Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Book that Haunts You: Jeremy Dyson's The Haunted Book


The Haunted Book – Jeremy Dyson.

Increasingly these days we see the term ‘anthology’ banded about, especially in terms of television series – American Horror Story and Channel Zero being the first two that spring to mind in terms of TV. If we turn to films, and these are some I would never want to re-watch, but The ABCs of Death, and, the VHS films follow this (Find and watch them at your own peril). But more interesting to my nerdy self, and probably you if you’re anything like me (and let’s face it, you probably are a little bit), is the way in which this idea has started to bleed into contemporary literature.

Pictured: Channel Zero's true monster - disappointment.
Of course, we’ve always had short story anthologies or collections, and it’s hard to even say the word ‘anthology’ without giving a major portion of the British population terrible flashbacks to the days of A-level English, but recently the idea of an anthology text is coming more and more to the fore, to lesser or greater degrees of success.

David Mitchell’s Slade House fits (albeit uncomfortably, but that’s the topic for another blog) into this category, along with, I would argue, Patrick McGrath’s Ghost Town, which acts a metafictional anthology; the collection situates itself as a series of three short stories centred around Manhattan, yet the progression of themes between the three directly mirrors the progression of style and concerns of the author himself. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure works as an anthology series in some ways too – a series of stand-alone stories that all have a common theme or thread, though those toe the line of sequel.

There are countless examples of short story collections with common themes, and novels that match this, but the example that has become the most prevalent in my mind, and which I want to talk about today is a book that sat on my shelf gathering dust for way longer than it should have – Jeremy Dyson’s The Haunted Book.



The book is the story of an author tasked with the creation of a book. So, metafictional. But not just metafictional, but linking back to Alistair Fowler’s idea of the Poioumenon:

‘In this genre (poioumenon) the central strand of the action purports to be the work’s own composition, although it is really ‘about’ something else […] often the writing is a metaphor for constructing a world. […] the poioumenon is calculated to offer opportunities to explore the boundaries of fiction and reality – the limits of narrative truth.’ [1]

While Fowler’s attempts to define metafiction before the term was introduced later by Gass ultimately failed – Stop trying to make poioumenon happen Fowler! – The sentiment here remains true. The poioumenon is a recurrent feature of metafictional texts. See House of Leaves for a recent and wonderful example. Also, just go read that book. But anyway, back to the haunted book.

The text initially seems a simple anthology of ghost stories. The main narrative is of Jeremy Dyson travelling around the United Kingdom, visiting cites of certain supernatural reports in order to get the inspiration needed to flesh them out into full short stories for his anthology ‘The Haunted Book’. All well and good. Sure, he starts to see the figure of a small girl following him as he travels, but such is the nature of the Gothic. Nothing to write home about, right? Oh, how innocent I was when I thought these words.

The twist comes part way through when, in following a lead for a particularly existential story, our author comes across another document. A Document titled ‘This Book is Haunted’, which tells the tale of a writer in the late 70s travelling around the UK chasing ghost stories, who begins to see the figure of a small ghostly girl following him. The text itself shifts format at this point to mimic the book our original author has found. 

However, the author of This Book is Haunted eventually comes across a book in a haunted library titled ‘A Book of Hauntings´ written in the the late 1930s, a collection of short Ghost Stories told by an author who admits to seeing a small ghostly – You see where this is going.

The author of this text then finds a collection of stories published in 1885 about various supernatural accounts before THE PAGES TURN BLACK! We travel from The Haunted Book (2012), to This Book is Haunted (1978), to A Book of Hauntings (1938), to Glimpses in the Twilight (1885), and finally to black.

It’s an interesting, experience, as with each narrative layer we expect to be removed back out, to find ourselves thrust at some point back into the original narrative frame of Jeremy Dyson and The Haunted Book, but this never comes. I don’t want to ruin the ending for you, but as soon as you hit the black pages at the back of the book ones mind truly blows. 


The contents of these dark, final pages, reach out of the book and drag you – yes you, dear reader – into the narrative tradition. Much as each layer finds a book and reads it, The Haunted Book effectively places its reader as the first of these narrative layers; just as each of the authors has found a book of short stories, so too does the reader come to realise that they too have just done that very same thing. That they are the first short story, in which a reader finds a book. 

The experience is incredibly thrilling, and incredibly smart, as this reader found himself looking around for that ghostly female figure for several days after reading. But this reader is incredibly paranoid and easily scared. 

Hiding under the bed like a true scaredy cat.
I really can’t recommend this book enough, for the incredibly clever way that it draws the reader in through the multiple narrative layers before the grand shock of the end and forcing the reader into their own hellish realisation. It’s a smart, well written text with great implications in terms of both reader response theory and Gothic literature, and it raises questions about that actual role of texts that I dare not too think too heavily about. It’s also an interesting metafictional application of the genre tropes of the anthology, and a clever final twist that the most recent season of American Horror Story also managed with the final title splash.

