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20 posts categorized "Gothic"

05 January 2017

Lessons in Vampires and the Gothic

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by guest blogger Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

Last year, the British Library launched a new adult learning programme, providing short courses that bring together guest specialists, Library curators and its unique collections.

I was invited by the Library to develop a pilot course exploring Gothic literature in context, which ran in April and May. For five evenings we explored and debated a range of texts from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and considered the development of Gothic through a variety of media and over a couple of centuries. We also encountered a wonderful array of collection items with curator Greg Buzwell, from Walpole’s own copy of Otranto to Bram Stoker’s cut-and-pasted and handwritten playscript for Dracula.

Following the success of Gothic the Library commissioned a second course to start at Halloween, and I decided that Vampires would make a suitable follow-up. Vampires are undoubtedly glamorous (despite their inauspicious beginnings as something more closely related to what we’d consider a zombie), and they have a sturdy literary history to their name (though sometimes – as is arguably the case in Coleridge’s Christabel – the name isn’t one that is mentioned). 

Gothic course

On Gothic I had been the sole academic lead but for Vampires, I decided to invite three other academics with expertise in the field to share the teaching. Professor Alexandra Warwick talked on ‘Vampires, Victorians and Women’, Dr Stacey Abbott introduced us to ‘The Cinematic Spectacle of Vampirism’, and Dr Catherine Spooner discussed ‘Contemporary Vampires: Comedy and Romance’. In our final session we were joined again by curator Greg Buzwell, who talked us through some other exciting items from the Library’s collections.

So on 27 October, I was back in the Library’s Learning Centre to start a five-week exploration of vampires. As with the Gothic course we had a nice mix of participants, with a variety of working backgrounds and interests (postcolonialism, folk horror and the Double, for example) to bring to the discussion.

I led the first session, in which we looked at vampire texts from the Romantic period. We started by examining early 18th-century newspaper reports on the vampire panic, before turning to the often-quoted passage from Dom Augustin Calmet’s treatise (on angels, demons, spirits etc).

Dom Augustin Calmet

Dom Augustin Calmet (engraved 1750)

(To my mind, Calmet – Catholic writer on vampire lore – is an early prototype of Stoker’s Van Helsing.) After this, we sprinted through some vampire texts from German literature – marvelling at how early some of the enduring motifs are established. Already in 1748, for instance, Ossenfelder’s short poem “The Vampire” associates erotic love with vampirism and pits the power of a mother against the vampire lover. Needless to say, in these cases, mothers seldom win. Fathers do occasionally, but – as in the case of Carmilla – it’s rather a pyrrhic victory. 

Carmilla

Carmilla image by D M Friston from The Dark Blue (1872)

It was interesting to see the strands that were to recur throughout the course. Christabel, unsurprisingly, refused to be quietened.  The cross-fertilization with the German tradition was apparent, not just in the first seminar but in the third, when Stacey showed us extracts from Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and pointed out that some of those working on early Hollywood vampire films were German emigrés with roots in Expressionist cinema.  Both Alex and Catherine talked about the anxieties provoked by the figure of the female reader/viewer – in relation to Victorian novels and Twilight, respectively.  It’s interesting that the figure of the female fan can be encountered in one of the first British mentions of the vampire phenomenon – in a report in The Craftsman in May, 1732. What struck me as another prominent vein (apologies) in vampire representation is the melding of literary tradition with the idea of celebrity and biography. Polidori’s literary success (though he was repeatedly not credited for it, see the image below) was achieved by drawing not only on literary tradition (including Byron’s own myth-making) but also on celebrity gossip.  (He also, of course, drew on Byron’s ghost-story idea).  Clement and Waititi’s vampire house-share mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which we looked at in Catherine’s session, is one of the latest examples.

  The Vampyre

1884 edition of Polidori’s (not Byron’s) “The Vampyre”

One of the best aspects of an evening short course is that everyone has chosen to take it out of interest and for enjoyment – no one is having to worry about formal assessment. I was struck by how much productive conversation takes place at the tea break. People not only start swapping text recommendations, and drawing in references to things they’ve recently seen or heard, but will also try out ideas that might feel too ‘large’ to raise in the slightly more formal seminar setting. Wandering towards a tea-table liberates a lot of thought. There were lots of high points.  I particularly enjoyed the ire that the revelation scene from Twilight provoked.  Everyone seemed to love hating it. Dreyer’s Vampyr, on the other hand, went down very well.

Our final session was the one I was looking forward to most. Having experienced Greg Buzwell’s sessions for the Gothic course (and having visited the Library’s Terror and Wonder exhibition that he’d curated), I knew that some really fascinating works would be brought out and that Greg would instigate some lively discussion. I was not to be disappointed.  Amongst many other items, there was a map of Transylvania used by Stoker for plotting the action in Dracula, the volume containing the celebrated wood-cut of Vlad the Impaler, and some wonderfully lurid (and censored) artwork in Kine Weekly (January 1970) [LOU.1575 1970] for The Vampire Lovers (1970).

For me – and for many of the students – the highlight was Byron’s letter referring to the Diodati happenings, with its vigorous underlining of all the allegations Bryon is supposed to be refuting – “incest” and “promiscuous intercourse”.

