We've only a couple of weeks to go until our first session for this academic year. In the meantime, we hope everyone's enjoying the beginning of the new term and getting stuck into some Gothic studies. Here at the Gothic Reading Group blog we've already had two great posts to help set us up for our screening of The Evil Dead. Kathleen Hudson has taken us through some of the hallmarks of the original series and asked how and why they might (or might not) make it across the reboot intact. Meanwhile, Adam James Smith has offered a way to think about the connections between contemporary horror cinema and the truth claims associated with original Gothic texts and their ability to frighten readers in the eighteenth century.This time, Mark Bennett ponders something that relates to both previous posts: homing in on one particular (and fairly obvious) trope in the original Evil Dead films, thinking about its relationship to an eighteenth-century Gothic and wondering how it will be treated in the new reboot.
Klaatu... verata... nikto! - Reading the Book of the (Evil) Dead
I've not actually watched the Alvarez Evil Dead yet myself (I'll save that pleasure for the 16th of October). I have, however, seen all of the original trilogy at various points in my misspent youth and I enjoyed Kathleen's look at some of the shifts in the classic horror formula that have taken place as part of the reboot. That got me thinking a little about some of the other hallmarks of the original Evil Dead series and wondering how they might negotiate the transition. It strikes me - in a manner quite appropriate to the activities of a reading group - that one of the original trilogy's concerns is, in fact, with reading. I'll admit right now that this is not an especially astute observation. In fact, I'll go as far as saying that, were my PhD to involve an analysis of 20th century horror cinema, the above thesis would not constitute a very impressive 'original contribution to research.' Because the films are obviously about reading, aren't they? That's how it all kicks off, as - in the first two installments at least - our group of frolicking teenagers find a book in the basement and merrily have a flick through it. The fact that said book is bound in human skin and filled with sketches that look like the demented scribblings of a bored psychopath does remarkably little to perturb them. Just to be on the safe side, the gang also play a reel to reel tape-recording (the 1980s up to date with a vengeance?) that reveals the book's origins. It is, of course, a Sumerian translation of the Book of the Dead - routinely left in Tennessee holiday cabins, along with takeaway menus and directions to the local fishing lake. The recording then proceeds to incant some of the book's, well, incantations... and all hell accordingly breaks loose.
So far so obvious: a trope is established and goes on to have a healthy life in its particular vein of horror cinema. So healthy, in fact, that it's part of the formula that gets brilliantly twisted in Joss Whedon's horror-satire The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Except that's not really true and here, I think, is another of the ways in which we can usefully think about the Evil Dead franchise from the perspective of a Gothic tradition. Once we take that vantage point, the process of transgressive reading and ensuing retribution within the context of a "horror" narrative isn't really new at all. Instead, like so much else, it kicks off in the eighteenth century.
This film is very good.
One of the hallmarks of the eighteenth-century Gothic is that it so often comes to us, as readers, ready-made (though perhaps a bit moth-eaten) in the form of a rediscovered narrative or found manuscript. There is the sense that we are being confronted with an object that has an independent and prior existence, something that we have found (or has been found for us) but does not, strictly speaking, concern us and is not necessarily meant for us to read. This, if we attempt to re-imagine the experience of its very first readers is partly how Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto arrives in its first 1764 edition, as an account originally printed in Naples and now translated for an eighteenth-century British readership. This foundational Gothic is a text from another context, not meant for 'us' and requiring that an 'editor' carefully prepare the transition into its world of violence, prophecy and supernatural retribution... And lest - recalling Otranto's clunking machinery - we scoff at the idea of this confrontation with a supposedly 'other' text being at all scary, we should remember that Otranto supposedly left poet and professional churchyard loiterer, Thomas Gray, "afraid to go to bed o' nights" (despite the fact that he was a friend of the author).
