Friday, 20 October 2017

Conference Alert: Contested Inheritances, 1750-1830

Saturday, 28th October at Kings Manor, University of York

Contested Inheritances sets out to explore the plurality of historical representations and the contestation surrounding interpretations of national pasts. Focusing on Britain in the long eighteenth century, the topics we hope to explore on this day will include:
Antiquarianism and related modes of interpreting the past
Allegorical representations of British history to critique and transform the eighteenth century present and its national institutions
Ways in which the past was made accessible and entertaining to contemporary eighteenth-century audiences

In particular, we are interested in exploring how contested interpretations of the past were deployed by creative thinkers experimenting with constitutive elements of national identity.

Contested Inheritances promises to be an excellent day, with a wide variation of topics and focus within the period. Both Sheffield Gothic co-organiser, Lauren Nixon and Centre for the History of the Gothic member Dr Hamish Mathison will be presenting.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Doppelgangers - Volume 01: The Shining

Hello Gothic People!

It is a new term of the gleefully grotesque and the magnificently macabre, Gothic Reading Group and the theme this year is ‘Adaptation’. To celebrate, I intend to start a new series where I talk a little bit about the background to the original, the adaptation and discuss some of the differences between the two. I hope you enjoy the ride.

(The Simpsons does The Shining)
I assume the erudite, cultured, and extremely good-looking readers of this blog are familiar with the general plot of The Shining (see the Simpson Treehouse of Horror V), but just in case here is a quick recap to bring you up to speed. The Shining (the book) is a horror novel by Stephen King published in 1977, chronicling alcoholic, failed author Jack Torrance’s slow descent into madness and family-murder, aided and abetted by the assorted spooks lurking round the Overlook Hotel. The inspiration for the story can be traced back to a break King made with his wife in 1974, to the Stanley Hotel, Colorado where they were the only guest and by all accounts, the whole affair was not lacking in both the heebee and the jeebee department. King already had the successes of Carrie and Salem’s Lot under his belt by the time he began working on The Shining and, freed from the pressing need to create something that would sell (King worked as a school teacher and as a laundry worker on top of writing in the evenings) King made the decision to dig a little a deeper and reach for something beyond the spooks (King discusses this levelling up in the introduction to the 2001 edition of the novel). The book was aa runaway hit and became King’s first hardback bestseller.

The Shining (the film) is a 1980 film adaptation directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick had been interested in making a horror film for some time before getting The Shining gig (he was in the running to direct The Exorcist) and aimed to create ‘the world’s scariest movie, involving a series of episodes that would play upon the nightmare fears of the audience’. The film took five years to complete, including one grueling year of shooting (Kubrick, notoriously hard on actors, made poor Shelly Duvall repeat the ‘fending of Jack with a baseball bat of on the staircase’ scene 127 times) and by the end much of the set had burnt down after a large fire broke out in Elmtree studios. King has major issues with the film; the treatment he wrote about it was ignored by Kubrick, he disagreed with the casting of Jack Nicholson and thought Kubrick interpretation of the material turned Wendy into a borderline misogynistic stereotype. However, King grumbles aside, The Shining was showering in critical acclaim and is now regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time.  

(The Torrence family on their way to the Overlook Hotel: What could go wrong?)
The novel was conceived and written in the early 70s while King was overcoming a major bout of alcoholism (but slightly before the diet of pills and cocaine he would feed himself in the 80’s) and the theme of addiction and the struggle to overcome that addiction and find some kind of redemption form the book’s emotional core. 

This deviance from the central theme of the book is one of the main reasons why King is not a fan of the Kubrick version; King put a lot of himself into Jack Torrance. In King’s On Writing he says, “I was the guy who had written The Shining without even realizing that I was writing about myself’. He took pains to documents ever one of Jack’s painful tussles with his own set of demons (alcohol, familiar violence, a complicated relationship to his own father, not achieving his goals, poverty) and to show that it is through human weakness, the poor moral choices a person can make, as well as the malevolent evil of the hotel, that slowly turns Jack into a monster. This nuance disappears in film version. Film Jack is very much at the behest of entities in the hotel which is not helped by the casting of Jack Nicholson who, while giving an absolutely fantastic performance, screams cray cray from the get go. We lose the overarching narrative of a good man (or a man trying to be good) turn bad and much of the tragedy and pathos of the situation disappears too.

