Sunday, 22 February 2015

Foreshadowings: Edgar Allan Poe

At the risk of sounding cliche I'd like to posit that Edgar Allan Poe is one of those authors so crucial to Gothic studies that he can almost never be over-examined. What's more he's very distinct in that you can't help but enjoy his work, be it one special story or the whole collection.  Maybe that's why we like him so much, and why he always comes up in discussions of the Gothic.  Maybe we also keep talking about him because he was such an influential force for the Gothic genre.  I’m teaching Early American Literature this semester and the very first class I had was on Poe and his impact on the evolution of an American Literary consciousness. A Romantic and horror writer, Poe was responsible, directly and indirectly, for the genesis of numerous genres, including the detective fiction genre (in his character C. Auguste Dupin). He is also from my hometown of Baltimore... we even have an American football team named after his famous “Raven.”

Perhaps the reason why Poe has remained such an important figure in American literature and Gothic literature is that he demands a great deal from his reading audience. He frequently employs unreliable narrators in different states of emotional or mental vulnerability and with different goals or philosophies which must be navigated by the reader. This often results in the humanization of amoral or insane characters and the destabilization of accepted social or moral norms. This illustrates another technique which defines Poe’s work: the heavy reliance on ‘ambiguity.’ Sometimes this ambiguity comes out in an over-determined description of place or or mood, sometimes in the monomania of the narrators, sometimes in the plot and sometimes in the ultimate goals of the piece. This ambiguity can be moral, mental, material or otherwise, and can impact the identities of both characters and readers.

Madeline and Roderick Usher have a brother-sister bonding moment in Roger Corman's "House of Usher" (1960)

Some of the GRG’s previous thoughts on Poe can be found in a blog by Kate Gadsby-Mace posted on this site under the title Recollections - 2013-14 Session Two: Edgar Allen Poe's "Berenice" (1835) and Charles Dickens's "A Madman's Manuscript" (1836). The blog is titled “Nineteenth-century horrors: Marriage, Madness and the Middle-Class,” and illustrates comparisons and contrasts between Poe’s “Berenice” and Charles Dickens’s “A Madman’s Manuscript” (found in The Pickwick Papers).  Specifically, we found that seemingly innocuous social institutions, such as social classes or the sanctity of marriage, became spaces of anxiety in the eighteenth-century and especially in Poe, again adding that level of ambiguity which threatens to destabilize reality.

Comparisons can also be drawn between the texts of Poe and the ever popular (for some of us) works of H.P. Lovecraft, who drew very heavily on Poe’s Gothic techniques when it came to creating a sense of mood and place. Both authors are interested in the psychology of horror, both in individuals and in collective groups, and both employ unreliable narrators as a way of exploring the labyrinth of the mind and creating a sense of ambiguity. Again previous posts on this blog suggest as much, and I encourage you to peruse the site.

I'd also advise you to check out the following short animation of "The Tell-Tale Heart" as narrated by James Mason.  This video was displayed at the British Library's exhibit on Gothic Terror and is one of the best adaptations made!

This week’s readings are The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-Tale Heart and any other Poe text which participants find particularly interesting.  We look forward to seeing you there!  In the meantime, however, here's James Earl Jones reading "The Raven":

Kathleen Hudson is a third year PhD student at the University of Sheffield studying servants in Gothic literature.  She would like to inform you that it is there...there...beneath the floorboards...tear up the planks!  It is the beating of his hideous heart!!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Forshadowings: The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus

Considering its date of origin (which in itself is hotly debated as the play was certainly performed during Christopher Marlowe’s lifetime but it was not published until sometime after his death) The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus may not initially seem like an appropriate text for the Gothic reading group given its general focus on texts from the 1790s to today. But continuing our tradition of picking texts that may not be technically considered Gothic (I will fight you over Blade Runner), Faustus seemed a perfect choice. As an undergraduate, my 17th century literature tutor explained The Spanish Tragedy to us as the ur-Hamlet and certainly many of the dramas of Elizabethan and Jacobean period may be considered ur-Gothic. And as for Faustus itself? I don’t think you can get more Gothic than the tale of a gifted man who tires of his mortal confines and sells his soul to the devil only to ultimately fail to achieve his desired greatness and be dragged to hell by devils. (Well, maybe it could be more Gothic. There’s no ruins, castles or heroines, but you get my drift.)
Demons: Great for deals, bad for your floor

The Faust legend itself is older than Marlowe’s play, originating from Germany and drawing on biblical ideas, but also continued long after in works such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust and Charles Gounod’s opera. The ‘Faustian bargain’, Faust’s hunger for greatness and his fall can also be traced throughout the Gothic canon, from the anti-heroes of Ann Radcliffe to The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

I've sat for the best part of an hour attempting to pin point just what it is about The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus that is so enduring, but I've half-written and deleted at least five paragraphs now so I'm beginning to think it’s impossible. It’s a complex play, but also entirely enthralling. My first encounter with it was in 2011, at Shakespeare’s Globe in production starring Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles. It was a birthday treat for my sister, who had fallen in love with the play after studying it for her A Levels. To let you in on secret, whilst I knew it was a ‘good play’ I was actually more looking forward to finally seeing The Globe’s method for myself. Okay, that and seeing Rory from Dr Who in the flesh. I spent the entire production on the edge of my seat. Admittedly that was partially due to the fact we were in the middle gallery and we got a better view that way, but it was also because neither of us wanted to miss a signal syllable. Forgive me the cliché but final scene, as Faustus begs God to save him from the demons come to deliver him to Lucifer, gave me goose bumps. 

My other ride is a hideous skeleton monster from Hell

Which is why I’ll be forcing you all to watch it this Wednesday!

We’ll be screening the play at our normal meeting time of 4pm, in the Richard Roberts Building Room A84 and heading over to a public house for our discussion.

Lauren Nixon is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield.  Her academic success may or may not have something to do with a deal she made with a demon monkey a while back.