Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Reimagining the American Haunted House (Part One): Charles Chesnutt & 'Tales of the Conjure Woman'

 In the tradition of Sheffield Gothic’s perpetual question “but is it Gothic?” this is the first in a three part blog mini-series about haunted houses in American literature. However, none of the houses I’ll be discussing are the conventional kind of creepy castle. Rather, I’d like to look at how the concept of the haunted house and America’s unique historical identity merged to create some interesting Gothic texts. As such my first text is not is not strictly considered a Gothic work. 

Charles Chesnutt was a mixed race author in post-Civil War America writing in response to other, less comprehensive attempts to determine a racial identity. His "Tales of the Conjure Woman" (published 1887-1924) can be classified in various ways - the frame narrator, a white northerner named John, may see the tales told to him in regional dialect by the freed-slave narrator Uncle Julius as comical fairytales (though decidedly more Grimm brothers than Disney) but he is pretty much the only one who does. Chesnutt himself identified Julius’s folkloric Gothic tales as part of a Post-bellum and Pre-Harlem Renaissance impulse to re-write repressed narrative.

As such, the characters in "Conjure Woman," white and black, Southern and Northern, explore the legacy of slavery in America – most importantly, African American characters are caught between an profound need for individual self-expression and the lingering psychological effects of a life spent in slavery. Under slavery ‘talking back’ or articulating some kind of narrative was often a severely punishable offence. Slavery as an institution also prevented the education of slaves, hampering their ability to convey stories to a mainstream audience. As a result, slaves turned to alternative and subversive oral folklore to keep their identities alive, protecting themselves by shrouding their messages in metaphor and symbolism. Chesnutt’s ‘Uncle Julius’ character uses folk tales as metaphors for the horrific realities of slave life, peddling them to a Northern couple who have, in the framing device, only recently moved South and are unaccustomed to Southern ways.

The stories themselves and the manner in which they are told express the horrors of slavery through a post-slavery voice, and arguably Chesnutt's exploration of repression and trauma makes the "Conjure Woman" tales distinctly Gothic texts, an African American experience functioning as American Gothic literature.

Charles Chesnutt

‘The Plantation’ as a cultural haunted house frequently figures in Chesnutt’s tales, but he also suggests that more humble dwellings also have the ability to hold or embody the souls of the dead or repressed. Chesnutt's short story "Po' Sandy" (1888, published as part of Chesnutt's "Conjure Woman") sees, in its framing story, the new white landowner John attempt to recycle some wood from a broken-down structure on his property in order to build a kitchen. Uncle Julius tells him that the structure is haunted by a slave named Sandy. Sandy was turned into a tree by his wife, Tenie, so that the two of them could remain together rather than being sold or killed as the property of their masters. In a brutal turn of events symbolically indicative of an institution that reduces human beings into objects Sandy is then cut down and the wood used to make the now disused structure.  Once she realizes what has happened Tenie goes insane with grief.

John scoffs at this bit of folkloric imagination, but John’s wife Annie refuses to use the wood and instead gives the old place to Uncle Julius's church group. Charles Crow notes that “Julius’s story is Gothic for Annie, comic for John,” or, more to the point, Gothic for those who recognize the dehumanizing consequences of slavery and who are, perhaps, part of a disenfranchised group themselves (American Gothic, p. 96). Thus "Po' Sandy" not only reflects slavery and racial discourse but can also be read as a proto-feminist work. Annie's sympathy for Tenie (when the story ends Annie's first thought is not "poor Sandy" but rather "poor Tenie") and their parallel characterizations (both are subject to a paternalistic reading of their identities which negates their voices and forces them to turn to covert methods of expression), refocuses their personal narratives as not only cross-racial but also gender-specific. It is an interesting moment of intersectionality in which gendered and racial repression reflect the injustices of a patriarchal tradition.

At its core, "Po' Sandy" can be read as a pseudo-haunted house story where a sin of the patriarchal/aristocratic group creates a space for recurring tension. Even without the supernatural implications the symbolic meaning of the tale is profound.  Whether Sandy is a literal or figurative tree doesn't matter - he is a being with roots whose life is destroyed by an institution which sees him as an object. 

