Book Review: Fireside Gothic

imagesA recent acquisition for Christmas was Andrew Taylor’s Fireside Gothic, a title bound to appeal to me. Christmas is a time for reading ghost stories by the fire, with a well-documented tradition, with Charles Dickens and M R James being the most well-known participators. It’s a tradition I like: Christmas may be warm and cosy, but it also brings nostalgia to the fore, allowing us to reflect on times past. The nights draw in, and as we sit by the fire – even in modern centrally-heated houses – the darkness pools outside and contains hidden threats. Human nature loves the thrill of fear, and so the ghost stories come out at Christmas. Also, as Marina Warner suggests in No Go the Bogeyman, sometimes naming our fears acts as a way of warding them off; the stories present not just a thrill, then, but a way of exorcising our demons. Recently I read one of E Nesbit’s ghost stories, and a selection of Christina Rossetti’s ghost poems, as part of a festive evening at the Birmingham Midland Institute, and the creepiness of the stories is brought out well by nineteenth-century buildings, dimly-lit.

On Christmas Eve I sat by the fire at home, port in hand, reading Andrew Taylor’s book. Taylor is well-known as a historical crime novelist, and these novellas play to a similar concept, but with an added supernatural frisson. The first story, ‘Broken Voices’ is very much in the style of jamesM R James: two schoolboys are left in the care of an elderly teacher over the Christmas holidays, and listen to his stories of the nearby cathedral, and eventually take action. The description of the cathedral at night is excellent, with some truly heart-stopping moments, and while the ending isn’t entirely unsuspected, the creepiness of the story stays with you. The second story, ‘The Leper House’, is modern, with a man on the way home from a funeral breaking down and visiting a cottage, which later has vanished. The story turns out to be a rather unexpected tale of revenge. The final tale, ‘The Scratch’, seems more modern still: a soldier returned from Afghanistan wreaks havoc with a couple’s lives, unintentionally, and with a twist at the end which I didn’t see coming.

The atmosphere of all three stories is well-drawn, making them perfect fireside reading as they encourage you to draw nearer to a source of warmth and light. There is a chill to all of them, both in the supernatural creepiness and in the weather and cold buildings marleys_ghost_-_a_christmas_carol_1843_opposite_25_-_bldescribed. Being a Gothic purist, I’m not sure how much I see them as Gothic; perhaps, in the modern tradition, which defines it more loosely, they are, but the contemporary inclination to label anything ghostly as Gothic offends me. A ghost story need not be Gothic, though it can be: it is the combination of many things which makes a work Gothic (see here for further ranting). I think these stories are more traditional ghost stories than they are Gothic, then; they show little of Gothic’s usual preoccupation with societal issues, for example. They are, however, particularly Gothic in one aspect: their preoccupation with place, and with buildings. The first story is clearly the most traditionally Gothic, with a questioning of faith whilst taking place in a cathedral; the second, the building which may or may not exist is central to the unravelling of the plot, and in the third, the shed and a cave which the soldier experienced in Afghanistan are paralleled. Place is important for Gothic, especially when it is rooted in historical events or experiences, and this Taylor draws on effectively.

I’m nit-picking in saying I don’t think these stories are completely Gothic, however: they are worthy inheritors of a tradition of English Christmas ghost stories, and an evening by the fire reading them is not an evening wasted.

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An Evening with M R James

Old HauntsI do like M. R. James’s stories. They are terrifying, though often perpetually obscure, and delight in the macabre and the terrifying. James (1862-1936) was an academic, a medievalist and bibliophile who spent much of his life at Cambridge, and most of that in libraries. There is an aura of the obscure, arcane dustiness around him and his work, though he was also a man with a wicked sense of humour and an interest in the mysterious, the supernatural and the downright terrifying. Many of his stories feature a protagonist not unlike himself: a professor, librarian or antiquarian of some sort, who investigated a little too much, was perhaps a bit too curious, and suffered the terrible consequences of this. There is something terribly English about James’s writing.