So, yes, go out and get yourself haunted. And get thee a damn good book!

[1] Alastair Fowler, A History of English Literature (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), p. 370. My Parenthesis


Daniel ‘Don’t Read This Book’ Southward is a PhD Researcher at the university of Sheffield. His research focuses on contemporary Gothic literature, metafiction, and post-postmodernity. He is a big old scaredy cat who should not be allowed to read alone. But then, he’s never alone… he’s just behind you, reading this over your shoulder his skeletal fingers grazing the top of your ear… or not. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

1897: The Year of the Psychic Vampire; Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire

Vampire bat and cover of the Victorian Secrets
edition of The Blood of the Vampire

If I asked you to think about the year 1897 and vampires, your first thought would probably turn to Dracula: Bram Stoker’s infamous, Transylvanian Count, subsequently immortalised by numerous film, TV, and fictional adaptations and reimagingings. But it may surprise you to learn that in this same year, another Vampire entered the Victorian scene of literary vampires. More importantly, this vampire is not a rehashed version of Dracula, but distinctly unique in her own right. Yes, this vampire is a woman; her ancestry is not founded in Transylvania, but Jamaica; and, curiously, she does not drain the blood of her victims but instead drains her victims’ life force, earning her the title of ‘Psychic Vampire.’

This vampire is Harriet Brandt, the protagonist of Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire published just mere months after Stoker’s Dracula. Before we discuss Harriet, it is worth considering first the author who created her. Following the trend set by many preceding Gothic authors, Marryat’s own life is just as fascinating as her fictional narratives. Greta Depledge writes that ‘The life of Florence Marryat contains all the intrigue of one of her sensation fictions – marriage, adultery, separation, numerous children, bereavement, notoriety, fame and success.’[1]

The daughter Fredrick Marryat (celebrated navy officer, successful novelist, and pioneer of the sea story), Florence Marryat was an internationally successful author herself: publishing short stories, children’s stories, plays, as well as a vast number of novels, and many of her works were translated into several different languages. Additionally, Marryat wrote and edited for newspapers and magazines; she acted and performed onstage; and she was also an avid spiritualist. In fact, some of her most well-known works were her writings on Spiritualism such as There Is No Death (1891) and The Spirit World (1894), and are quite interesting works in their own right. Marryat was, then, one of the most prolific and popular female authors of the nineteenth century.



Despite being married well before her first novel was published Marryat also chose to publish in her maiden name. This was an incredibly astute business decision, as it allowed her to benefit from her father’s legacy, although she quickly established a successful and popular literary reputation of her own. Like Harriet Brandt, her Psychic vampire, Marryat’s novels often prominently featured strong women, and in both her own life and the fictional lives of her characters she did not shy away from acts and characteristics deemed controversial by her contemporaries. It is perhaps odd, then, that until very recently, Marryat has been omitted from critical discussions that have overseen the revival of popular, nineteenth century, female authors which has included Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Marie Corelli, and Rhoda Broughton. Discussion this omission, Depledge writes that ‘If a fictional heroine who divorces her husband can be so thoroughly condemned one can only admire women, like Marryat, for making similar decisions in their own lives and having to deal with the repercussions.’[2]

Similarly, it is also puzzling that The Blood of the Vampire has seen a similar omission within the field of Vampire studies, despite containing a female vampire who rivals her vampiric sisters Carmilla and Lucy Westenra (created by Sheridan le Fanu and Stoker). However, the omission of Marryat herself, and in particular The Blood of the Vampire, is slowly being redressed, and I hope that this post and accompanying discussion at Sheffield Gothic’s reading group, will complement this.




So, let us now turn our gaze to Harriet Brandt. [Note: spoilers beyond this point] Harriet: the Psychic Vampire on whom your curiosity has been hooked since the beginning of this post. Harriet: daughter of a mad scientist Henry Brandt and an unnamed, mixed-race, Obeah woman. Harriet: the sister of Carmilla and Lucy, but who, unlike her vampire predecessors, does not suck blood. Harriet is not a centuries old male vampire travelling from Transylvania (and his coterie of female vampires) to England with the intention of founding and spreading his vampiric empire through the transmission of blood; instead, she is a distinctly female vampire who appears, at first, unaware of her vampiric power.

Marryat locates Harriet’s vampiric nature to Jamaica, rooting it in the legends of Obeah and the barbarity of vivisection and scientific experiments. Henry Brandt, Harriet’s father, is described as a cruel and barbaric: ‘You called him a doctor – he was not worthy of the name. He was a scientist perhaps – a murderer certainly!’ [3] Originally operating in the hospitals of Switzerland, he was expelled for imposing his own scientific experiments on his patients which often resulted in their death, and thereafter settled in Jamaica. In Jamaica, his horrific experiments continued upon the natives until at last they revolted; murdering him and burning his house and his property.

