Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Immortality and Death matters in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"

When thinking about the topic, one cannot help but wonder if death is really the end of existence, the final stage of our human bodies, or if it could be possible to play with it and make it obey our own rules whenever we want. Humankind has broken down so many limits by curing sicknesses that used to me mortal, developing medical procedures that were unthinkable in the past and even creating life in laboratories that it seems reasonable to give this possibility a momentary space on our thoughts.

Going further and being more adventurous, could this event take place at the very moment of the departure? It would be an attractive idea, for ‘death is still a fearful, frightening happening, and the fear of death is a universal fear even if we think we have mastered it on many levels.’ (Kübler-Ross, 2009: p. 4.) It would certainly empower the human race to have absolute control on its existence, including the end of it.

(Edgar Allan Poe)
With an attentive eye, readers may discover, if not already, that American writer Edgar Allan Poe seemed to think so, presenting this very same thought in one of his stories, either intentionally or not. Given the fact that ‘the United States is commonly characterised as a death-denying society,’ (Durkin, 2018: p. 48,) I look at this as an ironic panorama.

Finding such a topic is hardly surprising after we realize that ‘literature sometimes helps people to resolve the spiritual issues of death. It can be both objective and personal and it can give inspiration,’ (Skelton, 2003: p. 218.) We will also like to consider that ‘one of the central things of which literature can make us more aware is that death means different things at different times’ (Skelton, 2003: p. 211) as we go further into this proposal of death being controlled by humans.

In ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,’ Poe breaks the rules of Mother Nature by keeping a man completely conscious and still in the realm of the living after he dies, also forcing him to confess that ‘For God’s sake!—quick!—quick!—put me to sleep—or, quick!—waken me!—quick!—I say to you that I am dead!’ (Poe, 1944: p7.)

In the story, Poe ‘thus erode the borderline parts of the physiological apparatus to the point where that apparatus or body collapses into the abject material itself.’ (Sutherland, 2004: p. 3.) By doing this, he alters what is commonly understood as a living state, an aspect that becomes even more notorious when Valdermar speaks after being turned into this strange, undead creature

By medical means, or by mesmerism, to be more specific, the unnamed narrator creates a new kind of zombie that is only capable of speaking in certain moments of the story; frozen in time, he finds himself trapped in that unnatural state. However, this same creature cannot move, eat or realize any other activity that living beings are capable of, which gives us the clue that he’s not completely dead despite he isn’t living either.

It is in this limbo that Valdemar finally find a rest when ‘his whole frame at once—within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk—crumbled—absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.’ (Poe, 1944: p. 7.)

(Valdemar by Clarke)
After such an unnatural outcome, maybe with even more reason since Valdemar agreed to participate in the experiment of the unnamed narrator, it seems obvious that his death wouldn’t be peaceful or calm, but brutal, graphic and described with gory details. This is especially relevant when we consider its contrast with Poe’s typical use of the topic of the death of a beautiful woman, which he included in many of his stories (Elmer, 1995.)

Although this may not be considered as a case of immortality for some, it certainly is an early example of what it meant to be immortal for American society during Poe’s time: unnatural, far from being permissible and a dangerous, fearsome state that should be avoided, just like death. It is undeniable as well the fact that he has presented the transformation of a common human being into something else that seems to be detached of the limitations of being a mortal entity.

What is even more interesting about this story is not only the fact that death seems to be stopped by a simple human, well versed in medical matters of course, yet human nonetheless, but that it did for seven months, as specified in the tale. This leads to conclude that, besides being possible to achieve alternative states of consciousness, medical methods have also the capacity to control the effects of death in both human body and mind.

The idea is not far from reality as long as we consider that:

If the experiences described are true to life, perhaps the strategies that were used in this literary work, or are suggested through their absence, may be effective in your patient’s (or even your own) predicament. Literature, or ‘the humanities’, can enhance good practice in medicine. (Skelton, 2003: p. 218.)
However, I would like to point to the fact that this is not an appealing panorama, as far as I can see, if we keep in mind the results Mary Shelly’s memorable Victor Frankenstein achieved after creating his monster, the product of his long time experiments with corpses. Hutchisson (2005) suggests this same idea when speaking about Valdemar’s story, stating that attempts to control the natural course of death in human life would be unsuccessful, a point of view already mentioned in this article.

On the other hand, and if we keep thinking optimistically, this could mean that death can be successfully mastered and controlled after the right amount of research, experiments and knowledge are spent for this purpose, because ‘even though human beings possess mortal bodies, they have always longed for immortality.’ (Weiner & Meskimen, 2010: p. 1961.) We only need someone to do the first try in the real world in order to see how possible it could be to put an end to death, as ironic as it sounds.

