Monday, 21 July 2014

Through the Vaults (again): The Gothic Reading Group in 2013-14

As the Gothic Reading Group gets ready to unveil its schedule for the 2014-15 academic year, along with some exciting plans for the future, now seems like a good time to take a glance back at what we read, where we went and what we said in 2013-14. Admittedly we mostly just went to RRB79 and a surprising amount of what we said seemed to involve Sean Bean as Lovelace or conjecture as to what William Godwin might have thought of things. However. . . we did read rather a lot, from utterly obscure Romantic-era poetry to popular twentieth-century comic book superhero stories. Here then, is Mark's second trip into the Gothic Reading Group's vaults. Bring a candle. Mind the giant helmets. Don't get lost...





One of the great pleasures of organising the Reading Group over the last year has involved documenting its meetings on this website. Whereas our first year could only be retrospectively summarised, all of the 2013-14 sessions have received at least one or more accompanying blog posts written by a broad team of contributors from within the group itself. I'm very grateful to all of them for taking the time to introduce authors and materials as well as providing reflection for several sessions. You should be grateful to them too: were it not for their efforts, there'd be nothing on this site but my ramblings.

Of course, it's still nice to be able to pull together a year's meetings and take a backward glance at the ground we've covered; even more so when it's also possible to link to the individual blogs that better describe individual sessions than my own recollections could hope to. What follows then is a brief guide to 2013-14 at the Gothic reading group; a year in which we built on a solid format, but tried a host of new things. 2014-15 is going to be another year of growth and development as a new team of organisers take the group forward. For now though, here's where we've been. . .


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Session One, October 2013: Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead (2013) [Film] We began the year with what is still, technically, our most contemporary text, the 2013 reboot of the 'Evil Dead' franchise, cunningly titled Evil Dead. This meant we were tackling a film that had been released in the same year as our sessions on it and, short of engaging in our own ghost-story writing competitions, it doesn't really get any more 'contemporary gothic' than that (note to self - reading group trip to the Villa Diodati?). We had a good time thinking about the film's use and abuse of established horror tropes, particularly its clever twist on the 'final girl' character archetype. Other parts of the discussion focused on the use of more contemporary anxieties (particularly drug use) and its strange emphasis on the use of animals as objects of body horror (something that we noticed more broadly in other contemporary horror films). Of course we also gave a good deal of attention to the film's 'gothic' pedigree, with particular attention paid to its use of the 'unhomely' domestic space, its found manuscript and associated exploration of transgressive acts of reading - something that came up in preview blogs by Kathleen and Mark.
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Session Two, November 2013: Edgar Allen Poe's 'Berenice' (1835) and Charles Dickens's 'A Madman's Manuscript (1836)[Short fiction] In keeping with the template established in our first year, we decided to actually read something in our second session - two things, in fact, as we paired up Charles Dickens's 'A Madman's Manuscript' (1836) and Edgar Allen Poe's 'Berenice' (1835). Our initial premise was to compare two different literary treatments of madness in the early nineteenth century and approach this well-worn 'Victorian gothic' trope from both sides of the Atlantic. As we researched and prepared the session we found other interesting points of connection and comparison, including the personal relationship between these authors. In a pair of preview posts, Mark touched on the fact that Poe was a reader and reviewer of Dickens, praising him in his journalism of the 1830s and being particularly fond of 'A Madman's Manuscript.' The two authors met once and carried out a brief correspondence after Dickens toured America in the early 1840s. Given these connections, our session was particularly interested in the different approaches the stories took to madness, as a Romantic characteristic, as a medicalised pathology and / or as a discourse associated with class and class-struggle. The texts' gendering also drew a lot of our attention as both texts explored a male fixation on (tragically) embodied female characters. Kate provided a write-up for the session and overview of the stories.



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Session Three, November 2013: H.P. Lovecraft's 'The Rats in the Walls' (1924), 'The Call of Cthulhu' (1928) and 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth' (1936) [Short fiction]  After Dickens and Poe we leapt forward around 150 years to discuss three works by the renowned early twentieth-century horror and science fiction writer, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft occupies an interesting place in the academic study of the Gothic (having written a short study of Gothic and horror writing himself) and has generated something of a bespoke critical vocabulary that works to make sense of his texts on their own terms - as 'cosmic horror', for example. Given Lovecraft's obvious sense of a Gothic tradition, however, we wanted to see how he fitted (and fitted himself) within it. We therefore had two preview posts by Kathleen, assessing Lovecraft as a Gothic writer, and by Richard, providing more detailed background for Lovecraftiana and Lovecraft scholarship. This equipped us well for a session in which we discussed 'The Rats in the Walls' (1924), 'The Call of Cthulhu' (1928) and 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth' (1936). There was plenty to say about Lovecraft's careful use of Gothic tropes in a tale like 'Rats' (which seemed to bait and switch the Gothic's typical concern with suppressed history and architectural metaphor in a way that made the tale far more horrific) as well as the peculiar features of the Cthulhu tales. As the group member with the least Lovecraftian expertise, Mark provided the follow-up blog, which recorded these attempts to square Lovecraft and the Gothic.