(Jack and Danny)
The family dynamics become obscured in the film version too. Jack loves his son and the two are close; this make the fact that Jack’s temper gets the better of him and he lashes out violently at Danny all the more disturbing. In the movie, Film Jack doesn’t seem particularly bothered about his son, and while it is made known to the audience that Jack probably broke Danny’s arm during a bout of drinking, the novel really gets into the awful details of Jack’s lapses of control. These are grounded in the author’s reality; King has spoken frankly about his own feelings of anger towards his children, how bouts of drinking, compounded by a dire financial situation and poor living condition, created genuine antagonism towards them. Writing The Shining acted as a sort of exorcism of those feelings.

Taking a note from interplay of real life domestic violence, the novel touches on the cycle of abuse. Book Jack had been abused by his own father, was also a failed writer, and continually struggles with the feelings of love towards the man who hurt him, while at the same time harbouring a hatred for him too. Without a model to learn how to be a father from, Jack passes this abuse onto his own child. Danny in turn struggles with that potent cocktail of contradictory emotions and despite his Shining ability giving him advance warning of all the horrible things his father will try to do, wants to stay at the hotel, in danger, because he believes it will be best for his Dad. It’s heavy stuff, that doesn’t get a chance to breathe in the film.

Despite this hideousness, the novel remains ultimately hopefully about human nature. Book Torrance is given a moment of redemption, towards the end he recovers enough of himself to let the Overlook’s dodgy boiler exploded, burning the hotel to the grounds and giving his family time to escape. This is denied his film counterpart who has gone full on Jason Voorhees by the end, and gets an inglorious farewell of freezing to death in a hedge maze. It turns Kubrick’s film into a much bleaker experience. Jack had always been part of the hotel and the hotel within it has always been a part of him; there is no getting away from the darkness inside.

(Jack becoming part of the Overlook?)
If it seems like this has devolved into a bout of Bash-the-Adaptation, I apologise. I am not trying to rag on Kubrick. I loves me some movie Shining. The film is a deeply unsettling masterpiece of creep; watching it at night, on my own, still gives me some serious spine shudders. But the heart of the film lies entirely elsewhere (mostly into not running into Jack Nicholson on a dark night) and, to my mind, the removal of the central emotional conflict is the most significant alteration.

So, rapid fire round, some of the film’s other biggest changes are:

  • Book Danny’s imaginary friend didn’t live inside Danny’s little finger; Danny’s manifestation on his Shining ability presented itself as an entity outside himself who appeared to him in his dreams. Book Danny is also much brighter. And his parents know about his Shining.
  • Book hotel wants to absorb Danny’s power in the book and uses Jack to get to him (baiting him with talk of the manager); Film Hotel seems to be just a bad egg, a spot of negative energy where tragic incidents are doomed to happed over and over again.
  • Book Wendy is less damsel in distress; she spends less time flailing and more time getting stuff done.
  • Book Dick Hallorann does not get axed to death; the getting a whack from a croquet mallet but lives to snowmobile the family out of danger. Go Hallorann!
  • Oh, and the book has killer hedge maze animals.
(Danny exploring the halls of the Overlook)

Further Reading:
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) – An inspiration for The Shining and considered by many to be the finest haunted house story ever written.
Stephen King, Doctor Sleep (2013) – The sequel to The Shining following an adult Danny battling with his own demons. And vampires. Who ride around in camper vans. Highly recommended.
The Shining (1997) – An ABC mini-series penned by King himself. This three part minis series is more faithful to the novel but a wee bit less . . . artful than the Kubrick film. Worth a watch if you are a mega King fan but, like room 217, probably a door best left unopened for the more casual viewer.
The Making of the Shining (1980) – A behind the scenes documentary shot by the BBC giving a rare glimpse into Kubrick’s directing methods. You can watch it for free online.
Room 237 (2012) – This film has generated a ton of theories about its hidden meaning (some more fringe interpretations consider The Shining to be a coded confession about the part Kubrick played in faking the moon landing). This documentary will take you through a selection of them.
The Dom, Lost in Adaption: The Shining (2015) – A YouTube series specialising in picking apart adaptations and their source material, presenter The Dom breaks down the two Shining’s differences and similarities in far greater detail than is possible here. It’s a great watch. If you have any interest at all about how an adaptations stacks up to its mother-work, his channel is an absolute must see.