 The structure in the story is literally built out of the body of a slave, a figure who is denied agency and human love by a patriarchal authority and is then utterly torn apart. This story is distinctly American Gothic in that it epitomizes tensions about problematic national identity. A structure (or country) built literally using the flesh and blood and suffering of an entire race is in many ways inherently tainted, inescapably haunted. A space (or country) so created must forever be a source of recurring historical and emotional trauma that ultimately either makes the structure unusable or requires a spiritual exorcism, a moral realignment such as the transformation of Po' Sandy's remains into a place of worship. Anxieties about the promise of America as an ideal built on freedom and personal liberty are articulated particularly in slave and post-slavery narratives of figures such as Chesnutt, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and others. While all such texts may not be explicitly Gothic they do imply Gothic imagery and sentiments and suggest that America-the-country is also a kind of national haunted house.

Kathleen Hudson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield studying narrative in the Gothic. What's a ghost's favourite fruit? A Boo-berry!  Hahahaha... sorry. 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

"Reimagining the Gothic 2015" - Road trips, ruins and Regency heroines, or The lack of method behind the madness

Considering that the idea was mostly formed over a table in a Manchester Nando’s and a bench in a train station, Reimagining the Gothic was a surprising success, thanks entirely to those who participated, delivering wonderful papers and creative projects. And amidst these excellent projects- creative writing, the short films and the storytelling (accompanied by an adorable crocheted ghost bunny) - was my own ‘creative project.’

These two ‘projects’ of mine came about for two reasons, the first of which was a genuine desire to contribute to our event. After all, I was passionate enough about Reimagining the Gothic to be stupid enough to organize it. The second and perhaps most compelling reason, was complete and utter dread: what if nobody submits anything? What if we have a showcase with nothing to shows? Spurred on by this dread (honestly, even planning birthday parties gives me palpitations) I came up with ideas for two series’ of photos, which eventually became titled ‘The Gothic Heroines Survival Guide’ and ‘Reimagining Gothic Landscapes’.

The central idea behind Reimagining the Gothic had always been about considering the Gothic genre through new lenses, to explore if and how it had changed since its eighteenth century conception but also to consider what it is about the Gothic that continues to draw readers to it; to suggest that at its heart, despite its many evolutions and iterations, we still enjoy the Gothic for the same reasons we did in the eighteenth century. Now, if I was smarter, I could tell you that the idea between the Heroines set was to depict this continuing enjoyment. But I’m not, and it wasn't. Originally the idea had been to create a series of photos of a Catherine Morland-type wandering the streets of modern Sheffield, reading Creepypasta and discovering Goth fashion, intended to highlight the Gothics progression over the last two centuries (as well as a poor attempt at humour). 

You cannot compete with Blanche’s cuteness. Credit for both Blanche and the photo are Jennie Baileys, @WildWrites

But with a little (read: a lot of) help from fellow Sheffield Goth Mary, who suggested we add a in a modern heroine, it started to become something different. So, on a Wednesday morning I had expected to be quiet but turned out to be the one of the first days back after Easter and therefore teaming with people, I went out dressed like a lunatic in full Regency get up to take some photos. The things we do for out art, right? In the end the whole process was so ridiculous that we could barely hold a straight face long enough to take the photos, and I was convinced that we’d have barley anything useable.  But in fact it was the candid photos, captured between poses, which proved best. What came out was not what I intended, so I won’t take credit, that belongs to ancient Gods of the Gothic. But the idea the photos suggest- that were Catherine Morland reverse-Outlander'ed into the 21st century, she would still find a common ground in the Gothic. 

Shockingly, this is not a posed photo 

Heroines done with for the day, I set aside the bonnet and instead assumed the identity of the Gothic villain, kidnapping three unsuspecting innocents and whisking them a way to a village in the middle of nowhere and forcing them to climb a much steeper hill than I’d anticipated to a ruined castle where I forced them to take arty photos of the scenery in attempt to discover if our experiences of Gothic landscapes have changed in the last two hundred years. 

One of my victims was our newest Goth, Danny, who was definitely in no way coerced to become one of us. Being a creative writer he captured  the experience with such feeling to rival the best of Gothic heroine, I’m sure, so I’ve decided to leave you with his words instead of my own:

[Each of this is a snapshot, not a coherent narrative, mostly, so just pluck and pick whichever bare bones and poor form you think will best serve. D]

Gravitating towards graveyards, climbing ruined castles, baffling onlookers with bonnets, and capturing all with camera and a clinical Gothicist’s eye.

