Monday, 21 May 2018

Sheffield Gothic Profile Blogs: Maisha Wester

Sheffield Gothic are thrilled to announce our series of profile blogs, where you can get to know the members and friends of Sheffield Gothic and find out the answers to questions you have always wanted to asked us like what drew us to the Gothic and what's our favourite Gothic text! Today we have honorary Sheffield Goth and visiting Fullbright scholar at the University of Sheffield, Maisha Wester. 


Introduction:
I'm Dr. Maisha Wester, a visiting Fulbright Scholar for the 2017-2018 academic year. I'm an Associate Professor at Indiana University specializing in race in Gothic literature and Horror film. I am joint-appointed in American Studies, and in African American and African Diaspora Studies.


What do you research:
I received my Ph.D in English from University of Florida during a period when the department was wonderfully interdisciplinary. I studied and continue to use a variety of literary and cultural studies methods, such as psychoanalysis, Lacanian semiotics, postcolonial theory, feminist analysis, and critical race theory. My research specifically investigates the depictions of racial, sexual and gender difference in Gothic literature and Horror films. Furthermore, I also interrogate mobilizations of Gothic tropes and discourses in socio-political discussions of race and immigration. Equally important, I write on Black Diasporic Gothic literature as it responds to oppressive racial ideologies and expresses the peculiar horrors of navigating societies which construct racial minorities as abject and/ or phobogenic objects.


How did you become interested in the Gothic?
I grew up a fan of horror films and Gothic literature, preferring Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock to tween romances. I remember reading Edgar Allan Poe when I was 8 years old, particularly the poem 'The Raven' and the story 'The Tell Tale Heart.' Given I grew up in Miami where violent crime was nothing unusual and where we were taught the horrors of Chernobyl knowing nuclear plants were all around the U.S., I think as a child it was easier to process the terror of reality through monsters and fiendish villains—at least there was a clear way to defeat Freddy Kruger (wake up or seize control of your dream), avoid Jason (don’t go camping), and escape Michael Myers (run out of the house, not upstairs). Further, the villains in Gothic texts always made more sense than the villains in real life, and had a habit of explaining themselves/ their motives. Gothic villains were also far more interesting than your average Disney hero(ine).


