Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Travel Back in Time to a Very Gothic Nineteenth Century: GRG meets the Nineteenth Century Reading Group


The Gothic Reading Group, or the GRG, is without a doubt the best reading group the University of Sheffield has to offer.  Ok, I’ll admit I may be a little bit biased here.  But while I am an avid fan and regular attendee of the GRG, this post is actually about another reading group at the University of Sheffield, the Nineteenth Century Reading Group.  With a focus solely on nineteenth century texts, this group is just as enjoyable and engaging as the GRG, although it is perhaps lacking in it own memorable catchphrases (#cakeanddeath). 

Regardless, the Nineteenth Century Reading Group is very welcoming, and brings together students and tutors across the humanities, from the departments of History, English, and the Languages.  The group meet twice every semester, and is an excellent space for any budding Gothicist to discuss texts that are not necessarily Gothic in nature.  As any GRG meeting proves, pretty everything can be viewed as Gothic, or at least flavoured with Gothic themes or aesthetics, so this is a great opportunity to provide a Gothic perspective whilst also hearing and being able to engage with perspectives beyond this field. 

It was during my first semester as a Masters student that I first attended the reading group.  The topic for the semester was Death, and the group had been provided with a number of texts before the meeting.  These ranged from contemporary funeral songs, articles about archaeological digs discovering nineteenth century burial practices, as well as articles on Victorian mourning.  There was even a selection of photographs displaying Victorian death photography, allowing for a discussion of spirituality and religion during this period, and also prompting a comparison to the recent modern day trend of funeral selfies. 

"Come to Gothic Reading Group!!  Let me love you!!!"

The most recent meeting proved just as interesting and thought provoking.  In the middle of March of this year, the group assembled to discuss a classic nineteenth century novel: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  I can already imagine the confused looks on your faces, questioning the untimely, and even unseasonal, choice for a reading group to discuss a story about Christmas in the middle of spring.  Indeed, this look of bemusement was shared by several of the attendees.  However, the chosen theme for this semester is Time Travel, and Dickens’ Christmas novel not only provides a wealth of material regarding this theme, but discussing it in March proved in itself a kind of literary time travel.

Moreover, like many of Dickens’ novels, A Christmas Carol is enchantingly Gothic.  Perhaps the most obviously Gothic element of the novel is the inclusion of ghosts, the supernatural machinery through which time travel is achieved.  It is through the encounters with these ghosts that Dickens leads Scrooge, and his readers, on a journey that destabilizes the spaces of the supernatural and the real, the living and the dead, and the past, the present, and the future.  A focus of the meeting was on the three ghosts whose very names – the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future – demarcate the respective period of time in which they appear to be responsible for, and with whose aid Scrooge is able to travel both backwards and forwards in time. 

This kind of time travel is fascinating in itself.  As was noted in the meeting, Scrooge is unable to interfere within the scenes he is presented with.  During his many visits across time, to scenes of his childhood, scenes of Christmas time at his nephew’s house in the present, and also scenes following his own death, Scrooge cannot interact with his former self or the people around him besides his ghostly guides.  He can, however, fully experience the sensory stimuli of each scene.  The smell of a cooking meal, the sights of his childhood haunts, and even a familiar tune from the past, but now played by the wife of his nephew, all trigger powerful memories within Scrooge.  These memories, a time travel of the mind, haunt Scrooge as he proceeds on his journey, and ultimately facilitate a genuine change in his character. 

Worst...slumber party...ever...

Yet while he cannot interact with the scenes before him, he can interact with the ghosts.  The ghosts of A Christmas Carol are strangely tangible, and physical.  The three Christmas ghosts, and in particular the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Future, present to the reader bodies that, when viewed through a Gothic lens, are indefinable, distorted, changeable, and even composed of disembodied parts. 

The Ghost of Christmas Past is described as ‘a strange figure – like a child: yet not so like as an old man,’ and this strange, supernatural body is constantly changing and distorting.  As Scrooge gazes on his ghostly visitor, its body undergoes strange contortions ‘so that the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without head, now a head without a body.’ Constantly changing, the body of this first ghost shifts between different grotesque bodies, and the grotesque nature is located in the physicality of possessing ‘twenty legs’ or being ‘a head without a body.’ While Scrooge is happy to take the hand of this fluctuating being as they travel back in time, he eventually grows angry and upset, and takes this out on the body of the ghost.  In an act of violence, Scrooge forcefully presses the ghost’s hat down upon his head until he finally extinguishes its whole form. 



