The Art of Darkness – A Review

Firstly, my thanks to John Robb for kindly supplying me with an advance review copy of The Art of Darkness – A History of Goth, published today via Louder Than War. His enthusiasm for the subject has been infectious, with a great array of discussions throughout the media, which can only benefit this strange old subculture of ours. Robb’s history and experience within the alternative music scene at large should only be an advantage to any review of the history of goth.

This mammoth text is heralded by the bold claim “The Art of Darkness is the first major and only complete comprehensive overview of Goth music and culture and its lasting legacy.” This slightly tortured sentence is accurate in one sense, in that nobody else has committed more than 500 pages to attempting to cover every possible influence and aspect of the sprawling web of goth. 

However this does no justice to the extensive library of writing on goth that does exist, from academic texts by scholars like Professor Catherine Spooner (Lancaster) and Professor Paul Hodkinson (Surrey), to cultural commentaries aimed at a more general audience, such as those by Mick Mercer , Andi Harriman or Natasha Scharf for example. 

Writers like these and many more have grappled with the vague and undefined history of this contradictory subculture for decades. Does Robb advance any bold new theories, or solidify any thinking on goth as we know it? 

Unfortunately not. Very early on I detected a lauding of “goth” as a “celebration of non-traditional sex and gender blur” (page 5) which isn’t evidenced – and doesn’t really coincide with later readings of the subculture. Careful research into this very subject by experts like Dr Dunja Brill (Humboldt, Berlin) demonstrates that goth style choices, at least among the groups that she was researching, often reinforced conventional ideas about gender. Robb claims as early as page 6 that “there was a power to the dressing” and describes the early female adopters of goth fashion as “voluptuous but very much in control” – again, a belief widely held yet not actually substantiated. He then pastes excessively from an email exchange with Professor Claire Nally (Northumbria), which points out the fashion wasn’t nearly as subversive as believed, thereby contradicting Robb’s own claims! Perhaps this contradiction is why there’s so little use of scholarly sources in the book. 

On the music side, where you would expect a long-term music journalist and musician like Robb to excel, he instead demonstrates a very shallow appreciation for the medium. Released in 1981, The Birthday Party’s iconic single Release the Bats” charted well on release, and has subsequently achieved cult status and a lynchpin position on many goth DJ’s playlists. Robb draws the obvious conclusion that the yelped and yowled lyrics referring to sex, vampires and bats “seemed like it had been written for these very dance floors” (page 8). 

However reviewers, academic assessments and the band’s own indignant objections actually suggest the song is more of a mocking self-parody of the emerging goth sound it would inadvertently contribute to. A discussion of self-parody and its significance to the irony at the heart of goth would be an invaluable topic that Robb let slip, unperceived, through his fingers.

The redeeming features of this book lie mainly with the rich vein of interviews Robb has mined through his impressive contacts within the alternative music scene. Yet they shine all the brighter perhaps, because of their comparison to the lacklustre writing around them. Take for example his enlightening conversations with Steve Severin of the Banshees. 

Severin is discussing the influence lead singer Siouxsie Sioux’s stark appearance was having on the emerging subculture, and says of the goth scene more widely “I don’t mind anything being called ‘Gothic’ as that might refer back to the obvious influence of Edgar Allan Poe… But when it becomes shorted to ‘goth’, then I think of The Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nephilim through to Marilyn Manson and it’s kind of a pantomime version.” (page 155)

What goldmine material! What a provocative statement! Here’s the chance to interrogate a crucial musician at the very beginning of goth, and settle the ‘goth vs Gothic’ discussion once and for all. I would read an entire chapter on that discussion alone – and yet Robb does nothing with it, just plods on with a history of Banshees releases, all scattered with empty music journalism phrases like pristine and perfect dark pop”. A missed opportunity. 

In an effort to produce a coherent review, I’ve been annotating the PDF text I’ve been supplied with. By the time I reached page 219, I had 260 notes querying, objecting, or reminding me to research some odd observation made. The Art of Darkness is a passion project with a noble goal, that passionately needs an editor with a scythe. 