We strode into Blackwell’s and found that perfect niche instantly.  We settled in, and took photos of the barbarous Goths in their natural habitat; buried between pages of the grotesque and the perverse, and loving every damned minute.

Photos taken tongue-in-cheek, with irony but also with sincerity, and with happiness.

Goths on Tour! A car journey haunted by tales of the past.  Every lake was primed to turn into a sublime seascape in an instant; every village was a cult waiting to strike when we were fully within its heart; every mile passed, was a mile surpassed without that dreaded moment of the car engine failing, abandoning us in the middle of an unknown and treacherous path. 

The castle still drew us, drew them, drew everyone, to its core.  Though the hill was crippling, the climb a series of short bursts and long breaths, we all wanted to get to the summit.  Not just for the vista, that pastoral picture which placed you atop a tiny point survey the vast landscape before you – but for the castle.  The castle!

Bare stone and wrought metal, but what it inspired was a sudden flash of phrases, moments, and Gothic adventures.  

The Castle was a windy climb to a space where the past refused to be quiet.  Eroded stone spoke of eons passed: time would pass, but the stone would remain, although chipped away by the harsh seasons.  The village below changed, the visitors sifted through the landscape like raindrops, but the stones always remained. 

It was wonderful to watch those scenes long-kept in books rekindled and flickering from behind the Goth’s eyes. They stared at the ruins and saw these moments carved out in front of them.
But it was joy and excitement – here could be the spot where the giant helmet falls, and crushed the heir of Otranto; here, beneath these stones, a trapdoor could await to lead them to an endless maze of secret passages; here the body buried alive; here the cult revealed.

They looked at the stone and saw something which kindled smiles.  Blasted heaths. Secret passageways. Crumbling masonry ready to crush anything in its path.  Echoes of the past that spoke of violence.  And they smiled, and they laughed.  What I really believe is, they belonged
The day suitably cast grey shadows over the walls, and I saw those Goths around me smile, replaying scenes from across the Gothic with each new turn, each new nook and crevice. 

The wind stilled itself suddenly, and an eerie isolation crept across the courtyard.  A tree, with withered branches, called to me, to my eyes, which refused to remove their gaze from this spot.

In the silence I saw the branches form into an exploded diagram of a nervous system, almost as if the tree were alive and breathing like us.  From here my mind supplied the rest.  A lord, killed in pursuit of his lover, was buried by the very woman he adored.  She in turn mourned for him, and placed this tree over the place where his body lay freshly buried, before she again resumed her flight from the dangers she now faced alone. 

I turned, remarking this to the nearest Goth, who simply shrugged and smiled.  ‘You’ll be one of us, soon,’ she said, and walked off further into the ruins, waiting for me to follow.  

I have been slowly absorbed into a group who find intrigue among monsters and corpses.  They want to visit graveyards.  They enjoy excursions to ruins.  They smile at horror, and laugh at terror.  Most importantly, they do so over cake.  And now, I suppose, so do I.

Lauren Nixon and Danny Southward are both postgraduate researchers at the University of Sheffield studying Gothic Literature and Creative Writing, respectively. Both survived the now infamous aforementioned Gothic field-trip, though of course they still have nightmares about it.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Austen Connection: Or, how misreading Northanger Abbey as a teenager ruined my life

I never intended to be a Gothicist. Which might be stating the obvious, because I doubt many small children look off wistfully into the distance about their dream to become an academic specialising in the Gothic. When we started discussing re-launching this blog, it made me think about how I ended up not only part of, but organising Sheffield Gothic. (And writing my thesis about Gothic literature, but that’s a minor detail)

Like I said, I never intended to be a Gothicist. My intended life trajectory was all thrown off by one slim 1818 novel and my fatal misreading of it: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I had no idea what the ‘the horrid novels’ were, or who Mrs Radcliffe was but I’d always enjoyed the novel. I related to Austen’s naïve young heroine, Catherine Morland, as she fumbled her way through society. Somehow, however, I failed completely to internalise the very obvious message about not relying on novels to shape your life expectations. I mean, I got it. But the novel’s Catherine was reading were ‘horrid’. I was reading Austen. So, based almost solely on my adoration for Austen and completely missing the point, I moved south to study English Literature at Bath Spa University.