While the Ghost of Christmas Past posses an array and ever changing number of body parts and limbs, the body of the final ghost Scrooge encounters has only one defining, physical feature.  The Ghost of Christmas Future approaches Scrooge ‘shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.’  Crucially, and as was remarked in the meeting, this ghost does not speak, but communicates everything to Scrooge through this disembodied hand.  Although Scrooge frequently questions the ghost, and even implores him to stop, the ghost remains silent; Scrooge can only follow the direction of the phantom’s ‘steady hand’ and his ‘inexorable finger.’ 

At the climax of the novel, Scrooge is shown his own grave, his own inevitable death.  Scrooge is clearly greatly affected, and his response is physical: he clings to the robes of the ghost, whose hand ‘appeared to shake’, and finally Scrooge ‘caught the spectral hand’ and detained it is own. Within a graveyard, and next to his own grave, Scrooge’s physical struggle with this shrouded phantom is very Gothic in nature, and perhaps more so due to Dickens’ inclusion of the mysterious description of the ghost’s hand.  Representing the whole body of the Ghost of Christmas Future, here the ‘kind hand trembled.’  This tantalizing sentence is left unexplained to the reader who can only puzzle over what this remark means, and who does it originate from (the narrator or Scrooge).  Like many Gothic novels, this final ghostly encounter is left shrouded in ambiguity, but it certainly provides an interesting discussion for any reading group. 


If you take only two things from this post, the first should be that A Christmas Carol is the perfect mix of Gothic and nineteenth century, and therefore ideal for any reading group regardless of the time of year.  The second thing to take from this post is that if you haven’t already, you should definitely check out the GRG and the Nineteenth Century Reading Groups.  Both groups offer a great space to discuss really interesting texts from a range of perspectives, and most importantly, like the GRG, the organizers of the Nineteenth Century Reading Group don’t bite!


Mary Going is a postgraduate researcher in Gothic literature at the University of Sheffield. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Foreshadowings: Terror and Technology in the Digital Age

Ahead of our next GRG meeting, I wanted to explore the ways in which technology – specifically, the internet – has changed how horror stories are disseminated and received. We will be looking primarily at the phenomenon known as Creepypasta: popular horror microfiction (often centred on allegedly ‘haunted’ images, videos, games or other media) that is shared and circulated on the internet in a similar fashion to urban legends. Also known as ‘internet campfire stories’, Creepypasta derives from the traditional ghost story formula, only instead of gathering around a fire to hear oral re-tellings of supernatural tales, you huddle over a screen. And you are possibly by yourself.

There are several different types of Creepypasta (‘Lost episode’, ‘Haunted image’, ‘Ritual’) with varying degrees of disturbance. What they all have in common is the way they are passed on in a process of uncanny repetition – they spread like rumours, until the ‘original’ tale becomes distorted though the numerous re-tellings.  It is almost impossible to trace a Creepypasta back to a definite, original source. The inherent ghostliness of modern technology lends itself to this kind of storytelling – the disembodied voices floating around in cyberspace are at once absent and present. One might even go as far as saying cyberspace is the new ‘haunted house’. The idea of haunted media displaces our assumption that technology belongs to the realm of rational logic. If we accept, even for a moment, that ghosts inhabit our computer/tablet/phone screens, then technology becomes transgressive. Ultimately, Creepypasta scares us because it signifies an assimilation: the ghost is in the machine.

As a 90s child/00s teenager, I remember spending many evenings after school in front of a computer screen, using MSN instant messenger to ‘connect’ with my friends and peers (you know, instead of actually meeting up with them). 

One of the things I remember about instant messenger was the annoying, terrifying ‘chain letters’ that always seemed to start with:
‘DO NOT STOP READING THIS OR SOMETHING TERRIBLE WILL HAPPEN’

Of course, nothing ever did happen when I was brave enough to ignore the stories (usually something along the lines of ‘the ghost of ------ will murder you in your sleep tonight if you don’t send his message to 20 of your friends within the next five minutes’) but that didn't stop me from feeling unnerved. The question I find myself asking now is: was it the content that seemed terrifying, or the viral, infiltrating nature of horror microfiction?

If you haven’t encountered Creepypasta yet, be prepared for a disrupted sleeping pattern.* You can find a list of some of the more well-known Creepypastas here: http://listverse.com/2014/04/03/10-creepypasta-that-will-scare-you-silly/
Or you can visit the website: http://www.creepypasta.co.uk/

Join us in RRB Room 84 on Wednesday 20th May to discuss horror microfiction and the internet. In the meantime, search the internet for ‘two sentence horror stories’. You’ll be amazed at how chilling some of them are!