What Gothic texts (including shows, films, plays, music etc.) would you recommend and why?
This could get long but I’ll try to keep it brief-ish:
In no particular order….
  1. The Monk: just too fabulous for words; the text is a grand, bloody soap opera
  2. Historical Survey of the French Colony in the Island of St Domingo: By Bryan Edwards, this first-hand account reads like Gothic fiction and is far better horror than most of the stuff Stephen King has written.
  3. Wuthering Heights: this novel is not only beautifully written but, in Heathcliff, creates an anti-hero that becomes the reference point for so many of today’s dark, brooding, invariably screwed-up lovers. More importantly, reading it at different points in my life reveals different things about myself: as a teen, I thought Heathcliff’s passion was amazing and dreamed of such a romance; as an adult, I realized that Catherine is a manipulative wench and Heathcliff is the model of an abuser. But the novel never pretends that they are anything different—indeed, no one is really likable in that novel if you look closely enough. But Bronte left it to the reader to look or not look.
  4. Hawthorne’s short fiction, especially 'Young Goodman Brown,' and 'The Birthmark': his short stories really exemplify the racial angst and quandary early Americans attempted to repress.
  5. 'Benito Cereno': This novella (which Melville considered a short story!!) wonderfully depicts the social and racial dynamics produced by the Haitian Revolution and critiques America’s position in the event. Equally important, it reveals the complexity of abolitionists (they weren’t utterly virtuous/ progressive in their racial ideals)
  6. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor: She is amazing at representing the grotesque beauty of the South but her plots and endings leave your perplexed, and ill at ease…which is what a great Gothic work does.
  7. Invisible Man: funny, horrifying and splendidly musical (not lyrical, Ellison wrote jazz and blues structures into this novel), I could easily spend a month teaching this novel and look to teach it again the next year. There is so much depth and richness to this text; more disturbingly, it remains relevant to the current moment.
  8. Cane: Jean Toomer’s 'novel' is a collection of short fiction and poetry punctuated by a concluding section which is as much novella as it is play. But all of these pieces fit seamlessly together to depict the haunting beauty of the South, the alienating hope of the North and the terror of dislocation. This book is a complex puzzle.
  9. Mama Day: This novel straddles the line between Gothic and Magical realism. It is lovely and heart-breaking every time you read it. The first time I taught this novel, it was in a class where a zoology student, who declared her hatred or reading, finished the book in one night (I had to beg her not to skip ahead in discussion for those who hadn’t finished, she was so excited to discuss what came next).
  10. 'The Child Who Favored Daughter': my Ph.D adviser recommended this Alice Walker story as one which would haunt me…she was right. It is poetic and understanding in its depiction of the father’s monstrosity.
  11. Octavia Butler's Kindred: though Butler is largely identified as a writer of Afro-futurist speculative fiction, this novel captures the horror of history for African Americans and, more importantly, of trying to come to grips with that history and your consequent origins. The novel posits the assaults on bodily and psychic integration from grappling with the knowledge that you may be the descendant of enslaved people, rape victims and rapists; and worse, without the horrible institution of slavery, the modern black subject wouldn't exist in America--that is truly grotesque and horrifying to acknowledge...       11a. Damian Duffey's and John Jenning's graphic adaptation of Kindred: absolutely beautiful artwork which really captures the text's horror and beauty.
  12. House of Leaves: A postmodern novel which experiments with structure and yet still terrified me; the monster never appears but Danielewski creates such an atmosphere of lurking terror that the novel’s play with structure is hardly noticeable at points. Don’t read this one alone in the dark
  13. I Walked with a Zombie: This beautiful film has been termed Jane Eyre in the Caribbean. It’s cinematography is stunning, its use of sound profound, and its narrative of white colonialism and black rebellion subtle but striking; it is, indeed, radical in its messaging.
  14. Cat People: Simply beautiful
  15. Night of the Living Dead: we wouldn’t have the modern zombie without this film (which actually terms its monsters ghouls, not zombies)
  16. IT pt 1 (the tv version, not the recent film): Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise was so terrifying I had nightmares for weeks and started sleeping with a nightlight, though I was a teen when the tv movie came out.
  17. Michael Jackson's Thriller: this video was the first of its kind and left a definite mark on the cultural landscape (everyone can at least recognize the zombie dance from this video) 
  18.  Little Shop of Horrors: A giant, singing venus fly trap with the baritone voice of Levi Stubbs (one of the Four Tops) and Steve Martin as the sadistic, rocker dentist are just a couple of the marvelous treats in this classic musical horror (which has some amazingly infectious songs).
  19. Sweeney Todd: absolutely beautiful cinematography. And while Burton provides the backstory which makes Todd a sympathetic antihero, he doesn't try to humanize him, as most productions do. Todd is a monster and remains so throughout the film; but so too is the rest of London society. Lastly, I love the way the stage makeup depicts Todd and Lovett as vampires, in juxtaposition to the rest of cannibal society. 
  20. Rocky Horror Picture Show: Need I say anything, really....
I could definitely go on but I should probably stop at some point.....


Who would you invite to dinner:
  1. Montressor from Poe's story "The Cask of Amontillado" because I want a definitive explanation of what Fortunado did that warranted living burial.
  2. The unnamed protagonist of Invisible Man because I want to know a) how he managed to steal electricity from NY for so long so well, b) if he really understands his grandfather's dying words, and c) if he actually left his hole (and, if so, did he go find Bledsloe and make him eat chitlins). 
  3. Hannah Crafts, author of The Bondswoman's Narrative, just to settle the argument of her identity and the nature of the text (Gates says she was an escaped enslaved woman but the text is so intertextual--rewriting The Castle of Otranto in its first chapters--that it seems a bit difficult to accept the text as a slave narrative).
  4. Neil Gaiman because he is cool, well-researched, and brilliant--I just want to be his buddy (even if I found Anansi Boys problematic, but no friend is perfect). 

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Places influencing human mind in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

This is part two of a blog series by Alan D. D. exploring Edgar Alan Poe and the Gothic. You can read the first post discussing Poe's 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' in relation to death and immortality here


We humans are such a fragile thing: it takes only one second to end our existence or to change it, either on purpose or by accident. If we see it under a different lens, all that is human is easy to destroy. Yet, we tend to think about ourselves as all mighty, almost divine, eternal, when it is our own breed our worst enemy, even more when one has the ability to influence human mind. 