The description of Harriet’s mother is just as vivid. She is described as ‘a fiend, a fitting match for Henry Brandt’ and physically depicted as ‘a fat, flabby half caste.’[4] This portrait highlights her own cruelty in watching the victims of Henry Brandt, but also her sensual mouth, her greedy eyes, her insatiable appetite, and her thirst for blood. Labelled as Obeah, Marryat explains the blood-lust of Harriet’s unnamed mother through a curious tale that, in the novel, originates from the oral narratives and traditions of Jamaica:

They declared that when her slave mother was pregnant with her she was bitten by a Vampire bat, which are formidable creatures in the West Indies and are said to fan their victims to sleep with their enormous wings whilst they suck their blood. Anyway, the slave woman did not survive her delivery and her fellows prophecied that the child would grow up to be a murderess. Which doubtless she was in heart if not in deed! [5]

If we believe these stories, Harriet is the child of parents guilty of murder, torture, cruelty, and bloodlust. It is also worth noting that her parents, both seemingly godless and lawless, remained unmarried. Of course, in true Gothic-heroine-style, Harriet escapes being raised by such parents by their timely and horrific slaughter, and her even more timely rescue. And, again in true Gothic-style, where else would she be sent to be raised and educated but to a convent. It is this Harriet, born of such horrific parents, but educated in a convent and kept in ignorance of her parentage, that we encounter in the first pages of Marryat’s novel.

Bat Woman, by Albert Penot. Also used as the cover 
for the Valancourt edition of The Blood of the Vampire
Through the story of the vampire bat, and the suggestions of a thirst for blood that begin with the nameless mother, but continue with Harriet, Marryat roots her female vampire in the distinct tradition of vampires that hinges on bloodsucking. However, Marryat defiantly does not depict her female vampire fulfilling this act, and in the novel Harriet does not drink blood. Rather, her vampiric quality is located in her Otherness, both as a female and racial Other.

Harriet threatens the stability of civilized, Western society and refuses to conform to it. She mesmerises and attracts those who gaze upon her, both men and women, and even destabilises relationships as her attraction is not limited to those who are single. Moreover, Harriet’s mixed race is perceived as a threat that will contaminate the purity of England through marriage and miscegenation. Perhaps what is most threatening is that Harriet looks white, and knowledge of her parentage only serves to reveal her mixed-race identity and thus heightens the fears of black blood: ‘When the cat is black, the kitten is black too! It’s the law of Nature […] The girl is a quadroon, and she shews it distinctly […] she has inherited her half-caste mother’s greedy and sensual disposition.’ [6]


Like Lucy Westenra, too, Harriet also threatens the concept of motherhood. But unlike Stoker’s vampire, who lures children to drink their blood, and therefore must be violently killed and mutilated by a group of men, Harriet’s narrative is much more sympathetic. Early in the novel, she enthusiastically nurses the baby of Margaret Pullen, and often insists that she be the one to look after and play with the child. However, the subsequent death of this child is the first of several mysterious and unexplained deaths that surround Harriet. Although unintentional, Harriet soon learns her own role in these deaths, and seeks out her own heritage. Like Lucy, then, Harriet’s vampiric career begins with children, but unlike Lucy she is concerned at the part she plays. The novel ends with her death, but in contrast to Lucy violent death in Dracula, Harriet commits suicide – choosing to end her own life with a dose of chloral.

The Blood of the Vampire is a unique novel creating a female vampire that offers something different to both Dracula and other female vampires such as Lucy Westenra and Carmilla. The novel deserves a place within the tradition of vampire fiction, and arguably, and as I hope this post has shown, without Harriet Brandt, something is lost in the discussion of nineteenth century female vampires.

Mary 'Slayer' Going is a PhD Researcher at the university of Sheffield and member of Sheffield Gothic. Her research focuses on representations of Jewish figures in Romantic and Gothic fiction. She is our vampiric expert, especially when it comes to Buffy. 


References:

[1] Greta Depledge, ‘Introduction’ in The Blood of the Vampire, ed. Greta Depledge (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2010), p. iiv.

[2] Greta Depledge, ‘Introduction’ in The Blood of the Vampire, ed. Greta Depledge (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2010), p. viii.

[3] Florence Marryat, The Blood of the Vampire, (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2010), p. 67.

[4] Florence Marryat, The Blood of the Vampire, (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2010), p. 68.

[5] Florence Marryat, The Blood of the Vampire, (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2010), pp. 68-69.

[6] Florence Marryat, The Blood of the Vampire, (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2010), p. 77.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

But is it Gothic? - JoJo's Bizarre Adventure!