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 Letter from Lord Byron to John Murray  15 May 1819 © GG Byron. Ashley MS 4740

by Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

For more information on adult courses, visit www.bl.uk/events/adult-learning-courses

14 October 2016

Angela Carter and the Visual Imagination

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I was too young to see The Company of Wolves when it first came out in 1984. Consequently, until the film appeared on video, I had to make do with reading the reviews in newspapers and admiring the stills reproduced in film magazines. The stills were remarkable, full of fairy-tale imagery run riot. One shot showed a banqueting scene in which ornately dressed guests had developed lupine faces; another showed a cluster of eggs lying in a nest, one of which had cracked from top to bottom to reveal a baby. Perhaps most memorably of all one still depicted a wolf’s snout, all sleek and furred, emerging from a man’s mouth - the beast within made manifest. Inspired by the lush Gothic imagery of the film (I’ve always believed that if Gothic is worth doing it’s worth over doing, it’s a genre that thrives on excess – I’m all for velvet drapes, icy-mists and all round spectacular flamboyance when it comes to Gothic) I sought out The Bloody Chamber, the volume containing the short story that provided the inspiration for the film. And so I discovered the world of Angela Carter – 'Feminist', 'Magic Realist', 'Gothic author', 're-worker of fairy tales' and generally someone to whom a seemingly endless stream of labels have been applied over the years, all of which tell part of the story but none of which do the breadth of her work and her imagination justice.

Angela Carter

(Angela Carter by Fay Godwin © British Library Board)

Perhaps as a result of this early exposure to Neil Jordan’s film adaptation Angela Carter’s work has always, to my mind, possessed something of a cinematic quality. Jean Luc Goddard and Frederico Felline were clearly influences but I often like to imagine that there is possibly a dash of Hammer Horror lurking in the shadows behind some of her stories. In her final novel, Wise Children, Carter had explored the way in which high art and low, Shakespeare and music hall for example, often become entwined. Given such an outlook surely it’s possible to speculate that films like The Curse of the Werewolf, The Brides of Dracula and The Kiss of the Vampire might have played a part in the genesis of stories such as ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. I like to think so, no matter how fanciful such a notion may be on my part. Still, true or not, I’ve always been pleased that I came to Carter’s work via film.

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(Poster for The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and with a screenplay by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter)

‘Dying’, as Gore Vidal once gloomily remarked, is often ‘a good career move’ and in the year following Carter's death in 1992 the British Academy received over forty proposals for doctoral research into her work. Sadly, in art as in life a person’s influence and worth often only really become apparent once they have gone. Angela Carter’s tragically early death propelled her work into the limelight. Almost twenty five years later, and with Edmund Gordon’s eagerly awaited The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography now in the bookshops, the fascination and admiration surrounding her work continues to grow from strength to strength. In a sense Carter’s work achieves that rare but perfect balance – simultaneously adored by academia for its insight, depth and invention but maintaining popular appeal due to its fabulous characters, storylines and sheer exuberance.

The British Library holds Angela Carter’s archive, a resource that consists of a wealth of manuscript material including diaries, notebooks, letters, drafts of novels, outlines for short stories and research notes. Each part of the archive offers a fascinating glimpse into Carter’s life and work but, for those with a love of her fiction, perhaps the most revealing items are the notebooks in which she recorded her research and worked on ideas that later became fully developed episodes in her books.

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(Above Add. MS 88899/1/11, a page of Angela Carter’s notes for Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Shown above, by way of example, is a page from one of her notebooks in which she outlines her initial thoughts about the character of Sophie Fevvers from the novel Nights at the Circus (1984). It is fascinating to see the character in embryo, and to be able to explore how layer upon layer of idea, imagination and imagery is built up until Fevvers, a six-foot-two trapeze artist with wings, emerges complete in the published book. The genesis from notebook to novel took many drafts and, as can be seen below in this page of an early draft of the opening chapter the re-workings of the text continually grow and evolve rather than emerge fully formed.

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(Add. MS 88899/1/12. Early draft of the opening scenes from Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Carter’s notebooks are a continual delight, and looking through their pages offers a unique insight into the creative process. In a way it is the literary equivalent of siting in a studio with an artist as they work on a painting, seeing the successive sketches and layers of paint as they are applied until the finished portrait appears. You don’t often get the chance in life to see creative genius in action, but Carter’s archive does give us one such opportunity to see exactly that.

Much more about Angela Carter’s archive and work can be found on the Discovering Literature: 20th Century website, with examples from her notebooks relating to Nights at the Circus being available, together with examples of the early drafts of the novel . The British Library, in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature, will also be hosting an event - Angela Carter: A Celebration - on November 24th 2016. Nearly 25 years after her death Angela Carter is more relevant than ever.

12 January 2015

"Terror ... and the Supernatural": Stanley Kubrick's Gothic Adaptation of The Shining

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Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is one of the most recognisable works on display in the Terror and Wonder exhibition so we decided to ask Catriona McAvoy to explain its Gothic credentials. Catriona is a writer and filmmaker from London whose research into the films and working practices of Stanley Kubrick began with her Masters degree in 2009. Since then she has presented her findings at several international conferences and in discussion panels. Her forthcoming publications include chapters in Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives (Black Dog Publishing, 2015) and in Studies in the Horror Film: Stanly Kubrick's The Shining Vol. 1 & 2 (Centipede Press, 2015). More information about her research can be found at kubrickism.com.

