Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Call of the Squid people: 'Sea Monsters' by Sheffield Gothic and the Sheffield Animals Research Colloquium

Sheffield Gothic recently joined forces with the Sheffield Animals Research Colloquium, a network dedicated to researching animals and the nonhuman across the humanities and social sciences.  A few weeks ago we held our first (but hopefully not last) collaborative reading group in order to explore the overlap between animal studies and the Gothic.  Under the very loose theme of ‘Sea Monsters’ we screened the 2005 black and white film ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ and read Ray Bradbury’s short story The Fog Horn (1951).

Those who are already familiar with this blog will have realized that we’re pretty into Lovecraft in all his forms, but are especially interested the Cthulhu mythos and his work set 'under the sea'. Several of us had actually seen this version 'The Call of Cthulhu’ before this joint session and had discussed it in the context of the larger Lovecraft mythos. It’s a very good movie which sticks closely to the source material, and which also exploits tropes and techniques found silent and black and white films to increase tension, incorporating the German expressionist style which often defined early horror cinema.

'Call of Cthulhu,' 2005

The film highlights many of the concepts which make Lovecraft a ‘Gothic’ author. Aesthetically striking, the film uses the mise-en-scene of classic horror movies - the chiaroscuro lighting, the manipulation of space and proportion to create dreamlike set pieces, the dramatic movements and expressions. The story itself, in keeping with the source material, incorporates fears about degeneracy and the inhuman, the subversion of an orderly and sustainable universe, the loss of faith and the looming threat of madness and death. It also features a grotesque, otherworldly, obscure creature which may be described as the ultimate ‘sea monster,’ i.e. Cthulhu.  However, even as the story undermines established concepts of order, it imposes a new rationale for self-construction – namely, that there are ‘eternal’ things and that they are something beyond mankind’s ability to respond to effectively or even to understand completely. In Lovecraft’s fiction the ‘elder gods’ such as Cthulhu are often nihilistic, indifferent, or evil, acting in opposition to a white, male, Protestant, genteel mode of knowing, and ultimately leading to madness and the destruction of the ‘self.’ If the protagonist is not outright destroyed by his new knowledge then he is often transformed into an ‘other’ or realizes that he was a kind of monster all along. There is a redemptive possibility in this – consider, for example, the protagonist's new-found sense of community when he becomes a fish-person and joins his long lost family in ‘Shadow over Innsmouth’ (1931) – but overwhelmingly this profound shake-up suggests a loss of personal and individual identity, of values, of morality and civilization.


Bradbury’s short story also Gothicizes and problematizes the self in relation to the animal ‘other’. However, in this story the horror manifests in the opposite way and with a completely different goal – the problem is not a loss of individuality but rather the pathos of loneliness, the individual who is so monstrously unique that he is permanently separated from his community and his mate, and unable to adapt to a changing world. Two lighthouse keepers are visited in the night by an ancient creature, possibly the last of its kind, who is attracted to the sound of the fog horn. Discovering that the horn is not, in fact, a rediscovered fellow creature, the sea monster reacts violently.  In spite of the monster's destructive response and inherent alien otherness, however, one of the lighthouse keepers makes a point of narrating and empathizing with the creature's understandable grief and pain. If the creature in question manages to find solace in an imitation, the nature of his identity and his relationship with the ‘eternal’ and ‘unchanging’ only reemphasizes his separation from home, his inherently uncanny nature, and his inability to interact constructively with a world which is itself unfamiliar and protean.