Claire Healey is a huge Stephen King fan and lover of all things dark, moody, and eye-liner-y. Her favourite time of year is October where she has fun decorating for Halloween and showing off her amazing craft skills - also ensuring that she gets the right balance of 'work' and 'play' and cannot be considered 'dull' at all. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Buffy Season Seven: When the End is also a Beginning

Concluding our exploration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Seven this week, and also concluding our Buffy Blog Series, Mary Going explores Season Seven as the end of the show but also as a beginning. Check out our other Season Seven post by Ash Darrow, exploring the character arc of Giles as a Slayer Ally in Season Seven (which you can find here) and don't forget to check out the rest of the posts in the series. As always, you can share this post and your thoughts and comments using the hashtag #BuffySlays20. 

All good things must come to an end. But, after seven seasons and 144 episodes – which include: the show’s successful resurrection on a different network; the spawning of a spin of show (Angel); and the death and resurrection of the show’s eponymous protagonist not once but twice – it’s safe to say that even though the show has ended, the legacy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer continues.  Fascination with the show and its characters shows no sign of abating, and this blog series is a testament to the interest and affection (or should that be obsession) that still exists for all things Buffy-related. Certainly, this blog series is just one piece of the dedicated and ever-growing fandom that devours special sing-along showings, podcasts (here’s looking at you: Buffering the Vampire Slayer), signings and comic-con events with the actors, producers, writers etc., as well as critical interest in the show that has sparked dedicated academic journals and conferences, and so much more. In this way, the final season of Buffy isn’t so much of an end, but rather another beginning. And, true to form, this theme underpins the whole of Season Seven.  

As much as Season Seven is conscious about the fact that this will be the show’s final season, it is also a season that, from the first to the last episode, is conscious in its efforts to take us right back to the beginning, to Season One, and to the very concept of the show itself: ‘Into every generation a slayer is born. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, the forces of darkness. One girl in all the world, the chosen one.’ Buffy is a show built around the classic horror trope of the pretty blonde high school girl.  Crucially, however, the show inverts this trope so that, rather than being defenceless and ultimately killed, the girl fights back. This formula became the backbone of the show’s success: Season One shows that death could not stop Buffy from defeating The Master – and looking pretty while doing it - and Season Two and beyond continues this message as it demonstrates that if you take away Buffy’s weapons, her friends, her hope, what’s left is Buffy, and on her own she can slay pretty damn hard.

Buffy is by no means perfect, and yes, we can and should be critical about the shows that we love. However, at the heart of the show is its empowering feminist message that women are not defenceless, and we can, in fact, be incredibly badass and awesome. This message continues to stand the test of time, and constructed around it Buffy demonstrates that there was a market not only for supernatural TV shows, but also for shows featuring strong female characters and even female leads. Buffy paved the way for shows like Dark Angel (2000-2002) and Orphan Black (2013-2017) to name just a few, and seriously, Supernatural – what are you waiting for? Returning to its own beginning, Season Seven explores this central message, and magnifies it. With Buffy’s death in Season One, another Slayer is called: first Kendra, then, after her death, Faith. This complicates the notion that there can only be one Chosen Slayer, and as Faith puts its, ‘We’re Slayers, girlfriend. The Chosen Two’ (‘Bad Girls,’ S03E14). Which brings us to the Potential Slayers who become an integral part of the final season.