Durkin, Keith. (2018). Death, dying and the dead in popular culture. Handbook of Death and Dying. 43-49. 10.4135/9781412914291.n5.
Elmer, J. (1995). Terminate or Liquidate? Poe, Sensationalism, and the Sentimental Tradition. na.
Kübler-Ross, E. (2009). On death and dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy and their own families. Taylor & Francis.
Poe, E. A. (1944). The facts in the case of M. Valdemar. Alex Catalogue.
Skelton, J. (2003). Death and dying in literature. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 9(3), 211-217.
Hutchisson, J. M. (2005). Poe. Univ. Press of Mississippi.
Sutherland, H. (2004). Wide Webs of Fear: American Gothic Fiction and Its British Counterparts. STAR (Scottish Transatlantic Relations) Project Archive. April.
Weiner, J., & Meskimen, J. (2010). Long for this world: The strange science of immortality. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Alan D. D. is an author, blogger and journalist who has been freaking the world since 1995. Hailing and writing out of Venezuela, Alan D.D. has worked with books, comics, music, movies and almost anything else that catches his attention. 99% of the time, it's something about witches. He's currently trying to get his first novel in English published and searching for a 24/7 chocolate supplier.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Gothic Training Retreat Schedule: 22-24 March 2018

Sheffield Gothic are pleased to announce the final schedule for the Gothic Training Retreat. Hosted by the Centre for the History of the Gothic at the University of Sheffield, this retreat will take place from Thursday 22nd to Saturday 24th March, and each day will feature a morning keynote and workshop from our fantastic guest speakers focusing on Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-First Century Gothic, followed by afternoon talks, sessions, and visits that will delve into all things Gothic and PhD related. We also have some fun evening activities planned including a ghost walk around Sheffield! See below for the full schedule, and we look forward to seeing you there! 


Friday, 9 March 2018

Announcement: Religion and Rape Culture Conference

As you may be aware, our friends over at the Shiloh project have recently released a cfp for their Religion and Rape Culture conference taking place at the University of Sheffield on 6 July 2018. They are seeking submissions of abstracts (presentations and research posters) for a one-day interdisciplinary conference exploring and showcasing research into the phenomenon of religion and rape culture, both throughout history and within contemporary societies across the globe. This event is supported by WRoCAH and AHRC.

(Poster for the 1968 film Rosemary's Baby)
Following the success of our own Gothic Bible conference, we know that this event will be of interest to the Gothic community, and especially those interested in or research Religion and rape culture in Gothic or Horror. Sheffield Gothic will be helping out with the event, and we encourage those of you who are interested to submit an abstract or come along on the day!

We would also like to draw your attention to one of the brilliant keynotes, Professor Rhiannon Graybill (Rhodes College), whose work will definitely be of interest to Gothicists, and especially those interested in or researching the Gothic and/or Horror and religion. Some of her notable works include:

The Shiloh Project specialises in the field of Biblical Studies, but the conference organisers also strongly encourage proposals relating to rape culture alongside other religious traditions, and issues relating to rape culture more broadly.

This conference will take place at The University of Sheffield on 6th July, 2018. It is open to researchers at any level, and from any discipline and proposals from students, organisations and community groups outside of HE are welcome. Submissions of abstracts no more than 300 words long and a short author bio no later than 29th March, 2018. Please indicate whether your submission is for a research poster or a presentation. The organisers particularly welcome abstracts on the following topics:

  • Gender violence and the Bible
  • Gender, class and rape culture
  • Race and rape culture
  • Visual representations of biblical gender violence
  • Representations of rape culture in the media and popular culture
  • Teaching traumatic texts
  • Methods of reading for resistance and/or liberation
  • Sexual violence in schools and Higher Education
  • Religion, rape culture and the gothic/horror genre
  • Spiritualities and transphobia
  • (Image depicting the rape scene from TheMonk)
  • Familial relations and the Bible

For more information, or to submit an abstract, email

Registration for the event is free, and you can register here.

You can also visit The Shiloh Project blog here.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Sheffield Gothic Does World Book Day Part Two

To celebrate World Book Day 2018, we decided it was the perfect time to celebrate two of our favourite books here at Sheffield Gothic: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  As both books are seminal Gothic texts and both celebrate their 200th anniversary this year (technically Northanger Abbey was published late December 1817 but the frontispiece declares 1818, so let us have this one okay?) it seemed like the ideal time. Yesterday, Sheffield Gothic co-organiser discussed her love for Northanger Abbey – which you can read here – and today Sheffield Gothic’s other co-organiser discusses her favourite book, Frankenstein.