Pictured: Life expectations spiraling out of control

It was this fateful move that first bought me into contact with the Gothic, in a lecture about our second year module options. I’ll confess I wasn't entirely listening, but William Hughes caught my attention when he mentioned Northanger Abbey. He also had a jacket on with elbow pads, which I was quite impressed by. Anyway, by this point you probably know where this is going: I signed up to the module because it had Northanger Abbey on it. Oh Jane. If only I had understood you better, I may have been happily teaching Pride and Prejudice to disinterested teenagers.

But at least this was a Gothic origins module, I told myself, as I read The Italian for the first time in complete bemusement. (How is this scary? I wondered. Is it meant to be funny? Is there incest in this?!) Oh, how naïve I was. Little did I know I had begun down a path that would destroy everything I’d ever hoped for. By the time we reached Collins’ Woman in White, I had been sucked in completely. Come the third year, I found myself choosing the Modern Gothic module. I was reading Radcliffe out of choice. I wrote an essay about for my American Lit. module considering Sophie’s Choice as a gothic text. I was discussing PhD proposals on Gothic heroines.
Without realising it, I had become… a Gothicist.

(That’s my dramatic ending, just in case you couldn't tell)

Awestruck by the dramatic ending

Warning: Emulating Catherine Morland will not lead you to a handsome, metropolitan Mr Tilney. 

However, you will still end up in a bonnet. Even if it is the 21st century….

Lauren Nixon is a postgraduate researcher studying women readers and the Gothic at the University of Sheffield.  She's totally a heroine, even when she's not wearing her bonnet.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

One does not simply mallet Udolpho: Pre-imagining the Gothic in Eighteenth-Century Travel Writing

Those of you with long memories (or a fondness for exploring the dusty archives of this blog) may recall me from such Sheffield Gothic Blog Posts as that one about the poet nobody had ever heard of, that other one about not really getting H.P. Lovecraft and that first one no one ever read. I’ve not been around as much (or, indeed, at all) since passing on the reigns to Carly, Kathleen and Lauren, but – given the excellent job they've done – I’ll forgive folks for not really missing me.

I’m also unable to make the great looking Re-imagining the Gothic event they’ve organised for this coming Saturday (I know, right? What kind of a literary gawth do I think I am?). But I have been following the series of blogs leading up to it here and I thought… well, why not throw a little something in?

So here goes.

What I’ve found most interesting about the upcoming event (and the accompanying blog series) is the opportunity it gives us to reflect on the different meanings the Gothic has taken on across its long and varied cultural history. This is hardly surprising: it’s the thing we’re supposed to find interesting about the event and blog because it is, in fact, what the event and blog are about.
Still, I can safely speak without the traditional academic hyperbole when I say that the symposium programme feels like it genuinely does invite us to reimagine the Gothic and to think about some of the ways in which it has been, is being, or can be re-imagined.

This scratches a particular itch for me, because my own research is primarily focused on what, for want of a better term (and with the English Lit scholar’s fondness for neologisms) we might call pre-imagining the Gothic.

I work primarily on the way eighteenth-century travel writing locates the Gothic, not just geographically, but culturally, as a shared component of the same print culture. I’ll spare you the elevator pitch, but a big part of this involves looking at the ways in which popular travel writers dealt with the kinds of materials that would go on to become pivotal components of the Gothic imagination: how they ‘pre-imagined’ the Gothic, if you will.

So, what did eighteenth-century travellers do when faced with ‘Gothic’ ruins?

They smacked them with a hammer.

"Yeah, that's right... with a hammer.  Got a problem with that?"

Well, they didn’t literally smack them with a hammer. At least, I’ve never found any admitting as much. But they did suggest it. Or, rather, one traveller in particular did: the man, the legend: William Gilpin.

It’s my genuine conviction that William Gilpin, an unassuming retired schoolmaster and clergyman from the New Forest, did more to establish the Gothic within modern popular culture than anyone else before or since.

