Thursday 7 February 2019

Vampires in Romantic Literature

His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him, and those who had been accustomed to violent excitement, and now felt the weight of ennui, were pleased at having something in their presence capable of engaging their attention. In spite of the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion, though its form and outline were beautiful, many of the female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions, and gain, at least, some marks of what they might term affection.

John William Polidori, TheVampyre; A Tale (1819)[i]

This blog was originally posted on the 'Romantic Legacies' blog. 

The charming elegance of the aristocratic vampire, fully formed in Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula (1897), was certainly born out of a centuries-long preoccupation with vampirism and vampire imagery that adorned politics, society, and literature. Although it may seem like a Victorian literary trademark (Dracula is exclusively responsible for this), the vampire actually flourished in England from the eighteenth century onwards. In a fairly extensive manner, literary criticism has drawn attention to Polidori’s Byronic The Vampyre 1819), and the enthralling Lord Ruthven is evidently a mishmash product of the gloomy atmosphere of the ghost story competition that took place in Byron’s villa in the summer of 1816, and Polidori’s idiosyncratic relationship with Lord Byron, of which Lord Ruthven is a lurid reference.[ii] Despite setting the ground for the vampire-as-aristocrat trope, however, Polidori’s creation was not candidly original. Already, Lord Byron’s powerful reference to the vampire in his Oriental The Giaour (1813) betrays some of the cultural characteristics of vampiric figures in the nineteenth century:

But first, on earth as Vampire sent,

Thy corseshall from its tomb be rent:

Then ghastly haunt thy native place,

And suck the blood of all thy race. (ll. 755-8)[iii]

Clearly, Byron’s vampire betrays echoes of hauntedness, corpse reanimation, and familial blood-sucking, which were all more or less considered hallmarks of vampirism. In a note to The Giaour, Byron further testifies to his perennial knowledge of the vampire legend:

The freshness of the face, and the wetness of the lip with blood, are the never-failing signs of a Vampire. The stories told in Hungary and Greece of these foul feeders are singular, and some of them most incredibly attested.[iv]

In placing the origins of the vampire in Hungary and Greece, Byron restates the vampire’s orientalism, and contextualises its contemporary resurrection in these countries’ oral traditions, much in a similar way as Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) did before him.

From the moment of the first vampire appearance in literature, works like Gottfried August Bűrger’s ‘Lenore’ (1774) infiltrated the English imagination by adding to the orientalised tradition of the seductive, bloodthirsty vampire.[v]Even before ‘Lenore’, Alexander Pope’s 1740 letter to Dr. William Oliver imports an unexpected reference to the German (literary) origin of the Vampire, coupled with folkloric knowledge of the vampire’s practices and extermination by way of driving a stake through the vampire’s heart.[vi]Especially after the Augustans, by the end of the eighteenth century there is a marked rise of sensationalist Gothic literature that helped shape Gothic Romantic works. This shift to the macabre was not asymptomatic of a gradual but steady turn to individualised experience and psychology. Who is better to symbolise the grimness of reality and the human unconscious, than a creature that embodies fears and anxieties by defying all laws and boundaries?

The history and transformation of the vampire figure throughout the centuries is a colossal topic that I am not attempting to unravel here. Suffice to say that, by the time the vampire reached England, the creature seemed to be a ‘mixture of Slavic, Scandinavian, and Greek stock’,[vii] soon to evolve into an alluring character that was almost exclusively demonised and, more often than not, deeply politicised. The influence was shift; translations and literary variations started to proliferate.

Following this, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was among the first to refer to vampirism in his The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), published in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads(1798). There, in the vast expanse of the deadening sea, the Mariner describes their unremitting thirst:

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,

We could nor laugh nor wail;

Through utter drought all dumb we stood !

I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,

And cried, A sail! a sail![viii] (ll. 149-53)

This image of blood sucking appears the moment of a ghastly ship looms in the horizon, and the whole atmosphere tantalises by marking the Mariner’s gradual preparation to meet the vampiric Nightmare Life-in-Death, another meticulous reference to the vampire’s undead state, red lips, and white skin (ll. 191-3). As an embodiment of fear, Life-in-Death seems to drain the Mariner’s blood: ‘Fear at my heart, as at a cup, /My life-blood seemed to sip (ll. 200-1). Life-in-Death and her mate, Death, are interchangeable in their play on human fear.

