Wednesday, 30 March 2016

'He Never Died': Negotiating (and understating) myths in horror movies

Warning: Contains Spoilers

The low-key Canadian-American horror-comedy "He Never Died" (2015) is a film you’re probably going to hear a bit about in the foreseeable future, if you haven’t already. A recent Netflix addition, currently under development as an upcoming miniseries, it’s the movie your friend’s friend or die-hard horror movie blog recommended, the film you pick when you want something easy. At first glance the premise sounds both ludicrous and predictable, but in fact it’s a worthy addition to a list of recent films such as as the widely-lauded ‘The Witch’ (2016) or the problematic but interesting ‘We Are Still Here’ (2015), which have managed to achieve a lot by re-imagining generic boundaries and playing with audience expectations.

The title might remind you of the ending to the Mary Elizabeth Fry poem:
…Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there; I did not die.

This film isn't raging against the dying of the light, however. The main character wishes for death, but is doomed to immortality by his role in Judeo-Christian mythology. In fact the title suggests, and even possibly demands, that the audience recognize the boundaries in place here, yet it’s a while before one fully understands how profoundly and paradoxically under-determined and over-determined the characters are by broader moral codes and legends.

The film itself, like the main character, is all about understatement. Anti-hero Jack never gives any more information than he has to, and he doesn’t often have to, preferring instead to communicate via dismissive mono-syllables delivered with deadpan simplicity by a superb Henry Rollins. Initially benign, if socially awkward, grumpy, and mysterious, Jack is soon tearing his way through his town's criminal low-life with brutal efficiency, a one-man killing machine. His motivations are as dubious as his origin story. In fact one of Jack's only explanations for being an un-killable death-magnet is nearly thrown away in his wry dismissal of his considerable history: “I’m in the bible if that means anything.”

Jack is in fact Cain of Cain & Abel fame, doomed, as the story goes, to wander the earth as punishment for committing the first murder. The next line in the Bible notes that “anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over,” which in this film transforms Jack / Cain into an immortal who pulls bullets out of his head with ease and who is driven to consume human flesh. Why the inclination to munch on fingers and drink blood? “I don’t know why, but I have to... it’s the way it’s always been.” That is as close as we get to an answer, though given Jack's past and pedigree the metaphorical implications are somewhat obvious. As the father of murder, it's hard to see where the Cain-the-myth ends and the Jack-the-man begins. For the most part, however, his numbingly violent past and his biblical origins are very nearly meaningless to Jack... at least until a long lost relative shows up and raises questions about human relationships and moral responsibility. 

Bad day, difficult clean-up... we've all been there!

In choosing not to walk the audience through the original Bible story, to lay out the why’s and wherefore’s of Jack/Cain’s punishment, or to over-emphasize the various connections between Jack's journey and the biblical tradition of Cain (both of which are cautionary tales about reactionary violence and the call to be 'my brother's keeper'), "He Never Died" avoids a common horror movie pitfall. I couldn’t help but compare this film to work like "Supernatural." Cain does show up as a character in that particular show, and like many really interesting characters falls prey to the format. In "Supernatural," and indeed in many of the more mediocre horror films in recent years, writers provide such extensive background for the 'monsters' they depict that these characters risk losing their punch. Such figures are either humanized to the point of toothlessness or so wrapped up in an on-going, complicated exercise in universe-building that they are separated from the very fundamental aspects that made them interesting in the first place. Their stories are caught up in the larger narrative – in “Supernatural” Cain does kill Abel as per the original story, but there are extenuating circumstances which reflect the tense relationship between the main protagonists. The Cain and Abel myth itself is stretched to its breaking point, and ultimately Cain is just another villain in a universe full of people who need to be punched, another the case of the week to be solved. That's "Supernatural"s M.O., and perfectly reasonable for the format, but the problem with over-analyzing the mechanics of 'horror' myths is that the fundamentals which make those myths so relevant are often lost in over-kill.

