Catherine Spooner interviewed by Neil McRobert

Posted by Neil McRobert on February 14, 2011 in Blog, Interviews tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Dr Catherine Spooner is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Lancaster.  Specialising in Victorian and contemporary literature she has a specific interest in the Gothic, particularly its most recent manifestations. Catherine’s first book, Fashioning Gothic Bodies (Manchester UP, 2004) examines the historicising influence of clothing on the Gothic body, from the eighteenth century roots to the modern day. Her next book, Contemporary Gothic (Reaktion, 2006) elaborates upon the changing field of Gothic, particularly in relation to marketability, commercialism and the mainstream appropriation of the Gothic mode.

The Gothic is no longer solely a literary (or even cinematic) phenomenon. It has infiltrated almost every avenue of contemporary culture. In light of this, do you still regard the Gothic as a viably cohesive form or has diffusion led to redundancy? Can the Gothic still be considered as unified in its agenda?

Do you think we can really consider Gothic as ever having been unified in ‘its’ agenda? As Robert Miles and E. J. Clery’s collection of Gothic Documents shows, right from the beginning there was immense disagreement between critics and writers about what Gothic was and what it did. And right from the beginning, Gothic wasn’t just novels but art, architecture, theatre and pre-cinematic technologies – a poem by Matthew Lewis even inspired a particular fashion in hats! Wherever there’s a cultural form, Gothic infiltrates. I’d suggest that the notion of Gothic as a coherent, unified entity is a construction of certain literary critics pursuing their own particular agendas. But I don’t see this lack of unity as a problem! It just makes Gothic more rich and interesting in the way its meanings play out.

The Gothic seems as elusive as ever then. As you mention in the introduction to Contemporary Gothic the Gothic’ calendar you purchased shows how wide the boundaries of the genre are. That said, are there any specific texts or products that you think have stretched the boundaries of the mode too far?

I must admit that I was challenged when I saw Marks and Spencer’s Per Una ‘Gothic Chic’ collection! [For international readers: Marks and Spencer’s is a British chain store renowned for its comfy, traditional qualities]. It always raises a laugh when I show pictures of it in conference papers, because the range includes a plain orange t-shirt! However, once I started to think about it I realised that rather than simply dismissing it as an instance of designers and marketers getting it ‘wrong’, it was more interesting to ask, ‘Why have they called it Gothic? What does Gothic mean in this context? What cultural work is the Gothic doing here?’ Once you put a label on something and define it as Gothic or not Gothic, you close down discussion. It’s more interesting to ask who is doing the defining, and what’s invested in their definition. That said, reading Gothic as a fluid, mobile set of discourses that plays itself out differently in different contexts is not the same as simply claiming anything and everything is Gothic at whim. Alexandra Warwick ticks contemporary criticism off for doing that in an essay called ‘Feeling Gothicky’ that she wrote for Gothic Studies – and rightly so. It’s not enough, as she says, that something just makes you ‘Feel Gothicky’.

You write that “Gothic has become so pervasive precisely because it is so apposite to the representations of contemporary concerns.” Which contemporary anxieties do you see reflected in the current proliferation of Gothic production? Is there, for example, an engagement between the ‘literature of terror’ and the current situation regarding global terrorism?

I think links between the ‘literature of terror’ and global terrorism are not obvious or straightforward. The most visible way in which there has been an effect is through the way that digital media have been used to report images of inarceration and torture: the illusion of proximity to horrific events that these media allow their audiences, as well as the viral nature of their dissemination, has affected the language and imagery of horror. However, I think the association of Gothic with new forms of commodity and consumption, as well as new media and technologies more generally, has been much more far-reaching.

I am cautious about linking Gothic to ‘contemporary anxieties’, as the question then arises, ‘Whose anxieties?’ Anxieties are not a free-floating thing ‘out there’ which literature or film passively reflects. They are constructed by the media, by film-makers, by authors. I’m actually developing a project at the moment which argues that we are too preoccupied with trauma and anxiety in our current understanding of Gothic. There has been some brilliant work published on that theme, but it’s become a critical orthodoxy and it’s time we started thinking about other ways of talking about Gothic. To return again to ‘comic Gothic’, it strikes me that a lot of recent Gothic isn’t anxious at all – it’s pure fun. Think about Heston Blumenthal making an edible graveyard out of chocolate on his Channel 4 series for example. And why not?