Two stars fall from the sky//One shining in the light, the other sinking into darkness//A ripple drawing the two of them together//One will walk the path of pride and receive the sun's guidance//One will walk the path of unbridled ambition//Demanding sacrifice//

Let that burning in your soul calm the trembling of your heart//Strike down your fears//With courage coursing through your veins!//You cannot overcome your pain unless you can accept//
The legacy of your bloodline!
JoJo!

"JoJo's Bizarre Adventure"
Pout game... too strong...
It is with mild trepidation and a lot of fanboy excitement that, as part of Sheffield Gothic's 'But is it Gothic' season, I present the following for your consideration: JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (2012). For this blog, I'm going to be commenting on the 2012 anime series, specifically the first season, rather than the enduring and incredibly popular ongoing manga or the first 1993 anime.

JoJo's, then, is the story of Jonathan Joestar, JoJo to his friends, heir to the Joestar fortune and gentleman in training in 1880's England. JoJo lives an idyllic life at his father George's huge country estate, a charmed existence that is shattered by the arrival of another young man - Dio Brando. Years before, George Joestar, his wife, and infant son Jonathan, were involved in a terrible carriage crash and rescued by Dario Brando, who happened to be nearby. George swears a debt to Dario, unaware that the latter was actually only attempting to loot their corpses. After Dario's death, George adopts the man's son, Dio, in order to appease this debt. Dio immediately plans to usurp JoJo, to discredit him entirely and thus claim the Joestar fortune for himself. 

Dio's torture of JoJo (which involve stealing his love's first kiss, spreading rumours about JoJo, publicly beating him, and burning his dog - Danny - to death!) culminates in a dramatic scene in which JoJo reveals to his father the depths of Dio's evil. 

DAAANNNNNYYYY!!!
You were too pure for this world, sweet dog.
Panicky, and now proved to have been poisoning his adoptive father, Dio grabs an ancient mask and plugs it onto his face, transforming himself into a Vampire. Yes. A vampire. I'm not doing the intricacies of the plot justice here, but it's a pretty damn dramatic moment - Dio, vampired up and now seemingly unkillable, murders a poor squad of unnamed policemen, kills JoJo's father in front of him, nearly kills JoJo himself, and the entire estate is burned to the ground. 

JoJo's roguish friend Speedwagon, (in)famously afraid
as Dio transforms into the vampire for the first time. 
The rest of JoJo's adventure involves his journey to kill Dio before a vampire plague can destroy the world. He is joined along the way by the aforementioned Speedwagon (who continues to be defined by fear) and Baron Zeppeli, who teaches JoJo how to harness the power of his blood to fight Vampires... Which is as exactly as flawed a method as it sounds. But the story itself is fascinating and indulges some of the classic, if now somewhat abandoned, tropes of the Gothic.

Foremost among these, and what I want to draw the most attention to here, is the most obvious, and often most heavily parodied, element of JoJo- the camp. 'One of the most essential elements of camp', Max Fincher asserts, 'is how it forces its subject (in this case the reader) to think about how gender is constructed through a discourse about the naturality of the body'.[1] And JoJo certainly delivers in this regard. The male body is shown throughout as intensely buff, with the main cast being ludicrously so, but these bodies are often forced into striking poses that often seems to pastiche sexualised feminine, or certainly overmasculinse, poses and as such evoke the high camp of the Gothic.

Concept art of Jonathan Joestar.
(If I had thighs like that I'd be in hospital)

This, combined with the high emotional tone that runs throughout - the constant streams of tears, of manly feelings that are being constantly expressed, the extreme reactions to all minor and major shocks (see Speedwagon meme earlier) - speaks to this camp tone, which becomes increasingly excessive as the series reaches the finale and brings to mind the high emotion of the early Gothic.

The anime also ticks the rest of the Gothic boxes, with vampires about, ancient temples with hidden traps and labyrinths, castles in mountains, revenge plots, tainted bloodlines, blood rituals, monsters, and much much more! JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is a feast for the Gothicist, though the latter seasons begin to move more and more away from this genre and towards action.

All in all, the series situates firmly in the Gothic, with more of a classical than a contemporary vibe in terms of the genre, but it is well worth a watch and, on viewing, I think that the initial question (But is it Gothic?) will resound with a firm, manly, emotional 'Yes'. Possibly with a bicep flex and a pose that no human body could possibly contort into.

"And I'll leave Lego and upturned plugs all over the floor!
And crumbs in your bed sheets!"
[1] Mark Fincher, ‘The Gothic as Camp: Queer Aesthetics in The Monk’, Romanticism on the Net, 44 (2006) <https://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2006/v/n44/013997ar.html>.