"Cain slaying Abel" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1609

There is very little universe-building in "He Never Died"’ and it works in the film’s favor. The only other supernatural figure who shows up is simply known in the credits as Goatee Man, and his role is never explained. Is he an angel, a ghost, God, Satan? Is he some other Being outside of human understanding? Is he responsible for Jack’s predicament? Why does he intervene or not intervene at particular moments? Does it matter?

Jack's questions about his place in the world, and the audience's questions about what Jack is and why he does what he does, aren't going to be answered... not by Jack or anyone else. In fact, attempts to impose a recognizable 'monster' identity or code of conduct are played for laughs:

Cara: "So you’re like a vamp...?"
Jack: "Can we please not speak of it?"
Cara: "So why don't you have the [makes face] teeth?"

Jack has clearly gone around this question a few times before, and has not only failed to find satisfactory answers but is in fact somewhat defined by his inability, after all this time, to come to terms with his place in the universe. He cannot die, he is driven to kill, and there is no purpose or logic to it that he can see. He rants at the silent Goatee Man: "Why?! Just let me die!" His destructive and lonely identity crisis, spanning all of human time, is more horrible in that moment than anything else, understated yet fundamentally recognizable and important. Jack is mid-rant when his friend comes in and demands he help his injured daughter, and just like that all metaphysical questions take a back seat. Ultimately, "He Never Died" manages to offer a meditation on the human condition without beating you over the head with it's message - just as the original Bible story is less about the mechanisms of murder and more about human responsibility, this film finds the beauty and the horror in the pared-down, instantly recognizable myth. 

Cain is frightening and sympathetic because his story is so basic, and there is no attempt to turn theological mysteries into mechanical rules or to reduce metaphysical figures to easily-digestible (no pun intended) characters. When you find out that Jack is Cain the impulse is not to roll your eyes... 'Cain' is secondary, while Jack is rather a broader study of one of the most recognizable tales we use to examine morality. His action-hero 'superpowers' don't negate the fact that he is a very human monster going through a constant moral crisis he does not and cannot fully understand, and that for all his power he is in a situation completely out of his control.

108 Media is developing "He Never Died" as a mini-series, and I think it’s a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Henry Rollins' deadpan, hilarious, and emotionally-wrenching portrayal, and the tone and style of the whole film is spot on for a solid horror-comedy. However, part of the point is that the boundaries of Jack’s existential rationale are so ill-defined... it leaves room for larger anxieties without reducing a profound mythological figure to a Jason Bourne character with an extended backstory. "He Never Died" isn’t afraid to ask questions or leave those questions unanswered, which I think is going to become one of the defining strategies of solid horror cinema in years to come.

Kathleen Hudson is a PhD student in Gothic Literature at the University of Sheffield. She is always up for a horror movie night... tweet recommendations to @kathleenh42 or @SheffieldGothic and we may select yours for a live-tweet session!

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Poundland Gothic

Nothing says Gothic like... a leek?
The tale of how I discovered the two particular texts I want to briefly discuss today is somewhat of a Gothic story in and of itself. It was a day wreathed in mist and cold, when I found myself driving to Meadowhall to meet a friend (a shopping centre lovingly dubbed ‘Meadowhell’ by those who have experienced the frenzied rush of crass consumer-culture worship within its walls).I fled from the mist of the car park and the twisted shadows that seemed to chase me, pausing only a moment to gather my courage and gird my wallet before plunging into those hellish halls, a twisted temple to capitalism that stank, as usual, of human.Still, steeling myself, I ploughed on through the denizens of this terrible place, only to find myself, somehow, outside of Poundland (“Yes! Everything is £1!!!”). I moved in, I couldn't stop myself, tempted as I was by the promise of a giant Toblerone for only £1- surely, the devil's work. 