(Potential Slayers training in Buffy's back yard)
Before they were called to be the Slayer, Buffy, Kendra, and then Faith were all Potential Slayers, essentially waiting for the Slayer to die. The first episode of Season Seven, ‘Lessons,’ opens with a scene in Istanbul where a young girl is chased and then violently killed. This is Buffy’s dream, but as a Slayer Buffy’s dreams are not exactly your run-of the mill ordinary dreams, and we later learn that the girl in Buffy’s dream is (or was) a Potential Slayer hunted by Bringers. Furthermore, she is not alone, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of Potential Slayers across the world, all waiting for the Slayer to die, and all now being hunted by Bringers. Although very creepy, it’s worth noting that the Bringers are not the Big Bad of the season, and instead, returning to another beginning, that title is reserved for The First Evil. The First is a non-corporeal entity, older than the universe itself, and also the source and embodiment of all evil, or, as Giles puts it, ‘there’s evil, then there’s the thing that created evil’ (‘Bring on the Night,’ S07E10). You may also remember both The First and the Bringers from the Season Three episode ‘Amends’ and their unsuccessful attempts to destroy Angel. In Season Seven, however, their goal is more ambitious. Giles states that The First wants ‘to erase all the Slayers-in-training and their Watchers, along with their methods…’ and Buffy finishes his sentence: ‘And then Faith. Then me. And with all the potentials gone, and no way of making another…It’s the end. There’s no more Slayer. Ever.’ (‘Dirty Girls’, S07E18).

The Slayer, or rather, the two Slayers Buffy and Faith, along with all of the Potentials, are thus trapped between two competing narratives, both centring on their deaths. On the one hand, The First wants to kill each and every one of them, destroying the line of Slayers. On the other hand, is the line itself. Created by a tribal group known as the Shadow Men who eventually become the Watchers Council, a young girl is infused with pure demon transforming her into the First Slayer, although she is also known as the Primitive. The Shadow men then use magic to create a line of Potential Slayers, thus ensuring that on her death, the Slayer’s abilities will continue to live on.  And if this sounds misogynistic and patriarchal, that’s because it is.

(The First Slayer, aka the Primitive)
The classic horror trope of the pretty-but-defenceless blonde is a misogynistic, pre-written formula that Buffy inverts, but in doing so the structure of Buffy creates its own pre-written formula that imposes a different sort of patriarchy onto its hero. The structure is inverted, but still present, and it is something that Buffy and Giles struggle with throughout the show as they negotiate their Slayer-Watcher relationship. This is perhaps best illustrated through the Season Three episode ‘Helpless,’ but it is also evident as Buffy muses over the possibility of handing over her Slayer duties to either Kendra or Faith. It is not until the final season, however, that the pre-written narrative of the Slayer, the isolation and unfairness of being the only chosen one, and that her destiny is marked first by another Slayer’s death, and then her own, is truly overturned. Bringing the Potentials to Sunnydale, Buffy attempts what has never been done before, or, as Faith puts it: ‘Trying to turn a bunch of little girls into an army. That’s pretty radical, B.’ With the help of Willow, and using the essence of a mystical Slayer scythe, Buffy activates every Potential:

'What if you could have that power now? In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who dies thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say, we change the rule. I say, my power, should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us.'

(Buffy and the Scooby Gang at the end of 'Chosen')

If Buffy was created to upset the traditional narrative trajectory of the pretty-but-defenceless blonde, and in its place present a strong, powerful, although human (and therefore flawed) character who can defeat the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness (read: patriarchy), Season Seven amplifies this. Buffy defeats The First, but not alone: she is no longer the only Slayer, or even one of the chosen two. Instead, the final episode of the season ‘Chosen’ marks the beginning of a new line of activated Slayers. The conventional horror trope is not just inverted, but destroyed: all women are awesome. And what’s key to Buffy is that she has never been alone to begin with. Looking back to Season Two, Angelus taunts Buffy that he has taken away her friends and her hope, but this was never really true. The Scooby Gang is its many forms – Giles, Willow, Xander, Angel, Oz, Cordelia, Faith, Wesley, Anya, Dawn, and even Spike – were always there with Buffy, giving her support, friendship, and hope, and similarly this blog series marks not one voice but many, coming together with a shared love for Buffy. Standing with her friends, and staring at the now destroyed Sunnydale, Buffy envisages a new future full of possibilities. The end of Season Seven marks the end of the show, but it also marks a radical new beginning.  