It is worth noting that Robb does not reference any of the authors identified at the start of my review, even though the book seems to want to be seen as an academic text with an array of footnotes (but no bibliography). The footnotes themselves vary wildly in relevance and even style – often an unnecessary credit to whoever is being quoted, or failing to quote someone at all, which calls into serious doubt what is being presented as the author’s work and what is taken from someone else. Other times a footnote becomes an entire diversion into listing alternative nightclubs around the UK as on page 11. I was particularly taken aback by a badly-worded observation on page 22 regarding Marilyn Manson and taboo topics that should have had any editor reaching hurriedly for the red pen. 

You quickly gather the impression in fact that The Art of Darkness has suffered from a serious lack of editing, and that 500 plus page description becomes less of a boast and more of a warning. Indeed, I read with some concern the adverts claiming it’s supposed to be 650 pages, with photos and illustrations – my review copy comes in at just 539, including the Index. I counted 9 full-page image collages, and just three images inserted into a full page of text.

It isn’t just the editing this text sorely needs; the proofreading falls worryingly short. There are embarrassingly obvious spelling errors – “died black hair” (page 161). There’s incorrect language – “suppressed” instead of “oppressed” (page 17). There are sentences that don’t make sense – “Apart from being the ’70s, stardust Bowie was also had a key role as a crash course for the ravers…” (page 88). Even entire paragraphs are clumsy and borderline incoherent:

The big bang of punk seemed to compress all culture before and then explode it
outwards with a dark matter of ideas that would soon coalesce as what became
known as goth (page 124)

There are areas where the font itself changes, throwing out the alignment of the text in an ugly manner, adding ever more burdens to the challenge of wading through this book. 

Perhaps the most mortifying error that encapsulates the quality of the text is on pages 348-349, where Robb footnotes Andrew Eldritch of The Sisters of Mercy no less than five times, utterly unnecessarily, and misspells his surname as “Eldtrich” on every single occurrence. 

The text itself is challenging at best, and incomprehensible at worst, aspiring to academic heights whilst falling embarrassingly short in quality, and leaving casual readers no doubt utterly adrift. The language is bizarrely varied, from actually amusing observations – “self-deprecating, self styled Salford oiks” (page 197) – to unintelligible word soups that read more like a fumbling sixth-former’s first essay.

The author occasionally stumbles on a phrase he likes, and so we learn that The Damned’s music can be referred to as alternately “high-octane brilliance” (page 159), high-octane rock’n’roll (page 160), “high-octane punk rush” (page 161) and concludes on their “high-octane vaudeville career” (page 173). Finally, there are some jaw-droppingly inappropriate references to trans people when discussing a former lover of Lou Reed, or referencing some of the transgender actors who worked with Andy Warhol. I showed an example to a trans writer and academic who stated the language used was “transmisogynistic”.

This book is evidently a labour of much love on the part of its author, and its excellent wealth of original interviews will be treasured by fans and completists. I must however conclude that The Art of Darkness is a borderline hagiography of goth, unwilling or unable to critically discuss any of its aspects, peppered with banal “comic” observations or needlessly convoluted discussions of fringe influences. Its overall conclusions on goth culture are far from ‘comprehensive’ – they’re sparse, and surprisingly limited when covering goth in the modern day, with a mere thirteen page chapter tacked onto the end. Its history of the subculture is ungainly and impenetrable, for example lingering on shock-rocker Marilyn Manson and his fringe association with the scene, whilst paying lip service to more overlooked contributors like Dinah Cancer or Chelsea Wolfe amongst many others. The book even ends up utilising a strange index system that operates on first names rather than surnames. 

I am conscious of the widespread coverage of The Art of Darkness, and I must believe that other reviewers read an entirely different book, so differing is my impression to theirs. I could say so much more but considering the circumstances, I feel brevity is necessary. I had such high hopes that were unfortunately not reached.

About The Blogging Goth

News, reviews and other articles written from the UK Goth subculture
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