(William Strang, Death and Life-in-Death, plate 8 from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1896)

Coleridge’s Geraldine in his Gothic ballad Christabel (1816)[ix]is the female seducer kind of vampire. From the beginning, she is described as romantically otherworldly, ‘Like a lady of a far countree’ with eyes that ‘glitter bright’, in such lovely voluptuousness that the narrator urges to ‘shield her! Shield sweet Christabel!’ (p. 8). It is even more suggestive that Geraldine appears in Christabel’s dream as ‘a bright green snake / Coiled around its [the dove’s] wings and neck, / And with the dove it heaves and stirs, / Swelling its neck as she swelled hers’ (p. 19). The mastiff’s ‘angry moan’ when it sees Geraldine (p. 6), Geraldine’s snaky eyes (p. 20), and the fact that Geraldine seems not able to pass through water, are implicit signs of Geraldine’s vampiric qualities and demonisation. Coleridge’s Geraldine is certainly one of the most distinct depictions of the eroticised female vampire, as in J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla (1872), which seems deeply influenced by Coleridge’s Christabel. As in the latter, Carmilla features a temptress female vampire that combines the Byronic vampire’s aristocratic lineage and Geraldine’s seductiveness. The plotline is also similar, but LeFanu’s novel moves more conspicuously along the grotesquery of the German School of Horror, of which ‘Monk’ Lewis is a famous example. As Richard Norton claims, German horror tales ‘were very influential on English works, and some of the Gothic novelists, especially Matthew Gregory Lewis, were well versed in German folk tales and ballads of the supernatural’: more precisely, these ‘Sensationalistic ‘raw head and bloody bones’ are more characteristic of the School of Horrorand partly help to define it. Full-bodied demons have replaced the filmy spectres of the School of Terror’.[x] In contrast to Christabel, Carmilla’s open description of gloated vampirism is finalised by an even more informed but rough-hewn description of exorcising Countess Mircala’s demonic influence:

Here then, were all the admitted signs and proofs of vampirism. The body, therefore, in accordance with the ancient practice, was raised, and a sharp stake driven through the heart of the vampire, who uttered a piercing shriek at the moment, in all respects such as might escape from a living person in the last agony. Then the head was struck off, and a torrent of blood flowed from the severed neck. The body and head was next placed on a pile of wood, and reduced to ashes, which were thrown upon the river and borne away, and that territory has never since been plagued by the visits of a vampire.[xi]

We clearly see LeFanu’s reiteration of yearlong folkloric traditions connected to the interment, staking, and decapitation of vampires, described in this passage with the coolness and precision of contemporary scientific and legal nineteenth-century treatises and records on vampirism and animality.

(From The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872)

As in Christabel, we find in Carmilla this association of vampirism with animality; Laura’s account of ‘a sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat’ is pertinent to the way the vampire bordered on the animal, and worse, because of its ghastly shapeshifting and its status as macabre predator:

It appeared to me about four or five feet long for it measured fully the length of the hearthrug as it passed over it; and it continued to-ing and fro-ing with the lithe, sinister restlessness of a beast in a cage. I could not cry out, although as you may suppose, I was terrified. Its pace was growing faster, and the room rapidly darker and darker, and at length so dark that I could no longer see anything of it but its eyes. I felt it spring lightly on the bed. The two broad eyes approached my face, and suddenly I felt a stinging pain as if two large needles darted, an inch or two apart, deep into my breast. I waked with a scream.[xii]

This affinity between vampirism and animality is also evident in verbal and pictorial depictions of vampirism and vampire bats in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which could also acquire socio-political dimensions. For example, accounts on British periodicals in 1819 describe the Vampire bat as

(…) in general about a foot long, and the spreading of its wings nearly four feet; but it is sometimes found much larger, and some specimens have been seen of six feet in extent. Its general colour is a deep reddish brown. The head is shaped like that of a fox; the nose is sharp and black; and the tongue pointed.[xiii]

The almost supernatural way in which the body of the vampire bat is depicted is also evident in Groom’s record, who also points to the way such ‘creatures’ were reported to ‘come at night’, ‘suck blood’, and even kill.[xiv]William Blake was extremely interested in vegetable, zoology, and insect studies, and his representation of Los’s Spectre in Plate 6 of his Jerusalem (1804-8) bears something of the vampire bat description, especially in its physiology/stature.

(William Blake, Jerusalem, Plate 6)

Another example of illustrated vampirism in Blake’s portfolio is his The Ghost of a Flea (1819-20), both tempera and paper, which represents an anthropomorphic flea that is drawn invariably with fangs and a cup of blood on its hand. Considering Blake’s position as a visionary poet that responded to a personal calling, The Ghost of a Flea can be seen as something more than Blake’s illustration for John Varley’s Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1828). The choice of a flea as a symbol of parasitism is especially political when it comes to Blake’s representations of the fallen world, and the fallen body.

(William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea)

Political vampirism answered contemporary needs to talk about a diseased body politic drained by external threat, whether in Britain or abroad. The vampire turned into a symbol way into the nineteenth century, appropriated and utilised for political commentary. In his 1882 political cartoon, for instance, George Frederick Keller finely illustrates blood-sucking landlords as vampires who feed off their tenants and then burn in hell for their sins.

