On Teaching Contemporary Gothic

Posted by Catherine Spooner on July 16, 2008 in Dr Catherine Spooner, Guest Blog tagged with

At Lancaster University where I work, I currently teach an MA module in Contemporary Gothic. It’s ten weeks long, taught in 2-hour seminars, and usually attracts around 16 students, the majority of whom are taking MAs in Contemporary Literary Studies or Literary and Cultural Studies. It’s closely based on my own research, and a chance for me to share the texts and ideas that have been most exciting me with a group of highly advanced students, some (if not all) of whom are as bonkers about Gothic as I am.

I’ve just had a year off from teaching the course while on leave, and as a result have decided that it’s time to radically overhaul it. I want to prune the current list of set texts, and introduce some brand new ones – as all lecturers know, this is a key way of keeping one’s teaching fresh. It’s also important, when teaching contemporary literature, to ensure that you are genuinely contemporary – that you are reflecting current areas of debate or literary trends, rather than simply falling back on what you know best.

While puzzling over this matter of what constitutes the ‘contemporary’, I’ve come to the somewhat embarrassing realisation that I have, unconsciously, hitherto defined it as books published during my own life-time! Which was fine when I was a bright young postgrad teaching assistant, but more than a decade on, I’m beginning to appreciate that what I once thought of as recent works are no longer cutting-edge. This year’s crop of first-year undergraduates was born in 1990, and it has struck me that perhaps this should be the measure of what constitutes the contemporary. (Of course, MA students are at least three years and sometimes much older than this – last year the eldest member of my seminar group was a septuagenarian – but the principle, I think, still holds.) So 1990 is to become my cut-off point.

In previous years, I’ve divided the course into two thematic sections, ‘Monstrous Bodies’ and ‘Hauntings’. Of course these frequently overlapped, but the loose arrangement enabled a means of constructing links between texts and provided a way in to theoretical debates about bodies and disembodiment. However, one of the side-effects of dropping all the earliest texts on the course – along with a couple that were unpopular with students – is that the Monstrous Bodies are rather thin on the ground. Could it be that the most current trend in Gothic fiction is for ghost stories? Why is this? Is it to do with our post-millennial relationship with history, a yearning for something to fill a spiritual vacuum, a turning away from the body, an absorption of Derridean theory within the wider culture, a way of processing cultural trauma, just a fashion – or merely my own personal bias showing through?

I always start with Angela Carter, as for me her writing is where contemporary Gothic begins. Fortunately her uncollected short fiction was published after she died as American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, so she makes it into the 1990s – and I’m hoping this less well-known work might prove fresher than the over-familiar Fireworks or The Bloody Chamber, brilliant though they are. Naturally, too, I’m keeping some of the texts that I’ve found work the best, as well as exemplifying different kinds of contemporary Gothic writing: Sarah Waters’s neo-Victorian Affinity; Mark Z. Danielewski’s labyrinthine House of Leaves; and Patrick McGrath’s Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now, which raises all kinds of debates about the function of Gothic in relation to world events and the traumas of history.

The texts that are unpopular with students are sometimes as revealing as the most popular ones. I’m dropping Poppy Z. Brite’s gay Goth vampire novel Lost Souls this year, after teaching it for around a decade, as it just doesn’t seem to resonate with today’s students. It used to be a ‘Marmite’ text that created avid debates between those who declared it had changed their lives and others who slated it as sensationalist trash; now, however, the latter voices always win out. I think it’s a flawed first novel that makes for an interesting way of introducing a discussion of Goth subculture. But Goth subculture is different now, too – and Poppy herself has moved on from Goth to write foodie fiction.

The other text I’m dropping because it doesn’t seem to work is Rachel Klein’s The Moth Diaries. This is a sophisticated rewrite of Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ for teenagers, set in a girls’ boarding school in the 1960s. It does an interesting job of mapping vampirism onto anorexia, and again opens out into other debates about Gothic for and about teenagers. But the male students never seem to get into it, which perhaps shouldn’t matter, but makes for dull seminars when half the group have little to say.

Then there are texts which I’d love to have on there but can’t for practical reasons – Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell is foremost of these, because it’s just too expensive to expect students to buy (along with most other graphic novels). I get round this with the comparably long and pricey House of Leaves by spreading it over two weeks – and it’s usually one of the most popular books on the course – but there’s a limit to how many times you can make this kind of demand on students, who have restricted budgets and heavy work-loads.


Then there are films – at the moment, each literary text is twinned with a film that complements its themes. I’ve found this makes the seminar a bit packed – we often discuss one text more thoroughly than the other – but I’m committed to keeping it at the moment owing to the way the course was validated. However, I’m thinking that some of the most interesting contemporary Gothic narratives are occurring these days on TV rather than in the cinema – so I’m going to switch to a mix of film and TV.

So, what does my new course look like? Well, at draft stage, these are my films and TV episodes:

Twin Peaks, pilot episode (1990)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Hush (2000)

Sea of Souls: Omen Formation (2005)

Doctor Who: Blink (2007)

Ringu (1998)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Night Watch (2004)

The Orphanage (2007)


And these are my literary texts:

Angela Carter, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993)

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (1997)

Sarah Waters, Affinity (1999)

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black (2005)

Patrick McGrath, Ghost Town (2006)

This leaves me with two free fiction slots. I’d love some suggestions! I have lots of ideas… but the best way to find out what’s happening now is through word of mouth. Any novel or set of short stories published after 1990 would be eligible – preferably one that costs under a tenner in paperback and isn’t too long to get through in a week while juggling part-time jobs and other courses. I look forward to hearing your recommendations!

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