*GRG accepts no responsibility for possible sleep deprivation caused by too much Creepypasta ;)


***Correction: The GRG will be reading "Creepypasta" on May 20th, not May 6th as was previously stated.  The May 6th meeting will be a discussion of "The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Carly Stevenson is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Resurrecting the Gothic Bluebook

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the The Rise of the Gothic module last semester was the chance to study a selection of Gothic bluebooks dating from the turn of the 19th Century. These were the kind of stories the teenage Percy Shelley read voraciously, inspiring his early foray into Gothic prose even though bluebooks were considered ephemeral in their day. The fact that they were bought for a cheap thrill and then simply thrown away means that relatively few survive, but some of the 36 and 72 pages stories have been sourced and reprinted by the likes of Zittaw Press and Valancourt Books. 


Dragging the bluebook kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, you can even find Kindle e-book collections focused on the themes of castles and ruins. Not quite the same as reading a mouldering manuscript, I know, but it brings these texts back into the reach of the reading public and literary scholars alike, although the humble bluebook still remains a largely neglected form.

Many bluebooks tend to be anonymously penned redactions of popular Gothic novels of the time – so texts like Mathew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) would be hacked down to size, with the character names cunningly disguised (or not). With the story re-titled and the pages sewn into the blue covers that gave the books their name, the texts would finally be sold to the masses for mere pennies. For anyone who has struggled to find the time or the inclination to read their way through the 600+ pages of Udolpho, the bluebook The Mysteries of Gorgono, or The Veiled Picture (1802) cuts the action down to just 72 pages. 

How is that even possible, you say? With inadequate copyright law and a willingness to undertake some very heavy-handed editing, that’s how! Just imagine Radcliffe’s novel minus the prolonged landscape description, the poetry and the embedded Proven├žal tale and you've pretty much got it.  

But what you've gained in time, you've inevitably lost in terms of the overall essence of the source text. As Jack G. Voller writes in his Introduction to the text, ‘to read The Veiled Picture is not to read The Mysteries of Udolpho.’ Basically, you’ll know all the plot twists but this isn't a cheeky shortcut for a seminar on Udolpho. So why read it at all? Personally, I think bluebooks have a charm all of their own, but here interest also lies in textual comparison to identify exactly which aspects have been deleted. Do the changes represent an authorial anticipation that an audience of lower socio-economic standing are more interested in a fast-paced plot than the subtleties of the sublime, or do they perhaps reveal a change in popular taste? There’s a study there for somebody.

Frontispiece to The Black Forest; or the Cavern of Horrors! A Gothic Romance (London: Ann Lemoine / J. Roe, 1802)

Of course, when it comes to terror size really doesn't matter. From the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and M.R. James to the one line horror stories doing the rounds, there’s a high degree of skill in handling the right amount of material to leave you chilled and contemplating the unexplained, as opposed to trying to fit enough plot twists for a 3 volume novel into 32 pages – as Sarah Wilkinson does in The Chateau de Montville, or The Golden Cross (1803). Wilkinson was a prolific writer whose literary output ranged from translation work to novels and books for children as she struggled to live by her pen. Franz Potter’s research acknowledges Wilkinson as the writer of over 100 ‘short tales’ – 50 of which can be categorized as Gothic bluebooks. Montville is thought to be one of her earliest attempts at writing in the genre and is packed with Gothic motifs. Despite needing to draw out a family tree of character relationships to make sense of it, this text and the other bluebooks we read in class provide an interesting, valuable and untapped source for Gothic Studies.




Fast forward two centuries and the question is whether readers today would actually prefer a one sitting story they can flick through on the commute rather than having to invest emotional and intellectual commitment to the slow reveal of a lengthy tome? If this is the case, the resurrection of the bluebook could well be a publishing hit. 

A quick search on social media finds the Twitter account for @GothicBlueBooks, an ‘amateur press association dedicated to resurrecting the literary tradition of the Gothic bluebook & producing a whole new mouldering corpus of horrid tales’, whilst @BurialDayBooks have published a series of new bluebooks based around the themes of folklore, hauntings and revenge. 


Hannah Moss is an MA student at the University of Sheffield.  When she's not just generally rocking 18th century studies she can usually be found exploring the assuredly haunted archives of Chatsworth House.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Gravitational Grotesque, or, How I Learned to Stop Being So Meta and Love the Gothic: A story of one man’s fall back into the genre.

Buried alive in metafictional research is in an interesting and disturbing place to be. I found myself lost and alone, dug nose-deep into William H. Gass’s Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, chasing footnotes between the pages only to be lured to the bottom of one where the author suddenly exclaims ‘Now I've got you alone down here, you bastard[…]’ and where do you go from there? Something had to give. A mind cannot live on self-aware fiction alone.