(Thomas Nast, Political Vampire, Harper’s Weekly (1885))

(The Irish Vampire, London, 1885)
(George Frederick Keller, The Vampires, Or the Landlords of San Francisco, 1882.)

What all these political illustrations have in common with literary vampirism is a sharp attention to the animalistic qualities of the vampire, and the vampire’s profound crossbreeding. We have already encountered Geraldine’s portrayal as a snake, and Carmilla’s transformations into a black cat. Similarly, we find in John Keats’s Lamia (1820) a description of Lamia’s body that very much resembles that of a fantastic snake-beast:

She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d.(ll. 47-50)[xv]

Her enthralment of the Corinthian youth named Lycius places her in the literary tradition of the demonic seductress who entices the unsuspected youth to ‘unperplex’d delight and pleasure’ (ll. 327), at least until she is melted by Apollonius’s gaze:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'dLamia melt into a shade. (ll. 229-38)

As creatures that defy reason, then, vampires cannot stand rational scrutiny, and dissolve before any scientific explanation of them finds solid ground. As Groom says, vampires signified a ‘black illumination to the Enlightenment, by challenging the epistemological foundations of rationalism and empirical knowledge’.[xvi]And whether or not explicitly vampiric, demon creatures like the vampire suffuse Romantic literature and foreground the reader’s greatest fears, inviting the reader to participate in the complex interplay between victim and predator. In doing that, we are in a similar position to Keats’s knight at arms in his La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819), who sees ‘pale kings and princes’ (ll. 37) with ‘starved lips’ (ll. 41)[xvii] in his dream, forewarning him of the dangerous belle that lures him.

To go back to male vampires in Romantic literature, it was certainly ‘a most attractive demon’ especially ‘to the second generation of Romantics’; although not conventionally vampiric, the Byronic Hero ‘already had many of the mythic qualities of the vampire: here was the melancholy libertine in the open shirt, the nocturnal lover and destroyer, the maudlin, self-pitying, and moody titan, only a few years away from Nietzsche’s Superman.[xviii] Byron himself was to provide a most vivid inspiration for Polidori’s 1819 novel. However, even before this time, the fascination of German vampires quite captivated poets like Coleridge who gradually move away from literal depictions of vampires to a more psychologised symbolism of the vampire figure and the qualities of vampirism.[xix]Real or symbolic, however, vampires made their way into Romantic literature in the context of emergent Gothic Romanticisms that shared in vampire discourses of the time, and were ready to re-invent vampirism in new and political ways.

Elli Karampela is a PhD Researcher at the School of English of the University of Sheffield. She is mainly interested in English Romanticism, and all things dark in relation to English Romanticism. She is an assiduous reader of (particularly Gothic) eighteenth and nineteenth-century texts, and a proud member of Sheffield Gothic. She is also a representative of the Messolonghi Byron Society, as well as the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies at the University of Sheffield, and an organiser of the 'Culture Vultures' reading group.

[i]Polidori, John William. The Vampyre; A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819), p. 28.

[ii] Groom, Nick, The Vampire: A New History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p. 109.

[iii]George, Gordon, Lord Byron, TheGiaour, A Fragment of a Turkish Tale (London: John Murray, 1814), p. 37.

[iv] George, Gordon, Lord Byron, TheGiaour, A Fragment of a Turkish Tale (London: John Murray, 1814), n. 38, p. 38.

[v] Groom, p. 99.

[vi]Twitchell, James, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature (USA: Duke University Press, 1981), p. 8.

[vii]Ibid., p. 7.

[viii] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘The Rime of the AncyentMarinere’ in Lyrical Ballads, by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 51-78 (p. 58).

[ix] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Christabel and the Lyrical and Imaginative Poems of S.T. Coleridge, ed. by Algernon Charles Swinburne (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1869)

[x]Norton, Rictor, Gothic Readings: The First Wave, 1764-1840 (London: Leicester University Press, 2000), p. 106.

[xi] LeFanu, Sheridan J., Carmilla (Doylestown: Wildside Press), pp. 142-3.

[xii] LeFanu, Carmilla, p. 69.

[xiii] ‘Natural History of the Vampyre Bat’, in Fictitious History of the Vampyre, The Imperial Magazine (British Periodicals, 1819), pp. 235-240 (p. 240). In the same entry, letting aside that the Vampyre bat is, according to the writer, vegetarian, the association of the bat with the figure of the vampire, a creature that devours the victim with such voracity ‘as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even from the very pores of their skin’, marks the creature as bordering on monstrosity (p. 237).

[xiv] Groom, p. 112.

[xv]Keats, John, ‘Lamia’, in Poetical Works (London: Macmillan, 1884;, 1999)

[xvi] Groom, p. 93.

[xvii]Keats, John, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, in Poetical Works (London: Macmillan, 1884;, 1999)

[xviii]Twitchell, p. 75.