Edgar Allan Poe

However, there is also a chance for places to have the same effect on someone if the conditions favour it. When this happens, we’re speaking about psychogeography: ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’ (Bauder & Engel-Di Mauro, 2008: p. 25) The concept was defined for the first time in 1955 by Guy Debord, but Edgar Allan Poe proposes something very similar on his tale ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ published in 1839. 



As a brief example of this, we could say that the beloved author was considerably ahead of his time as he states that, ‘beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us’ (Poe, 1839), which is a pretty similar way to explain the same idea Debord would ‘discover’ after more than a century. In this tale, an unnamed narrator arrives to the house of his friend, Roderick Usher, a building that serves as a presentation for the theme of the crumbling, haunted castle. The castle is an important feature in The Castle of Otranto, a novel by Horace Walpole published in 1764 and considered the start of the Gothic genre. In Walpole’s novel, the castle is also a symbol of a disintegrating human body, a prominent element in the later work of Poe, (Hutchisson, 2005) and an element we will see further in this article. 



Usher himself is presented as a character suffering a severe form of anxiety, one that grants him the condition of hypochondriac (Butler, 1993) due to his obsession with death and the tragedies present on the history of his family. His own house, plagued with these memories and ideas, serves as a reminder of what Usher expects to happen to him: ‘victim to the terrors he had anticipated’ (Poe, 1839). It also becomes clear that this friend of Usher, the unnamed narrator, experiences fear when he sees the house for the first time, asking himself ‘what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?’ (Poe, 1839). This becomes significant because it is implied that this character has either not been on said house for several years, or is watching it for the very first time, and therefore does not expect it to have such an effect on him, which could be compared to the more prominent influence it has become to his friend Usher. 

(House of Usher 1960, dir. Roger Corman)

Such is the effect of said house on its inhabitant that, despite the fact that he’s presented as a man terrified with the idea of his death, there is also a chance that Roderick Usher created a comfort zone around the thought of his life ending in tragedy, and so he causes his own destruction because he does expects it to happen one way or the other. This is the same reason for him to bury his sister alive: he expects to do so. (Butler, 1993). The fact that Poe included his poem 'The Haunted Palace’ in the story as if written by Usher reinforces both this idea of him ‘anticipating’ these happenings, since it proposes that: ‘evil things, in robes of sorrow, / Assailed the monarch's high estate’ (Poe, 1839). This leads the reader to consider that Usher finds a kind of joy within his own obsession and depression by thinking of himself as a martyr king. The poem could also be a sign that Usher has already seen his future, writing being a form of divination in the story: ‘travellers, now, within that valley, / Through the red-litten windows see/ Vast forms, that move fantastically / To a discordant melody,’ (Poe, 1893). These lines clearly resemble the last scenes of the tale. 

(Illustration by Harry Clarke, 1923)
I would also like to point to the similarity between the beginning of the story and the lines of the poem, where Poe, in the voice of Usher, says that: ‘Wanderers in that happy valley, / Through two luminous windows, saw / Spirits moving musically,’ (Poe, 1893). This implies once again that Usher knows about the first thoughts of his friend, which compares the windows of house with eyes when he first saw them. This leads us to conclude that this ability of divination is the result of Usher’s obsession, the house itself and the bond between its inhabitant and the visitor. The process fits the description of what is understood as a Possession Trance, in which a ‘spirit entity or force is believed to have entered or taken over the body of the human host’ (Stephen and Suryani, 2000, p. 9, as cited in Woods, 2009, p. 24), and that allows the individual to experiment ‘visions, hearing voices (pawisik), finding objects that possess special powers (paica), divination, meditation, and dreams’ (Stephen & Suryani, 2000, p. 9, as cited in Woods, 2009, p. 24-25). It is because of this, and Roderick’s hyperesthesia, which is a sensation of pain caused by non-noxious stimulus, (Noordenbos, 1959,) that I’m inclined to conclude that he’s been possessed by the house. 