Love at first sight in the 1953 Warner Bros adaptation 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms'

As in ‘Cthulhu,’ mankind’s place in the universe is subverted by the discovery of a creature who defies the laws of death and time and change. Whereas Lovecraft transforms this into a tale of horrific chaotic destruction, however, Bradbury makes us sympathize with the creature and project human emotions and readings of relationships, grief, and loneliness onto it. Though the lighthouse keepers’ attempts to communicate with the creature prove ineffectual, the possibility of communication via a hidden, primal language remains a tantalizing option. The choice to film ‘Cthulhu’ in black and white and the underlying anxieties which define Lovecraft’s work bring up another issue present in many of Bradbury’s texts – the issue of modernity. Lovecraft fears degeneration, while Bradbury seems to suggest that controlled de-evolution might be the only way of connecting with a god-like representative of an ancient ‘self.’ Communication between species, and indeed between humans, is problematized in Lovecraft's work, while Bradbury incorporates the 'animal' to examine what it means to feel and respond as human and non-human.  Writing the 1950s, in the context of the Cold War and the lingering devastation of the atom bomb, Bradbury suggests a new reading of Lovecraft’s own classification of ‘sea monsters’ in 1920s weird fiction.

Kathleen Hudson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield, studying servant narratives in early Gothic literature.  Soon her squid brethren will arise to crush the puny humans and crown her their many-tentacled queen.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Reimagining the Gothic 2016: Monsters and Monstrosities

Sheffield Gothic is pleased to announce its new 2016 conference and showcase event: 
Reimagining the Gothic: Monsters and Monstrosities 

Reimagining the Gothic is an ongoing project that seeks to explore how the Gothic can be re-read, re-analysed, and re-imagined.  We encourage both public interest and new academic avenues from students and scholars who wish to present on the Gothic using interdisciplinary and creative methods. In particular, 'monsters' and the ways in which monstrosity continues to affect Gothic discourses is an important space for academic and creative exploration. With Reimagining the Gothic: Monsters and Monstrosities we hope to reconsider notions of monstrousness, to explore how the idea of the monster has morphed over the decades, and to question its place within the Gothic. 

As part of a two day long event to be centred on theme of ‘Monsters and Monstrosities’, following the incredible response we got for the last event, Sheffield Gothic will be holding a day-long symposium on Friday the 6th of May, 2016. The symposium is open to all postgraduates and early career researchers of any field and joint interdisciplinary papers are most welcome. We are inviting the submission of abstracts for papers, which should be no more than 200 words, to be sent to Sheffield Gothic at reimagininggoth15@gmail.com. The deadline for submissions is 8th February 2016. 

As Reimagining the Gothic is a project that seeks to encourage new and unique thoughts about the Gothic, we will consider any and all submissions related to symposiums focus. 

 Topics may include, but are not limited to:
·     Material monsters / monstrous objects
·         Depictions of monsters and monstrosity in contemporary media
·         Monstrousness and modern/pop culture
·         Monster movies
·         Postmodern monsters, monsters and modernity
·         The psychology of monstrosity
·         Social monsters / monsters and society
·         Political monsters / monstrosity in politics
·         Performing monstrosity
·         Monstrous buildings / monsters and architecture
·         Monsters and gender
·         Monsters throughout history / historical monsters
·         Folklore and monsters
·         Local histories
·         Monsters and myths

Sheffield Gothic will also be holding a day-long creative showcase of art and interactive activities on Saturday the 7th of May, 2016. We are inviting all range of creative submissions to display during the event. As Reimagining the Gothic is a project that seeks to encourage new and unique thoughts about the Gothic, we will consider any and all submissions related to the focus. 

The showcase aims to encourage both public interests in Gothic by using creative and interactive methods, as well as new academic avenues. Projects for Reimagining the Gothic: Monsters and Monstrosities should reconsider notions of monstrousness, to explore how the idea of the monster has morphed over the decades, to question its place within the Gothic and the way in which society considers ‘monstrousness’.

The nature of the event means that the criteria for submissions are extremely open. 
However suggestions for projects include:
·         Photographic series
·         Storytelling and creative writing
·         Interactive children’s activies
·         Music and composition
·         Costume and cosplay
·         Artistic reimagining’s of classic monsters
·         Dramatic pieces and displays
·         Film and video

Abstracts for submissions should be emailed to reimagininggoth15@gmail.com. The deadline for submissions is 7th March 2016.