 

The Shining is a film steeped in the Gothic tradition. Stephen King's book makes reference to Gothic literature and Stanley Kubrick approached the adaptation with this in mind. He recruited the author Diane Johnson to co-write the screenplay with him. He had read her modern Gothic novel The Shadow Knows (1974) and she taught a course on Gothic literature at the University of California, making her in Kubrick's opinion "the ideal collaborator".1 They discussed psychoanalysis and a wide range of literature, reading and recommending many books to each other in order to weave deeper themes into the fabric of the film.

The British Library's Gothic exhibition traces the same rich literary history that Kubrick and Johnson explored. Connections can be made between some of the exhibits and the evidence of the Gothic influences on The Shining found in The Stanley Kubrick Archive, The Diane Johnson Archive and from an interview I carried out with Diane Johnson. The exhibition displays some fascinating items from the production of The Shining including photographs and a note from Kubrick listing the 'Manifestations of a Haunted House'. Also displayed is the scrapbook prop which featured heavily in early drafts of the film (several scenes featuring it were shot but they were eventually edited out, leaving it appearing only once). However, it is not just in this section of the exhibition that we find the ghosts of The Shining. We can retrace our steps through the maze of meaning in Kubrick's film using some of the exhibits to guide us. 

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Jack awakes from his nightmare, the scrapbook can be seen beside him on the desk (The Shining, 1980)

In the first room of the exhibition Shakespeare's work is highlighted as an inspiration for Gothic writers. His ghosts and supernatural happenings have certainly haunted the genre but his influence goes further than this. The externalization of inner turmoil is a common theme of the Gothic that is present in Shakespeare's work; think of Lady Macbeth who could not wash the blood from her hands. In Kubrick's development notes on The Shining "shades of Throne of Blood" is written beside an idea for a dramatic scene with Danny and Jack.3 Throne of Blood (1957) was Akira Kurosawa's brilliant adaptation of Macbeth and this is one of the few film references noted in The Shining development. Shakespeare again appears in a note from Diane Johnson. She is considering the balance of the narrative and the motivation of the characters and has written: "Tragedy or Fairytale? Lear - Tom Thumb. Moment of choice for Jack - Danny saves everyone."4 Diane Johnson explained the connection with The Shining and the story of King Lear to me as related to tragedy and the perils of "over-reaching ambition."5

Continuing through the exhibition the work of Ann Radcliffe provides the next link to The Shining. Her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is a defining Gothic tale from this period. One of the key features of her writing is the evocative description of landscapes. Gothic literature often uses landscape and the sublime to inspire terror and awe; dark forests, remote mountains and precarious paths leading to gloomy castles. Johnson recalls discussing the work of Ann Radcliffe with Kubrick during their research. In the dramatic opening sequence of the film we are taken on an aerial journey following Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) as he drives through a Gothic landscape of forests and mountains to the remote and haunted Overlook Hotel. Later in the film as the family make the journey together Jack relishes telling them the story of the Donner party, early settlers who got stranded in the hills and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive: ferocious nature turning man to beast.

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Travellers Attacked by Banditti, Philip James De Loutherbourg (1781)

Matthew Lewis's novel The Monk (1796) provides the next clue to the secrets of The Shining. Amongst the book's supernatural happenings the main protagonist falls into a dream trance and rapes a young woman. Sleepwalking was a key theme in King's book and also appeared in Johnson's novel. In the film Jack is seen having a terrible nightmare at his desk and is drawn into the hotel's ballroom and to the mysterious room 237 in a dreamlike state. Johnson relates The Monk's psychological and supernatural themes to the narrative of The Shining. Jack's pursuit of pleasure at the expense of others is his downfall, mirroring the fate of the monk, Ambrosio, in Lewis's book. The exhibition displays the edited third edition open on a page where we see Lewis had to remove an enthusiastic description of a young woman's bare breast for a milder fourth edition. Interestingly almost 200 years later Kubrick had to blur out the breasts of the naked woman in the 237 bathtub scene for censors in several countries.

Monk
Matthew Lewis's annotated third edition of The Monk (1797)

The manuscript of Frankenstein (1818) handwritten by Mary Shelley and annotated by Percy Shelley is a fascinating part of the exhibition. Displayed is the section where Frankenstein comes face to face with the monster in the mountains. Again here we see an evocative description of an unforgiving landscape, relating back to Ann Radcliffe's work and linking us to the setting of the Overlook Hotel. More importantly we find Frankenstein confronting the monster that he created, perhaps the monster within. This duality is a theme throughout Kubrick's film; mirrors are frequently used to show the two sides of Jack and of the Overlook. Jack's inner turmoil and ultimate unleashing of his monstrous side provides us with the true horror of the film and of man's dark side. Johnson remembers discussing Frankenstein with Kubrick during the development of the screenplay. King perhaps also had this character in mind as he describes Frankenstein's monster in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (1981) as "The Thing Without a Name", an archetype for numerous horrific creations.