[xix]Ibid., p. 156.

Tuesday 5 February 2019

CFP: Gothic Spectacle and Spectatorship

Sheffield Gothic are pleased to share the following call for papers for a one day symposium on 'Gothic Spectacle and Spectatorship' at Lancaster University, 1st June 2019. 

The deadline for abstracts is 29th March 2019. For more details, you can email the conference team at:


Saturday 5 January 2019

Considering Crimson Peak

To round-off the Autumn Semester in style, Sheffield Gothic assembled for a festive film screening of Crimson Peak (2015). OK, it might not be a Christmas classic, but it does feature plenty of snow. The film is a visual delight - and that’s not just because of Tom Hiddleston. Guillermo del Toro’s meticulous attention to detail as he pays homage to the Gothic romance makes this the perfect choice for a discussion on the theme of Gothic aesthetics and archetypes.

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, and Sheffield Gothic favourite, Tom Hiddleston (yes, there were fangirl screams every time he uttered the words ‘Gothic romance’ during the press tour), Crimson Peak tells the story of Edith Cushing, a young American heiress, as she uncovers the dark secrets behind the warning ‘Beware Crimson Peak’, prophetically issued by the ghost of her mother. Working in the Radcliffian tradition, del Toro experiments with the concept of the explained supernatural. In Crimson Peak the ghosts are real, but they serve to provide a warning as the true threat lies with the living, not the dead. Rather than present medieval Europe as a place of danger and degeneracy, England becomes the archaic site of transgression.

Edith, an aspiring author who eschews saccharine romances in favour of writing ghost stories, is immediately (and understandably) drawn to Thomas Sharpe, the dashing if somewhat mysterious English Baronet who has travelled to America in search of an investor to back the invention he hopes will maximise the profits from the rich deposits of red clay lying beneath the family seat. Not only is he a tall, dark and handsome aristocrat, but he’s well-dressed, a great dancer, has really soft hands - and he loves his sister, Lucille. You know what they say: if it all sounds too good to be true, then it probably is! Struggling with the burden of inheritance, in terms of the ancestral house and the secrets it contains, Thomas is one of a dying breed and stands in direct contrast to the successful, self-made men in America.

After marrying Edith, he duly takes his new bride back to his crumbling Gothic pile, but Allerdale Hall is slowly sinking into the blood red clay it stands upon. It’s all very ‘Fall of the House of Usher.’ Rich in literary allusion, it’s not hard to spot the references to texts including Rebecca and Jane Eyre, in fact you’d think Thomas’ declaration of love, paraphrasing Brontë’s cord of communion speech, would have set alarm bells ringing for someone as well-versed in Gothic literature as Edith.
Thinking about it, this would have been the perfect opportunity for a game of Gothic Reading Group Bingo! It ticks all the boxes you’d expect as del Toro takes the staples of the Gothic romance to make a visually arresting film.  Cue Gothic heroine with great hair fleeing from an isolated country house in her blood-stained, white nightgown.

Acknowledging the centrality of the architectural setting to the genre, del Toro set aside seven months for Allerdale Hall to be built. The level of craftsmanship expected from the set designers results in a beautiful rendering of a terrifying space. Multiple items of furniture were replicated so that larger versions could be used to make Edith appear to be diminishing in stature as she weakens. Similarly, her costume sleeves balloon as the film progresses, swamping her tiny frame. Although Edith may physically deteriorate, she remains mentally strong, retaining her will and resolve. This is very much a female-centric narrative, appealing to the female gaze. Edith and Lucille are successfully used to illustrate conflicting types of love without either woman being depicted in the role of a passive victim. It is Thomas who turns out to be ineffectual as either hero or villain. Lucille is the powerful force, using him as attractive bait to drive the plot. Whilst that plot may be predictable, the high production values of this beautifully shot film means that you can still revel in the set and costume designs even if you can guess where the narrative is going.

The focus on aesthetics is not intended as mere eye candy. Del Toro jokingly refers to his use of ‘eye protein’; the content is not merely beautiful, it tells a story. However, when the film was released back in 2015 it disappointed those hoping for a horror film, with many film critics commenting that it was a clear case of style over substance:

'Aflame with color and awash in symbolism, this undeniably ravishing yet ultimately disappointing haunted-house meller is all surface and no substance, sinking under the weight of its own self-importance into the sanguine muck below.' (Peter Dubruge, Variety) 

'The film is too busy, and in some ways too gross, to sustain an effective atmosphere of dread. It tumbles into pastiche just when it should be swooning and sighing with earnest emotion.' (A.O. Scott, The New York Times) 

'It may be a little overwrought for some tastes, borderline camp at points, but if you're partial to a bit of Victorian romance with Hammer horror gloop and big, frilly night-gowns, GDT delivers an uncommon treat.' (Dan Jolin, Empire)

As it turns out, we are partial to a bit of Victorian romance (and the frillier the nightgowns, the better), but then we are pretty much the perfect audience for Crimson Peak. Our discussion led us to conclude that a certain level of understanding of the development of the Gothic romance is needed to fully appreciate the nuances of del Toro’s vision. Crimson Peak didn’t prove to be a hit at the box-office, grossing just $74 million worldwide against its $55 million budget, largely, we suspect, due to the film being miss-sold as a horror.

