SEASON OF THE WITCH: The Book of Goth
(Nine Eight Books)
12 May 2023
It certainly is the Season of the Witch right now (and feel free to hum that Donovan tune if you want to), with this being the second of three books on Goth to be released this year, with another due in September. Cathi Unsworth is a former Sounds journalist and author of the acclaimed biography of punk icon Jordan. Season of the Witch, Cathi's Book of Goth opens with her formative years in a God-fearing household in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, reading Dennis Wheatley novels under the bedcovers accompanied by a soundtrack provided by Radio One’s maverick DJ John Peel. It was only natural that she would end up drawn to the dark allure of Goth.
‘Season Of The Witch: The Book of Goth’ is set firmly against the background of strife and chaos that was Britain in the Thatcher era, to the extent that at times it more of a viewpoint on life under the Thatcherite jackboot than a musical history. After a canter through the origins of punk, a preamble to Goth more compressed historically than John Robb’s approach in his earlier ‘The Art of Darkness’ book, but possibly more to the point, we quickly move on to the story of the main musical movers of Goth; Killing Joke, Bauhaus, Joy Division, Birthday Party, Cramps, Cure, Lydia Lunch, Siouxsie, Sisters of Mercy, Southern Death Cult, Theatre of Hate amongst others. Although some get a section to themselves, many of their stories are interwoven with their contemporaries (much as it actually was at the time) and are returned to throughout as the political landscape painfully squirms and changes. Of course, these histories have already been told numerous times in a multitude of autobiographies, documentaries, and books on 80s music genres, so there is nothing particularly revelatory on show here and it’s true that some influential players are missing (ie Fields of the Nephilim) with only passing mentions made of others (eg Specimen), but it is good to see Gun Club and UK Decay included.
What makes this book stand out though is the linking of the narrative to news events of the time – the Yorkshire Ripper, political machinations and resignations in the Thatcher Government, etc – which underline the huge social changes and challenges, fear, and political strife that were part and parcel of life at the time. The multitude of cultural influences on Goth is covered using the unusual mechanism of sections scattered throughout the book under the sub-headings of ‘Gothfathers’ (including Jim Morrison, Aleister Crowley, Jacques Brell, Johnny Cash, Suicide, even Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley) and ‘Gothmothers’ (a mixed bag of actors, musicians and authors including Julie Driscoll, Maria Callas, Fenella Fielding, Vampira, Nico, even the Bronte sisters) who the author feels were pivotal to the development of Goth. You can debate the relevance of many of those of course (for example the list omits my clear favourite, Yvonne DeCarlo, who played the iconic and eccentric Lily Munster in The Munsters), but it adds an additional level of interest and variety.
There are also descriptions of pivotal regional scenes, especially in Leeds/Hull and bands such as The Mekons, The Three Johns, Soft Cell, and The Mob who are not perhaps obviously associated with Goth, but are a part of the scene at the time (and crossed paths with many Goth luminaries, even sharing accommodation) are also featured, along with key events, notably the Futurama festivals, and descriptions of the 80’s Goth club scene – Bat Cave, Heaven, Klub Foot, etc. The fact that Cathi was a Goth herself and was immersed in that scene gives her far greater credibility than being a mere observer writing about Goth from an academic or journalistic perspective, as others have done. She was there living it every day.
There is also a lengthy appendix section at the end of the book referencing in several short chapters influential and essential ‘Midnight Movies’ and books for your Goth library. These span a wide area and illustrate the level of deep thinking that has gone into compiling this book. This is not just a history of Goth bands, but a wholehearted attempt by Cathi to define what it is to be a Goth and the kaleidoscope of cultural touch points that entails.
To my mind this is a far more personal and personable a book than many others on the subject and forms a musical and political travelogue of Cathi’s life at a time when (to quote from the closing chapter of the book) “Goth in the time of Thatcher was a form of resistance against stupidity and ignorance”. Stupidity and ignorance unfortunately haven’t gone away in the intervening years, but then neither has Goth, rather it has evolved with the times.
Once a Goth, always a Goth though, and as Cathi proudly states in the closing line of the book “It’s time for the curse to be lifted and the words spoken in darkness to be heard in the light. I am a Goth”. She means it too.
Main image Cathi Unsworth in Kensal Rise cemetery by Mark Webb
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