Some would think that it is impossible to be possessed by a place, but, given the subject, it would be interesting to examine ‘Sister of Darkness: The Chronicles of a Modern Exorcist’ by R. H. Stavis and Sarah Durand, in which Stavis, who is the exorcist referenced in the title, explains that there is a type of spirit classified as a ‘collector’ who in fact possesses buildings under certain conditions, and causes similar effects on those who interact with said place. Everything seems to point out that it is more than possible for places to produce such devastation in the human mind, although I prefer to remain in the safe margin of the theoretical aspects concerning this subject and not check the practice of it on my own. 



References

Bauder, H., & Engel-Di Mauro, S. (Ed.). (2008). Critical Geographies: a collection of readings. Praxis ePress.
Hutchisson, J. M. (2005). Poe, Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press.
In Budd, L. J., & Cady, E. H. (Eds.), On Poe: The Best from American Literature. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Noordenbos, W. (1959). Pain. Problems pertaining to the transmission of nerve impulses which give rise to pain. Amsterdam: Elsevier
Poe, E. A. (1839). The Fall of the House of Usher. Alex Catalogue.
Poe, E. A. (1839). The Haunted Castle. Alex Catalogue.
Stavis, R., & Durand, S. (2018). Sister of darkness. New York: Dey Street Books.
Woods, A. (2009). The use and function of altered states of consciousness within dance/movement therapy. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.571.4007&rep=rep1&type=pdf



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, 14 May 2018

Reimagining the Gothic: Aesthetics and Archetypes CFP and Keynote Announcements


Attention all ghosts, ghouls and Goths - the Call for Papers is for Reimagining the Gothic 2018 is alive! Reimagining the Gothic: Aesthetics and Archetypes will be held at The University of Sheffield from Friday 26th to Sunday the 28th of October. 

Taking a temporary break from its May time slot, this years Reimagining the Gothic will be three days devoted to reimagining, rethinking and reconsidering Gothic aesthetics and archetypes. We're inviting papers from academics of all disciplines and stages of study (including Undergraduates and Independent scholars) to submit abstracts for 20 minute papers that approach the theme from any and all angles. 


So, what does that mean? For the most part, anything you'd like it to: interested in the way Gothic architecture is used in gaming? Intrigued by the varying presentations of vampire in young adult fiction? Inspired by Gothic fashion? Send us an abstract! Reimagining the Gothic is an interdisciplinary and multi-media project that aims to encourage new avenues of study, collaborations and approaches in Gothic Studies. As such we welcome submissions for joint papers, multimedia presentations and more.

The deadline for submissions is Monday 13th of August. Abstracts (to be of no more than 300 words) should outline the texts or topics to be covered in the paper and the proposed critical engagement. Got any questions, or want to ask us about doing something a little different? Email us at reimaginingoth15@gmail.com

To celebrate our first three day event, we're excited to announce that we will have two very special keynotes: Professor Catherine Spooner (Lancaster University) on Friday 26th and Kieron Gillen (Image Comic/Marvel Comics) on Saturday 27th.

Professor Catherine Spooner's particular research interests incorporate Gothic literature, film, and popular culture, and fashion and costume in literature and film, within the broader spectrum of Victorian and contemporary literature and culture. Her latest book Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic, was published by Bloomsbury in February 2017. The book was the outcome of a 9-month AHRC Research Fellowship and explores such phenomena as the perennial revival of Gothic style on the high street, the advent of the sparkly vampire, and Gothic tourism in Whitby, in relation to developments in twenty-first century subcultures.Catherine is currently working on a cultural history of the white dress in Gothic literature and film, and on the cultural afterlife of the Lancashire witches.

Sheffield Gothic are great fans of Professor Spooner's work and we are honoured to welcome her to this years Reimagining the Gothic. 

Kieron Gillen is a comic book writer, perhaps best known for his creator-owned series Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine (both co-created with artist, Jamie McKelvie.) Kieron has also written for Marvel Comics, with runs on X-Men and his acclaimed turns on Young Avengers and Journey Into Mystery as well as the recent Darth Vader, Doctor Aphra and ongoing Star Wars comic.

Elements of the Gothic literary tradition, aesthetic style and music permeate much of Kieron's work, and as the creator of the infamous #NoneMoreGoth hashtag we're delighted to have him join us as our creative keynote. 