On a final note, if del Toro wants to direct an adaptation of Radcliffe’s Udolpho, we’d be totally on board!

Hannah Moss is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring the figure of the artist in Eighteenth Century Literature. With a passion for all things Eighteenth Century, Gothic, and art related, Hannah especially loves country houses, but has yet to encounter one quite like Crimson Peak in real life (although looks forward to the day where she will encounter Tom Hiddleston in one!)

Monday 24 December 2018

Dark Tales for Dark Nights: Ghost Story Edition

Join us on this dark night as Sheffield Gothic revives the tradition of telling Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve by recommending some of our favourites.

The Open Door (1882) by Charlotte Riddell

Amy Jackson

The Open Door is a classic Victorian ghost story which shares much with the popular sensation novel. I like this story because the premise is simple: there’s a haunted house in which a door will not stay locked. The narrator is a sceptic, he doesn’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural, and this makes him confident that he can shut the door, ‘take the ghost in hand’, and receive the reward of two sovereigns. However, there’s a dark secret lurking behind the open door and it’s up to the narrator to discover what truly happened. The Open Door is wonderfully eerie and a great story to read on a cold winter night.

You can read the full text here.

Young Girl c.1670-5
‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’ (1839) by J.S. Le Fanu

Hannah Moss

Shut the door, light a candle and curl up with a collection of J.S. Le Fanu's short stories. ‘Schalken the Painter’ is a Gothic tale combining the demon lover trope with a dash of Dutch realism – what more could you want on a cold winter’s night? Inspired by the atmospheric works of Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), an artist renowned for his mastery of chiaroscuro, Le Fanu imagines a dark story behind one of his candlelit paintings. I won’t give too much away, but suffice to say a moment of horror results in a burst of creativity for the splenetic artist, and the resulting painting becomes a kind of ‘found manuscript’ inherited by successive generations along with the story that inspired it. I love how this story juxtaposes realist art of the Dutch Golden Age with the supernatural to comment on the precarious place of women in society:
‘There are some pictures, which impress one, I know not how, with a conviction that they represent not the mere ideal shapes and combinations which have floated through the imagination of the artist, but scenes, faces, and situations which have actually existed. There is in that strange picture, something that stamps it as the representation of a reality.’

You can read the full text here.

‘The Signal Man’ (1866) by Charles Dickens

Ming Panha

Dickens might be known as a creator of a throng of grotesque and comic characters in his own brand of realism, yet ‘The Signal-Man’, published in 1866 in a Christmas edition of All the Year Round, begins its story at a very dark and quiet night, near the train station, simply with an everyman character. ‘The Signal Man’ features only two main characters and plays with quietude, loneliness, terror, and impenetrability of truth. When the signal-man at a train station tells the narrator about his encounter with weird apparitions at the tunnel, with no flickering lights at its end, the story leads you deeper into the dark, where the reader might also encounter the unknown. Based on true story of a train accident in the nineteenth century, this ghost story is simple and ‘real’ and yet mysterious and fantastical. Also, in our period with unstoppable technological advancement, ‘The Signal-Man’ still speaks to us that, despite scientific progress, the world can still be unsafe, unfair, and inscrutable. ‘The Signal-Man’, to me, can perfectly function like it has been doing since its publication as a ghost story for Christmas time.

You can read the full text here.

The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Lauren Nixon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, perhaps best known for 1862 sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret, was one of the most popular and prolific writers of the Victorian period. In addition her novels and her founding of the Belgravia magazine, Braddon was also well known for her supernatural stoies - some of which were collected by the British Library a few years ago as part of their Terror and Wonder exhibition in a volume entitled The Face in the Glass. Braddon's supernatural and ghost stories excel in the sinister, able to elicit that creeping, hairs raised on the back of the neck fear that's hard to shake off even after you've finished reading. Whilst any of Braddon's tales would make for excellent Christmas Eve reading - The Shadow in the Corner and Old Lady Ducayne were both close contenders - but for my money it has to the chilling (pun intended) The Cold Embrace. The story concerns a nameless German artist - 'young, handsome, studious, enthusiastic, metaphysical, reckless, unbelieving, heartless' - who falls in love with his beautiful cousin Gertrude, pledging himself to her with a unique ring shaped like a gold serpent to symbolise eternity. In many way a classic Gothic tale of the blindness of young love and the fallibility of youth, the way that Braddon builds suspense and dread of the course of the story is really fantastic.