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Session Four, December 2013: Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate (2012) [Novel] For our final session of 2013 we continued our chronological move forwards and looked at another very contemporary text, Jeanette Winterson's retelling of the seventeenth-century Pendle Witch Trials in The Daylight Gate (2012). Tackling Winterson's highly impressionistic approach to a real historical event veiled by several other fictions was a challenge and we were assisted by Richard, who provided a helpful introductory blog covering the Pendle Trials and some of their fictional and dramatic adaptations. Mark provided a follow-up as part of a general review of the first 2013-14 term. This reviewed some of the keynotes of the group's discussion, including the novel's complex treatment of witchcraft itself and relationship between gender and bodily violence - much of it, seemingly, directly most horrifically towards men. We also had fun considering the significance of the book's publisher, Hammer, and wandering what a retro-film of The Daylight Gate might look like.


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Session Five, February 2014: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) [Film and Novel] After Christmas we began the second term's meetings with another film, this time watching Ridley Scott's classic Blade Runner (1982). This time we also paired the text with it's literary source material, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The perennial question 'is it Gothic?' was never more appropriately posed, but it was also quite productively answered. Mark previewed the session with a blog poking fun at the film's many editions (and Scott's continued inability to just leave films and franchises alone) before suggesting that Blade Runner be positioned as nuanced retelling of the Frankenstein myth and therefore as Gothic - or at least Romantic - as is possible. Kathleen followed up the actual session with a more comprehensive investigation of the film's use  of psychological and spatial tropes familiar from the Gothic, including its use of literary materials such as Blake's poetry.


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Session Six, February 2014: John Stagg's The Minstrel of the North (1810) [Poetry] Our second session of 2014 was one of our most interesting as we returned to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and tackled the more or less completely forgotten poet, John Stagg. This session was largely the result of Mark developing a lingering interest in Stagg after encountering him briefly as an undergraduate exploring early online collections of Gothic writing. Stagg had plenty to offer the group though, as a self-styled 'Gothic' poet who also positioned himself as a regional bard and a successor to figures such as Wordsworth, Lewis and Burns. Stagg's poetry also seemed to rework existing Gothic narratives in verse, with one particularly strange example inserting the plot of Walpole's drama, The Mysterious Mother, into the middle of what would otherwise resemble Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron. Of most interest, however, was Stagg's position as possibly the first author of a vampire poem in English. Both preview and review posts for this session were written by Mark, who took the opportunity to try and map Stagg within the literary landscape and marketplaces of popular Gothic writing between the 1790s and 1820s. In some ways this session represented a few interesting firsts for the group: our first attempt to independently research and position an un-recognised author and our first compered session, put forward and partly managed by one member.
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Session Seven, March 2014: J.S. Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly (1872) [Short fiction collection] After exploring Romantic poetry and early vampire literature we moved forward once more to consider the work of J.S. Le Fanu and another, far better known, nineteenth-century vampire tale: Carmilla (1872). We also looked at some other tales from Le Fanu's collection, In a Glass Darkly (1872). Lauren provided an accompanying blog post for this session, drawing some salient connections with Stagg and other early vampire fiction such as John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) which the group had considered in one of our 2012-13 meetings. Lauren also considered Le Fanu's relationship with other classic 'Victorian' gothic writing; this was a key concern in the session itself as we pondered Le Fanu's place alongside other supernatural and mystery fiction of the 1860s and 70s and considered his influence on certain well-known vampire novels that were yet to be written. As a whole, the session was particularly satisfying - touching base with the meetings on nineteenth-century monster fiction in our first year and also recalling some of our discussion of disturbed interiority and 'madness' in Poe and Dickens.





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Session Eight, March 2014: Selected Batman materials (1939-) [Comic books and animated serials] By the time we reached the penultimate session of 2014 we'd achieved plenty of 'firsts' for the group: pairing literature and film, introducing compered sessions, considering very contemporary material and engaging in our own research to recover long-lost authors. It was fitting then that we found something else to tackle that was completely different to anything we'd looked at before. Enter Batman. This session - on a mixture of comic books and cartoon materials - was the first to be officially set-up and conducted by one member, in this case Richard, whose knowledge and enthusiasm for the material is visible in the blog he wrote to accompany the meeting.


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Session Nine, April 2014: Selections from Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast Trilogy' (1946-59) [Novels] Our final meeting of the last academic year was also a compered session and one that took full advantage of the intervening Easter vacation! This time Lauren took the reigns and put together a session on one the most significant, but also most peculiar, works of twentieth-century 'Gothic' writing: Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast Trilogy.' Our discussion focussed primarily on the first of Peake's three novels, Titus Groan (1946), in which a Gothic pedigree was clearly visible across details ranging from the ubiquitous and eponymous castle architecture, as well as the exploration of grotesque character types. However, as Lauren suggested in her accompanying blog, this needed to be understood in the context of Peake's own experience, with due attention paid to what makes the Gormenghast books a peculiarly mid-twentieth-century re-imagining of the Gothic and its complex apparatus for conceiving of the relationship between the individual and the social and political history that precedes and processes them. 


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... and that was the second year of the Gothic Reading Group. Once more I'd like to thank all of the contributors whose ideas for materials and work on the blog made the year a success and which are hopefully reflected here on the website. Thanks also to all those who came along to one or more meetings, contributed to the discussion and helped us polish off the cake. Watch this space for news about next year's sessions! 

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Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English working on the relationship between travel-writing and Gothic fiction in the eighteenth-century. His boots are simply covered in tumbleweed right now.

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