Darkly by Leila Taylor: A Gothic Love Letter to America

I’ve been sitting on this review of Leila Taylor’s Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul for almost a year. It’s not difficult to summarise my feelings—Darkly is a brilliant book. I’ve mainly been unsure how to do it proper justice. Darkly is everything I love about the Gothic as a mode: it contains multitudes. As Taylor writes, ‘Goth alone is too big, too broad’ (20) to capture, and likewise ‘Black contains multitudes…literally. As a pigment it is all colors at once, but black is also the complete absence of all light. Black is […]everything and nothing at the same time’ (83). There are many ways to be a Goth, and to be a Black Goth.

In Darkly, Taylor teases out some of the multitudes and contradictions in American Gothic. The publisher’s website describes Taylor’s book as ‘part memoir and part cultural critique’. It takes us on a journey that is also part history lesson, part ghost story—a journey much like the ‘New Orleans Haunted History Tour’ with which Taylor opens the book. Like Taylor and her fellow tour guide customers:

I was expecting to see houses where ghosts could be spotted in windows on dark nights, or corners where someone was horribly murdered decades ago, but instead […] these were the ghosts of our history, the spectral remnants of our nation that were too often forgotten and dismissed. We were all hoping to be a little bit frightened, to stand in the spots between the past and the present where the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. We were expecting to be entertained by macabre tales with a patina of historical truth. But as the tour guide understood, America’s haunted history is Black History.

I first read Darkly while on a leave of absence in San Diego, California (the place of my birth). This is at once a strange place to read about the Gothic, and a perfect place. To me, California is deeply Gothic. It is also deeply American. It represents sun, mega-sales, and relentless optimism, but also peak American capitalism and consumerism. California has a reptutation as one of the US’s most progressive states, but it also has the nation’s largest homeless population. Its inhabitants have been colonised and brutalised multiple times throughout its history. California has a sense of newness and futurity to it, but one that is built on an old and unspeakable void. Throughout her book Taylor highlights many such parallels between American history and the history of the Gothic. In ‘the same year Walpole published The Castle of Otranto’, for instance, ‘Thomas Jefferson inherited his first thirty slaves from his father’ (36).

Darkly is also about about the dance between the place and placelessness of ethnicity and identity. With wry humour, Taylor relates her experience of growing up Goth (and Black) in America—an experience characterised both by a weird sameness, and a radical difference dependent on where, and with whom, one is living. Taylor also uses her own experience to talk about the presumed universality of the Gothic. As a community Goths are all different and uncomfortable, and in one sense that is why they are the same. This is too easy an answer, though, and Taylor does not let it rest here. She points out, for instance, how Black Goth ‘flies in the face of respectability politics […] It’s a refusal to conform to social standards despite being taught that conformity to those social norms is the dream, the goal, the endgame, to finally for once not be the other’ (25-26). To be Black and Goth is to embrace a particular kind of wound; Taylor draws on the metaphor of the keloid, where the ‘original cut may have healed over, but something bigger and more resilient took its place, something that, over time, mutated into its own creature’ (97-98).

Jacque Aye models a “so goth, I was born black” T-shirt designed by Bianca Xunise (one of the many examples discussed in Darkly).

There is so much in Darkly, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the Gothic, American history, or memoir. Darkly is an important book, but it is also a beautiful book. It is beautifully written, wonderfully thoughtful, and exquisitely macabre. It is part poetry, part philology, including musings on fashion, film, music, and the origins of terms like ‘spook’ and ‘haunt’.

Most importantly, Darkly is a love letter to the Goth(ic). It is also a Gothic love letter to America, a meditation on the nation’s repeated cycle of violence and death and rebirth. See, for example, this passage on the city of Detroit:

If southern gothic was about Postbellum America, Detroit certainly represents a post-Industrial American gothic. It is a revenant city—its motto is ‘Speramus Meliora: Resurgent Cineribus:’ ‘We hope for better days; we shall rise from the ashes’—burning and rising from the flames over and over again (174)

Likewise Gothic ‘may use horror, death, and the macabre in its methodology, but the gothic (and goth) is above all else romanticism’ (175). Darkly shows us the Gothic’s power to uplift—to inspire joy and hope and resistance even as our country eats itself alive. It revels in that darkness, and in the knowledge that (to repeat the quote from The Girl With All the Gifts which serves as the book’s conclusion) nothing is every really over, ‘it’s just not yours anymore’ (187).

Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul is currently ON SALE in paperback + eBook for just £5.49 (£3.99 for the eBook alone) at Repeater Books. Sale continues until 31st October, 2020.

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