The nature of the event means that the criteria for submissions is extremely open, though preferable in keeping with the yearly theme. Papers could focus on the Gothic’s relationship with/ influence upon/ development through the following disciplines:

·         Film Studies and Media
·         Science and the History of Science
·         Archaeology
·         Landscape
·         Architecture
·         Theology and Biblical Studies
·         Music
·         Gender Studies
·         History
·         East Asian Studies

These are, however, simply suggestions. We hope to make the symposium as diverse as possible, and so submissions of all natures are welcome. If you are interested, please submit an abstract of 200 words to reimagininggoth15@gmail.com by February 8th 2016.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Hogg Blog: 'The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner'

Welcome to the complex, schizophrenic, and even (dare I say it) metafictional world of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This is a world where nothing is exactly as it first appears, and it continues to puzzle new readers just as much as it’s contemporary nineteenth century ones. Is the text based around the religious pamphlet written by the Sinner Robert Wringhim and discovered by the self-titled Editor, or is it a multi-layered, fictional creation of celebrated Scottish poet, James Hogg? Who exactly is the Ettrick Shepherd we encounter in the final pages of the novel, and how does a Shepherd fit into the Gothic tradition? And, perhaps most perplexingly, who is Gil-Martin – the Devil? or someone (something) else?

When I first read Confessions it immediately became one of my favourites, but it can be very perplexing at times, especially for first-time readers. You may find yourself asking similar questions to those above as you read the book, and these may be answered at the end of the novel (disclaimer: probably not). What adds to the perplexing nature of the novel is its complex relationship with religion, specifically Calvinism. However, this makes it a perfect text to feature as part of Sheffield Gothic’s semester on religious Gothic, and, in my opinion, this is what makes it one of my favourite Gothic texts.
James Hogg - aka the Ettrick Shepherd

So, to start with, lets talk about what you need to know about Calvinism (disclaimer 2: this will not be an in depth exploration of Calvinism, but a very basic overview). Dating back to the Reformation era in the sixteenth century, Calvinism falls under the Protestant branch of Christianity. The religion is also known as the ‘Reformed tradition’ or ‘Reformed faith,’ which marks its theological break from Roman Catholicism. It soon spread throughout Europe, eventually becoming a major Christian denomination in Scotland.

There are several key theological distinctions within Calvinism, including the notion of Revelation, and the concept of predestination. Calvinist doctrine divides all humans into the categories of the elect or the damned, and each identity is designated with a predetermined end. Predestination posits the idea that the elect will be awarded with eternal salvation while the damned will literally be damned to hell. Importantly, these identities have already been decided by God, and therefore, unlike other Christian denominations, good works are not an important factor in salvation. Moreover, through the revelation of scripture, certain individuals can be given the knowledge of these identities, and whether they, and others around them, are elect or damned.

Ok, so I know what you’re thinking – how does Calvinism fit into Confessions, and where does the Devil fit in all of this? (and is it Gothic?). As the title suggests, the primary focus of the novel is the ‘Confessions’ of Robert Wringhim, literally found by the Editor and presented to the reader without alteration, ‘there being a curse pronounced by the writer on him that should dare to alter or amend, I have let it stand as it is’ (188). About half of the book is comprised of Wringhim’s ‘Confessions,’ detailing his life as a Sinner, and justifying his Sins. Wringhim views himself as one of the elect, and as a result he believes that any sins he commits in this life will not affect his future salvation.

'Did I leave the oven on?'
(Gustave Doré's depiction of Milton's Satan)
Part of Wringhim’s narrative justifying his sins (which include the possibility that he committed several murders) revolves around the curious character of Gil Martin. Gil Martin seems to confirm Wringhim’s belief that he is one of the elect, and he further appears to encourage Wringhim’s criminal acts. On the other hand, Gil Martin could also be the Devil tempting Wringhim into a life of sin in order to ensure his eternal damnation. Wringhim’s own narrative certainly allows for this reading of Gil-Martin as the Devil, perhaps as it further justifies his own sins. Wringhim’s ‘Confessions,’ and even the Editor’s own narrative, are full of literary, Gothic, and biblical references to the Devil, including the Faust myth, Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, Lewis’ The Monk, Dacre’s Zofloya, and continual references that Gil Martin stood on ‘my left side’ (116) and owned what ‘seemed a Bible…all intersected with red lines.’ (94).