Pictured: The Devil's Chocolate
Still, I was pulled inexorably to the back of the shop by forces unknown only to realise – with a start – that, at some point, they had began to sell books! For a pound? Oh yes, and what treasures I found in that bargain bin of stunned looking paperbacks and huddled hardbacks; some books slightly scuffed, others oddly stacked, all of them staring at me and begging for release from this nightmare. Don’t worry, dear friends, I thought (hopefully internally) I will save some of you. Sixteen of my fine English pounds later I left, heavily laden with books and a single over-sized Toblerone. And what a Toblerone it was. But we are here for the books, are we not? So let me begin with the first of these Poundland texts:
In This Way I was Saved, by Brian DeLeeuw, is an interesting, and Gothic, text exploring the dynamic of the imaginary friend as transposed onto the doppelgänger trope; we are presented with the story of Luke and his imaginary friend Daniel, all from the latter’s point of view. Daniel, however, is not merely an imagined personality. He knows facts that Luke does not, is able to analyse situations from a more adult perspective and harbours secret desires distinct from those of his ‘creator.’ 

The story plays with the idea of this common childhood ideal, having Daniel play the part of imaginary friend, possessing spirit, family ghost, and split personality throughout, with no explanation being offered as more viable than the other, which is the true charm of the text- we are left with only the unknown.The text is littered with Gothic tropes, from Daniel appearing as Luke’s doppelganger to his possession of his host's body. Daniel is a fluid entity throughout, fulfilling a myriad of roles. 

He is the character able to most clearly analyse Luke’s Mother’s psychotic-seeming episodes, he is the one who convinces Luke to poison the dog, to force himself sexually onto a crush, and, eventually, to kill. While each episode of Daniel’s control over Luke slowly becomes more and more aligned with the idea of a family curse or possessing spirit, we are also constantly presented with Daniel as a sexually perverse character as he lusts after Luke’s half-sister, touching her in her sleep and groping women while Luke looks on helplessly, for the most part. 

There is an interesting argument developed throughout that Daniel is merely an expression of Luke’s warped psychosexual development, or that he is merely a manifestation of Luke’s own psychological issues (Daniel is subdued by Luke’s medication).In this way I was Saved merits reading, and certainly merited saving from the Poundland shelves. It drives the reader towards multiple interpretations, providing evidence for each and allowing us to follow our favoured theory each time. Well written and well-plotted, there are plenty of moments of genuine shock, of the grotesque, of warped psyches and choices that, once wrongly decided, cannot be retaken. An easy recommendation here. Seventy four and a half Cthulhu tentacles up.

While DeLeeuw’s text provides us with an uncanny look at the common, J.B. Aspinall's Sycorax at first seems to tread ground that has already been well and truly trodden. It is framed as a found manuscript of written by a 15th century Monk, tempted by sin and sentenced to the penance of writing up the history of a local Witch who is still thought to be at large. 

I was worried that Aspinall would provide a familiar reading of the sympathetic witch, one who was falsely accused, whose only failure is that of being intelligent in an unenlightened age and, at first, we follow this pattern. Told parallel to the story of the lustful Monk, brother Edmund, Sycorax’s main narrative is that of Sukie Trothers, nee Dobson, as she is persecuted to the point of mutilation before ‘becoming’ the fiend Sycorax and terrorising Yorkshire. Brother Edmund, in tracing this tale, gives in to his own personal demons, recalling a youth spent in the company of woman before condemning an ale-house wife, Alys, to a Witch’s death after she refuses to sleep with him.

Aspinall presents a world of grotesque men- filled with transgressive priests, sadistic gaolers, apathetic clergymen, and dithering nobles and the text experiments, interestingly, with a ‘human Gothic’ in which the setting takes a back-seat to (or is supplanted by) those who occupy it. The dominating castle is gone and every man is a Gothic villain, determined to steal away the innocent and break them, as Sukie is dragged from each ‘castle’ to the next, each situation as inescapable as the last. The sublime appears only in the form of the cruelty and apathy of those who could have stopped the tragic treatment of Sukie Trothers; we see these figures as terrifying and their seeming sociopath tendencies prove awe-inducing.