You can read the full text here

1904 illustration by James McBryde
'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad' (1904) By M R James

Mary Going

Published as part of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, M R James’ first collection of ghost stories based on tales he had written to entertain his friends and students at Christmas, ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ (the title of which is taken from a poem by Robert Burns) is a perfect example of James’ ghost story telling credentials. It tells the tale of a Cambridge professor who finds a mysterious whistle while holidaying on the south east coast of England. This whistle has two Latin inscriptions, and of course, after the professor blows the whistle, strange, terrifying, and ghostly things start to happen. As a story that expertly builds its suspense, it will leave you terrified: its perhaps no surprise, then, that it has been adapted twice by the BBC, the first of which (originally broadcast in 1968) inspired the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas series. Both adaptations are well worth watching, but there is something about the 2010 version that is both terrifying and heartbreaking so do be prepared if you watch it.

You can read the full text here.
And you can also watch the BBC's 1968 version (here) and the 2010 version (here). 

The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James 

Carly Stevenson

A quintessential Christmas ghost story and one of the finest novellas in the English language, James’ Gothic tale begins with a fireside reading from a mysterious manuscript and ends with chilling ambiguity. If this isn’t the perfect opening passage to a ghost story, I don’t know what is: ‘The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.‘ Yuletide (or should I say Ghoultide) Greetings!

You can read the full text here.

'The Old Nurses Story' (1852) by Elizabeth Gaskell 

Sheffield Gothic

We would be remiss if we didn't mention this classic ghost story by Elizabeth Gaskell, which we discussed at last year's Nineteenth Century Christmas Ghost story reading group (jointly organised by Sheffield Gothic and the Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies). This fantastic story by Gaskell, master of the traditional ghost story, tells the tale of a young girl named Rosamond and her nurse who end up living at Manor House with the old aunt Miss Furnival upon the death of Rosamond's parents. Curious events begin to unfold as Rosamond is lured into the snow by a little girl, although it is pointed out that there is only one set of footsteps in the snow...

You can read the full text here.

Monday 17 December 2018

Considering Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is a Victorian fin de siècle novel which fully embraces the Gothic aesthetics of the supernatural and the hidden room. The novel engages with well-established archetypes and tropes, such as the Faustian pact. In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde states that ‘there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book’ and Wilde’s novel further develops this idea by reimagining the trope of the Faustian pact which is usually presented as a moral tale but may, in fact, just be a tale with no moral at all. Wilde took cues from his early Gothic predecessors, who altered the story of the Faustian pact by removing the historical and legendary figure of Johann Georg Faust, as he used the trope to comment on the Victorian aristocracy. There is no clear pact in the novel, no moment when Dorian signs on the dotted line using his own blood, but a transaction does take place sometime after Dorian exclaims: ‘If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! [...] I would give my soul for that!’ In this moment, Dorian unknowingly barters his soul for eternal youth, thus allowing him to freely partake in everything that Victorian aristocratic society has to offer without losing his treasured beauty. This is not a classic Faustian pact, where a soul is exchanged for knowledge and/or the servitude of a demon, but it is a Faustian pact that belongs to the Victorian aristocracy as it is in exchange for youth, beauty, and ‘sin’.

Dorian occupies the role of the Faust figure in the novel, even if he is not a typical rendition of this character, but his legacy lies beyond this archetypal role which was passed down to Wilde from the Renaissance era. Instead, Dorian has become a Gothic archetype which is separate from the Faust figure, no longer representing the consequences of diabolical temptation but the hedonism and decadence of the Victorian aristocracy. Dorian’s main characteristics as an archetype are his indulgence in sex, drugs, and art, and his ownership of a secret portrait which reveals the horrors of his misdeeds. Dorian cannot truly be Dorian unless he has a Calibanesque portrait stashed away in an attic or some sort of hidden room. It has become the defining feature of his entire character.

Some modern adaptations, such as Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), remove Dorian from his own story and his Faustian origins and implant him into other stories as a villain or an anti-hero. Dorian’s descent into hedonism and violence, tempted by the vice character of Lord Henry, is often reduced to a forgotten backstory which is simply not as interesting as Dorian’s immortality or his excessive lifestyle. He becomes a caricature of his original character and, in attempt to make him somehow sexier or ‘edgier’, certain aspects of his personality and story are exaggerated, including his drug use and sexual exploits, in order to fulfil the archetypal characteristics which have been assigned to him. Dorian, when he is removed from his original context, is often portrayed as an indulgent character who throws lavish parties and occasionally commits murder and other violent crimes. He’s never fully satisfied by his decedent lifestyle and his immortality leaves him with a hunger for new experiences and adventures. Dorian is insatiable, violent, and reckless but he lacks any of the naivety that he possessed in the novel which distinguished him from other Faustian figures. Without his childlike qualities, including his ‘wilful, petulant manner’ which is so prevalent in the opening chapters of the novel, Dorian merely becomes another Faust figure who has sold his soul for immortality.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray may be a novel which is immersed in Gothic traditions, borrowing old archetypes and classic Gothic aesthetics, but the character of Dorian has a life beyond his own novel. Dorian is now an archetypal character which, to modern viewers and readers, represents decadence and debauchery; but this version of Dorian is, in fact, only a caricature of Wilde’s original character. 