Another reading of Gil-Martin is that he is entirely imagined by Wringhim, and the text also allows for this reading in which Wringhim manifests his own anxieties as an externalised persona. This particular reading, in which Wringhim appears to be experiencing what we would now call schizophrenia, is also supported by his ‘Confessions,’ although it could perhaps be an example the psychological affects of fanatical religious beliefs. In particular how such extreme beliefs can cause a childhood trauma that endures into adulthood. From a young age, Wringhim is exposed to a very extreme version of Calvinism, emphasising the horrific fate of the damned: ‘My heart quaked with terror, when I thought of being still living in a state of reprobation, subjected to the awful issues of death, judgment, and eternal misery’ (77).

So who exactly is Gil Martin? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Works Cited:
Hogg, James, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Mary Going is a postgraduate researcher studying the Wandering Jew in Gothic Literature at the University of Sheffield.  She's all about #CrazyCalvinists and is our go-to expert on religious Gothic.  She didn't think there'd be so many vampires on campus, but she's handling it pretty well.

Friday, 13 November 2015

The Italian Job: rereading Ann Radcliffe's 'The Italian'

Last week’s Gothic Reading Group centred one of Sheffield Gothic’s favourite topic of conversation: Ann Radcliffe. In particular, her last novel The Italian (Okay, yes, it’s technically not her last novel. But let’s not get into Gaston de Blondeville right now, alright?). Our usual starter question- ‘But is it Gothic?’ – hardly seemed relevant, so instead we began by asking ‘Did we all like this novel?’ The answer was unanimously yes. But why?

The Italian was the first Radcliffe novel I ever read... I was just a little fledging Gothicist in the second year of my undergraduate. I’d taken the Gothic module on something of a whim; the subject talk had made it sound both fun and fascinating, and when I realised Northanger Abbey was on the reading list it sealed the deal. Just kidding. I took it because I was 19, literally living and breathing Jane Austen and the tutor had a jacket with patches on the elbows. It was a simpler time. Unsurprisingly, what I knew of the Gothic at that time amounted mostly to what I’d heard from Catherine Morland. I was excited to read this Mrs Radcliffe for the first time, to see what was quite so horrid about these novels. So over the summer I sat down and read the The Italian. And then I wondered if maybe I’d picked the wrong module.

So, Radcliffe and I did not get along at first. It wasn’t that I thought it was bad, or boring. But on that first reading there was, as they say, no spark. I just couldn’t seem to find what was supposed to be so engaging or enthralling, and it certainly didn’t seem ‘scary’. Either I was missing something, or I had become significantly less of on easy scare without realising. (Sadly, this was not the case...much to the amusement of the rest of Sheffield Gothic every time a film session rolls around.) But, a few weeks later, now armed with four lectures worth of context and a working understanding of what the Gothic actually was, I sat down to The Italian and tried again.

Virgil's Tomb by Moonlight (1782) by Richard Wright

This is not to say, however, that The Italian is a novel that is only good within context. It is perhaps Radcliffe’s most powerfully and beautifully written work and, thematically at least, her most complex. In our session, we discussed in some depth Radcliffe’s employment of the Sublime and her evocative descriptions of scenery:

‘She approached the windows, and beheld thence an horizon, and a landscape spread below, whose grandeur awakened all her heart. The consciousness of her prison was lost, while her eyes ranged over the wide and freely-sublime scene without. She perceived that this chamber was within a small turret, projecting from an angle of the convent walls, and suspended, as in air, above the vast precipices of granite, that formed part of the mountain. Those precipices were broken into cliffs, which, in some places, impended far above their base, and, in others, rose, in nearly perpendicular lines, to the walls of the monastery, which they supported. Ellena, with a dreadful pleasure, looked down them, shagged as they were with larch, and frequently darkened by lines of gigantic pine bending along the rocky ledges, till her eye rested on thick chestnut woods that extended over their winding base, and which, softening to the plains, seemed to form a gradation between the variegated cultivation there, and the awful wildness of the rocks above.’
-Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, p. 90 (Oxford World Classics, 2008)

It’s hard not to see the power of Radcliffe’s prose in passages such as these, even as an inexperienced undergraduate. But reading Radcliffe in context, informed by the French Revolution, by religion, by politics, by class, by sensibility, by chivalry, by Hurd, by Walpole, by Wollstonecraft, by Burke and, for The Italian, by Lewis? There is, if may I be so bold, nothing quite so engaging or fascinating, and Radcliffe’s engagement with her contemporaries is at its most commanding in The Italian.