Danny 'Dead Dog' Southward is a PhD researcher at the university of Sheffield, his research focuses on metamodernism, metafiction and contemporary Gothic. He is too raw about the death of the dog, so he'll have to get back to you later when he's finished practicing his poses and loud exclamations

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

But is it Gothic? - Adventure Time


But Is it Gothic? – Adventure Time

Marceline the Vampire Queen, Adventure Time opening sequence

Vampires? Check. Creepy landscapes? Check. Radioactive fallout resulting in mutations of sentient lollipops – come again? No I didn’t spill magic-mushroom flavour ice cream all over my handbook to Gothic literature, I’m just very excited to be writing a piece on one of my favourite animated cartoons of recent years: Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. And, as I’m sure fellow viewers and fans will testify, one does not require any hallucinogenics to enjoy the show – its comic style, trippy visuals and surprisingly dark humour work well enough on their own. Ice cream, however, is required at all times.

In true twenty-first century fashion, I first became aware of Adventure Time through online meme culture. My first experience of actually watching it was through a Youtube clip compilation, including a scene where the hero Finn takes down a villain by threading his jumper through the creature’s eye sockets and shattering its skull (the sweater of l-l-liking someone a lot, it seems, is to this generation’s adventurers as a towel is to galactic hitchhikers. You never know when it will come in handy).

Intrigued, I began to watch the show in earnest, and before long was completely drawn into the exquisitely bizarre adventures of the principle characters.



The show is set in the distant future in the Land of Ooo, a thousand years after a nuclear holocaust called The Great Mushroom War has destroyed almost all life (see picture above). In the wake of the bombs, magic has begun to return to the world, and this combined with the radioactive fallout has resulted in strange lifeforms, including a race of sentient candy creatures who are ruled over by the benevolent Princess Bubblegum. The story revolves around the adventures of Finn, the last human boy, and Jake the Dog, his shapeshifting canine companion.

The show is a surreal combination of dark imagination with childish sweetness and excitement. Visually speaking, whilst other Cartoon Network programmes strongly feature up-close and hyper-disgusting animation styles, Adventure Time has a gentler aesthetic: just look at its pastel-coloured characters, it’s cotton-candy-wouldn’t melt-in-my-mouth backdrop. The show’s darker elemental underbelly is literally sugar-coated, like a charming Peppermint-Butler who wants to steal your flesh. Like a children’s balloon that yearns for the sweet embrace of death. Even when making not-so-subtle sexual references, the humour is dark, but never seedy. Where other shows are fun for their gross-out appeal, Adventure Time stands out as a product of pure imagination that relies on witty storytelling and sassy dialogue to enchant the viewer.

Finn the Human and Jake the Dog
So without further preamble let’s jump into some probably quite tenuous analysis to answer the question: ‘Is it Gothic?’ Objectively Adventure Time certainly appears to draw upon the common archetypes of the Gothic genre. We have the noble hero Finn who seeks to rescue princesses in distress; there are the castles, sinister dungeons and creepy forests that are found throughout the land of Ooo; legions of monsters and spooky creatures that populate them; and a wicked predatory patriarchal figure set on kidnapping a handful of distressed maidens.

However, the series actually goes a step further in representing figures and stories from the Gothic literary canon. Let’s take the character of Ice King. Initially conceived to be the series’ main antagonist (that is, until the appearance of a powerful undead lich demon and an obnoxious monarchist lemon), the Ice King is the ruler of the Ice Kingdom with a singular goal: to kidnap princesses and force them to marry him. He is assisted in this by his psychopathic penguin minion Gunther, formerly Orglorg, who can only communicate through one word: “wenk”.

Penguins aside, a case could be made for Ice King’s similarities with the figure of Bluebeard. In this definitive Gothic folktale, the aristocratic though hideously unattractive Bluebeard marries a series of women whom he murders one by one, hanging their corpses in a secret room. The key to this room he gives to his next wife, telling her that she must never open it. Bluebeard is finally defeated when his latest bride’s curiosity leads to her opening of the room, and Bluebeard is eventually defeated by knights in shining armour.

Okay, so the stories don’t match up exactly, but a strange resonance can be found in the blue-skinned, blue-robed, not to mention bearded Ice King, who experiences periods of intense self-loathing at his appearance and who feels he will only be happy if he succeeds in forcing a princess to marry him.

There are other references to the Gothic literary canon as well. Becoming fed up of his failure to marry a princess, in ninth episode of season four the Ice King takes a leaf out of Victor Frankenstein’s book and steals body parts from all the princesses in the land. He fuses them together to create a new bride, Princess Monster Wife. Therefore, it can be said that Adventure Time deliberately attempts to insert itself into the Gothic tradition through both its settings, themes, and its parodic references to the established Gothic literature tradition.

