Danel Olson interviewed by Glennis Byron. Part 1

Posted by Glennis Byron on December 07, 2010 in Interviews tagged with , ,

Danel Olson is Professor of English at Lone Star College, Texas. He has compiled three collections of new Gothic stories and novel excerpts from around the world: Exotic Gothic: Forbidden Tales from Our Gothic World (2007), Exotic Gothic 2: New Tales of Taboo (2008), Exotic Gothic 3: Strange Visitations (2009) with Exotic Gothic 4: The Nightmare Countries forthcoming next year.  EG2 was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award, and EG3 was a finalist for both the Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Awards. He is also the editor of 21st Century Gothic: Great Gothic Novels Since 2000, to be published by Scarecrow Press on December 17th. We asked Danel to talk to us about his experiences in editing this collection of 53 essays on recent Gothic fictions.

Danel, can you begin by telling us a little bit about your inspiration for 21st Century Gothic and the actual process of soliciting and collecting these essays?

Hello my friend in Scotland, and thanks.  What I mention in the introduction to 21st Century Gothic about inspiration is that

this whole book owes its existence to a student in my ‘Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Fiction’ course who thoughtfully asked, “But what about any good Gothic novels after Y2K?’ . . . Although she has had a rather long wait for an answer, here it is. For underneath the Gothic’s corseted bodices, spikes, frilly Victorian dresses, black eye makeup, gray lipstick, piercings, spandex, wigs, and laced-up boots or patterned knee-highs, what exactly is there? Behind its monsters, ghouls, ghosts, serial killers, zombies, and vampires, what thing of any meaning lurks? Within this reference guide, each of the novel’s authors and critics may have a different answer as to why the Gothic is worth an academic view. . .  Tracking each week of the last two months, I am staggered that Gothic-themed novels have consistently appeared in four to seven of the fifteen to sixteen slots on the New York Times best-sellers list (with those most favored Gothic situations appearing in the Times’s capsule descriptions: “a letter from his dead wife,” “a family secret,” “girl goes missing,” “a ruthless foe,” “fallen prey to an ancestral curse,” “woman’s body found in London cemetery,” and “slave flees with her master to New Orleans”). Untold millions are reading them. It seems, however, that library shelves have a hole in them with regard to interpretations of the latest Gothic fictions. I expect the users of this book to be not only patrons of public, college, and university libraries, but also classes on contemporary novels and pop culture, postmodern seminars, Gothic Studies programs, reading-group leaders, genre publishers (some genre presses from Canada and Britain have asked for a copy already), and both university and independent scholars. Many junior high school and high school library collections will find this guidebook essential for their hooked-on-Gothic students, who stand as a major market (and I’m afraid to admit that my daughters—who have fallen deeply for both Edward Cullen and Jacob Black—would probably be the first to crack it open).

I like to meet people, so solicitation (for a book, anyway) was an enjoyable process, all full of discovery.  I wanted a large study approaching 700 pages that had a chance of becoming a standard resource on contemporary Gothic in public and academic libraries, so I contacted well over 200 contributor candidates.  I first asked every member (with an email) of the International Gothic Association (http://www.iga.stir.ac.uk/members.php) and the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies (irishgothichorrorjournal.homestead.com), both highly regarded bodies.  I re-examined every Gothic study I had read from the last ten years for possible contributors.   Then I moved to experts from other areas who had left a powerful impression–from psychology, psychotherapy, history, film studies, criminology, publishing, creative writing, and TV, newspaper, & online journalism.

It’s been sheer pleasure and an honor to meet all of these wonderful and giving people by email.  So many of the names of those I met are ones that have directed the contemporary Gothic discourse with their questions over the last thirty years.  The greatest surprise is that they are an astonishingly upbeat lot, considering their relentlessly ghastly and grisly subjects.

Many of those approached were unable to contribute, but still they were kind enough to nominate a few contemporary novels or novellas as their picks for the post-2000 Gothic works they considered

the most stylistically artistic, experimentally successful, apt at genre bending and blending, influential on other writers and the market, original and emotive, metaphysically/culturally/historically significant, or authentically scary/disturbing/transgressive/shocking, all with that strange alchemy of literary elements that make them come back to us in dreams. (“Introduction” xxv).