It has been a long(er time that than I care to admit) since Radcliffe and I failed to see eye to eye. And the more time passes, the more I find in The Italian. And by more, I don’t necessarily mean more to like. Just more. Each of us at that table have our own specialisms, our own focuses. What was important, was not that each of us liked and enjoyed the novel, but that we each had our own distinctly different reason. Is that a terribly cliché thing of me to say? Probably. Regardless- I’m really glad we’re friends now, Ann.

All hail Queen Ann!

Lauren Nixon is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield studying masculinity and the Gothic. She definitely didn't pick the wrong module when she was 19.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Review: Celluloid Screams 2015

Celluloid Screams returned to the Showroom on October 23rd through the 25th with an eerie ensemble of new and classic horror cinema treats (and tricks) to keep us entertained on these darkening autumn evenings. In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve chosen a couple of highlights to keep the momentum alive as we leave behind the spooky season of October and enter the very real horror of ‘almost Christmas’…

Goodnight Mommy (Dir. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Austrian: Ich seh, Ich seh)

Creepy kids be creeping...

Communicating my thoughts on this film was a challenge. Initially, I couldn’t get away from the raw, emotional response that this type of cinema commands, but after taking a few days to mull it over, I arrived at a more objective (I hope) standpoint. ‘Goodnight Mommy’ is a deeply uncomfortable, hard-to-watch film about loss and family trauma that will haunt you for weeks. Without giving too much away, there’s a twist that completely changes the tone of the film. A directional debut from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, ‘Goodnight Mommy’ is a tense, tragic tale of isolation that veers into torture territory at certain moments. What makes this film so unpalatable (and yet, at the same time, so captivating) is the painfully slow pace: the most unpleasant moments seem drawn out and borderline gratuitous. The visceral gore is, thankfully, designated to just a handful of scenes – but it’s enough. More than enough, perhaps. Some themes and ideas are underdeveloped and there’s a sense that the film could have benefitted from a ‘less is more’ approach, however, its boldness is admirable and I don’t doubt that Franz and Fiala will acquire a cult following after this nasty slice of ultra-modern European Gothic.

The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers)

The big bad witch

Set in a remote, rural stretch of puritanical New England, The Witch explores themes of isolation, the wilderness and what lurks beyond the ‘civilised’ domestic sphere. Set 70 years before the barbaric Salem Witch Trials, this film anticipates the teeming hysteria and widespread moral panic that would later spread throughout the region in the name of primitive superstition. Interestingly, Eggers doesn’t shy away from supernatural explanations. The plot centres on a character’s coming-of-age in the midst of family bereavement and thickening anxiety. Thomasin, the protagonist, struggles to reconcile her ‘duty’ as a daughter with her desire for freedom – freedom from the restraints of the ultimately patriarchal world of her parents’ faith, which threatens to reduce her to a mere commodity when the crops fail. (It is worth noting that the protagonist’s name is doubly significant: ThomaSIN / THOMASin). The Witch boasts stunning locations that shroud the film in darkness and obscurity. In sharp contrast to the clinical look of Goodnight Mommy, the cinematography only allows a furtive glimpse into what the shadows conceal (and reveal). There are moments of gore here, but overall, The Witch is a spellbinding psychological horror with a powerful message at its heart about the liberation of the self from social, moral and religious power structures.

Carly Stevenson is a postgraduate researcher in the Gothic and Keats at the University of Sheffield. She's always up for a science fiction double feature!