Princess Monster Wife. 
Of course, such references come highly distorted through the show’s futuristic post-apocalyptic setting, as do many other common literary tropes. For example, bodily disfiguration has long been a theme in Gothic literature. Distortions of the human form are used to augment an atmosphere of unease and to increase fear in the face of the uncanny. In Adventure Time, in addition to the anthropomorphic sweeties and animals, the bodies of both principle and minor characters are changed by contact with radioactive substances. One memorable instance involves the character Shoko falling into an underground river of nuclear waste, from which her body emerges as a hideously mutated amorphous slug-like creature.

In this way, Adventure Time represents a new milestone in Gothic fiction. In the past, Gothic narratives have often emerged as a black mirror to contemporary social issues. This has included advancements in science and technology: who can forget that Frankenstein owes its conception to Mary Shelley’s knowledge of galvanism (the idea of animating deceased tissue through electrical stimulus)? In the same way, Adventure Time owes its narrative backstory to nuclear physics, and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse; a fear of which has been recently renewed in light of certain presidential elections. In this way, we might categorise Adventure Time as “post-nuclear fantasy Gothic”.

To conclude, if you haven’t seen it already, please go and watch Adventure Time. Come on, grab your friends and prepare to travel to (hopefully) distant (but uncomfortably close) lands. Don’t worry, I will bring the ice-cream.

The Gothic Reading Group will be meeting tomorrow, the 16th, for our session on Adventure time. If you wish to join us, but haven't got time to binge watch the entirety of the series, we recommend watching the following episodes for discussion:

Season 1- episode 1: Slumber Party Picnic.
Season 3- episode 12: The Creeps
Season 4- episodes 5-6: Return to the Nightosphere, 9: Princess Monster Wife, 10: Goliad, 20: You made me
Season 5- episodes 1-2: Finn the Human, Jake the dog, 9: All Your Fault, 31: Too Old, 50-51: Lemonhope
Season 6- episode 17: Ghost-Fly

Felicity Powell is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield and is truly mathematical. She is interested in literary post-apocalyptic landscapes & mutated sentient lollipops, as we all are. Peppermint Butler is afraid of her.  

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Review: Celluloid Screams

Sheffield Gothic's own Carly Stevenson reviews two films from this year's Celluloid Screams


Celluloid Screams Reviews: Pet and Raw

Pet (2016) dir. Carles Torrens 

Merry from The Lord of the Rings finds his own ‘precious’.
Unfortunately for him, she turns out to be more manipulative than Sauron
‘Love is sacrifice’: this is loner Seth’s justification for abducting Holly and caging her in the basement of the animal shelter where he works as a security guard. Naturally, she isn’t convinced, at least not at first. But make no mistake – Pet is not a story about ‘Stockholm syndrome’, nor does it adhere to the generic, exploitative conventions of victim/captor narratives. 

The film is about power – particularly, the slipperiness of power in oppressive circumstances; but more importantly, it explores who (or what) we are when we’re alone. Pet throws a curveball pretty early on and continues to toy with viewer’s expectations for the duration. 

Most of the scenes are confined to the basement, which serves the double purpose of heightening the claustrophobic effect and prompting the viewer to question: who is really being held captive in this film? And, crucially, what does it mean to be in control (of a situation and of oneself)? Granted, Pet isn’t a radically subversive film and the ‘twists’ aren’t particularly surprising to the horror aficionado, however, it is a better-than-average psychological thriller with an ending that will stay with you long after the credits roll.


Raw (2016) dir. Julia Ducournau

The aftermath of an intense food coma. We’ve all been there.
Despite only being screened at a handful of festivals, Raw already has a reputation for upsetting squeamish audience members (fainting, a la Gothic heroine, is fast becoming a fashionable phenomenon in post-millennial horror cinema) so you can imagine how excited I was to catch a preview of the most anticipated horror of 2016 in my own city. 

Happily, Raw did not disappoint. At its core, Raw is a coming-of-age story about vet student and strict vegetarian Justine, whose enrollment at the same institution as her estranged sister propels her into the seedy underworld of their cultish college. The hazing ritual for new vet students involves consuming rabbit entrails, which leads Justine on a bloody journey from ‘fresh meat’ to (human) meat-eater. Raw deals with the ultimate taboo topic of cannibalism in a shockingly comedic way by framing the flesh-eating within a narrative about familial relationships – specifically, sparring siblings who literally take chunks out of one another. Someone asked me why, as a vegan, I chose to watch Raw. 

My response is this: intentionally or not, this film destabilizes our relationship with meat by exploring, in a grotesquely exaggerated way, the effects of unrestrained appetite. Justine consumes animal parts in order to fit in with her peers, but this negation of her principles has disturbing repercussions. Controversial interpretations aside, Julie Ducournau’s promising debut is a great example of how to pace a horror film. Raw is 98 minutes of ‘all killer, no filler’, if you’ll pardon the punning colloquialism. 