Amy Jackson is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield researching the relationship between Renaissance drama and the Gothic. While she may know everything there is to know about Faustian pacts, she assures us that she has never made one herself, and definitely does not have a secret painting hidden somewhere in her house. 

Friday 9 November 2018

Considering The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne

‘ON the north-east coast of Scotland, in the most romantic part of the Highlands, stood the Castle of Athlin; an edifice built on the summit of a rock whose base was in the sea. This pile was venerable from its antiquity, and from its Gothic structure; but more venerable from the virtues which it enclosed.’

It would be easy to overlook The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, the first of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic romances. ‘A Highland Story’, published in 1789, the novel lacks the depth and complexities that would define Radcliffe’s later works, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797). In comparison with the novels that followed it, Athlin and Dunbayne could seem somewhat brief: the heroines appear thinly sketched, motivations are under explored and the whole thing is over far too quickly. But regardless of this The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne is an important text, key in the shaping of the Gothic tradition. And, let’s be honest, it’s pretty good fun too. 

The Gothic novel’s roots in the romances of the Medieval period are evident in Athlin and Dunbayne’s feudal setting, and there are echoes throughout the text of Richard Hurd’s 1762 treatise Letters on Chivalry and Romance. Though Hurd had previously shunned the ‘Gothick’ romances for their supernatural elements – because how could one see value in something full of dragons and giants, heaven forbid – in Letters Hurd defended the romance’s employment of the Gothic as a means of an analogy in which to explore and discuss contemporary issues. In Athlin and Dunbayne, rather than the supernatural, the analogy is in the ‘ancient’ feudal past itself. 
(Meme created by Carly Stevenson)

The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne tells the story of two castles, as the title would suggest, and two families. We learn in the opening pages that twelve years before the events of the novel the ‘noble’ Earl of Athlin has been ambushed and slain by Malcolm, the Baron of Dunbayne, a ‘proud, oppressive, revengeful’ man. Unwilling to risk the lives of her people, the widowed Countess Matilda had chosen to not pursue vengeance and instead retreated into the castle to raise her children. Athlin, ‘venerable from its antiquity, and from its Gothic structure but more venerable from the virtues which it enclosed’, is characterised by the idealised society that Matilda presides over whose virtues are exemplified in her children, Osbert and Mary. 

In Osbert chivalry and sensibility are blended to create the Gothic hero: ‘nature had given him a mind ardent and susceptible, to which education had added refinement and expansion. The visions of genius were bright in his imagination, and his heart, unchilled by the touch of disappointment, glowed with all the warmth of benevolence.’ Osbert is a skilled soldier and respected leader, but able to temper his martial passions through his engagement and appreciation of nature and the sublime. During one such wander to calm his anger over his father’s death at Malcolm’s hands Osbert meets and forms a friendship with Alleyn, a young peasant of strangely noble features (spoiler – he’s actually the displaced heir to Dunbayne!). After learning of Malcolm’s poor stewardship his lands and all round bad guyness, Osbert decides that he can longer suffer his father’s murder to go unrevenged and rallies Athlin in a mission against Dunbayne. 

(Meme created by Celine Frohn)
What follows is a feudal family drama, full of human passions and misdeeds that is ultimately resolved in the restoration of a rightful heir and two marriages that restore order to the two castles. It may not be the best of Radcliffe’s works, but in The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne the foundations are laid for the conventions that would define her as one of the most popular authors of the late eighteenth century. The use of the ‘ancient past’, devoid of the supernatural is of particular interest here – there is no hint of a spectre or suggestion of unnatural forces. Rather what takes focus is the ills and evils which man can commit against man, the passions which warp hearts and the consequences of such actions: the lands that surround Dunbayne suffer because of the human malevolence that resides in the castle. 

So, yes, compared to its mighty three and four volume siblings The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne struggles to hold its own. But for anyone interested in tracing the origins of the Gothic novel as a form, or looking to begin their reading it’s an extremely worthwhile text. Also, it’s a perfect emergency handbag novel – I carried it around with me for months for unexpected waits and crowded commutes and it never disappointed. 

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. As Sheffield Gothic's own 'renegade Austen scholar', she only brings up Jane Austen when it is absolutely relevant, which is apparently three to four times a day. 