In the end, over 180 experts from many fields nominated the novels and novellas investigated in 21st Century Gothic.

In terms of those who did contribute, this is a particularly unusual book in the way you have both academics and practicing writers discussing their choices for the best twenty-first century Gothic. I don’t think I’ve really seen academics like David Punter and Jerrold E. Hogle and writers like Nancy A. Collins and Adam L.G. Nevill sharing intimate book space in quite this way before. Did that pose any special challenges for you as editor and did you find that these academics and practicing writers in any way took different approaches to the task they were set?

“Sharing intimate book space” sounds steamy, but yes, I confess that’s what happened.

So many staggeringly fine Gothic studies exist on the marketplace that the challenge is to make another seem fresh, atypical, needed, risky. One way is by subject, or to track and dissect new novels and novellas that have not had enough attention, as we did with these 53 works. As I mentioned in the introduction,

. . . Why one more? An answer is that Gothic Studies often seems fondly retrospective, as if the best were behind us, as if groping among ‘the dry bones of the past,’ as Emerson put it, were somehow preferable to fingering the fresh kills. A large number of Gothic anthologies and reference books represent, describe, or deconstruct the eighteenth-century Gothic, and a huge number are under the thrall of the nineteenth-century Gothic, all understandably so. And many studies are besotted by the aberrant charms of the twentieth-century Gothic. But what about our Gothic of the new millennium? This book is a kickoff to the Gothic of our time, with radiant critical minds from Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia lighting the shadowy corners of each novel or novella.

At these new literary frontiers, the contributors chart the ever-vacillating moods and actions of the neo-Gothic. In this work, we see how the new Gothic ranges from gallows humor (especially in Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton and Neil Gaiman’s book for all ages, The Graveyard Book, both from 2008) to outright horror (of the stalk-drop-and-chop Grand Guignol kind, all given free range in Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby), from young adult angst, mixed feelings, and tender holdings (see all of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and part of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian) to highly metatextual experimentation that miraculously still manages to be affecting (in Jennifer Egan’s The Keep and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves). The neo-Gothic’s macabre emotional territory has expanded as never before, and this collection maps the range. Until now, no one else has made a systematic investigation of the genius of expression within this new millennium’s Gothic.

Another way to make a study stand out, as you wisely hint at, is to vary the commentator cast a bit, providing a decidedly unique set of voices with fresh agendas. There are many paths up the mad mountain of the Gothic, and many able mountaineers, so why not take an adventure with them? Consider a new novel that meditates on both secret life vs. official biography and on an infamous serial killer: that is a tough critical slope. So, let’s invite a woman who has written several biographies and many highly praised books on serial killers to lead us up. Thus the brilliant American forensic psychologist, novelist, and TV journalist Katherine Ramsland instantly came to mind to meditate on a novel that probes both the imagined secret life of Bram Stoker and the unsolved identity of Jack the Ripper–and what an inspired analysis is her chapter in 21st Century Gothic on James Reese’s The Dracula Dossier!

I am so grateful to her and every other contributor.  They all have these rare strengths. Another example is from one of the most original and moving novels of this period, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.  There came a point when I was tempted to write the article on this novel myself – as I do love that novel — but I was fortunate to have the psychotherapist Laurence Rickels volunteer (who is also a playwright and professor of German, film studies, and literature). To ask a psychotherapist to meditate on a book that contends with madness and buried trauma is a much different matter than asking myself, who has never trained in that discipline and never plans to. So many inklings, so much sensitivity and richness, so many unasked questions come from–as we Gothic folk put it–letting the right one in.

The fact is everyone in this study contains multitudes. Who is an academic and who is a creative writer becomes a blurry question, as these minds are always up to something new. For instance, the academic David Punter is an entrancing poet, and a fiction writer of eerie power and psychological insight. I have just read his involving tale, “Carving,” (which I hope to publish) and am quite shocked and stunned by it.  Academics tear out of their university roles/robes all the time (isn’t that what your countrywoman Sarah Waters did?). More than that, many of the creative writers are highly involved with evaluating fiction for publishing houses: they too are appraisers of a work’s literary and popular merits. Both Nancy A. Collins and Adam L.G. Nevill, besides making you scared of houses & apartments, and wonder about the man or woman you share your bed with, have been editors and manuscript advisors for years.