Mary Going is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield researching the representation of Jewish figures in eighteenth and ninteenth century fiction, and she is also co-organiser of Sheffield Gothic. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer. 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Giles-Arc Part Two: Ask Me About My Slayer Agenda

In the final week of our Buffy Blog Series, this week looking at Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Seven, we have the second and concluding part of Ash Darrow's exploration of Sunnydales' favourite librarian, discussing Giles' progression from Watcher to Slayer ally. You can read part one of Ash's Giles blogs here, and as always if you want to share your thoughts on Giles, or any of the posts in this series, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

Season Seven is an interesting choice to cap off a discussion about Giles. While it is the end of the televised series, it doesn’t have much to do with Giles. In both a narrative and physical sense. Actor Anthony Head, who plays Giles in the series, spends most of the Season Seven off-camera. Giles is either in England rehabilitating Willow or taking a back seat to the Season’s focus on Buffy, Spike, and Willow. Unlike the first season, where Giles figures centrally in every episode, the last season renders Giles a minor character. This relative absence has an inverse effect on Giles’ character growth. Like negative space in a painting, Season Seven uses the absence of Giles to complete his arch.

(Giles on horseback)
The first shot of our favourite librarian that our mortal eyes are treated to is of Giles, sporting a duster, riding horseback around the English countryside. This evokes both the wandering, American cowboy and the questing knight of Arthurian legend: both figures of men made wise through experience. Giles has come a long way in the course of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He has been a stammering librarian, a punk-rocking teen, an independent businessman, a Watcher, a warlock, and a demon, and Season Seven rounds this journey out with Giles as an ally.

Before discussing how Season Seven achieves this with Giles’ character, I wanted to take a moment to unravel what I mean when I say ally. More than just a comrade-in-arms, though that is apt, I specifically mean ‘ally’ in the modern, political sense—i.e. ‘feminist ally.’ In her article ‘“Check My What?” On Privilege and What We Can do About It,’ Andrea Rubenstein gives a thorough introduction to being an ally of any marginalized group. Rubenstein lists several key aspects of being an ally: ‘respect that it is not about you,’ ‘it’s OK to make mistakes,’ and ‘call others of your group on their crap’ among them. Given the nature of Buffy, I’ll be specifically looking at Giles as a feminist ally—though there are certainly other allies within the show’s text. 

(Giles mentoring Willow in Sunny England)
Giles spends the early parts of this season rehabilitating Willow after her transformation into the murderous Dark Willow; reprising a part of his role as a mentor. I say ‘part of his role’ because we are left unsure what Giles actually does for Willow’s Wiccan rehab. Willow comments that the coven is ‘Afraid… They all are’ (‘Lessons’) and in the context of the conversation with Giles this suggests that his role is less the mentor figure helping Willow to heal, and more the social bridge, managing the contact between Willow and the coven. It’s worth noting the subtle irony of an episode entitled ‘Lessons,’ featuring the show’s educator-figure not giving a ‘lesson.’ This critical minimization of ‘Giles as mentor’ establishes the events of this season not being ‘about’ Giles.

As part of an intentional gag, or subplot, on the part of the show’s creators, after Giles’ return to the United States he spends five episodes not physically interacting with anything. After a few episodes, and some misinformation suggesting Giles had died, the Scooby Gang comes to suspect that Giles is actually the shape-shifting big bad of this season, the First. Giles’ inability to physically interact with the world underlines his distance from the action in this season and stresses how this conflict is no longer ‘about’ him. Giles even takes a back seat in the mentoring of the Potentials—the young women who could become Slayers—leaving most of the training to Buffy and Spike. While Giles takes to the intentional role of ally like tweed to an occult, British librarian, episode 17 of Season Seven provides space for Giles to ‘make mistakes.’