If you'd like to be a part of Reimagining the Gothic: Aesthetics and Archetypes then have a look at the CFP or get in touch!

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Review: The Dolocher by Caroline Barry


A review of The Dolocher written by Celine Frohn

Better board up the windows and doors... Or the Dolocher might catch you

Merriment is an unconventional woman. Not only did she live at sea for years, she has taken to wearing trousers and makes herself useful as an apothecary now she has relocated to Dublin. Her new boarder, Solomon, writes broadsheets for a living and has plenty of secrets. They live in a time of tumult - a terrifying demon stalks the streets of Dublin, and its inhabitants are turning against each other. Is the Dolocher truly supernatural, as Solomon intuits, or is there a rational explanation, which Merriment reasons there has to be?

There is plenty of good in The Dolocher. This rather meaty book is exceptionally researched, on two counts. Not only is the amount of detail impressive, Ms Barry also captures the historical mindset very well. On one hand the Dolocher gives rise to terror and fear, while on the other it sparks pranks and humour. These two emotions go hand in hand, and this duality underpins the novel.

The choice of main characters is interesting, and I enjoyed Janey, a street-wise orphan girl that is far from shy. She was lovely, and her development alongside Merriment and Solomon is heart-warming. As is to be expected there is a romantic sub-plot between our adult main characters. The tension between them peters out over repetitive problems and the resolution felt like a non-event. I do like the unconventional pairing, but their overcoming of their problems wasn't as satisfying as I would have hoped.

The Dolocher is a very long book - my edition just about touches 500 pages in smallish print. The novel is incredibly detailed, and that turned out to be its downfall. Where the descriptiveness adds to the atmosphere in the first half, the repetitiveness bogs down the later section. We know how Dublin looks at this point, we know the smells and the bustling and the unkemptness of its inhabitants. It does not need to be told anew because if an image is well-presented, it will stick inside the reader's mind. A minor recall would have sufficed. The plot too could have used some culling - often the characters are merely walking around and talking to people. There is a whole slew of colourful minor characters that I did enjoy, however, and the dialogues were well done. 


(Michael's Lane Dublin)

Although it starts off strong, The Dolocher loses steam half-way because of over-descriptiveness and an occasionally meandering plot. It is, however, also well-researched and thoughtful. It displays the kindness of people, and is more about its characters and the city in the eighteenth century than it is about the killings and violence.



Celine Frohn is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield where she studies penny bloods, the Gothic, and dark humour. Loving all speculative fiction, she occasionally blogs at Nyx Book Reviews and spends too much time on Twitter at @CelineNyx. She freaked her parents out at age nine by writing gruesome vampire decapitation scenes and things have not improved since then.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Gothic Adaptations: Fingersmith


On Wednesday 18th April we’ll be meeting to discuss the adaptation of Sarah Waters’ neo-Victorian melodrama, Fingersmith (2002). Ahead of the session Hannah Moss thinks about the ways in which the novel is itself an adaptation…


Take two orphaned heroines of uncertain origins, place one amongst gang of thieves and the other in a Gothic country house presided over by a domineering patriarch… It’s a familiar recipe! Fingersmith (2002) certainly owes a debt of gratitude to the early Gothic novel along with the sensation fiction and theatrical melodramas of the nineteenth century. In many ways this is a novel about adaptation, as Sarah Waters effectively takes all of our favourite ingredients and then adds an unexpected twist to create something new.

(Cover for Sarah Waters' Fingersmith)
Sarah Waters’ neo-Victorian melodrama evokes the sights, sounds, and spectacles of Dickensian London as she weaves together the narratives of her two heroines, Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly.  Sue is an orphan whose mother was hanged for her crimes and, as a consequence, she has been raised by Mrs Sucksby, a baby farmer who is the matriarch of a group of petty criminals. When a gentleman rogue of their acquaintance, known simply as ‘Gentleman’, offers Sue the opportunity of making her fortune, she is drawn into a plot to swindle an heiress out of her inheritance – or so she thinks!

Maud Lilly, the seemingly naïve young ward of old man consumed by his passion for collecting rare books and prints, is to be their target. Gentleman has already infiltrated their home posing as an artist and connoisseur who can help Mr Lilly compile a book of mounted prints. By working as Maud’s lady’s maid, Sue is to facilitate meetings between Gentleman and her mistress by chaperoning their drawing lessons. Once married, and Maud’s money is safely in his hands, Gentleman intends to dispose of his new wife by having her committed to an asylum. So far, so familiar.