It was on a dreary night of November, that I first sat down to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and imagined the dull yellow eye of the creature. Ok, that’s not entirely true, but ever since I first read Shelley’s novel in my teens, I have returned again and again to the story of Victor Frankenstein and his quest to create life. Or, to put it more accurately, I have been fascinated by the Creature and the Creature’s narrative. The Creature’s story is framed by abandonment, neglect, and then abuse from the creator, Victor while the Creature’s physical appearance is marked by Victor’s laziness and impatience: ‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my intention, to make the being of gigantic stature.’[i] Yes, I may be slightly obsessed with the representation of the Creature: I will scrutinize whether you use ‘monster’ or ‘creature,’ I will judge films on how Victor and the Creature are depicted, and my friends are well aware that a quick comment about Frankenstein can turn into a long tirade about just how awful Victor truly is.

(A few of my copies of Frankenstein)

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the start: In the beginning there was a young writer named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley. Born on 30th August 1797, and daughter of William Godwin (who you may know as the author of Caleb Williams) and Mary Wollstonecraft (yes, renowned mother of modern day feminism who was recently named by current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as his political hero), the young Mary began a love affair with the already married Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814. Although Percy was a huge fan and political follower of Mary’s father, that did not stop the pair eloping. With his wife Harriet in England, Percy and Mary travelled Europe, eventually ending up in Geneva with Mary’s step-sister, the celebrated poet Lord Byron, and his doctor, Polidori at the now infamous Villa Diodati.[ii]

The events at Villa Diodati were often drug-fuelled and influenced by a philosophy of free love (I would highly recommend Ken Russel’s fabulous, if melodramatic, retelling of these events in his 1986 film Gothic) and it was here that Mary Shelley came up with – or gave birth to - the idea for Frankenstein. Confined to the house due to unceasing rain, the group amused themselves by reading German ghost stories until Byron proposed they each come up with a ghost story. Byron’s own contribution was a poem about a vampire, later inspiring Polidori’s short story ‘The Vampyre’ which is frequently cited as inspiring the modern fictional vampire. The other significant creation from this evening of ghost stories is Frankenstein. Although unable to come up with a story on the night, Mary Shelley later recounted the morning after:   

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shit eyes, but with acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling besides the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.  Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.[iii]

In true Gothic fashion, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation came to Mary Shelley in a dream – or rather a nightmare - and with the editorial help of Percy Shelley, Mary transformed it into Frankenstein.

(1831 edition)

First published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was dedicated to William Godwin and contained a preface written by Percy Shelley, with many people speculating that Percy, and not Mary, was the true author of the work. Four years later, the second edition of the novel was published, this time declaring the true author of the text, while in 1831 a heavily revised edition was published. It is this later, 1831 edition that is most widely published today, although I personally feel the 1818 edition is far superior: the later, revised edition responds to criticism of the original text, making the story less radical and presenting Victor in a more sympathetic light. Rather than being responsible for his actions – the horror of the novel stemming from his own decisions – the 1831 portrays Victor as a victim of fate; instead of possessing his own agency, Victor is merely an unfortunate pawn.[iv]

Although there is only one answer to the question ‘Which is the best edition of Frankenstein?’ (the answer being, of course, the 1818 version!) the legacy of Shelley’s novel is undeniable regardless of your response. It is a text that has been adapted countless times in novels and comic books, onstage and in film, while the figure of the Creature often escapes beyond the bounds of its narrative and, like Dracula, is frequently referenced in popular culture. Peter Ackroyd’s 2008 novel, for example, moves the creation of Shelley’s creature to London, reimagining the events as Victor is guided by none other than Percy Shelley (perhaps, too much Percy and not enough of the actual creator, Mary herself).

In her lifetime, Shelley saw a production of Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, a play by Richard Brinsley Peake performed in 1823. The first film adaptation, Frankenstein, was written directed by J. Searle Dawley for Edison Studios in 1910, while perhaps one of the most notable early adaptations is James Whales 1931 version for Universal starring Boris Karloff. Universal subsequently released numerous sequels – including Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) – and later Hammer Films also saw success with numerous adaptations such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970).    

(Boris Karloff in James Whale's Frankenstein,1931)

Recent adaptations include Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which claims to be a more faithful adaptation of Shelley’s novel (spoiler: its not!) and also Danny Boyle’s 2011 stage adaptation. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as both Victor and the Creature, Boyle’s version essentially creates two interlinked versions, where the characters of creator and creation are blurred together and it is, in my opinion, the best adaptation of Shelley’s novel by a long stretch. Other recent adaptations include Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein (2014) and Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein (2015), and you can read my reviews of these films here and here. A version of Frankenstein's creation also appears in Buffy the Vampire Slayer season four as the big bad, Adam, while Victor Frankenstein and his Creature feature prominently in Penny Dreadful

Ultimately, however, nothing compares to Shelley’s original 1818 novel. The compelling nature of Frankenstein – a story about a creator who has overreached, and of a Creature abandoned by their creator – continues to resonate with and fascinate us, and will probably continue to do so. Moreover, Frankenstein demonstrates that female authors, and the creativity of their works, should never be underestimated, and to quote Shelley herself:

Beware; for I am fearless and therefore powerful. [v]

Mary Going is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring depictions of Jewish characters and myths in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century fiction, and she is also co-organiser of Sheffield Gothic and the Reimagining the Gothic project. She maintains that 'If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear' (although we may be joking about that!)