Throughout the 1770s, whilst Horace Walpole was thinking the Gothic was so last decade and Ann Radcliffe was busy being 10 years old or so, Gilpin was touring the country, making sketches and recording his thoughts in diaries. During the 1780s, he began publishing them, to great success.
In a series of sumptuously illustrated Observations upon Several Parts of Great Britain, Gilpin gave the eighteenth-century its first coffee table books; coffee-table books littered with aquatint illustrations and aesthetic musings upon the ruins of castles and abbeys. This, for me, was when the Gothic truly entered popular print culture.

But how does Gilpin ‘pre-imagine’ the Gothic? Not particularly Gothically, as it happens.
You see, those ruins may be the relics of internecine warfare, Catholicism and suchlike – the perfect building blocks for Gothic Lego – but for Gilpin and his readers they also embody the process by which those elements of Britain’s history have been consigned to, well, history: merely ‘adorning the country they once defended’.

That’s why you can smack them with hammers.

For Gilpin, the ‘Gothic’ ruin isn’t remarkable for its historical or political content. Instead it serves as a locus for the Picturesque: the aesthetic category Gilpin developed in his writings and which he encouraged his readers and followers to pursue.

Put simply (and Gilpin himself rarely put it in particularly complex terms) to be Picturesque is to be capable of being reproduced in the manner of a picture: bounded and controlled by the judgement and craft of the onlooker as traveller and artist. Gilpin’s tour books accordingly offer a vocabulary for identifying and manipulating the proper components of a scene, framing them within front, rear, and side ‘screens’.

"View of a Ruined Castle over a Gorge" by an imitator of William Gilpin (1798)

So, whilst Gilpin’s eye ‘rests with delight on the shattered arches of a Gothic ruin’, such objects conjure no particular anxiety. Instead they exist to be managed and manipulated within his aesthetic. This is especially visible in Gilpin’s first travelogue, the Observations Upon the River Wye (1782).
Here, many years before Wordsworth, he muses upon the ruins of Tintern Abbey (like so many other things, Gilpin was Tintern before it was cool). The Abbey appeals to Gilpin precisely because it doesn’t evoke any anxieties. Instead it seems almost pre-formed as a Picturesque composition, bounded within a natural frame:

            It occupies a gentle eminence in the middle of a circular valley, beautifully screened on all                   sides by woody hills.

This is not Udolpho, frowning at the onlooker who ‘dares invade its solitary reign’. Gilpin’s Tintern is a ‘Gothic pile’, but so subordinate to the traveller’s gaze that, rather than standing in sublime awe of it, he begins pondering Picturesque improvements:

            A number of gabel-ends hurt the eye with their regularity; and disgust it by the vulgarity of                 their shape. A mallet judiciously used  . . . might be of service in fracturing some of them.

It’s hard to imagine one of Radcliffe’s heroines being so pragmatic in their response to Gothic sites, but then that’s the point. Gilpin is interesting because he lets us so the way in which these materials were pre-imagined, before their reworking in more famous Gothic novels.

Radcliffe was familiar with Gilpin and is indebted to him at various points in her work (including Udolpho). Yet her characteristic Gothic sites, which frown back at the viewer and house precisely the kinds of revenant histories Gilpin left out of them, are a tour de force in contesting and rejecting his aesthetic.

Understanding how the Gothic was pre-imagined in the eighteenth-century helps us see how rapid – and how intriguing – its re-imagining was.

Further reading:
Andrews, Malcolm (1989), The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics and Tourism in     Britain, 1760-1800, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Charlesworth, Michael (1994), ‘The ruined abbey: picturesque and gothic values’, in S. Copley and P. Garside (eds.), The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape and Aesthetics Since       1770, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 62-80.
Gilpin, William, (1782), Observations on the River Wye and Several Parts of South Wales, Relative    Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770, London: R. Blamire.
Townshend, Dale, (2014), ‘Ruins, romance and the rise of gothic tourism: the case of Netley Abbey, 1750-1830’, Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies, 37:3, 377-394.

Mark Bennett is polishing up his PhD at the University of Sheffield, on Gothic and Travel-Writing. He misses writing the funny bits in these author blurbs.  He is also much missed by the GRG!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

“A Night-Piece on Death”

‘Graveyard Poetry’ is an often-cited influence on the early Gothic, but the poems themselves are rarely addressed in that context beyond their use of funereal imagery. Thomas Parnell’s “A Night-Piece on Death” is usually identified as the earliest example of the genre, first published (posthumously) in 1721 or 1722.

