Review of Franz J. Potter’s Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers 1797-1830

Franz J. Potter’s Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers, 1797—1830 is both an immense utility for students of gothic literature and a meta-analysis into the shaping of gothic studies more broadly. Potter’s book also serves to re-center the presence of class within the gothic studies context. 

The text also functions as something of a Ghost of Christmas Future for media studies writ large. There are reasons we hardly recall the shape of chapbooks and similar reasons are why future students of the gothic may just write these same words about the media we enjoy today. 

Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers is a storehouse of information on this forgotten gothic format. The text catalogs titles, authors, and publishers alongside their respective histories. 

Potter’s text is an act of remembering. It pieces together the shards of gothic memory and attempts to reintegrate missing sections of our own histories into the current field of study. 

The focalized nature of this book is, of course, most beneficial for anyone interested in either the market for gothic chapbooks or the texts themselves. However, the limits of this book reach far beyond its chosen media. 

The gothic chapbook is, as Potter’s book foregrounds, “historically overlooked or marginalized.” Chapbooks weren’t discarded as part of some natural evolution of gothic media, but as a byproduct of their position within class hierarchies. 

The problem extends to more contemporary media as well as early gothic texts. Gothic and horror studies in cinema, likewise, over focalizes titles made by massive corporations, titles reified by hegemonic taste makers, and accepted canons rather than exploring chapbook equivalents like b-horror. 

Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers blends this archival work with meta-analysis on the general course gothic studies has taken. In a field dominated by unanalyzed hierarchies, as are so many, it’s easy to see why early gothic scholarship viewed bluebooks as “lucrative trade, not art.” 

Potter’s text also focusses in on the artists and publishers that kept bluebooks circulating. Among them, Sarah Wilkinson stands out. A working mother and writer, her story feels much more present than over 200 years of time should allow. 

Wilkinson commented on her position as a writer saying: “Authorship is so precarious a way of life that I have long since become disgusted with it and wish to be fully employed.” Though I do not dream of labor, I do share the dream of stability. 

Any working academic, writer, or artist in 2022 is going to feel that quote hitting like an early steam train barreling down the tracks. I see so many artists, writers, and educators barely scraping by and I see Sarah Wilkinson’s story amongst ours. 

Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers is not just about our past, but our future. 

The book ends with a tone of proper gothic melancholia. “The gothic pamphlet, once found in most circulating libraries throughout the United Kingdom and America, eventually disappeared from the shelves and was soon forgotten.” 

Game studies faces the mounting crisis of abandonware, film studies is beset by streaming services and studios arbitrarily deciding which titles live and die, no sub-field of the gothic is free from the memory-devouring jaws of market forces. 

Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers is as much about the collective past of gothic studies as it is about our future. We either work now to keep media alive, or future gothic scholars will have to delve the crypts of our tattered age to reconstruct the art that tells our stories.