Carly 'Post-Credits Secrets' Stevenson is a PhD researcher at the university of Sheffield, researching Gothic and Romantic conceptualizations of mortality. She's our regular Celluloid Screams reviewer and is always up for some frightful films or marvelously malevolent movies.

Friday, 4 November 2016

But is it Gothic? - Courage the Cowardly Dog

This week, the Gothic Reading Group met to discuss the childhood cartoons that formed us into the wonderful Gothic adult-children we still are to this day. Daniel Southward here discusses his relationship to a cartoon dog. 





Why do we watch things that make us afraid? It's an important questions and one that dogs Gothic and Horror theory. Why, for example, would anyone watch a show about a tiny pink dog that is constantly visited by terrifying apparitions? Try not to terrier-self up about it though, just beagle-ad that Courage the Cowardly Dog existed. I am. So settle in, paws anything else you're doing and try to kee-pup (Sorry for the puns, hope they didn't make you feel melan-collie -SEND HELP)


As a young lad, my television choices were largely determined by the temperament of my older brother and his ungodly strength in our frequent fights for the remote control. Thus I grew up with a lot of Transformers, Thundercats and Captain Planet. Still, in the odd occasions when I did somehow wrangle control, I would find myself going straight to cartoon network and the flashing late-nineties surrealist horrors that awaited me there.

At the reading group some of these came up - the horrifying animation and awkward sexual innuendo of Cow and Chicken, the grim reality of Invader Zim, the unendingly catchy theme tune of Round the Twist. None of these shows, despite some of their grimmer moments, ever stuck with me as much as Courage though.



Courage ran on Cartoon Network from 1999 - 2002, -(It had a span[iel] of three years MAKE IT STOP )- and in that time it spawned some truly horrifying memories for me. The central premise is as follows: As a child, a puppy is abandoned at a farm house in the middle of Nowhere. Literally. This pink dog would eventually grow up, under the care of Eustace and Muriel Bagge, to become Courage! The Cowardly Dog! Eustace delighted in torturing the dog with frequent scares, while to Muriel he was a little angel. Paradise, of a sorts, then. Each episode, however, Courage must fight off evil witches, deadly foxes, mattress demons and all other manner of beasts and supernatural beings, all of whom seem to want to steal away his precious humans. Our wee pup will always somehow defeat them, despite being extremely afraid, and return everything to the status quo...mostly.

While the scares were many and terrifying (You were warned) The villain who always returns to mind, when thinking about Courage, though, is the Black Puddle Queen.

Black Puddle Queen seducing Eustace in the bath.

While she only appears in one episode, the witch is a truly terrifying figure. Able to move seamlessly between any body of water, warp her form into anything she likes and with a predilection for seducing men into her deep underwater palace of doom where she would slowly consume their flesh, she was truly a force to be reckoned with (especially in a show in with a very limited female cast... which now I think about it is pretty damn bad. Shame on you courage). One of the terrifying aspects of the queen was that she appeared seemingly at random- a thunderstorm swept over Nowhere, deposited a black puddle and that was it, that was all that drew the queen to the place. That and she can appear in a cup of tea. *eyes up tea on the edge of the desk*

To return to the original question though, why would we watch a show about supernatural creatures wanting to eat someone's parents? A bit of wish-fulfillment of a child perhaps? That something exciting would happen, that they - despite their cowardly nature - would be strong enough to overcome anything, despite how scary it was?



Or maybe just because it was a bit weird. Probably that.

Whatever the reason, the experience of watching Courage was always pleasurable if a little... ruff?



Danny 'Doggone' Southward is a PhD Researcher at the university of Sheffield and currently owns precisely one dog. He wanted to call him Courage, but was over-ruled. His research focuses on the contemporary Gothic, Metafiction and Metamodernism. He loves Puns, send him some of your best Dog-based ones on Twitter @DannySouthy and make his day. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

Halloween Special! Sheffield Gothic Recommends

Hellish Halloween and spoooOOOooOOooky salutations, Gothic aficionados! We here at Sheffield Gothic generally celebrate this day all year round, as all good Goth kids should, but today - for your reading pleasure - some of us here have put together a list of some potential spooky reads and treats, some films and frights.

