Review: George and Hughes (eds.). Open Graves, Open Minds (Manchester: MUP, 2013)

Posted by Matt Foley on August 19, 2015 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , ,

REVIEW:

Sam George and Bill Hughes (eds.). Open Graves, Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present (Manchester: MUP, 2013)
By Matt Foley
University of Stirling

 

2_OpenGravesOpenMindsBookUnder the stewardship of Dr Sam George and Dr Bill Hughes, The Open Graves, Open Minds research project at the University of Hertfordshire has proved to be a rich and rewarding enterprise that – during its five-years of investigation – has facilitated a range of scholars to read productively many of the myriad transmutations of the vampire and the werewolf, both historically and in contemporary fictions. Two years after its initial publication, however, there is a surprising lack of critical appreciation of one of the project’s central research outputs so far: the Manchester UP collection Open Graves, Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present (2013). Certainly, this is an oversight in Gothic studies, and George and Hughes’ collection is an important addition to any scholarly Gothic reading list or, indeed, any module that reads the all-pervasive figure of the vampire. There is much to admire in the essays collected here. To name only a few of its key central concerns, the volume contains important scholarship on Lord Byron and John Polidori, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Irish Gothic, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, and the complex identity politics that underpin just why, at least in contemporary fictions, society is shown to absorb vampiric groups into the mainstream. Both early-career and established researchers contribute to the book – there is a closing-piece, too, by YA author Marcus Sedgwick – and the study proves rich and varied in its conceptualisations of perhaps the most ubiquitous of Gothic figures.

Details of some of the more notable readings will follow shortly, but a collection such as this always poses interesting, larger questions relating to its field of study. One central issue that is wrestled with consistently throughout the conceptual work in OGOM is whether scholars of contemporary vampire fictions (literary or visual) are over-burdened by the vampire’s distinctly literary tradition. Certainly, researchers themselves find this question difficult to answer. To compare consistently many of the contemporary films or book series read in OGOM – which are replete with beautiful and essentially un-monstrous monsters – with Polidori’s gentleman vampire or Stoker’s Dracula is to pay too much respect to the notion that the nineteenth-century vampire is an originate that endures in each contemporary vampire story. Of course, commonalities with fictions past are often embedded meaningfully in contemporary texts, but not always, and the less convincing readings here could be said to create links between the old and the new vampire ex nihilo.

There is an understandable anxiety that grips, in particular, emerging scholars to not only have an intimate knowledge of the Gothic heritage (wise and necessary) but to put it to work when considering modern transmutations of the vampire, such as those evident in The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and a number of the other popular fictions read in this collection. In a critical field so used to paying heed to the grip that the past may hold over the present there could be a Gothic effect itself at work that underpins this handling of the nineteenth-century vampiric heritage. Writing on the Gothic, it seems, may demand a necessary acknowledgment of past classics that comes to dictate at least some of the parameters within which the contemporary text can be read.

There are also more focused questions to consider: does Twilight ‘overshadow’ other texts in the vampire genre? And to which conceptual models does Gothic scholarship turn when our bloodsuckers ‘may have lost their bite’ (18)? There are readings here that, certainly, show that there is interesting and rewarding work to be done on the cultural turn that has borne out Twilight. Catherine Spooner’s alignment of the modern ‘sparkling’ vampire with the mainstream assimilation of Goth subculture is certainly convincing. While Sara Wasson and Sarah Artt’s joint venture to complicate the supposed feminine passivity ingrained in Twilight unveils at least some ‘unexpected pleasures’ in Meyer’s staging of ‘both the broken and the shining body’ (189).

As such, the most rewarding work in Open Graves, Open Minds (and there is lots) is to be found in the historicised research: those readings that are deeply invested in the respective cultural timeframes – Romantic, Victorian, late-modern, or postmodern – that have given birth, each in turn, to the myriad vampires covered here. Sam George’s fascinating reading of Count Dracula’s lack of reflection, for example, draws from Stoker’s research notes on the Kodak camera and is neatly linked, via Walter Benjamin, to the evolving modes of mechanical reproduction in the fin de siècle. The chapter’s argument, in consequence, proves an exemplary meeting point of the archival and the theoretical. While the truly enticing work on the contemporary – such as those chapters on Twilight and its comparable fictions mentioned above – pays heed to the vampire tradition but is not entirely suffocated by the weight of its inheritance. Drawing from the Polidori and Byron mythos, Conrad Aquilina, too, deserves significant credit for a well-informed opening reading that dissects the tensions between the humanised and the folkloric vampire in the Romantic period. In a short review, such as this, it is difficult to give a sense of the sheer depth of analysis throughout OGOM, but, as in all valuable scholarly collections, when these essays are taken as a whole they represent an important body of work on the vampire, and the collection proves itself a must-read for scholars working in the field.

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