The poem itself is a simple iambic tetrameter, arranged in rhyming couplets. Its sentiment is equally simple: death is nothing to be afraid of. The atmosphere of the poem is rich, conjuring the dark blue and silver of contemplative night before plunging amongst the tombs and sepulchres of both the great and humble. Life is short, it is implied, and the speaker questions how meaningful our brief lives can ever be. The poor, the ambitious, and the great all eventually lie beneath the earth. Whatever monuments they build over themselves, the dead (or perhaps, the monuments themselves), ‘are senseless of the fame they give’. The poem is far from nihilistic, however.

What I find most compelling about the poem is not its tombstones, or the arresting stanza where the dead rise from the earth, but its conviction that the fear of death is entirely made from the mystique that humanity cloaks it in. Life itself is a prison, illuminated only by the lamp-light of Christian faith, that death releases us from. The pious soul, with a joy ‘transcending sense’, sees death as an escape from the darkness of life – allowing us to emerge, blinking, into the light of heaven.

To hear the poem read aloud please check out the following link:

Further Reading:
Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, “Thomas Parnell's "Night-Piece on Death" and Edward Young's Night Thoughts”, ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, 20:4 (2007), 6-7.
Evert Jan Van Leeuwen, “Funeral Sermons and Graveyard Poetry: The Ecstasy of Death and Bodily Resurrection”, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 32 No. 3 (2009), 353-371.
Eric Parisot (2011) “Piety, Poetry, and the Funeral Sermon: Reading Graveyard Poetry in the Eighteenth Century”, English Studies, 92:2 (2011), 174-192.
In addition, Valancourt Books intends to publish a new anthology of Graveyard Poetry (edited by Jack G. Voller) in 2015.

Richard Gough Thomas is a postgraduate researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University. He enjoys reading 'Graveyard Poetry' in graveyards (or, you know, in the pub... wherever's easiest).

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Re-Imagining the Gothic: Celebrating Interdisciplinary Gothic studies!

The University of Sheffield Gothic event "Re-Imagining the Gothic" is almost upon us!  Just one week from now on May 9th the University of Sheffield will be hosting our Symposium and Showcasing event in the Jessop West Exhibition space.  

"Re-Imagining the Gothic" was conceived and designed by Sheffield Gothic in order to cultivate and promote interdisciplinary Gothic research.  We hope to inspire fresh interest in all facets of Gothic studies and open up new avenues for engagement.

Those interested in attending the Symposium should email their name, the name of the institution, and any dietary requirements to  The Showcasing event is open to the public and does not require registration.

Be sure to check out our schedule below!

Symposium Schedule

9.30 – 9.50
Registration and Refreshments

9.50 – 10.00
Symposium Welcome
Lauren Nixon

Opening lecture
Matt Foley (University of Stirling) – Reimagining the Voice: towards an acoustics of the Gothic

 10.30-11.40: First Panel
John Greenway – Reframing the Monster
Danny Southward‘Come in here + Stay’; House of Leaves and S as gothic experiments in metamodernism
Lucy Hall – The Gothic Anxieties of Black Narcissus


12.00-1.10: Second Panel
Richard Gough-Thomas – The Changing Face of the Gothic Roleplaying Game
Jennie Bailey – A Rochdale Gothic: re-imagining the Gothic in a post-industrial borough
Elizabeth Bobbit – ‘Curiosity and Terror’: Adapting Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho to the Television Screen


1.20-2.30: Third Panel

Katie Edwards – TBA
Sandra Mills – ‘Invite me in': Attracting terror in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In
Matthew Crofts – Recasting Dracula: Tyranny and Cultural Afterlives

 Final Remarks by Sheffield Gothic

Showcasing Event

3.00 – 7.00
Event showcasing “Re-Imagining the Gothic”

5.30 – 6.30
Public Lecture by Lynn Sheppard
(Introduced by Carly Stevenson)

 Final Remarks by Kathleen Hudson

 “Re-Imagining the Gothic” Drinks Reception

Friday, 1 May 2015

Kindred: the Embraced, a retrospective

Kindred: the Embraced holds the honour of being the first (and still, the only) live action television series adapted from a tabletop roleplaying game. Running for a brief eight episodes in 1996, Kindred is the story of rival vampire clans jostling for control of San Francisco’s underworld, drawing its mythos from the top-selling rpg "Vampire: the Masquerade." Emerging from the stable of soap opera impresario Aaron Spelling, the series prompted more comparisons with fellow Spelling productions Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210 than with contemporary horror media. The casting may have had something to do with it: vampire San Francisco was populated with soap and genre journeymen like Patrick Bachau, Kelly Rutherford and Stacy Haiduk; the cast was headed up by peripheral Brat Pack alumnus C. Thomas Howell and then up-and-coming British actor Mark Frankel as ‘prince’ of the city, Julian Luna.