About challenges: certainly different ways of seeing come from asking an ensemble cast of contributors like this one, but that was all a strength. Imagine, for a moment, that you had never seen Sarah Winchester’s bizarre supernatural mansion in San Jose (whose architecture of madness I happened to walk through, mouth agape, just a few months ago with a group of unherdable publishers, editors, and writers). Now imagine if you had invited a group of architects, carpenters, masons, home decorators, carvers, realtors, photographers, and spiritualists to go out to California and tramp through Sarah’s palace of weirdness, and report back to you in Scotland. What do you think you would “see”?  You would see it all, Glennis, from every angle—the house that is there and the house that isn’t.  Reading this new guide, people are going to be astonished to see the directions the Gothic has moved in the last ten years. Our contributors—our lookers from the watchtowers—have reported: the Gothic is at your back door.

We can say we have respect for other disciplines, but we also have to prove it. I am glad to have invited so many fields and voices in. We knocked down the artificial fences between us, and we had a grand time asking and attempting to solve each other’s many questions, or prove or disprove theories or old tenets about the Gothic, or to ask what may make a just-released Gothic work worthy. Never in my career have I been part of such a fascinating digging over such disastrous, perverse, obscene, irreversible, bloody, or tragic events, all done with such bonhomie between ourselves, the diggers. The Gothic is curious like that.

I see exactly what you mean about the advantages of many eyes (Sarah Winchester’s house sounds fascinating and no doubt will become a topic for a future post on this website). Actually, the approach makes such sense that it’s surprising it isn’t done more often in literary studies.

You’ve said that these essays show the wide range of forms that the Gothic takes in the new millennium, what about connections: did you find much  – if any – consensus about what twenty-first century Gothic was up to, or would any generalizations be unsupportable? One thing I noticed, with a quick skim through the proofs, was how often Frankenstein popped up; I probably noticed this in particular only because the essay I contributed with Linda Ogston is one of those that discusses an appropriation of Frankenstein. Did many such connections between essays emerge?

Exactly so.  On their own, contributors consistently turned to Frankenstein as a base text to which their contemporary novel reacts.  They also invoked Jane Eyre and Dracula many times over, and offered readings that raise original and ever more unsettling questions about these unforgettable novels.

Though this genre’s nature is one that often sets the plot in the distant past, it is also true that the tone, atmosphere and kinds of villains developed within all Gothic novels, just as in horror fiction, are tremendously sensitive to political and economic events at time of production.  As you know, the twenty-first century Gothic is a literature of chaos coming out of a decade of great chaos. From the year 2000, we have endured the biggest bankruptcies in world history, the collapse of giant lending institutions, the largest number of foreclosures in the United States since the Great Depression, massive defaults among member countries of the European Union, as well as constant terrorist threat, and the dreadful launch of two middle eastern wars that have now lasted longer than WWII. Adding to our collective tremors are unfair trade practices by conglomerates that exploit the poor ever more intensely and on a global scale, more populations starved and without clean water, and perhaps the greatest single humanitarian issue of our time that remains largely unsolved: the oppression of women throughout the world. Girls and women still suffer widespread discrimination, lower wages, indifference toward their education, genital mutilations called “female circumcision,” bride-burning, medical neglect, battering, sex trafficking, rape camps, and honor killings. Our sisters are dying, and they don’t need to be. The Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen reported in the New York Review of Books twenty years ago, that though “in normal circumstances women live longer than men, . . . [yet] about 107 million females are missing from the globe today.” To put that epic tragedy in perspective, it means that more girls and women have been killed by design or neglect than all the “men killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century, . . . far exceed[ing] the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century,” according to The New York Times Magazine (Kristoff and WuDunn, “Why Women’s Rights Are the Cause of Our Time,” 23 August 2009, 28-39).