Luckily, there was a Gothicist to hand.


It’s sometimes hard for a researcher in a specialist subject to pull themselves out of their own sphere, out of their own little niche of the world, but the Gothicist working nearby was a constant- and very much wanted- draw away from the pitfalls of post-postmodern contemporary fiction. When asked, she would happily launch into descriptions of these exciting, romantic worlds beneath her fingers which I had spent so far away from.

Worlds of the grotesque, the gory, the taboo, the unexpected. Worlds of women fighting for their freedom against madness and the dark. Worlds far flung from the destructive self-obsessed texts I had planted myself in. They were wonderful and interesting to me, pulling me in with their lurid moments of depravity or the heroism of their heroines.

Then came the day the clarion call of Poe was sounded out amongst the halls; the Gothic Reading Group, with Poe puns aplenty, poster-bombed the walls and called all to come and read. This new admiration for the Gothic texts of the nearby Gothicist combined with my long forgotten love for the man himself and fused into a singular desire to attend. Lost memories of undergrad days spent buried alive, behind a wall, under the floor, with teeth ripped free, screaming at ravens and lamenting Annabel Lee, all came tumbling back and suddenly I was in attendance.

Going Gothic with Marceline the Vampire Queen

The Gothic Reading Group was fantastic, forgiving of amateurs and undeniably interesting in all ways, and for days afterwards my reading began to take on a new light as buried Gothic ideals began to shine out from my contemporary texts. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Abrams and Dorst’s S, even watching Adventure Time- a guilty pleasure- was an activity suddenly filled with secret smiles as I thought back to the readings and some of the tropes that were being harkened back to or subverted. (Damn you Marceline!)

Then, another poster put up by our friendly neighbourhood gothicist revealed to me that this change wasn’t just affecting me but the entire of the little work-pod of floor two, who have all been swept up in the Gothic Fever. The Re-Imagining the Gothic symposium and showcase caused a ripple of excitement through all of us- film students, romanticists, early modernists, even we hardened creative writers. We had all been re-imagining Gothicism in our own ways in the interim, lured in by outlandish and forbidden tales of perverted monks and wandering Jews and launched ourselves wholly into this project. Now I am happily sat preparing this blog, with an extract for the conference forming next to me, discussing ideas for a creative collaborations with at least one more of us. We have all been sucked into the gravitational vortex of the grotesque, the taboo and the incredible.

But it never stops; the ideas seemed to relate, strangely, to the work I was doing in contemporary literature. There was a developing idea of overlap between these two spheres; my beautiful metafictional fetish was suddenly rife with ideas of the Gothic, or rather, of romanticism.

What happens in Gothic Reading Group...

These classic romantic ideas, of man’s relation to nature –whether subverted by hybrid animal-human combinations in bat and wolf form- an emphasis on individual’s expression of emotion and imagination, rebellion against established social norms and conventions- all related to a very contemporary trend, namely that expressed in the return of a New Romanticism in metamodernism. 

Metamodern theory expresses a growing cultural reaction to the era of postmodern irony, a reaction that lends itself to the exploration of ideas of a new romanticism and it is here that I find the overlap, with contemporary metafiction using the Gothic in order to express and explore new and old romantic ideals, bringing them to the fore. To me, this is exciting- the idea that centuries old texts, stirring, dramatic and bloody texts, are still affecting our relationship to literature in so strong a way. In the deepest, darkest throws of this developing Gothic obsession I now dare to dream of a supreme Gothic-filled literary revival and, as a non-specialist it surprises me, pleasantly though, how easily I have been drawn in.

Academically or not, though, the Gothic now has me firmly in it’s grip. Not just me though, the whole of the Floor Two who have been swept up in the G-Fever. All of us are willingly infected and loving every moment of it.  So as I sit preparing this blog post instead of reading the next Gass experimental piece, wondering if I should watch Buffy, poorly resisting the call of Cthulhu,  I am happy to have Poe watching over my shoulder once more, repeating in my mind:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.
[The Tell-Tale Heart]

-and I am infinitely happy it does.


Danny Southward is a second year PGR in Creative Writing at the University of Sheffield. He's relatively new to the whole Gothic thing but his ability to fight terrifying sea monsters has proven invaluable.


Sheffield Gothic Blog Re-Launch

The University of Sheffield Gothic group would like to welcome you to the 2015 Gothic Blog re-launch!  We’re always working to improve the site and our engagement with Gothic studies. To celebrate a new year of Gothic research and to preview our interdisciplinary and public engagement program “Re-Imagining the Gothic” we’re bringing you two weeks of Gothic blog posts for your Goth-themed entertainment and enlightenment.