He liked to gather his friends to tell them his ghost stories, especially in the winter MRJames1900months when the nights were long. Yesterday evening I went to the Birmingham Midland Institute (my second home at the moment) to a performance of Old Haunts, by Don’t Go Into the Cellar Victorian Theatre Company. In the Members’ Room, dimly lit, ‘Monty James’ sat in a large leather armchair and told us some stories, with just a few props, and some special effects. His manner was perfect – it’s the sort of thing that could easily become horribly twee, but he had just the right mix of menace and jocularity as he told us ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad’, along with other tales and chatty digressions. The script also included some of James’s own thoughts on the writing of Gothic stories, which I’ve used in teaching James:

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis.

Whistle_and_I'll_come_to_you_illustrationThere is certainly nothing ‘mild and drab’ about James’s stories or the performance. There were plenty of shocks – being suddenly plunged into darkness, hearing terrible screams, flashes of light and so on – it reminded me of the spectacle of Victorian shows, from spiritualism to conjurers, who enjoyed the effects on their audience much as ‘James’ did in Old Haunts. There were plenty of people visibly jumping with shock last night, but it’s not just about thrills: James’s stories make us draw closer to the light for fear of the dark, a primal sense that we need both the horror and the warmth to feel fully alive. There is something joyous in that, which the character of James clearly revels in, and which Gothic literature always indulges to the utmost. Victorian performance, like Victorian literature, particularly sensation literature, asks us to be fully involved emotionally and intellectually, because this full participation makes us vulnerable and therefore more susceptible to its effects. Don’t Go Into the Cellar seem to know this and play on it, and it works brilliantly, especially in such an intimate atmosphere as a small, crowded, dimly-lit Victorian room.

Gothic at Christmas

I have written about visiting Strawberry Hill House before, but when I visited this week with students taking my Gothic module, the house was beautifully decorated for Christmas – perhaps this isn’t very Gothic, but it was done with some atmospheric touches (Christmas hats on statues, little knitted robins, etc) that I’m sure would have appealed to Horace Walpole’s sense of humour. The house is always a wonderful place to visit, and it was great to take students there: the module begins with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and how this (rather daft) novel starts the behemoth that Gothic literature has become. (You can read my students’ module blog here). The guides did a great job of exploring how Walpole’s fascination with early Gothic architecture was translated to his house and then to his writing. Here are some photos of the day.image1

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Book review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I must adjacksonmit, I bought and read this book entirely on a whim. Recently republished by Penguin Modern Classics, I idly read an excerpt on the Penguin website and decided I deserved to read something for fun. Besides, it sounded Gothic, and I have a bit of an obsession with Gothic castles. Shirley Jackson is a cult name in modern Gothic fiction, I think, but although I’m aware of her short stories and, most famously, The Haunting of Hill House, this is the first of Jackson’s books I’ve read, though I’m interested to read more now.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat to her family. There aren’t many of her relations left, though, because they were all poisoned several years before the start of the novel. Merricat and her sister, Constance, live alone in the Gothic Blackwood house, isolated because of the local conviction that Constance was a murderer. The sense of loneliness combined with the remarkable family unity of Merricat, Constance and elderly Uncle Julian, living a peaceful but deeply peculiar life barricaded into the house is brilliantly evoked: early on we see Merricat going into the village, suffering the stares of the neighbours as she changes her library books and buys groceries, and the disdain in which she holds them and the fear and suspicion they emanate towards the Blackwoods sets up a creepy atmosphere. This is heightened by the very gradual discoveries that the novel allows us to make.