The ending of the text, though, is the true tour-de-force, as an insane priest drags Edmund (transformed into something of a Gothic Heroine here) up into a snowy wilderness and certain doom. What follows is murder, madness and death, and an intensely Gothic finale. The perversity of his captor, the murder of his fellows, and the wrath of the witch all combines to leave poor Brother Edmund, like many of Poe’s narrators, desperately telling his tale despite his apparent madness. I would recommend this to read if you do enjoy a good Priestly romp, some bastardised Yorkshire dialect (“Heyoop, Feyther”) and an ending that is definitely spoiled by the blurb! I'd give it a solid 7 found manuscripts out of 10.

Yorkshire and Proud

So, these are the first two of Poundland’s Gothic offerings and perhaps I shall share more, in time. Still, both are well worth a read and do attempt to do interesting things with the Gothic form. And, if you find yourself in any reputable pound stores, dollar stores, or [insert currency here] stores, then do take the time to have a look around, and spend your well-earned Gothic Money to save a book from certain sadness on those sorry shelves. And get yourself a Toblerone, on me. You’re welcome.

Danny Southward is a third year researcher at Sheffield University. His work focuses on Toblerones, the proper consumption thereof, how great Yorkshire is and also some contemporary Gothic and metafiction stuff, but that's not important. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

Are you Afraid of the Dark-Hearted Man? The Fifty Year Sword.

Last Wednesday, Sheffield Gothic met to talk stitching, orphans, and vengeance, as we discussed Mark Z. Danielewski's The Fifty Year Sword (2005), a novel which attempts to novelise the ghost story.

Within the glossy pages, we are introduced to Chintana, a heartbroken seamstress who dreams of vengeance against her husband’s seductress, Belinda Kite. Chintana soon decides to attend a Halloween party, where she finds herself helping to watch over five orphans as they are sat before a large and hulking storyteller. This man, clad all in black, sits behind a six foot box adorned with five clasps and T50YS embossed upon the surface as he begins his story. “I am a bad man" he tells the children, "with a very black heart” and thus Chintana listens, almost helplessly, as this dark stranger relates a tale of epic travel, sudden murder, blackest hearts and a search for a weapon. It is a tale which is quickly cut short at the climax, only for the novel to climax in a whirlwind of cuts and blood. The text itself is interestingly, and unconventionally designed. There are five separate, although not entirely distinct, narrative voices, which weave together to construct the narrative; mixing and mingling, they finish each other's sentences and metaphors, in an attempt to recreate a corroborating and collaborative oral tale. 

I don’t want to spoil too much of the novella for those who have yet to pick it up, so will leave that rather enigmatic synopsis there and you’ll just have to trust me that it’s a wonderful read. Sorry, in advance, for the nightmares.

Like the great literary and Gothic detectives that we are, the reading group instantly identified a wealth of Gothic tropes that stood out within the text. For such a short novella – only one half, roughly, of its 289 pages actually contain any text – Danielewski manages to tick a lot of Gothic boxes. To begin, there is the Byronic wandering figure of the storyteller himself. Unknown and dark, he arrives like a narrator that has slipped somehow free of Melmoth and wound his way into the text, still desperate to nestle a tale at all costs. This figure also introduces the idea of the supernatural, and more specifically the idea of the ghost as, after the [anti-]climactic end of his tale the actual expected storyteller arrives out of breath and late while our dark ghostly storyteller mysteriously disappears! 

Within this spirit’s story, too, we come across the main vengeance narrative, as he describes his desire for a weapon to avenge himself upon someone. The cost of finding this weapon, though, is that the reason for his need for it in the first place, the very memory of the insult that has inspired his quest, is sliced from his body. Danielewski ticks the frame narrative and found manuscript boxes, stating in the introduction that he has done ‘nothing more than lend together these gathered and rerelated bits so as to present here a pretty peculiar and perhaps altogether alternate history of one October evening in East Texas’.