Much of the action even takes place in Lant Street, Southwark – the very place Charles Dickens lived as a child, during the period when his father was being held in Marshalsea debtors’ prison nearby. Waters plays with the idea of adapting Dickens from the outset. At the opening of the novel Sue, the Fingersmith or thief of the title, recalls how as a child she was taken to the theatre on a pick-pocketing mission, but it is the stage adaptation of Oliver Twist being performed that leaves a lasting impression. Unable to separate fiction from reality, the scene where Bill Sykes brutally beats Nancy to death alarms Sue to such an extent that she screams out:

I don’t know if it was the people getting up – which made the gallery seem to heave about; or the shrieking woman; or the sight of Nancy, lying perfectly pale and still at Bill Sykes’s feet; but I became gripped by an awful terror. I thought we should all be killed. I began to scream, and Flora could not quiet me.[i]

The menacing figure of Sykes haunts Sue, but it is never is it explained to her that it was only a play. Instead, Mrs Sucksby claims that Sykes, a Clerkenwell man, would never step foot in the Borough: ‘She told me then that Nancy had come to her senses at last, and left Bill Sykes entirely; that she had met a nice chap from Wapping, who had set her up in a little shop selling sugar mice and tobacco’.  (Waters, 2002: 6). Sue believes the stories she is told even if they go against what she sees with her own eyes – and so Waters artfully sets-up what will be an important theme of the novel as a whole. What’s more, the embedded theatrical melodrama mirrors its frame text in that these are the characters who populate Waters’ vision of London. For example, Sue lives with Dainty and John – a couple whose abusive relationship to a certain extent replicates that of Bill and Nancy.

(Richard Rivers, charming Gentleman/conman in the BBC adaptation)
As for Gentleman, well he has a long lineage when it comes to Gothic villains: a handsome, supposedly aristocratic criminal who plans to marry a woman for her fortune and pack her off to the madhouse - where’ve we seen that before?! If my own research into art in the novel has taught me anything, it’s never trust a man who offers to give you drawing lessons! Maud certainly thinks of him in terms of his literary archetypes and antecedents: ‘I think of him, Macheath-like, counting off a set of vicious faces – Mrs Vixen, Betty Doxy, Jenny Diver, Molly Brazen – until he finds the face he seeks … Suky Tawdry’(Waters, 2002: 240). He’s aligned with the captain of the band of thieves in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), as well as the manipulative Vicomte de Valmont in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), but neither picture fully encapsulates Gentleman’s brand of villainy. Gentleman may not be the aristocrat-turned-artist he presents himself as, but neither is he a criminal mastermind. The reader comes to realise that he, like both Sue and Maud, has been drawn into play a role in a larger plot without knowing the whole story.

(Maud Lily from the BBC adaptation)
Waters delights in making literary allusions, drawing on the likes of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Bradden, and then subverting them. Mr Lilley at first appears like another Mr Casaubon – a crusty old scholar working on a seemingly endless task – but his magnum opus is not what it seems. What the servants assume is a dictionary is actually an annotated bibliography of pornographic works. Then there are the twinned blonde heroines, Sue and Maud, who look so much alike that there’s bound to be a plot afoot. Their appearances converge as their identities merge, and in both cases it is an innocent appearance that masks corruption. Nothing is what it appears, and everyone is engaged in a performance.

It is proof of Waters’ skill as a writer is that she can essentially repeat the same story from another character’s perspective and still hold the reader’s attention. She effectively adapts her own work. As novel in ‘three acts’, the first part is narrated from Sue’s perspective before dramatically shifting to Maud once it is clear that Sue has been tricked, and then back again. Without giving too much away, Sue is basically drawn into a staged reality, just like with the play. Fingersmith leaves the reader questioning how much anyone can ever know, especially when something witnessed by one character does not match up with what another claims to have seen.