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The manuscript of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley, annotated by Percy Shelley (1816)

The Brontës’ Gothic imagery is an important part of The Shining's visual horror. The exhibition fittingly displays items from the work of Emily and Charlotte, which connect directly with The Shining. Diane Johnson explains: "in an attempt to understand the essential seriousness of the genre, we discussed Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre"6 Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) manuscript is displayed open to a page describing Bertha, 'the madwoman in the attic'. This is referenced in The Shining with the crazed corpse of the 'bathtub lady' in room 237. The theme of imprisonment in the grand old house is central to Jane Eyre and is echoed in The Shining.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) also played a part in the development of the screenplay. In Diane Johnson's manuscript notes, next to the scene where Danny is confronted by the ghostly Grady Girls, she has written "rather like the very affecting scene in Wuthering Heights where the visitor wakes up to discover a child's imploring hand reaching through the broken window."7 On display in the exhibition is a 1943 edition of Wuthering Heights showing an illustration of the very scene that Johnson describes in her notes. She confirms it was the "imagery ... and the underlying psychic elements"8 of this story that Kubrick was interested in.

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Fritz Eichenberg illustration from Wuthering Heights (1943)

Next in the exhibition's Shining maze is the work of Edgar Allan Poe. His story 'The Masque of the Red Death' (1842) is heavily referenced throughout King's novel (there is a short extract in the epigraph and it reappears many times throughout the text). Although the ballroom scene association remains in the film, Kubrick avoided making such obvious links to the story. In a 1980 interview he downplayed the connection: "All his [Stephen King's] Poe quotes and Red Death things are alright but didn't seem necessary".9 However Diane Johnson does recall discussing "how Poe ended his stories".10

The enduring tradition of the fairytale is the last clue to the mysteries of The Shining that we find in the exhibition. Although a genre in itself and influential to the book and film in many other ways there is also an overlap with the Gothic themes here too. The exhibition points out that fairytales are "not strictly Gothic" but that often the stories are '"supernatural and frightening". On display is a 1909 copy of Red Riding Hood, a tale that is referenced in the research for The Shining. Diane Johnson has commented that she and Kubrick explored fairytales through the psychoanalytic lens of Bruno Bettelheim's book The Uses of Enchantment (1976). In the Stanley Kubrick Archive Kubrick's personal copy of the book with annotations and highlighted sections gives some very revealing insights into the Jack and Danny (Danny Lloyd) relationship of The Shining. Of particular note here is a highlighted section including a description of the symbolism of Charles Perrault's Wolf and Red Riding Hood characters. There are many suggestions of Jack as the big bad wolf in Kubrick's notes and in the film this is made evident in one of the most iconic scenes. As Jack prepares to axe through the bathroom door to get to a terrified Wendy (Shelley Duvall) he teases: "little pigs, little pigs let me in ... "

As we piece together the evidence of the many literary influences on The Shining we can begin to understand more about this enigmatic film. It is perhaps the ghosts of the Gothic past haunting the story that have helped to make it such an enduring classic. The familiar themes from historical literature that influence the characterization, the visual elements and the narrative of the film create a feeling of 'The Uncanny'. The Shining resonates with our cultural past and long imagined fears; like the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel, The Shining has "always been here".

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The final shot from the film, Jack is pictured in a photograph on the hotel wall from 1921 (The Shining, 1980)

To learn more about The Shining and the history of Gothic literature visit Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination (now in its final weeks). For more information (including extra late night openings) please visit the website

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Footnotes

1 Kubrick, Stanley, “Oui, il y a des revenants”, interview with Michel Ciment, L’Express, 25 October 1980, Reprinted in Michel Ciment, Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, New York: Faber and Faber, 2001.

2 Johnson, Diane, "Draft Fragments and Notes", 1978, DJ/1/B/23/1-2, Diane Johnson Archive, Harry Ransom Centre (HRC), University of Texas Austin.

3 Johnson, Diane, "Draft Fragments and Notes", 1978, HRC.

4 Johnson, Diane (2013). Interview with Catriona McAvoy. 11 November, 2013. From the forthcoming publication: Studies in the Horror Film: Stanley Kubrick's the Shining. Ed. Danel Olson. Centipede Press, 2015.

5 Johnson, Diane (1978). "Kubrick Films 'The Shining' In Secrecy in English Studio", interview with Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, November 1978.

6 Johnson, Diane, “Treatment”, 16 August 1977, SK/15/1/9, Stanley Kubrick Archive (SKA), Archives and Special Collections Centre, University of the Arts London.

7 Johnson, Diane (2013).

8 Kubrick, Stanley (1980). Interview with Vicente Molina Foix. Reprint. The Stanley Kubrick Archives. Ed. Alison Castle. Koln: Taschen, 2008.

9 Johnson, Diane (1978).

NB - The title of this post is taken from one of Stanley Kubrick's letters in which he describes The Shining as "a film of terror...and the supernatural" (Kubrick, Stanley, letter to Saul Bass describing The Shining, 10 October 1978, SK/15/5/2/5, SKA).

22 December 2014

What's in a name, or How Gothic is Goth?

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From the outset the curators of the Terror and Wonder exhibition were determined to devote a significant amount of space to the goth subculture. In order to make sure we got the story right we turned to Pete Scathe for advice. Pete is the unofficial historian of the early days of Goth and his website is an invaluable source of information. He regularly DJs in the Portsmouth area and you can follow him on Twitter @petescathe. Here Pete explains the relationship between goth and Gothic.

 

Over time, meanings of words can change, shift and expand. With the words 'goths' and 'Gothic', not only have the meanings been expanded by application to what we now call the goth scene, but the scene itself was changed by having the word applied to it.