[i] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008), p. 35.
[ii] Fun fact: Mary Shelley often refers to John Polidori as ‘Poor Polidori’ because he kept injuring himself during their stay in Geneva.
[iii] Mary Shelley, ‘Author’s Introductiom to the Standard Novels Edition (1831)’ in Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008), pp. 192-197 (p. 196).
[iv] To read more about the differences between the 1818 and 1831 versions, check out Anne K. Mellor’s ‘Revising Frankenstein’, in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), pp. 170-76, which you can also read here.
[v] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008), p. 140.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Sheffield Gothic Does World Book Day Part One

For World Book Day 2018, we decided it was a good time to celebrate two of our favourite books here at Sheffield Gothic: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  As both books are seminal Gothic texts and both celebrate their 200th anniversary this year (technically Northanger Abbey was published late December 1817 but the frontispiece declares 1818, so let us have this one okay?) it seemed like the ideal time. Today, Sheffield Gothic co-organizer Lauren Nixon delves into her Northanger Abbey, and watch out tomorrow for a post on Frankenstein by our other co-organizer, Mary Going. 

Northanger Abbey

My love for Northanger Abbey is no secret; it’s the novel that took me to Bath as undergraduate and pushed me towards the weird wonders of the Gothic. Since reading it for the first time in my early teens Northanger Abbey, with its sharp witty prose, its naive heroine and ever charming, Radcliffe reading hero, has had a special place in my heart.

Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a young woman with an appetite for novels but whose ‘situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against’ her ever becoming a heroine. Catherine, enamoured with the works of Sheffield Gothic’s own beloved Ann Radcliffe and desirous of adventure, sets off to Bath in the company of family friends to make her first entry into town society.

Though written sometime in the 1790’s - around the same time as early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice - Northanger Abbey wasn’t published after Austen’s death, packaged together with Persuasion and a biographical note from Henry Austen acknowledging his sister’s identity as the popular author of her four previous novels. Northanger Abbey has often since been published alongside Persuasion, as Austen’s two ‘Bath’ novels, but the two novels hardly sit well together; written in the final months of her life Persuasion is Austen’s most mature, reflective and moving work, a world away from Northanger Abbey.

In fact, Northanger Abbey was almost Austen’s first published work. In 1803, Henry Austen helped his sister sell the novel, then called Susan, for £10 to Richard Crosby. The family eagerly awaited the publication; it never came – though Austen wrote an excellent, biting letter to the publisher in 1809 signed ‘Mrs Ashton Dennis’(MAD) to demand it be returned to her. Some edits to the manuscript must have been made by Austen – such as the updates to the setting and the change of the heroine’s name to Catherine – but many critics have noted that the tone and style of the novel speak more to that of Austen’s juvenilia than her later novels.

Northanger Abbey is often thought of as a parody of the wildly popular Gothic novels of the 1790’s. Its narrative beats playfully mimic that of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho¸ though I’ve always felt the novel’s satire focus more on the ‘misreading’ of the Gothic rather than the form itself. Henry Tilney, the charming man who reads novels and knows his muslin, after all admonishes Catherine not for reading novels but for the assumptions about the world she has made from reading them. Catherine when we first meet her lacks both experience and sensibility and reads Radcliffe’s work not as a masterful, powerful analogy for contemporary anxieties but as a racy, wild romance.

(One of my many bookcases)
I’ve always found much to adore in Northanger Abbey: the humour, the pace, the liveliness. The slyness of Isabella Thrope and Austen’s ridiculing of John Thorpe’s boastful hypermasculinity.  The innocence and sweetness of Catherine, her growth and development over the course of the novel. Everything about Henry Tilney. But it’s also the novel that features Austen’s excellent, impassioned defence of the novel as works ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.’

Over the years I’ve collected a number of different editions of the novel, including an old Folio Society edition that’s among my most prized possessions. However, despite the many, many bookcases in my house I *still* don’t have the space to display my full Austen collection.

Some of my favourite covers however, include this absolutely marvellous, over the top cover from (I believe) a 70’s edition of the novel published by the Paperback Library:

Though I’m fond of these simple, but lovely Penguin covers:

I also loved Marvel’s 2011 Northanger Abbey by Nancy Butler and Janet Lee:

But I think my favourite will always be the watercolour illustrations by CE Brock, from a 1907 edition of the novel.

Lauren Nixon is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield specialising in masculinity in the Gothic, and she is also co-organiser of Sheffield Gothic and the Reimagining the Gothic project. She only brings up Jane Austen when it is absolutely relevant, which is apparently three to four time a day.