Friday, 6 April 2012

'An Interview with the Vampires': More on Spectral Visions

From the blood-dripping fangs of Count Dracula to the chilling words of Poe, the Gothic evokes great emotions in all of us. Ahead of the Spectral Visions conference on 26th June, members of the MA English team at University of Sunderland Dr Alison Younger (as programme leader) and Dr David Fallon share their views on the Gothic. With both Dr Younger and Dr Fallon having published on the genre, I was interested to hear what they had to say...

Why do you think we respond to the Gothic in the way that we do?
DF: Fear if experienced directly is just horrible - but an imaginative recreation of it, and a sympathy with other people in the representation of fear is a pleasant, sociable thing. We agree on what we find frightening and we can share that, but at the same time remain safe in doing so. It feeds our curiosity about danger and fear in a relatively comfortable way.

It’s back to the pleasures of the Sublime. That said, there’s also the whole question of ‘desire’ and the erotic. The figure of the vampire, for example is symbolic of unlimited desire and he breaks all taboos and blurs boundaries in pursuit of his desires. He’s often a typical Gothic blend of the hero/villain (Like the Byronic hero) who combines the pathos of compassion with the torment of his own desires.

What is it about the Gothic that has allowed it to remain alive in the twenty-first-century, something which other genres have failed to do? Why do you think it is more successful nowadays in prose form rather than poetry or plays?
DF: The Gothic speaks to fundamental anxieties and fears rooted in the human psyche. Although the objects of these fears might change in form over time, the fears and the psychology behind them remain pretty constant. We can still sympathise with the fear of being pursued down corridors by a mad monk, even if we're unlikely to dally in cloisters and monks aren't so easily met with...

It’s about what Edmund Burke described as ‘the Sublime’ – that is, the transcendent, the numinous, the awe-inspiring or the ecstatic. We take pleasure in the face of terror or horror, in that which we can’t grasp or understand. We experience our mortality, but it’s about self-preservation. The Gothic offers us a safe-forum - an outlet to experience the pleasurably terrifying; then we transcend it. It’s pleasurable catharsis.

Do you feel that the production of films and adaptations of classic Gothic novels are a help or a hindrance to the literary genre? Are people too quick to say they enjoyed, for example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, when they’ve experienced the interpretations of the directors, but never actually approach the texts themselves?
AY: The Gothic became a tour-de-force during the Romantic period; a period in which the imagination took precedence over almost everything else. For me a filmic interpretation can augment or supplement the original text, but never replace it because it’s in the individual imagination that the text comes to life. That’s where ‘our’ interpretations take place. We’re the final piece of the jigsaw – the essential element required to finish the text. Could a filmic interpretations of Byron’s Manfred stimulate the visions we create in our own imaginations? I’m not sure it could.

I think they're a help - as they're all readings and interpretations of the text - but it's always helpful to read the text first so that you have your own opinions and ideas to test against others' interpretations. It can be helpful, though - people familiar with the 20th Century horror Frankenstein can be pleasantly surprised by the literary sophistication, depth, and intellectual complexity of the novel if they come to it after the films.

Two of the century’s greatest series – Harry Potter and Twilight – hold monsters and fantastical creatures at their core. Why do you think that, as a nation, we’re so taken by the presence of fantasy and ‘make believe’ in the media?
DF: I think the Gothic and fantastic help us recall our childhood, when we believed such things to literally exist. Part of the pleasure of the Gothic is that it appeals in different ways at different ages. I'm constantly horrified by the amount of fantasy and make-believe in the modern media, especially newspaper...

There’s a lot of ‘wish fulfilment’ in Both Harry Potter and Twilight. Harry Potter, despite its Gothic architecture and magic represents a ‘Boys’ Own’ adventure world. It endorses a very bourgeois ideology whilst apparently challenging it. As for Twilight, it’s a reworking of the Cinderella myth wherein the ‘eccentric’ girl gets the hero – a sympathetic hero who will only break taboos out of necessity. It’s all very safe…

Would you say the monsters and creatures we’re faced with in literature – Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula - play on fears we already have, or rather open us up to new terrors, encouraging us to adopt the fears put forward by their creators?
DF: I'd say that they form an image around which crystallises pre-existing fears. If you asked different people what they feared in the monster, you'd probably get some different responses. But everybody would probably agree that an incompletely formed, remorselessly pursuing monster is an effective image of some of our deepest fears.