We will be posting a new Gothic-themed blog every other day for the next two weeks.  These works represent a range of thoughts, experiences and research from members of the Sheffield Gothic Group, all of whom put in a great deal of time and energy into making Sheffield Gothic what it is.  Past blog posts are still easily accessible through this site and we encourage you to browse through them – we've covered all sorts of themes and topics and will continue to do so in the future.  If there’s one thing we've learned it’s that there is something Gothic for everyone!

As a member of Sheffield Gothic who is now approaching the end of her third and (theoretically) final year at the University of Sheffield, I’d like to thank all the barbarous Goths in Sheffield and in connected institutions such as the University of Manchester for their enthusiasm and commitment, both to the blog and to Sheffield Gothic in general.  Working in Sheffield Gothic has been an amazing experience, not only in the big Gothic projects we’ve done but also in the little day-to-day conversations and emails and meetings.  You guys are the best, most barbaric, wickedest, creepiest, spookiest, kookiest, smartest, most sublimely terrifying Goths I know! Thanks for being awesome!

We didn't choose the Goth life...

Sheffield Gothic is always on the look-out for new projects and new ways of exploring Gothic studies.  We encourage you to attend our reading group meetings for in-depth yet informal discussions about the Gothic, or to contact us if you want to engage with the Gothic in some other project.  We’re a pretty normal bunch of people (in the daylight) and we're always striving to create a fun and comfortable environment for the new members of our army of darkness.

We also encourage you to attend “Re-imagining the Gothic” a symposium and showcasing event on May 9th at the University of Sheffield.  This will be an innovative event demonstrating the complex nature of Gothic studies and its interdisciplinary implications (always trying to answer that great question – "but is it Gothic?").  It’s also a much larger attempt to inspire, create, and present new ways of exploring the ‘Gothic’ and integrating Gothic studies into myriad areas of research.  We are hoping to use the experiences and projects inspired and created through “Re-imagining the Gothic” to expand the boundaries of Gothic studies and to develop the Sheffield Gothic online presence as a space where people can present and promote Gothic research.  Please check out our blog pages for a complete schedule and "Re-imagining the Gothic" information or follow @Reimagining15 on Twitter.

Those interested in Gothic studies can contact us at gothicreadinggroup@gmail.com or follow us on Twitter @SheffieldGothic

Enjoy the re-launch of the Sheffield Gothic Blog!  Stay tuned for new blog posts fro Sheffield Gothic!


Kathleen Hudson is a third year postgraduate researcher in Gothic studies at the University of Sheffield.  She is just one of many Gothic minions spreading uncanny joy wherever she goes.



Sunday, 12 April 2015

Update: Goths on Hiatus

Spring Break
Greetings, fellow Goths!

It’s been spring break for the GRG and we've been using the (sort of) time off to go to plays (Susan Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror…definitely avoid vengeful Satanists, ghost children, and haunted mirrors if possible!), visit ruins (definitely not for vampire-hunting related reasons), and as an opportunity to catch up on some work for the exciting events we've got lined up for the rest of the semester.  For a full list of events please check out our 2015 schedule page.  In the meantime here are a few updates…
              
The GRG will start up again on April 22nd.  We’ll be reading Paul Feval’s La Ville Vampire, or The Vampire City (translated by Brian Stableford).  This is a very special read for us Sheffield Goths because it features one of our favourite Gothic authors, Ann Radcliffe, as the novel’s vampire hunting protagonist.  Written in the late 19th century, The Vampire City can be read as early fan fiction and also as a highly original Gothic satire which both mocks Gothic tropes and comes up with some exciting new contributions to the vampire canon.  Come along for cake and death!

For fans of this blog we’ll be having a special re-launch event on April 23rd.  This will include a Gothic Reading Group Live party featuring short film screenings, group discussions, snacks, wine, and fun.  It will also kick off a week of blog posts, one a day, every day, from Gothic reading group members on a range of Gothic-themed topics.  Stay tuned for a full blog schedule and make sure you check in every day for a new and interesting blog post starting April 23rd.


“Re-imagining the Gothic” is well underway and some diverse and fascinating Goths are getting ready for the symposium and showcasing event at the University of Sheffield on May 9th.  We've got some great proposals and projects lined up, as well as a wide range of speakers, activities, networking opportunities, and fun surprises in store.  Details and registration information will be released soon. Save the date and follow us on twitter @Reimagining15 for more updates!

Also, please follow us on twitter @SheffieldGothic for updates, observations, and various insights from us barbarous Sheffield goths.