The house itself, the castle of the title, is hugely significant. I’m always telling students that the castle is virtually a character in Gothic; the castle is ‘where Gothic happens’, and provides a metaphor for both the bodies and the minds of the characters. This is equally true here. The events of the novel are focused entirely on the house, as a ‘safe’ place away from the threatening outside world, and yet it is also the scene of murders, anguish and – it becomes increasingly clear – complex psychological disturbances. The house is both source of life and shelter to the Blackwood sisters, and equally a place of darkness and danger, and as the events of the novel unfold the house itself undergoes dramatic transformations (but I don’t want to give too much away). Merricat’s obsession with her home becomes clearer as her unique and idiosyncratic narration explains the rituals and forms of magic with which she attempts to defend the house from the outside world, and though she is clearly an unreliable and rather disturbed narrator who seems much younger than her eighteen years, she is also, in her combined innocence and naive madness, both appealing and convincing. In this, the castle parallels her psychology.

Shirley_Jackson_PortraitThe threat from the outside world appears much greater than that inside, however, when a long-lost cousin appears and tries to persuade Constance to resume a normal, public life. Castles offer claustrophobic spaces for terrible deeds to happen, thresholds to cross which lead to knowledge one might be better off not knowing, and represent the history that always comes back to haunt us in Gothic literature. This is all true here: it is all the more eerie for the happy moments of homemaking which the sisters share; after all, when something attacks the place where you live, where you think you are safest, what can you do? And this is even more of a problem when that threat comes from within.

What is particularly surprising, perhaps, is that this is also a wickedly humorous novel. Merricat and Constance are likeable, though clearly highly unusual, and they play jokes on each other and other people (for example, offering them cups of tea which they imply might be poisoned). It also raises questions about fear and what we are, or should be, afraid of; how we demonise those we don’t understand, and how happiness is sometimes found in the most unexpected places. As an example of mid-century Gothic, it’s both a period piece and timeless, and I couldn’t put it down.

Gothic exhibition at the Library of Birmingham

_GBP3778Last week was the launch of Gothic, an exhibition of work by students at Birmingham City University. We’ve been working towards this for a while now and the exhibition, curated by Grace Williams, represents some of the fantastic work done by our students as well as offering a fascinating perspective on Gothic in the 21st century. Gothic is endlessly inspiring, it seems, and appears in our arts and culture in very different, unexpected ways, and this exhibition, which includes photography, painting and jewellery, reflects this and the ongoing relevance of Gothic as a cultural influence.

Last week saw the opening event of the exhibition, which was pleasingly well attended, and we ha_GBP3716d the opportunity to enjoy readings of creative writing by School of English students Charlotte Newman, Bex Price and Abigail Cooper. The exhibition itself provides some excellent examples of the way in which artists can reinterpret or be inspired by Gothic themes.

Exhibiting artists include:

Jivan Astfalck, Sally Bailey, Rachel Colley, Alessandro Columbano, Gregory Dunn, Jodie Drinkwater, Joanna Fursman, Anneka French, Bruno Grilo, Ole Hagen, Hannah Honeywill, Shelley Hughes, Sevven Kucuk, Jo Longhurst, Amy Lunn, Paul Newman, Wendi Ann Titmus, Cathy Wade, Grace A Williams and Rafal Zar.

Ther_GBP3700e isn’t space for me to comment on every work included, unfortunately, but it’s fair to say that the macabre and unsettling is a feature of most of the works included. There is jewellery which includes vintage stones, in a beautiful, unusual pendant by Jivan Astfalck, and Rachael Colley’s ‘Sovereign’, a ring set with sawdust and blood, a macabre echo of the hair mourning jewellery popular in the nineteenth century. More traditionally, Jodie Drinkwater’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is a pen and ink drawing of a monstrous figure of a man on the rooftops of a Victorian city, indicating the fear of the unknown which can penetrate the familiar.The beautiful often contains the terrible, as Sevven Kucuk’s ‘Still Life with ApplesGBA_3530 – but no Oranges’ indicates (the title referencing Cezanne); the image of the glowing fruit in an urn-like container recalls Renaissance memento mori, reminding us that decay is present in everything.

The historical echoes of Gothic in the nineteenth century are all around even in this new work. As Julian Wolfreys points out in Victorian Hauntings, the Victorian period is, culturally, what we picture when we think of Gothic:

‘…all that black, all that crepe, all that jet and swirling fog… These and other phenomena, such as the statuary found in cemeteries _GBP3699such as Highgate, are discernible as being fragments – manifestations of a haunting, and, equally, haunted, “Gothicized” sensibility.’

Grace Williams’ print ‘Escamotage’ references a nineteenth century ‘vanishing trick’ in which the female body appears to disappear from under a Persian rug, which both reveals and conceals the female form. Gothic, with its complex relationship to the position of women – historically both reinforcing the subjection of women and simultaneously offering them a freedom as ‘other’, as deviant from the norm – provides a context to the image which makes it all the more disturbing. Wendi Ann Titmus’s mixed media images ‘Intellectual Uncertainty’ similarly disconcert the viewer, blurring boundaries between innocence and the macabre, reality and fantasy, and even fear and humour._GBP3696

These and many other exhibits are worth taking time over, considering how they relate to Gothic and also how they reflect the uncertainties we feel about the past as well as the anxieties of the present. Do go along to the Library of Birmingham and have a look at the exhibition, which is on the 3rd floor and runs until May 2nd.

All images (c) Graeme Braidwood Photography.

Gothic in Birmingham

Gothic Poster 150dpiI’m very excited to be organising an event and exhibition on Gothic at the Library of Birmingham. With help from students, I’m putting together a day of talks on Gothic from literature to Goth culture, open to everyone and free to attend, while an exhibition will feature work from BCU students which relates to Gothic. I haven’t yet got a completed programme for the day, but below is the press release, plus the beautiful poster designed by Grace Williams, who is also curating the exhibition. If you’re interested, please follow us on twitter @gothicinbrum, find us on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/843422549049077/?fref=ts) or look at the blog: http://www.gothicinbirmingham.wordpress.com.

Library of Birmingham turns Gothic for an exhibition hosted by Birmingham City University.

Press Release by Holly Barry, student in the School of Media.

On Saturday 2nd May 2015, BCU will be hosting an Interdisciplinary Gothic Event  at the Library of Birmingham, showcasing all things Gothic. There will also be an exhibition, running from 7th April – 2nd May to accompany the main event, both organised by Dr. Serena Trowbridge from the School of English with support from second year English student Bex Price.

The event will consist of several talks about different areas of Gothic – fashion, architecture, literature, photography and more. The exhibition is being curated by Grace Williams, a PhD student in the School of Art, and will include a wide range of works by BCU students.

Serena Trowbridge, the organiser, tells us about how the event came about: “I’ve just started teaching a new module on Gothic as part of the BA English, which has been really popular with students. The subject has such a broad appeal as Gothic reinvents itself for every generation.”

Shannon Kooner, a student of the School of English agrees: “Whilst studying the Gothic, I felt the texts specified for us to study were extremely interesting as well as covering a diverse range of topics which worked interchangeably with the Gothic. I would gladly study this module over again!”Gothic Icon

Another student also confirmed: “One of the most interesting modules I’ve studied. I was really surprised by the texts- when you think of Gothic you expect everything to be very cliched, which was absolutely not the case! Great range of ideas and texts covered, extremely interesting.”

Serena says the event should prove popular with the public: “Gothic is a very interdisciplinary subject which also has a wide popular appeal so it’s ideal for a public event. I’m extremely excited about it!”

Dr. Trowbridge’s book, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, which was published in 2013, grew out of her Ph.D. thesis which she completed at BCU.

As well as the exhibition itself, there will also be a blog dedicated to this event where there will be regular posting of news, updates and any written work revolving around the Gothic theme. You can read it at www.gothicinbirmingham.wordpress.com, or find more information on twitter @gothicinbrum. There is also a facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/843422549049077/ for contributors and attendees.

Serena adds: “The event and exhibition as a whole will be an incredible way to showcase work for BCU students, to network across the Faculty and to be involved in a fun cultural event. We have some fantastically talented students in the Faculty and it will be great to display their work to the public.”

The event will be open to anyone and admission is free.