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An image from Martin Parr's series of Whitby Goth photographs

The early goth scene began as an offshoot from punk, and one early term applied to it was 'positive punk'. This never caught on - it was too much of a mouthful, even when shortened to 'posi-punk'. And the implication that it was superior to punk meant that the old punks would never be happy using it. Fortunately a term then came along that they were happy to use, and they were soon moaning about 'hordes of bloody goths' - not so much an exciting new subculture to them, more of a vexing infestation.

Exactly how the goth/Gothic tag got applied to the emerging subculture is a complicated story (for which see my website) but the term immediately caught on, as it fitted the scene far better than 'positive punk'. The questions are how much 'Gothic' there was in the scene before it acquired the tag, and how the scene changed as a result of acquiring the tag.

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Selection of goth items on display in Terror and Wonder

For most early goth bands, Gothic wasn't necessarily something to be taken seriously, it was something to be occasionally plundered for imagery, fun and maybe the odd song idea (it helped that Gothic imagery looked good in black and white, and black and white record covers were cheaper to print). Certainly the original goth club, the Batcave, used Gothic imagery in a deliberately tongue-in-cheek way – Ollie Wisdom from Specimen, one of the Batcave founders, was a dead ringer for Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Show.

The early goth scene was vibrant, exciting, and based around following a cluster of excellent live bands that fostered a tribal sense of identity. Early goth gigs were lively events, and the usual dancing style was 'chicken dancing', which involved flailing elbows (the decidedly more sedate 'Gothic Two Step', where goths in flowing dresses walked back and forth on the dancefloor amidst billowing clouds of smoke, was a later invention that I first encountered in Leeds in the mid 80s). The look of these early goths was a mix of existing punk/new wave fashion, their own DIY look and styles influenced by bands, notably Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and (later) Specimen.

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Siouxsie Sioux

The gothic punk look became a more glamorous (and often androgynous) monochrome style that had its roots in the fetish/bondage side of early punk but may also have owed something to the imagery of black and white films, like Theda Bara in Cleopatra. Indeed, most of the Gothic influences in the early scene seem to have come through the medium of film, TV, imagery and cliché rather than Gothic literature.

There were literary influences in the early scene, but these were rarely directly Gothic. Literary influences tended to be decadent, transgressive and non-mainstream rather than straightforwardly Gothic. The Whip LP, a collaboration between several early goth bands, was inspired by D M Thomas's The White Hotel, a novel about mental disturbance, sexual fantasies and the Holocaust, whereas The Cure referenced Albert Camus and Blood & Roses referenced Aleister Crowley.

Outside literature, their interests were widespread. Bauhaus, probably the most Gothically-inclined of the early bands, also sang about the likes of Nijinsky or Antonin Artaud, whilst Southern Death Cult were obsessed with Native American imagery. The Banshees sang about everything from multiple personality disorder to Dada photocollages.

The Gothic was one of several interweaving strands in the early goth bands, alongside a personal/introspective side, as typified by the early 80s Cure or Danse Society, an arty/dramatic side, as typified by Virgin Prunes or Sex Gang Children, and a sort of glam/camp Gothic as typified by Specimen or Alien Sex Fiend. Of these, the arty/dramatic strand was probably the strongest, and was one of the reasons that so many of the early goth bands were so good live. The downside of this was that the bands could be seen as pretentious, and certainly were by a lot of the media. It didn't help that goth bands were far less likely than punk bands to sing about social issues, and 'goth' became a term of abuse in the music press.

Most bands in the early scene were completely bemused by this goth tag. It was understandable that the likes of Bauhaus and Alien Sex Fiend would be tagged goth, but other bands in the scene (like Danse Society) acquired the tag simply by having a similar look, sound and followers. As goth became a clearly defined scene, it started to acquire 'subcultural rules', as had happened with other scenes, and this is where the 'Gothic' tag started to make a difference. The original bands hadn't been influenced by the Gothic tag, except sometimes in trying to distance themselves from it, but newcomers to the scene often tried to fit in and be accepted by being Gothic. The look changed from the earlier spiky fetish glam look to something decidedly more elegant, and many new goth bands dropped energetic tribal drumming (and often drummers) in favour of something slower, more atmospheric and more Gothic. Members of one later goth band stated that the early goth bands hadn't been that Gothic and that they themselves were determined to be more Gothic, thus illustrating the power of the tag (the early bands hadn't, of course, been trying to be Gothic as they had no idea that they were goth bands!).

This obsession with being Gothic sometimes turned into a game of 'gother than thou' that rendered the scene terribly vulnerable to media satire and gave it an embarrassing reputation, but it also meant that many new goths, in trying to be Gothic, began to show an interest in Gothic films and literature. Some had entered the scene because of an existing inclination towards that sort of thing, but it's likely that the existence of the goth scene both intensified and in some cases created a new interest in the Gothic. 

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The Whitby Goth display in Terror and Wonder

It's hard to say exactly what effect this had, but certainly the goth scene tended to appeal to arty and creative people, many of whom then went to work in the media and creative industries. Whilst for a long time many of them might have denied ever being goths and thus avoided anything overtly Gothic, the influences were certainly there and it's possible that today's media culture is that little bit more aware of the Gothic thanks to the 80s goth scene.

 

Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination is open until January 20th. For more information (including opening times during the festive period) and to book tickets please visit the website

16 December 2014

Jane Austen and the ‘very horrid’ Northanger Abbey

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Jane Austen, whose 239th birthday is today, has another anniversary this month – at the very end of December 1817, after her death, her novel Northanger Abbey was published.

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Northanger Abbey is a joyously playful satire on the gothic novel of the 1790s, and was written in around 1798-9, when Austen was in her early 20s. It was the first of her novels to be submitted for publication, and was bought by a London publisher for the princely sum of £10 in 1803 – but for unknown reasons lay unpublished until 1816, when Austen’s brother bought it back for her. She made a few revisions, changing the heroine’s name from Susan to Catherine Morland, and also the title (which had been ‘Susan’) perhaps to tie it more firmly to the gothic tradition it pastiches.

In the first half of the book, set in fashionable Bath, Catherine meets with a new friend, Isabella Thorp, a flighty young woman. When Catherine opines that she wishes she could spend her whole life in reading Ann Radcliffe’s hugely popular and influential Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Isabella replies that she has “made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you…  Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries.”

For some time in the 19th century, it was generally believed that Austen may have made up these titles, so preposterous did they sound to later, non-Gothic readers. However, later scholarship revealed that the novels did all exist, and they are on display together for the first time in Terror and Wonder. You can read more about the seven horrid novels on the British Library European Studies blog here.

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The second half of Northanger Abbey features Catherine’s visit to the Abbey itself, the home of her friend Eleanor Tilney and her brother Henry. On the journey Henry teases Catherine about what she expects the house to be like (as it is called an Abbey, Catherine has of course imagined a full-on Radcliffian dark, brooding, mazelike building stuffed with secrets): "And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as 'what one reads about' may produce? Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?" Henry then proceeds to distil various key plotlines from the complete work of Ann Radcliffe into a single, very entertaining narrative at what is to happen at the Abbey during Catherine’s visit. His intention is to entertain, but Catherine is both frightened and immediately expects the worst – or, the most exciting – to happen.

Austen draws the line between the gothic novels of the 1790s (usually set centuries in the past, in continental Europe) and England in the 1790s when Henry reminds Catherine that she should “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians…. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them?” By the end of the novel, Catherine has at last learned not to take novels (or herself) so seriously.

Another theme of the novel which, perhaps strangely, links to our exhibition Terror and Wonder, is that of consumerism. Isabella Thorp, when she recommends the seven horrid novels to Catherine, admits that she hasn’t read them herself but has in turn been given the list by Miss Andrews. Isabella’s interest seems to be more that she keeps up with the fashion and is able to make these recommendations than in her own enjoyment of novel-reading. Amongst many other references to the consumer culture of the 1790s (whose lace trimmings are nicer, whether a muslin will wash well) one stands out – the fact that Northanger Abbey itself has a Rumford fireplace. Designed by Count Rumford in the mid- 1790s, this new style of fireplace increased the heat to a room by narrowing the vent.  On display in Terror and Wonder is a parody of an advertisement for a Rumford, in which a young lady reading the scandalous gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis, has a lovely time by her RumPford fire. Scandalous indeed.

Lady reading The Monk by Charles Williams.

Terror and Wonder is on till the 20th January, and you can buy tickets here

Read more about our Jane Austen collections here

Final image courtesy of British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings, 1935,0522.7.12

18 November 2014

The Face in the Glass: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the Victorian Gothic Tale

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Imagine, if you will, an Italian villa, its walls baked by the sun and its gardens surrounded by orange groves. What could be more welcoming and delightful? There is, however, a room at the back of the villa; a room, lined with old leather-bound books, which catches little of the light and always seems dank and cold. Curiously it is with this stale and sunless room that the successive owners of the villa become fascinated. Fascinated indeed to the point of obsession. It is also within this room that an antique mirror made of a distinctive dark glass can be found, a glass that, perhaps, reflects something a little more mysterious than a bland representation of reality. Those who gaze into the mirror's depths become entranced, beguiled, morbidly enraptured, but they also lose vitality, finding themselves ageing prematurely and hurtling towards the grave. There is sunshine outside the villa, but a contrasting haunting darkness within.

Face in the Glass
(Above: The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales, a selection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's finest tales of the macabre and the uncanny. Published by the British Library)

The above synopsis sounds like something by Edgar Allan Poe but it is actually the outline of an enigmatic and extremely unsettling short story called 'Herself' by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), one of the many brilliant and enigmatic Gothic tales that she wrote throughout her life. The Victorians and the ghost story go hand in hand but, even in such a brilliant and crowded field including authors such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Oscar Wilde, Braddon stands out as a particularly fine writer of the beautifully crafted tale of terror. Her stories are always inventive, always challenging and they exhibit a terrific range and variety. Braddon had a gift for evoking atmosphere and an ability to induce that delicious, creepy sensation of something being 'not quite right'.

Today Braddon is best known for her brilliant sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret (1861), a book which turned conventional expectations on their head by having, at its heart, a beautiful, blue-eyed, seemingly 'butter-wouldn't melt' blonde woman as the villain and a man as the victim. At the time this was highly innovative and radical. In Gothic literature, of which sensation fiction is a quintessentially Victorian offshoot, the women were there to swoon and the men were there to be diabolical - not the other way around. Villany had never before been presented in such a subversive and beautifully beguiling fashion.