The reader's confrontation with a 'Gothic' manuscript becomes internalised in other eighteenth-century examples, most obviously so in Ann Radcliffe's novels of the 1790s. The prologue to A Sicilian Romance (1790) effectively relocates Walpole's manuscript Italian tale within the experience of a contemporary traveler in Sicily (I get just a little obsessed with this in my PhD) whilst The Romance of the Forest (1791) takes this further still and has its heroine, Adeline, find a manuscript whilst exploring a ruined abbey (the 1790s equivalent of the dusty basement). Adeline doesn't quite understand this fragmentary account, yet what she reads is enough to perplex and terrify her. The experience of Emily in Radcliffe's most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), is much the same: a glimpse of her father's private papers sets up a psychological trauma that persists through much of the text, becoming interwoven with more 'concrete' experiences of the Gothic. On one level, Radcliffe's revisions seem to suggest that such reading becomes somehow transgressive or even invasive and results in its own form of retribution - albeit one that doesn't tend to involve possessed trees and the transformation of one's companions into zombie basement-monsters. This is something that her most famous satirist picks up upon as Austen's Catherine Morland excitedly devours supposed 'manuscript' materials and cultivates misconceptions that are dangerous to her peace and social prospects. In both Radcliffe and Austen's worlds, entering too wholeheartedly into the Gothic can be bad for you and this can occur through too enthusiastic a reading of 'Gothic' texts that don't concern you.
Something similar seems to lie at the heart of The Evil Dead and the 'cabin in the woods' formula it helps establish. Ash and his companions don't have to read the dodgy (human)hidebound book they've found in the cellar. In fact, the book is more or less literally screaming "don't read me you fools!"
If books could talk...
Should the characters refrain from reading the Naturon Demonto (or, in Evil Dead 2, the Necronomicon), they'll presumably have a very pleasant vacation doing whatever it is people do in woodland cabins when they aren't being picked off by supernatural forces (now there's a film we'd all pay to see...). But of course they do and, in doing so, they seem to get what's coming to them as a result of "reading" something that doesn't concern them. This is something Whedon's satire plays upon quite interestingly as - like all good horror satires, Northanger Abbey included - The Cabin in the Woods is well aware of what really makes its objects scary, even when their machinery is substantially revised.
On this (perhaps fairly obvious) level then, the first and second Evil Dead films offer us another way to think about them in relation to a Gothic tradition - one we might set alongside Kathleen's consideration of the films' treatment of the home and the unheimlich. If, like me, you've yet to watch the reboot, it remains to be seen whether this feature of the original formula makes it into Alvarez's reworking. I'd be amazed if it didn't personally and a quick scoot around google for images to use here suggests that it probably does. Even so, I'm hoping the 2013 film has a twist or two to play on this. It seems to me that, in a post-Cabin in the Woods paradigm, it really has to. In fact, you might even say that in a post Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness paradigm, it really has to. Raimi's two sequels are more than capable of poking fun at his original film and their attitude to the original readerly transgression is no exception. If you've been enthusiastically "researching" the original Raimi franchise ahead of our first meeting, you'll know that the incantation in my title comes from Army of Darkness, where Ash is tasked not with reading from the Necronomicon (which finally becomes a kind of antagonist in its own right) but with learning and reciting a passage from it. Like many a great literary scholar left grasping for a quotation, he fudges it slightly, but unfortunately "klaatu verata *cough*" is deemed unacceptable to the spirits and, well...
Whatever Alvarez does with the Evil Dead formula, a concern with transgressive reading will stay with us this term. In our second session we'll be looking at Dickens's "A Madman's Manuscript," in which Mr Pickwick finds himself in a room at an inn, looking through a text that most definitely not placed there by Gideons. Then, in our third session we'll be looking at some works by H.P. Lovecraft, whose characters often experience ill-advised encounters with incomprehensible and - quite literally - maddening texts. In fact, Lovecraft himself introduces the term Necronomicon as the name for a tome collecting materials within his mythos.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a book to read...
Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English. His research explores the relationship between Gothic and Travel Writing in the late eighteenth century. He wrote this paragraph.