(Evil Giles?)
The 17th episode, ‘Lies My Parents Told Me,’ deals mostly with Robin and Spike’s conflict. The name of the episode is a nod to Spike, Robin, and their conflicts with their respective mothers. However, the episode name also speaks to Giles’ relationship with Buffy. For the entire show, Giles has functioned as a pseudo-parent for Buffy. Similar to the events of ‘Helpless,’ Giles mistakes his privilege for authority and attempts to circumvent Buffy’s decision making. Giles and Robin concoct a plan to assassinate Spike and to do that they must distract Buffy. Robin suggests Giles can distract her saying Buffy would listen to her Watcher, wouldn’t she? Buffy does, at first, but once she realizes that Giles is deceiving her, she heads off to save Spike. After one of the show’s best handled scenes with Spike, Giles and Buffy share a quick conversation.

The final scene of 'Lies My Parents Told Me' fully encapsulates Giles making a mistake as an ally to the Slayer and handling it appropriately. Giles attempts to talk with Buffy after going behind her back. Buffy has none of this and says ‘I think you've taught me everything I need to know.’ Rubenstein, writing on making mistakes as an ally says ‘if you’re confronted about your behaviour, use what your confronter says to change your mind, don’t try to change theirs.’ Rather than rebutting Buffy or attempting to seize the conversation, Giles accepts the denouncement and remains silent; his pained expression signalling understanding. The final scene of this episode is a door closing on Giles. Giles is physically blocked from continuing the conversation and left behind with the conversation, to contemplate, while Buffy quickly continues on. While a great deal of reflection and understanding is foundational to being an ally, and Giles’ strength, action is required. 

'Lies My Parents Told Me'
In the final episode of the show, ‘Chosen,’ the ultimate Big Bad battle against the First has the extended Scooby-family mobilized and unlike the other dozen-or-so apocalypses in seasons past, this one is for keeps. Also, this isn’t Giles’ fight. He is a valuable warrior in the end, but so is Xander. While the Zeppo never had a grand role to play, Giles comes to the realization that his was somewhat artificial. The Watchers and his position therein is one built upon an arbitrary mediation of the Slayer’s powers. As Buffy says ‘In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined’ (‘Chosen’). The apparently timeless order of one Slayer and a council of Watchers is the original mediation of female autonomy for the creation of male privilege. It’s not until halfway through the final season that Giles fully understand this.  As mentioned earlier, the subdued use of Giles in the final season has the odd effect of rounding out his character better than any amount of screen time ever could. In her article, Rubenstein writes that ‘Privilege is perpetuated in part by the silence of people when one of their own group does something questionable.’ While Giles does not vocally oppose the Watchers, his actions help bring about an end to their ‘thousands of years’ of rule.

In ‘Chosen’ Buffy and Willow realize the only way to defeat the First is a dangerous spell that will remove the Watcher’s ban on multiple Slayers and awaken each Potential as a Slayer in her own right. Giles accepts this and ‘calls out’ the Watchers ‘on their crap’ by backing up Buffy’s plan. Rather than ‘speaking out’ against the Watchers verbally, he accepts Buffy’s orders—a telling reversal of roles—and fights off the First’s minions while Willow works her spell. This is the most Ripper thing Giles ever does. Open insurrection to aid the dismantling of systemic oppression via propagande par le fait is the pure synthesis of Giles and Ripper. Giles takes a more direct approach to ‘calling out others of his group.’

(Giles and the Scooby Gang at the end of 'Chosen')
In the end, Giles’ relative absence from the final season and his minor role in the final battle are the matured response of Ripper made manifest. That frustration and Sid-Vicious-energy distilled through decades of friendship with Buffy and the must of old books builds up to Giles as ally rather than mentor. The final act of our ‘sexy fuddy-duddy’ is to have Buffy’s back as she faced her final battle. Rubenstein stresses that ‘all relationships… are partnerships.’ By the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Giles has come to learn this is true: both in his relationship with Buffy and his relationship with his own past, Ripper.

Ash Darrow is a recent graduate from National University where he received his Master’s in Gothic Studies. His current research explores Gothic and Games Studies, and he hopes to reverse Giles’ journey by travelling across the pond to the UK in order to continue his Gothic studies (a journey which is in no way related Ash's own summoning of Eyghon, which definitely did not happen, and has nothing to do with the Mark of Eyghon either, which Ash definitely does not have a tattoo of). You can find more of Ash's work on his blog: