, Joanna and Vicenzo Pavone. “The Bioeconomy as Political Project: A Polanyian Analysis”. Science, Technology, & Human Values 40:3 (2015): 302-337.

Hogle, Jerrold E. “The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection.” A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Malden: Blackwell, 2008. 293–304.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1981.

Mbeme, Achille. “Necropolitics”. Trans. Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15 (2003): 11-40.

Miles, Robert. “Popular Romanticism and the problem of belief”. Ann Radcliffe. Romanticism and the Gothic. Ed. Dale Townshend and Angela Wright. Cambridge UP, 2014: 117-134.

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. London: Longman, 1980.

Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself. Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: UP, 2007.

Townshend, Dale. Interview by Stephanie Gallon. Spectral Visions. <> Web. 25 Aug 2015.

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