While, yes, the novel establishes itself as Gothic in this manner, and these are just a few examples among many, we do have to ask ourselves ‘why’? What does it do with the genre, if anything? Which brings me nicely to the metafictional aspects. The book is undeniably playing up it’s status as an artefact: For the most part we are presented with text on only one half of the book, the other merely remaining blank or occasionally containing an image composed of stitching; the page layout is played with to create a unique and non-linear line-reading experience as the convention of starting a new line for a new speaker is extensively abused; and the original, 2005 1000-copies-only run of the text was presented in a small box with five clasps, to reflect the sword box that the sword teller brings with him.

(N.B If anyone has a spare £200 knocking about and fancy’s making a poor academic potentially pass out from too much exposure to awesome, do feel free to 
send one of these boxed copies to Sheffield Gothic) 

All of these techniques serve to foreground the status of the novel as an artefact, as a creation, a novel and subsequently heighten an awareness of textual tropes for the reader, in our case, highlighting the Gothic elements. An argument could be made that this kind of clear signposting is emblematic of the exhaustion of literature (just emphasising the Gothic for Gothic's sake), but I would argue instead that, no, it rather it ties nicely into our theme this semester of performance- As the intro says, ‘the history of a ghost is a ghost story unto itself’ and (big breath in) the story of the fifty year sword is the story of the telling of the story of the fifty year sword.  It is a performance of a Gothic tale, that told by the storyteller, and how such a Gothic story could pass beyond the narrative and affect reality. 

What I’m driving towards here is that the metafictional elements of the text serve to emphasise the purpose of telling a ghost story, the pseudo-didactic nature of the telling. After all, what is the point of the ghost story? To scare? To warn? Both are achieved here. The Fifty Year Sword suggests that the telling of a Gothic story is a Gothic performance in and of itself, that the genre leaches out of the text via our own internal (or external) recreation of the events as we read. The novel flaunts its status as a novel with an author in order to make us aware of the Gothic, to foreground the tropes, that we may question them and their relevance/pervasion of our everyday lives.

"I am The Storyteller! today's lesson-
Further, the text asks what we can learn from these Gothic texts littered with dark themes, dark hearts and bad men- these, as Chintana rightfully asserts- are not the tales that children should be told, and they do not appear to be designed to assuage us as adults. They are not cheery, not filled with lightness, but with the dark, yet we enjoy them and return to them over and over. Danielewski emphasises this question here, asking us why we read such tales and posits a didactic, or allegorical, message to be taken (Poe spins in his grave at these words); Chintana realises that vengeance through blood, the implicit act she wishes to take out on Belinda Kite, ultimately will not heal the darkness in her heart, and will leave her, much as the storyteller reveals himself to be, as only a wandering, listless bad person with an incurable, and damningly black heart.

Overall, we found the text a wonderful read, a delightful Gothic artefact and well worth picking up and, while I've mostly focussed on the text here, there is a rather wonderful dramatic reading of the text online, which watched the first video off to begin the session. Find the first video by clicking here and perhaps read along too. At Midnight. In the Dark. If you dare.

Danny Southward is a person who read books and writes about the reading of books that read back. We are only allowed to keep him because we promised we would walk him twice a day and feed him metafictional texts, and pet him and love him. Also he's a PhD researcher at Sheffield university.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Announcement - Haunted Studies: The Ghost Stories of M.R. James

On Saturday March 19th Andy Smith will deliver a keynote address on 'M.R. James and the Ghosts of World War 1' at 'Haunted Studies: The Ghost Stories of M.R. James' a conference hosted by the historic Leeds Library. 

Other keynotes include the horror writer Ramsey Campbell and the former president of the folklore society, Jacqueline Simpson. 

Details of the conference programme can be found here:

Dr. Andrew Smith is a Reader in Nineteenth Century Literature at the University of Sheffield. His research interests include Gothic literature, literature and science, nineteenth century literature, and critical theory.