Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Foreshadowings: Folklore, Fairy-tales and the Gothic

From Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, folklore and fairy-tale has influenced the Gothic across decades and in its many forms. With its origins in oral tradition, folklore is generally considered the generational passing down of narratives bound in a particular culture’s beliefs and customs. Associations with the Gothic perhaps stem from a narrative tendency to focus on the macabre and the taboo alongside an uncanny use of anthropomorphised character in fantastic and supernatural situations.

Indeed, a consideration of the relationship between folklore and the Gothic challenges accepted understandings of the origins of the Gothic itself. As many critics, such as Eino Railo, have discerned; there are many similarities between Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, generally considered the first Gothic novel, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Centering on legends of witchcraft and ghosts, Hamlet is a text which draws upon pre-sixteenth-century folklore tradition and one from which Walpole arguably derived much inspiration for his own tale. In this sense, the Gothic can be seen to mirror folklore in its pattern of generational narrative continuation and, it could be argued, even owes its origins to this ancient oral tradition.

"Whatever you do... don't eat the f***ing candy!"

The fairy-tale can be considered a genre under the umbrella term ‘folklore’ as it traditionally deals with magic in the realms of the fays and is found predominantly in European lore. Most famously remembered today are The Brothers Grimm whose collections of dark, nineteenth century fairy-tales have inspired a recent cinematic surge in classic remakes from the kick-ass rendition Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2012) to the gender-redefining Maleficent (2014). Contemporary, post-feminist culture has had an interesting reaction to the ‘Disneyfied’ adaptations of traditional fairy-tales from the twentieth century, rendering them out-dated and misogynistic and thus undoubtedly contributing to the increasing demand in their cinematic reconsideration. It is not just film, of course, that can be seen to be reworking these classic tales. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a fantastic example of a contemporary writer continuing the folklore tradition as her trolls, dwarfs, boggarts and ‘black dog’ Sirius Black are just a few examples of figures taken straight from English folklore.

In the Gothic Reading Group’s next meeting we will be discussing folklore and fairy-tales in the Gothic and we encourage you to bring a favourite tale or figure along with you. As a die-hard Brontë fan I couldn’t conclude this post without mentioning Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as a perfect example of a Gothic text which is not directly ‘folklore’ or ‘fairy-tale’ in its genre, but engages with the tradition through the character of Nelly Dean, the oral narrator of ghost story and familial legend with a fondness for dancing and folk-song. You may wish to bring along a similar Gothic text to discuss its overlooked or hidden connections with folklore. Or if you are interested in a particular geography of lore, Slavic or Germanic perhaps, you may wish to bring along something like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Der Erlkönig which I have left suggestively below for your dark enjoyment…

Tamsin Crowther is an MA Literature student on the Nineteenth Century pathway at Sheffield University. She is interested in Victorian Gothic space and fiction from the Fin-de-Siècle.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Foreshadowings: Bloodlust; or The Enduring Appeal of the Vampire

Vampires are arguably the chicest of all revenants. They never get old. Literally. Like the Gothic genre, vampires have endured numerous transmutations over the centuries, progressing from primitive folklore phantasm to Byronic aristocrat. Christopher Frayling’s anthology of Vampyres (1991) charts this metamorphosis and illustrates the upward social mobility of the vampire as it is adapted and elevated from its folklore origins by writers in the nineteenth century who felt compelled to experiment with the increasingly popular gothic genre. Frayling identifies that the infamous summer of 1816 clearly played a prominent role in the development of the vampire. It was there, on the shores of Lake Geneva, that the vampire (as we have come to recognise it) was born. That fateful summer, the Villa Diodati gave birth to the monstrous progenies that have come to define the gothic: Frankenstein’s creature and Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, the first Byronic, romantic vampire. Polidori inadvertently started the ‘trend’ that established a new breed of vampire, characterised by charisma, sexual appetite and, crucially, upward social mobility. Indeed, the word ‘vampire’ is strongly associated with a discourse of economics and excess today. 

Just take a look at the synonyms listed in Microsoft Word:
Parasite, Freeloader, Sponger, Scrounger, Hanger-on, Predator, Sponge, Leech

Of course, it is perfectly logical that the vampire should come to signify economic ‘drain’. Karl Marx famously employed the vampire as a metaphor for capitalism in his seminal text Das Kapital and it has since been widely recognised as a powerful signifier of the iniquities of consumerist culture. Rather aptly, the vampire has become a commodity in itself, particularly over the past couple of years. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that the undead are everywhere at the moment. Television adaptations of vampire sagas such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries are testimony to the mainstream appeal of the vampire in Western culture, whilst quirkier, independent films such as Stoker and Only Lovers Left Alive prove that, despite this proliferation, the theme of vampirism continues to occupy cult terrain. 2013 was, for me, the year that saw the return of ‘edgy’ interpretations of the vampire: Stoker implicitly hints at a predatory, visceral form of vampirism, whilst Only Lovers Left Alive offers us a pair of vampires for the twenty first century: endangered, disenchanted with modernity and fixated on the paraphernalia of a receding past.
These films elegantly rethink, recast and destabilize previous cinematic portrayals of vampirism and, in doing so, lay the foundations for grittier interpretations of the bloodsucker in years to come. Indeed, the resurgence of vampirism in literature, film, television and popular culture in recent years certainly seems to suggest that the vampire will continue to resist burial, at least for the foreseeable future.

"It's nighttime and we're wearing sunglasses..."
"Let's roll!"
But why do vampires continue to transfix the Gothic imagination? What is it about these predatory, liminal beings that ensure their recurring resurrections? Come along to our next meeting THIS WEDNESDAY 4-6pm in the Richard Roberts Building (room 184) to discuss these questions and more! The theme for said meeting is BYOV (bring your own vampire). In other words, we invite you to share your favourite vampires from literature/film/TV/etc. with us so we can build a transhistorical dialogue about the changing nature of this gothic phenomenon. As always, refreshments will be provided. We always guarantee #cakeanddeath. See you there!

Carly Stevenson is a postgraduate researcher studying Keats at the University of Sheffield.  She's always on the look-out for new blood...