Although several of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novels are coming back into print her Gothic tales remain somewhat neglected, a situation which a new publication by the British Library - The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales - aims to redress. The volume gathers together a selection of Braddon's sinister tales, each of which highlights a particular facet of her brilliant imagination. Just as with her longer fiction her short stories endlessly turn conventional expectations upside down. For example, Braddon's female characters are spirited and independent,often railing against the restrictions imposed upon them by Victorian (and distinctly male) society. Similarly she had little time for the conventional happy ending. Many of her short stories have genuinely chilling conclusions while others are veiled in enigma and mystery.

The stories within The Face in the Glass feature visitations from beyond the grave; tales of haunted houses and mirrors that distort the truth. There is a tale of an island inhabited by the spirits of the departed and a story of an elderly woman, Good Lady Ducayne, with claw-like hands who cares little for the qualifications and experience of her attendants provided they have youthful blood flowing through their veins.

Good Lady Ducayne
(Above: Good Lady Ducayne, as depicted in the original publication of the story in The Strand Magazine. 1896)

There is plenty of darkness within the pages of The Face in the Glass, but there is also considerable humour, invention and imagination. The Victorians knew how to tell ghost stories, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon told some of the finest ghost stories of all. The best of her tales such as 'Eveline's Visitant', 'Her Last Appearance', 'The Ghost's Name', 'The Island of Old Faces', 'Herself' and 'Good Lady Ducayne' bear comparison with the acclaimed supernatural tales of Poe, Dickens and Wilde.

The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales is available from the British Library Shop, while sensation fiction, ghost stories and many more Gothic-tinged horrors are explored in detail in the Terror and Wonder exhibition and the assoctiated exhibition book.

 

 

14 November 2014

History at Stake! The Story Behind Vampire Slaying Kits

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One particular item in the British Library's Terror and Wonder exhibition has inspired more cries of amazement, shivers of fear and gasps of delight than any other. I refer, of course, to the vampire slaying kit which is on loan to the British Library from the Royal Armouries for the duration of the exhibition. In this guest post the curator who looks after the item, Jonathan Ferguson, talks about the origins of the kits and the strange history that lurks behind them.

Vampire New 02
Above: The vampire slaying kit, on loan from the Royal Armouries and currently on display at the British Library.

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As Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries I deal with everything from medieval hand cannon, through finely decorated works of art, to the latest military assault rifles. But some of my favourite objects are the unusual; the technological dead ends, the experiments, and the whimsical pieces. In parallel with my professional interest in arms and armour is a fascination with the paranormal, though I am not myself a believer in its objective reality. As much as I grew up with Dracula, Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice, I am by nature a sceptic, tending toward the debunking of extraordinary claims. It was in this capacity that I came across my first 'vampire killing kit' on the internet some seven years ago. It was essentially a cased Victorian percussion pistol with accoutrements for loading; so far, so typical. However, this also included a hammer, stakes, a crucifix, and other classic tools of the fictional vampire slayer. It purported to be 19th century in date, but was rather obviously of recent manufacture. Nonetheless, it attracted a lot of interest and intrigue online. Looking into it, I discovered that there were many more of these kits (over 100 are known to exist), and many of them quite professionally made and wholly antique in appearance.

I decided to use my museum training to investigate these unusual pieces, in particular those labelled as having been created by a 'Professor Blomberg'. It is usually stated that these, and vampire kits in general, are late-Victorian novelties or souvenirs, sold to tourists travelling to eastern Europe in the wake of the publication of Dracula in 1897. Some sellers and media outlets even claimed that they were made for believers in vampires, for self-defence purposes. I suspected that they were indeed novelty items, but were rather more recent than many believed. I conducted a survey of the folklore surrounding 'real' vampires, that is, dead bodies exhumed by a troubled community and ritually 'killed' as scapegoats for whatever malaise might be affecting people. Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits. I persisted, revisiting the fictional stories and movies of my childhood and beyond, noting the development of the various ingredients in the typical vampire killer's toolbox. It became clear that the 'Blomberg' kits, with their focus upon silver bullets, were very unlikely to have existed prior to about the 1930s at the earliest. Though constructed from antique boxes and contents, they were most likely not produced until the era of the classic Hammer vampire movies. Other kits are harder to pin down in terms of date and could be older, but there is as yet no evidence of this. Varney 01
Above: An illustration from Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1845 - 47). Varney was actually susceptible to bullets, but would be revived by moonlight. The situation with Count Dracula was rather different.

To some this might come as a disappointment, or even as a reason to decry the kits as fakes as some do. Would-be buyers should certainly not purchase under the apprehension that they are buying a Victorian antique as my own research has shown. So why acquire such an object regardless? Museums do collect deliberate fakes as comparators and for their own artistic and cultural merit, yet vampire kits are not fakes per se, because there is no evidence of a Victorian original. In the case of historical artefacts for which the original does not survive, we will also display reproductions. In this case, there very likely isn't an original. Self-defence against the supernatural was for many in history (and indeed today) a matter of life and death, but the weapons they used were ephemeral. The wooden stakes, guns, and agricultural implements that they attacked vampires and other revenants with either no longer survive, or have lost their provenance and are unable to tell us their story.