You make an interesting point about the media and cultural production/manipulation of anxieties. In some ways the media has appropriated the gothic narrative as a means of disseminating information.Often, I find that news stories are rendered in highly gothic hues. The last few years alone have offered SARS and Swine Flu, the several instances of extreme child abuse in Austria, the similar cases of abuse in the Jersey children’s home, and the Raoul Moat rampage. Do you think there has been a degree of hyperreal exchange in which the gothic (or at least horror) has become a framework in which to order our experiences?

Absolutely, you couldn’t have said it better. It has become the business of certain sections of the news media to provoke fear, as sensational narratives and moral panics both sell newspapers and attract TV audiences. The language, themes and narrative structures of Gothic provide a ready-made framework for that.

As we have agreed, the Gothic seems to be flourishing at the moment with no indication of slowing down. However, the dominance of Stephen King, Anne Rice and their like seems to be waning. To focus on literature for a moment, who do you consider to be the new blood, the upcoming ‘ones-to-watch’.

That’s a really interesting question. I have a private theory that after Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Gothic fiction has had to change direction. House of Leaves was the apotheosis of the Gothic novel – it did everything and had everything in it, including of course cameo appearances from fictional versions of King and Rice. No-one’s quite been able to follow it – including Danielewski himself. Since then, the appetite for Gothic fiction has continued unabated but it’s tended to be spread much more widely among a range of different kinds of writing and a range of different sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. For example, conventional horror fiction still has a big readership (John Ajvide Lindqvist and Justin Cronin have had huge international success recently) but horror fandom now also encompasses proliferating sub-genres like urban fantasy and steampunk. In terms of literary fiction, a lot of my favourite Gothic novels of recent years have been one-offs by writers who otherwise work in a range of genres, like Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, and Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y. All of these novels, too, are in some way hybrid in form – they very clearly and self-consciously draw on Gothic but don’t fit comfortably into conventional definitions. And I think, recalling your earlier question, there’s been a resurgence of comic Gothic – I’d pick out Paul Magrs’ Brenda novels as the purest example, but many of the books I’ve mentioned have greater or lesser comic elements.

I wonder if the global megastars of Gothic are a bit of a 1980s phenomenon – the U2 of horror, if you like? Or alternatively, have Stephen King and Anne Rice simply been superseded by J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer? Literature for children and young adults seems to be the fastest growing market for Gothic at the moment, and once you get past Harry Potter, Twilight and their endless imitators, there is some really amazing writing being published in that field. I loved Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and my most recent discovery is Marcus Sedgwick – his latest novel White Crow is the most compelling book I’ve read for a long time. And I’m intrigued to read that Michelle Paver, who wrote the Wolf Brother series, has just published a ghost story for adults.

Children’s Gothic seems an interesting avenue for consideration. We all have iconic moments from childhood reading and viewing – who can forget the horror of Angelica Houston peeling back her face in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches,  or Pennywise the clown leering from the sewer in IT. Do you think that the gothic is a mode with a special relationship to childhood? The theme of innocence corrupted perhaps, or a Freudian return of the repressed?

I think it’s important to remember that ‘childhood’ is no more universal than ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ and that it is constructed differently by different texts, different cultures and in different periods of history. Certainly you could argue that modern Western culture has gothicised childhood: some of those news stories mentioned above do precisely that, whether the child is the victim (‘Baby P’, the Josef Fritzl case) or both victim and perpetrator (the James Bulger case). Children are an increasingly prevalent theme in contemporary Gothic fiction – a sign, I think, of just how fraught our contemporary view of childhood is. Children and teenagers in contemporary culture are repeatedly dichotomised as under threat or themselves threats to the peace of ordinary citizens. Neither subject-position is considered bearable by prevailing cultural opinion and therefore these stories are endlessly told and retold. But it’s worth remembering that only by inventing the concept of the child in the first place can modern culture construct it as a being who threatens or is threatened. How we define children determines how we define ‘excessive’ children who test the limits of that definition. Gothic stories written ‘for’ children – which are, of course, almost invariably written by adults – offer a different way in to the same set of concerns. Just as in adult fiction, some texts offer more more complex and sophisticated responses to the subject than others. However, something I find particularly interesting is that in fiction directed at under-12s, the mode often shifts to comic Gothic, enabling a resistant child-subject to emerge.

Some would argue that the gothic has always contained an element of self-mockery or self-satire. However, this phenomenon seems particularly prominent in television shows such as Dexter and True Blood, and the parodic ‘gothicisations’ of classic texts (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, etc). Is this just another example of the Gothic’s internal dialogue or something new? Are we approaching a period of post-gothic?