Though Howell’s character is the audience’s surrogate (as the principal non-vampire), the series belongs to Frankel. Julian Luna dominates every episode – by turns a romantic mystery man, tragic lover, wise leader, and action hero. Frankel’s best scenes are the high points of the series, but the strength of his performance also highlights the series’ structural weakness: it is not until the final episode that we finally encounter a character that is not essentially a foil for Julian Luna. Fox Television cancelled Kindred: the Embraced shortly after but, seeing its potential, the Showtime Network quickly negotiated to revive the series the same year. What finished Kindred was Frankel’s death in a motorcycle accident the same year – without its star, the series had little to offer.

I find it very difficult to write critically about Kindred: the Embraced. The series was a formative gothic experience for me, my first experience of the ‘vampire-as-protagonist’ genre, in parallel with Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994). Equally, as a lifelong roleplayer, it is hard not to hold at least a little affection for the drama that led me to White Wolf’s "World of Darkness" (the umbrella term for "Vampire: the Masquerade" and its sister games). Mark Frankel’s performance aside however, the series has considerable shortcomings. Kindred’s scripts are clichéd and its direction frequently indifferent. A significant proportion of the cast appear to have been hired only to pout. The purpose of this retrospective is not to unearth a lost masterpiece, but to revisit a particular cultural moment: mainstream American television’s discovery of the vampire.

Smolder, smolder, smolder...

The early 90s had seen a quiet boom in ‘vampire tv’. The resurrected Dark Shadows (1991) placed bloodsucker Barnabas Collins at the centre of the narrative (he had been a latecomer to the original series). Forever Knight (1992-96) gave us the vampire-as-protagonist within the ‘occult detective’ genre. A handful of other tv movies and failed pilots peppered the line-up (among them the 1991 Blood Ties, unrelated to the 2007 series). What links these series aesthetically is a kind of bloodless sexuality. Network television was willing to go so far as to acknowledge that vampires had sex, but this was almost always in the context of romance. Outside of clearly telegraphed loved triangles, 90s tv vampires were strangely monogamous (with visits to the blood bank, or weird science, to explain how they sated their urges without accusations of hanky-panky). Kindred: the Embraced goes so far as to make a promiscuous vampire one episodes ‘problem of the week’. Vampires without romantic attachments feed from narratively-designated ‘bad people’ (mobsters, drug users) in ways that are clearly meant to evoke violence but are carefully pitched to avoid anything either sexy or threatening. There is, as we might have guessed by now, very little same-sex biting.

Party like a Goth...

The 90s tv vampire exists in marked contrast to his contemporary cinema counterpart. Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) confronts the issues that these series avoid, with considerable power. The aforementioned Interview with the Vampire shies away from many of the sexual aspects of its source material, but at least has the decency to acknowledge same-sex desire, and the short Freudian jump from sex to death that makes the figure of the vampire so compelling. Kindred’s title sequence opens with the shot that ends Interview (the camera panning around the Golden Gate Bridge) as if the series would have us think it continued where the film left off. The promise only leaves us disappointed.

A reminder of how far the tv vampire has come puts the success of True Blood (2008-14) into perspective. It took a decade of changing attitudes and the freedom offered by subscription cable television to give the public a vampire series worthy of the name. For all the success of Buffy and Angel, those series only gradually climbed out of the 90s mould and struggled to drag the vampire out of the ‘romantic or monster’ binary. True Blood gave us vampires in all their predatory, sexual glory. I’m left to ponder what Mark Frankel would have been like as Bill Compton.

Richard Gough Thomas is a postgraduate researcher in Gothic studies at Manchester Metropolitan University.  In his spare time he's the Santa Claus of academia, delivering books and knowledge wherever he goes.