(Sue Trinder, Maud Lily, and Richard Rivers from the BBC Adaptation)
When Fingersmith was adapted for television in 2005, Waters expressed her concerns in a Radio Times interview with the rather apt admission that ‘it’s a bit like handing your baby over to possibly unscrupulous guardians. […] Maybe they’ll decide to turn your Victorian melodrama into a science-fiction epic, a musical, Fingersmith on Ice…!’[ii] Thankfully no producer has actually succeeded in bringing Fingersmith on Ice to fruition (as yet) and the BBC dramatization scripted by Peter Ransley and directed by Aisling Walsh remains pretty faithful to its source text. The switch in perspective is handled well using voice over work, but Cramming a 600 page novel into just 3 hours of television is no easy task. It was inevitable that certain cuts would have to be made and, for Waters, this understandably makes for a rather strange viewing experience: ‘the drama sometimes moves with, to me, a dizzying swiftness. I find myself squinting at the edge of the screen, as if I’ll be able to see the deleted action taking place, just off-camera.’[iii] On screen, Waters’ teenage blonde heroines have become brunette twenty-somethings, but Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy present a captivating love story. For me, the only problem watching this adaptation when you’ve already read the book is that you know what twists and turns are coming, and watch with a knowing eye, looking out for the clues that characters misread. For example, I invariably found myself looking to see if it was clear that Maud looked genuinely scared of Gentleman all along, as opposed to nervously coy of his attention.
If Waters was concerned about how the BBC would treat her ‘baby’, you have to wonder what went through her mind when she was approached by Park Chan-wook, wanting to transform her neo-Victorian melodrama into an erotic psychological thriller set in 1930s Korea.

(The Handmaiden, 2016)
In an interview with BBC Radio 4[1] Waters describes her fascination with The Handmaiden (2016) and how she takes pleasure in being able to recognise her characters even when the film makes departures from her text. The move from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea inevitably changes the focus from class to culture; there’s an unmistakeable tension between the coloniser and the colonised present in The Handmaiden, driving the characters to pretend to be what they are not. For Waters, the excess characterising Park’s directorial work is entirely appropriate for her homage to the novel of sensation. By all accounts The Handmaiden (2016) is a stunningly beautiful visual experience, but there is a paradox in terms of the male gaze. A novel about women being trapped by men, and how women can appropriate or subvert the structures imposed upon them, essentially becomes a male authored text in the hands of a male director. Waters has acknowledged this, stating: ‘Though ironically the film is a story told by a man, it’s still very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires.’[2] But do we experience the story differently?

We’ll have plenty of time to consider the politics of adaptation during our discussion on Wednesday 18th April. Join us in Seminar Room 1, Jessop West from 4-6pm, or Tweet us your thoughts.  

Hannah Moss is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring the figure of the female artist in Eighteenth-Century literature. In her spare time she can often be found cataloguing rare books in country house libraries.



[i] Sarah Waters, Fingersmith, (London: Virago, 2002), p. 4.
[ii] Sarah Waters, ‘Gains in Translation’, Radio Times, 2005, p. 28.
[iii] ibid


Monday, 2 April 2018

Announcement: Sheffield Gothic does 24 Hour Inspire


The 24 Hour Goth Slot

The 24 Hour Inspire is Inspiration for Life's flagship fundraising event. Its a 24 hour lecture marathon, featuring back to back half hour talks on life, the universe and everything, all accessible to a non-specialist audience. It raises funds through the sale of tickets and refreshments, and through general donations (you can read more about it here).

This year, Sheffield Gothic is taking part in this amazing event with three fantastically Gothic talks from 3.00am-4.30am. Yes, you read that right we are talking about the early hours in the morning - but what better way to celebrate the witching hour than to delve into the dark depths of the Gothic with your friendly neighbourhood Goths! Our own co-organiser (Mary Going) will be speaking about Dracula's Jewish shadow, while two members of our fabulous Gaming the Gothic Team (the wonderful project lead Emily Marlow from SIIBS and honorary Sheffield Goth Ash Darrow from MMU) will take you on a tour of Gothic gaming as they explore religion and ludology. So, join us as we explore vampires, religion, and gaming across the Gothic. 




The 2018 24 Hour Inspire will take place on 19-20 April 2018, in the Hicks Building at the University of Sheffield (you can find the full schedule of talks along with more details here). All funds raised will be donated to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Living.

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.


References
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.