So, if they're not fake, and not reproductions, what are they? The answer is that they are 'hyperreal' or invented artefacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props. They can also be regarded, and indeed have been sold as, pieces of modern art. Formerly the preserve of art galleries and of course libraries, contemporary collection is now also a staple of museum collecting policies. Our profession collects the artefacts of modern war, of medical science, communications technology, even of people's pastimes. 'High art' in the form of contemporary artworks has been joined in museum collections by 'low art' props fabricated for our favourite movies and plays, just as Twilight takes its place next to Dracula in the British Library's stacks. Curators and visitors alike now recognise that objects do not have to be ancient to be interesting and important, as the Were-Rabbit also displayed as part of Terror and Wonder shows! Such immediate and intriguing pieces can also attract new audiences to our respective fields; in the case of the Royal Armouries, that of arms and armour. For all these reasons, we at the Armouries sought to acquire the vampire killing kit that you can now see on display at the British Library.

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So, although I had set out to 'debunk' their very existence, I came to realise that these enigmatic objects transcend questions of authenticity. They are part of the material culture of the gothic; aspects of our shared literary and cinematic passions made physical. Lacking any surviving artefact of vampirism either folkloric or fictional, fans of the gothic had created one to fill the gap. So whilst we at the Armouries still plan to scientifically test our vampire kit, and there is the possibility that it's early rather than late 20th century in date, for me the outcome has almost become moot. Vampire killing kits are genuine artefacts of the Gothic fiction that still provides sustenance to our most beloved monsters.

Jonathan Ferguson

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The vampire slaying kit will be on display at the British Library until 20th January 2015. There's an opportunity to learn more about vampires as depicted in Victorian literature via our Discovering Literature website. Also, on the British Library's website, you can help conserve a classic Gothic novel for future generations via Adopt a Book and discover more about our series of Terror and Wonder Gothic Events to tie-in with the exhibition.

08 November 2014

Happy Birthday Bram Stoker!

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The 8th of November is always an occasion for celebrations within Gothic literary circles, marking as it does the anniversary of Bram Stoker's birth. And yet, at first sight, when you look at the details of Stoker's life it seems odd that he should have produced so many fine Gothic novels. Indeed, with Dracula, he produced arguably the most enduring and influential Gothic horror story of them all.

Bram Stoker
(Bram Stoker - mathematician, athlete, theatre manager and a creator of fine Gothic horrors)

The details of Stoker's life are interesting in themselves but give little insight into why his imagination should have produced so many dark, supernatural tales. He was born in Dublin on the 8th November 1847, the third of seven children. His childhood and youth were a paradoxical mixture of extreme illness (he was largely confined to bed until the age of seven) and vigour (he was a noted athlete during his time as a student at Trinity College Dublin, from where he graduated with a degree in Mathematics). It was during his time as a student that he became interested in the theatre and it is perhaps here that the darkness creeps in. For a while he was the theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, co-owned by the author Sheridan Le Fanu whose novels such as The House by the Churchyard (1863) and Uncle Silas (1864) contributed so much to the popularity of Sensation Fiction during the 1860s, and whose short story 'Carmilla' (1871), telling the tale of a predatory female vampire, was undoubtedly an influence on Dracula. It was while working as a theatre critic that Stoker first met the actor Henry Irving, a man whose charisma and brooding presence is often thought to have been in Stoker's mind when he created the character of the Count.

In 1878 Stoker married the celebrated beauty Florence Balcombe. One of her previous suitors had been Oscar Wilde and although Wilde and Stoker, who had known each other at Trinity College, fell out over the marriage Stoker was ultimately able to resume his friendship with Wilde in later years. Oscar Wilde, of course, went on to write one of the few Gothic novels able to bear comparison with Dracula - namely The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

Florence
(Florence Balcombe, society beauty and, from 1878, the wife of Bram Stoker)

Upon moving to London after his marriage Stoker became acting manager, and then business manager of Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre, a post he held for 27 years. Through Irving Stoker met Arthur Conan Doyle, the future author of such Gothic tales as 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' (1892) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). While he was at the Lyceum Stoker oversaw a stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's brilliant novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The play, which began its run on the 3rd September 1888, caused controversy due to its perceived similarities to the Whitechapel murders carried out by Jack the Ripper, murders which began at almost exactly the same time. The more you look into Stoker's life, and the more you look at the people with whom he built friendships and working relationships, the more you begin to see the all-pervading air of Gothic drama that fed into Dracula.

Of course Dracula rather overshadows the rest of Stoker's work as an author. To some extent this is inevitable, it is, after all, by some distance his most powerful work. Even so his other novels deserve respect. In particular I have always had a soft spot for The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), a novel about an archaeologist's attempts to revive Queen Tera, an ancient Egyptian mummy. Like Dracula the novel offers valuable insights into fin-de-siècle themes such as the rise of the New Woman; Imperialism and the way in which the old world of tradition and superstition clashes with the new world of scientific progress. The book was also the basis for one of Hammer's finest and most under-rated movies - Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. The title may be daft, but with its striking lead performance by Valerie Leon and its distinctive visuals the film is most definitely a gem.

Jewel
(The Jewel of Seven Stars - not as iconic as Dracula, but a fine book all the same)

There is, of course, plenty more to discover about Bram Stoker and Dracula in our major exhibition Terror and Wonder; and there is a wealth of information about Gothic novels and themes on the British Library's Discovering Literature website. There is also an opportunity to help conserve an iconic Gothic novel via Adopt a Book.

So, in conclusion, happy birthday Bram! For those of us who love Gothic literature he really was one of the finest exponents of the chilling tale and, on his birthday, perhaps we should raise a glass of something dark and red in his honour. Thank you for the novels, and thank you for all those dark, hauntingly beautiful memories.