Jeffrey Cohen puts it best when he argues: “Monsters are our children…they ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to revaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expression. They ask us why we created them”. In short, the monster is a scapegoat - not only a creation of civilisation but a requirement of it: the monster comes to be all that is rejected by society, all that is contradictory to its principles. In this way society is able to rid itself of the undesirable and able to define itself. The monster becomes a negative imprint, a mirror image of society.

The Gothic inevitably plucks at the darker side of our souls. Do you think this has any dangerous elements that may have a negative impact on: society, mental health, religion?
It's healthy to be aware and reflective on these darker elements of the human soul, and the Gothic has always functioned as a vicarious outlet for the more disturbing side of human nature. I don't think Gothic literature and art presents anything that doesn't already exist in the human psyche - if someone goes on a Gothic themed killing spree, it's a pretty safe bet they already have some problems...

Gothic endeavours to elicit a response of fear and horror from its readers. It doesn’t endorse or affirm monstrous acts. In general we’re given a sense of catharsis at the end when Good overcomes Evil. Aristotle would suggest that they Gothic is actually psychologically healthy for us then, in that in purges us of negative emotions at the moment of denouement. Staring into the abyss is vertiginous - it gives us a frisson of fear, but if we decide to jump over the edge then I’d guess that the idea was already lurking in the labyrinths of our mind.

How much do you feel the Gothic adds to the culture of the UK/Ireland? How vital has the genre been in shaping literature?
DF: Since the eighteenth century, some of the greatest literary works from the UK and Ireland - and some of the most enduringly influential during the 20th and 21st century - have been Gothic works. For a culture like Britain's, with its reputation for being staid and polite, the Gothic has allowed us to keep in touch with the more disturbing, repressed, and violent aspects of its identity which have often got written out of official history. The fact that the Gothic has always kept readers in touch with the deviant, the surreal, the fantastical, and supernatural means that it has always had a valuable role to play in fostering symbolic, non-realistic, and experimental literature.

I agree with David. To add to what he says, in Ireland (and, in Scotland also) we see Gothic tropes through the lens of a colonial history.  Protestantism, and the fear of marginalisation are central features of the Irish Gothic tradition. The demonisation of both Catholics in general, and Catholicism as a system, is also central to the Irish Gothic: its monsters are invariably Catholic, the clearest example of which is the anti-Catholic manual that is Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer in which the Catholic Church is depicted as a cornucopia of perverts, control freaks, Satanists, and power-hungry sadists. Combine this with the Irish fascination with folklore, superstition and antiquarianism and you’ve got a crucible in which Gothic can flourish. I suppose, in short Gothic is symptomatic of the particular anxieties or a particular society, at a particular time. 

 What does the future hold for the Gothic genre?
DF: I'd say that the Gothic has always been about exploring the dark and forgotten pathways of the human psyche, and I imagine that some sort of cyber gothic - with the passageways and secret chambers replaced by networks, passwords, and long forgotten information - might be a natural place for the Gothic to go in a networked age.

  Though I'd like to see a return to its old Melodramatic roots, I think David is absolutely right here. Gothic is a highly-persistent cultural phenomenon, and continues into rock culture, internet groups, cults, fashion, film, etc. Cyber-Gothic is an obvious way forward. That said, the 1950s kitsch of folms like Twilight could suggest a nostalgia-frenzy...

What can attendees expect to take away from the conference?
DF: If they're lucky, a broadened understanding of the Gothic genre and a sense of what postgraduate study is all about. If they're unlucky, some sort of monstrous supernatural force that will pursue them to the grave...

David’s right, I will pursue them to the grave (joke). To wax lyrical, there’s a quote that has been attributed to W.B Yeats: ‘Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire’. What we want to do is offer fuel, heat and air so we can ignite a spark in teachers and students so they in turn can light beacons and carry the Gothic flame out to others. I’m hoping for student-organised reading groups, film-showings, debating societies. The only limits are in your imagination, and, as we know, that’s limitless…

On a practical level it allows us to offer the fruits of some brilliant minds to a wide audience of people, who might not otherwise have this access. Also, it allows us to showcase the tremendous work our MA students have been doing. That is too good to stay behind closed doors, or, to risk a pun in the vaults of the classroom.

Why should people secure their place today so they don't miss out?
AY: Because we want to create an army of Gothic acolytes who will go out and spread the word to the world (laughs evilly). Seriously, it’s a fantastic opportunity to learn, network and have a really good time with like-minded people. It also gives us a chance to showcase what we do on the MA, of which we are justly proud…

If you don't, the monster will be with you on your wedding night...

To book your place on the Spectral Visions conference, held at St Peter's campus on 26th June, make sure you email Colin Younger at as soon as possible. Places for the event are limited, and you won't want to miss out!