Friday 2 November 2018

Frankenstein Alive, Alive: The Immortal Being

This is a guest post written by Alan D. D. 

Mary Shelley’s story of a mad scientist and his creation has left an undeniable print in popular culture. Not in vain, the story has been described as ‘one of the most adaptable and adapted novels of all time, spurring countless renditions in film, television, comic books, cartoons, and other products of popular culture.’ (Braid, 2017, p. 232). One of the most praised works is the comic series Frankenstein Alive, Alive. Ironically, ‘the least known works of Frankensteiniana appear to be examples of the comics medium’ (Torregrossa, 2018, p. 1), but ‘Frankenstein-inspired comics may also be the most numerous adaptations of the novel’ (Torregrossa, 2018, p. 2.)

(Frankenstein Alive, Alive)
The comic, written by Steve Niles and with art of Bernie Wrightson and Kelley Jones, offers a pretty accurate summary of the original story, which was enough for me to fall in love with it. Although it would be pretty easy to ignore it, the comic goes along with the rules of the myth and remains loyal to them, but this doesn’t mean the series has nothing new to offer. You don’t always find a respectful, yet original, sequel as this one.

Frankenstein Alive, Alive takes place after the events in the original tale. The Being attempts suicide several times to end his suffering, and he apparently succeeds, before he is awakened once again by a man who seems to be more benevolent than his creator, Victor Frankenstein: Dr. Simon Ingles, who has thoughts similar to Victor’s. Ingles also tries to control the limits between life and death, but for different reasons. While Victor was obsessed, driven by vanity, in creating a new species using dead bodies, Ingles genuinely tries to save a life, although he does considers murder as a way to ensure his success. If forced to decide between the two of them, I would consider Victor to be the most ethical, for he is honest before and after accomplishing his goal.

The narrative is pretty fluent and respects the original style of the novel, but due to Wrightson’s death, the last issue had to be completed by Jones, presenting a lot of light in the images and curved lines that contrast a lot with Wrightson’s art. The story, on the other hand and as I said before, follows closely Mary Shelley’s ideas and narrative, with a couple of modern dialogues I suspect were not corrected. However, the comic does an incredible job both capturing the emotion, the feelings of the story and the actual events in it. The Being’s inner and outside worlds are captured in his narration. This is mostly done by Wrightson’s use of dark colors, several somber scenarios and lack of light. He describes in graphics what Shelley did with words 200 years ago.

The Being created by Victor keeps his self-conscious character and tells his story in his own words, assuring that ‘my very appearance in any town or village provoked such agitation, fear and hostility that I was quickly run out of town. I had done nothing. Their fear was based solely on my appearance.’ (Niles, 2018, p. 14).  Because of this, he ‘is forced into alienation in order to survive, and becomes the savage that mankind believes it is.’ (Brännström, 2006, p. 23) He also remains as a martyr, thinking that: ‘I seemed invulnerable, but it made the pain no less.’ (Niles, 2018, p. 14).

(Panel from Frankenstein Alive, Alive)

Morals play an important role on the comic, in which The Being reasons: ‘Who was I to point and cry “murderer”?’ (Niles, 2018, p. 8). Although he is often perceived as a monster, it seems like that, with the correct education he received after the events in the novel, The Being is even more conscious of humanity, life and death. Does this mean that to be a monster is the same as being an ignorant? A question open to debate.
This matter is taken seriously even at the beginning of the series, when The Being says that ‘I am never what they expect... So I have also learned it is always best to give them what they expect. Give them what they want. A monster.’ (Niles, 2018, p. 6-7). This he says when he appears in front of a crowd who wants to see “The Frankenstein Monster” and is disappointed: The expected an angry, blood-thirsty creature, not a peaceful one, and so think they have been fooled.
The last issue ends with a powerful reflection, and that could support the idea that ‘monster’ and ‘ignorant’ are the same thing: ‘Even if not a man, I am still alive... and any creature of this world, whether born by science or sorcery, deserves to live.’ (Niles, 2018, p. 20). Seems like The Being and I agree in something.

Braid, B., 2017, The Frankenstein Meme: Penny Dreadful and The Frankenstein Chronicles as Adaptations, Open Cultural Studies 2017; 1: 232–243
Brännström, C. (2006). An Analysis of the Theme of Alienation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Luleå University of Technology, Sweden.
Niles, S. (2018) Frankenstein Alive, Alive Trio. IDW Publishing, San Diego, United States of America.
Niles, S. (2018) Frankenstein Alive, Alive. Issue #4. IDW Publishing, San Diego, United States of America.
Torregrossa, M. A., 2018, Frankenstein in the Comics: A Neglected Tradition, 49th NeMLA Annual Convention, 14 April 2018, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

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 publishing a dark fantasy saga in Wattpad and searching for a 24/7 chocolate supplier.