Without a doubt, one of the directions that the 21st Century Gothic moves is toward describing and exposing cruelty, especially against women.  The men and women who contributed to the book seem quite aware of gendercide. It is true that a good number of the contributors I invited are noted feminist scholars, so a sensitivity is to be expected, but it is even better to know that it is not only they who cry out. Another aspect that this neo-Gothic guide points to, which is an extremely depressing one, is that there are many instances in contemporary Gothic fiction when a girl or woman partakes willingly in her own emotional, sexual, or physical victimization or destruction.

Now what is the common ground of this enlarged awareness of female mistreatment with the three classic Gothic novels I mentioned three paragraphs ago? Simply this: all told, women are rather disrespected in Frankenstein (uninformed about threats and violations, or killed on their wedding bed, or wrongfully accused and hanged for murder, or assembled after death—totally without permission–but then dismembered and thrown into the waters off the Orkney Isles), Jane Eyre (commodified, lied to, stashed in the attic, and dead from a fall), and Dracula (uninvited to the vampire chase led by men, bitten but insufficiently loved, and staked once undead).  Perhaps that is why they became this 21st Century Gothic’s ur-texts.  It is a truly Gothic affair how we still treat women and girls, and if these three classic novels launched the great discussion, I see now that these 53 contemporary ones carry it to farther stars.

One more generalization I venture:  the connection between most of these 53 never-published essays is that they meditate on a dark gifting.  That is, they explore what it means to get a something you don’t know how to use, and often didn’t ask for, and which may put your body and soul in peril.  This isn’t exactly new.  We all know well that haunting subtitle to Frankenstein.  We all remember that Victor Frankenstein was symbolically a new Prometheus who gave a new kind of fire, which (like the old Prometheus) he would suffer for, and which would present a host of unintended consequences for us.

What is fresh is the form these gifts take, and how the characters search for redemption after getting or acting upon these odd treasures. Some of the gifts are knowledge (who your mother or father really was, or who your baby is, or how to alter the genetic code, or how to produce clones—say to provide organs for the ailing elderly, as in the case of the elegant and eloquent chapter you and Linda Ogston wrote on the heartbreaking Never Let Me Go, a book that made me weep and comes back in dreams). Some are invitations to stay a while, though you can’t for the life of yourself say why (as in the Medieval castle-under-renovation mystery from The Keep). But other gifts are damnably inscrutable things: a strangely scented, rather countryish dark suit that comes in the mail (Heart-Shaped Box), a feather and bones (Four Souls), a short metal bar (The Horned Man), an endless variety of ice (The Terror), a rotten pumpkin (The Pumpkin Child), a picture of a dragon (The Historian), or a body part or two from a dead prostitute (The Dracula Dossier). So much depends on what one does with these presents. This is the emotional and intellectual bridge that these 53 neo-Gothic novels and novellas bid you to cross. . .  What would you do with these gifts? How would the experience change you? Could you ever leave behind what you witnessed?  Could you live with what you did?

You won’t believe how these characters use their presents.

[A postscript to this gift-business is that I just finished a non-fiction account last week that asks a very Gothic question indeed:  What would you do if you received a lampshade made out of human skin? Bury it, verify it, place it in a dumpster, throw it out a window, sell it, take it to a holocaust museum, or live with it? This gripping memoir is called The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans (2010), and is narrated by a good-hearted New York magazine editor named Mark Jacobson who considers all those options I listed above, travelling around the world to find an answer.  In a New Jersey spiritualist’s parlor, in the dark, he is told by the medium that the lampshade is speaking, and that “. . . he trusts you. You’re the only one he has now” (4).

As a Gothic side-note to a postscript, we might remember that Albin Grau was held at Buchenwald, the man who produced the 1922 silent classic, Nosferatu.]

The idea of dark gifting is intriguing – I think you’ve really hit on something important there. Other examples came immediately to my mind, and not just from texts included here (the book and the pen in Shadow of the Wind, the guns in Piñol’s Cold Skin) but many from books published even more recently – like the Barrington House flat in Adam Nevill’s Apartment 16 (2010). No doubt there’s a PhD in this for someone!


Part 2 of this interview will be published next week

A sneak preview of the contents of this book was previously published on this website here.

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