I think it’s a bit of both – I’m with those who argue that Gothic has always contained a comic or self-parodic element. However, I agree that over the last decade or so, the ‘comic turn’ identified by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik has definitely become more pronounced. I’d hesitate to use the term ‘post-Gothic’ though. It seems to me that a show like True Blood is very much in the spirit of The Monk – the same mix of high camp, religious satire, and farce. And before I’d want to commit to the notion of ‘post-Gothic’, I’d want to be certain I knew what ‘Gothic’ was in the first place – I’m not sure it is stable enough as a critical term for us to announce with confidence it is past. Gothic, as we are all well aware, is all about things coming back at times they’re not supposed to.

So where do you see the Gothic going in the next few years, both thematically and critically? The icons of gothic fiction seem to be endlessly recycled, the vampire, the zombie and the werewolf have all had huge exposure recently, and automatons or the ab-human never really seem to go away. Do you think the Gothic is capable (or willing) of escaping these totems or has the conjunction of genre and marketability become too powerful? Similarly with criticism: we have seemed to pass through a period of  psychoanalytical criticism, as you say, moving away from the dominant conception of the gothic as a manifestation of cultural neurosis. Where next?

Do we want to escape vampires, zombies and werewolves? It seems to me that they continue to feature because we continue to love them, whether in their sparkly new form or in all their old-fashioned bloody, messy glory. In Our Vampires, Ourselves Nina Auerbach argues that every age creates the vampires it needs. The same could be said of zombies and werewolves. As long as Gothic monsters keep on transforming to meet the needs of each new generation, they will continue to be recycled. It’s true that marketing expectations govern publishing and film-making like never before, meaning that what’s proven successful will continue to be repeated, but the idea that we need a ‘new’ Gothic is also to a certain extent market-driven. Our postgraduate reading group has just been discussing a short story anthology called The New Uncanny, and the conclusion we’ve come to so far is that, apart from the addition of new technologies, the new uncanny is very much like the old uncanny. But no-one would buy a book called ‘The Same Old Uncanny You’ve Already Read About Countless Times Before’. I’m not trying to suggest here that Gothic doesn’t change and there isn’t anything new. Of course it does and of course there is. But I don’t think we can blame stasis or stagnancy on marketing – markets work in both ways, relentlessly generating the desire for the new as well as consolidating what’s already popular.

Criticism is difficult to fit in to a consistent narrative, as academic publishing moves so slowly and there are different things going on in different places at the same time. Psychoanalysis predominated in Gothic studies in the 80s and early 90s, then was to a certain extent superseded by a return to historical criticism. Lately, Derrida’s Specters of Marx and the notions of spectrality and haunting have had a massive influence. It’s all become a bit disembodied and overtly textual, and I think bodies and materiality are going to become important to Gothic criticism again – if they ever went away – ‘thing’ theory, affectivity, ‘The New Weird’. China Mieville recently coined the phrase ‘Geek Critique’ as a riposte to Terry Eagleton’s dismissal of the current cultural obsession with Gothic monsters, and I love that – the idea that fanboy/girl knowledge can be converted into cultural capital and used to combat the grand fromages of high theory.

Finally, what are you yourself working on? You mention a project on the relationship between Gothic and trauma. That sounds hugely pertinent in today’s ‘culture of fear.’

I am currently taking on the ‘culture of fear’, but not perhaps from the direction you might expect! I’m working on a new book, to be published by Continuum, entitled Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic. It’s kind of the sequel to Contemporary Gothic: I’m specifically addressing what’s happened to Gothic in the twenty-first century. I argue that the critical preoccupation with reading trauma and social anxiety into Gothic narratives, while in itself interesting and valuable, has resulted in a critical marginalisation and devaluation of what I call ‘Happy Gothic’ – Gothic that isn’t at all anxious, at least not in a straightforward way, but which privileges comedy, romance, pleasure and consumption. I then relate this to particular historical shifts, most notably within the media representation of Goth subculture. There are chapters on lifestyle TV, Tim Burton’s films, fashion, vampires, Gothic tourism, children’s fiction, steampunk and neo-Victoriana, and the TV comedy series The Mighty Boosh. All this rich and exciting stuff is out there, and we don’t really have a clearly developed framework for understanding it. So I’m trying to develop that framework, building on work by the likes of Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik. I don’t know whether I will pull it off! But it’s the most fun to research and write.

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