Here are Sheffield Gothic's redrum recommendations for the most wonderful time of the year:




First up, we have a soul-piercing piece on Kostova's The Historian from our long-distance Goth - Ellen Bulford Welch

The Historian

When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula he unleashed a phenomenon that would be a ubiquitous part of popular culture for years to come. Generations have been alternately terrified and seduced by the pointy-eared Nosferatu, the delightfully OTT hammer horror performances of Christopher Lee and the characters of Charlaine Harris’s True Blood series. In the last few years, the vampire has also undergone a somewhat saccharine conversion, manifesting (to the delight of teenage girls the world over) in the form of a tortured immortal teenager with a penchant for soulful piano playing and sparkling in the sunlight. In Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel The Historian, however, we return to a world in which vampire law is refreshingly sinister and creepy. The novel centres around Paul, a studious historian, who discovers a mysterious Dracula-themed notebook left on his library desk. To his amazement he learns that his academic mentor, Professor Rossi, came into possession of a similar document twenty years earlier. Soon after this conversation, Rossi is violently abducted, prompting Paul and the Professor’s enigmatic, vampire-obsessed daughter Helen to embark on a thrilling world-wide rescue mission. The most compelling element of the novel is the way in which Kostova skilfully turns the most disappointing aspect of Stoker’s seminal work into a narrative tour de force. Whilst the first two thirds of Dracula are filled with iconic, hauntingly atmospheric scenes, the final pursuit of the un-dead aristocrat across Eastern Europe leaves the reader with the deeply unsatisfactory feeling of anti-climax. In The Historian, however, Kostova skilfully handles Paul and Helen’s journey across the globe to allow for action and painstaking historical excavation in equal measure. Dracula, for example, is traced back to his non-fictional counterpart Vlad Tepes (commonly known as Vlad the Impaler), allowing for fascinating insights into his bloody origins in the Ottoman Empire. Well worth a read this Halloween!

Ellen 'Hellish' Bulford Welch



Next, we present a couple of creepy 'commendations from Carly Stevenson:

-'This living hand now warm and capable' by John Keats, who was born on Halloween (1795). This poetic fragment is the perfect Halloween read, as it conjures a creepy-crawly, deathly hand that will 'haunt thy dreaming nights' thereafter.

-The Witch dir. Robert Eggers. One of the best horror films of 2016, in my opinion. Get your coven together and marvel at this exquisite piece of cinema. You'll never look at ravens in the same light again.

-John Carpenter's Halloween because TRADITION.

Carly 'possibly insert Robert Louis here?' Stevenson



Next, we have a series of spooky selections from Lauren Nixon:

Over The Garden Wall: I've waxed lyrical here on the blog before about Patrick McHale's excellent 2014 mini series, Over the Garden Wall, but if you haven't watched it yet then Halloween is the ideal time to do so for multiple reasons that I won't ruin for you. Just trust me, and take the trip into The Unknown.

Adventure Time, 'The Creeps': Okay, yes. Another cartoon. We all know I'm an easy scare, but honestly this episode of Adventure Time is perfect Halloween viewing even if you've never watched before. Finn, Jake and friends are invited by an unknown host to a strange mansion for a murder mystery party and things begin to get very strange.

Emily Carroll: Canadian comic creator Carroll is particularly known for excellently creepy and atmospheric webcomic 'His Face All Red' and her anthology collection 'Through the Woods'. Carroll also has a number of her horror comics for your immediate consumption on her website http://www.emcarroll.com

Lauren 'Nightmarish' Nixon



Finally, an alarming assortment from Daniel Southward:

-Jeremy Dyson's The Haunted Book. an incredible find for me that, was wonderfully mind-bending. While the text first presents as just an anthology of ghost, witch and other supernatural stories, we are thrown layer by layer into increasingly archaic texts all before an ending that has repercussions for the reader that will leave you tingling for days afterwards. It's a damn good read from a damn good writer and one that reaches out of the text to drag you kicking and screaming into a terrible realisation that you, dear reader, may be the haunted one. 

-Don't Hug Me I'm Scared. A webseries that starts as a slightly irregular pastiche of standard children's puppet-based learning shows, DHMIS takes a gradually darker and darker streak, but the song on it are ruddy catchy. It's an interesting series of six episodes that starts (relatively) innocent, but by the end has mind boggling implications. Worth a watch, though be warned of gore and mice made out of raw meat. If you've already seen it, then all I can say is: What's your favourite idea?

-SCP. So, this is kind of hard to describe. While Creepypasta gets a lot of attention for being an open-access internet scary story platform, though it falls under some severe criticism because of this (poor writing, for the most part. the SCP society is something similar, if slightly legitimised by the consistency of their reports and lack of first person narrative. It's a series of short files about a secret society that secure, contain, or protect the public from, certain supernatural objects. These objects and entities range from the benign to the horrific - from an amazing butter-like substance, to an autonomous sentient mass of blood, flesh and organs with a large yellow eye. There's a Youtube channel called SCPReadings, which goes through some of them and they're well worth a listen if you want to be mildly freaked out.

Danny '2016 is scary enough' Southward.



So that's all folks! Check out our recommendations and let us know what you thought. Feel free to contact us on the usual channels - tune in to our terrifying twitter, find us on our flesh-less facebook, or send us an enigmatic email at gothicreadinggroup@gmail.com

(normal emails preferred to enigmatic ones).