Review: Lancaster University 5th Annual Contemporary Gothic Study Day

Posted by Neal Kirk on June 19, 2015 in Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lancs Study DayOn May 15 2015, Lancaster University Department of English and Creative Writing held their fifth annual Contemporary Gothic Study Day. Known as one of the highlights of the academic calendar for gothic scholarship in the Northwest of England it was the best of the three I have attended. An audience of up to nearly forty included Lancaster University English MA students and new PhD candidates from as far afield as Italy. Lancaster’s Dr. Catherine Spooner (Fashioning Gothic Bodies (2004), Contemporary Gothic (2006)), welcomed everybody and introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Claire Nally.

Dr. Nally is a senior lecturer in Twentieth-Century English Literature, and researches Irish Studies, Neo-Victorianism, Gender and Subcultures at Northumbria University. She is the author of the forthcoming monograph Steampunk: Gender, Subculture and the Neo-Victorian (2016) and co-editor of the collection Twenty-First Century Feminism: Forming and Performing Femininity (2015). The title of her keynote was ‘Emilie Autumn: Staging Freak Show Femininities’. Autumn’s website makes the following introduction: ‘World-class violinist. Singer. Composer. Author. Actress. Artist. Fashion icon. Famously bipolar’ ( Nally’s keynote considered Autumn’s novel, The Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls, and the accompanying stage and burlesque show.

Nally EAutumn

Nally focused on Autumn’s slippery and seemingly unproblematized use of the themes of the asylum, disability, mental health, and commodity culture. Autumn’s work is shot through with her personal experiences at mental institutions, her own ‘suicide diary’, and experience of self-harm, expressed as Neo-Victorian and/or steam punk fiction and performance. Thus her personal experiences, whilst committed, are performed publicly as, Nally points out, a sexualized, expensive piece of consumer culture.

Nally showed several examples such as the “Take the Pill” song with the repeated lyric “swallow”, and the “rat game” that show Autumn’s intentional sexualization of mental illness. Nally also noted Autumn’s intentional problitization of gendered performance (at points she cross-dresses as a boy), but went on to question how critically aware Autumn’s display of gender dynamics really is.

Nally also raised concerns about Autumn’s use of the socially charged themes of disability and mental health, the question of undressing as empowerment, and the price tag (over $99.00) Autumn charges for her engagement with these themes. What I understood Nally to be exploring was the extent of Autumn’s unproblematic portrayal of material that is anything but critically unproblematic. The most convincing example, for me, was Nally’s analysis of Autumn’s use of a wheelchair during part of her show. Autumn uses a wheelchair as the visual distinguisher of mental illness despite not physically needing a wheelchair for mobility. While there are several important issues, including the visibility of disability as it relates to the comparatively unseen challenges of mental illness, Nally really problematized Autumn’s seemingly unaware but nevertheless for sale, presentations of such themes.

Lancs SD CurtisHeading the first panel of the day, Digital Gothic, Dr. Stephen Curtis lead off with the best titled paper of the day, ‘”Press Enter to Dismember”: Uncanny Body Parts in Videogames’. Curtis’ interest in blood in early modern drama led him to focus on the strange portrayal of amputation and dismemberment evident in video gaming. His history, and the collection of accompanying visuals traced early cartoon characters that could throw their body parts as game mechanics, to the graphic and potentially disturbing hyperrealisitic presentation of dismemberment in contemporary gaming. Like Nally’s questioning of Autumn’s use of socially charged themes, Curtis questioned the unproblemitized ‘pure spectacle’ of a contemporary visual athletic of blood, gore, and dismemberment in video games. Curtis concluded with a powerful example from the game Dead Space where the games enemies, Necromorphs, inhabit the bodies of the dead. To defeat them, strategic dismemberment was encouraged. Strategic dismemberment is a sort of retraining of the player to shoot not to kill (like a head shot) but to shoot out the legs of the enemies so as to hinder their mobility.

Dawn Stobbart’s paper, ‘How I Survived the Zombie Apacolypse, and Learned to Love to Run: Reactive Storytelling in Zombies, Run!’, also explored the gothic interface between a mediated game and player. Stobbart introduced the health and fitness based smart phone app, Zombies, Run!, as a reactive audio serial drama. The app casts the listener in the role of Runner 5 who navigates, collects supplies, and must occasionally out run hordes of zombies in a setting that asks the player to imagine the everyday streets or cardio machines are really a post outbreak near apocalypse. For Stobbart, the intimacy of the audio combined with the imaginative, inclusive narrative to create an immersive, effective, panic-inducing reactive story. Showcasing these characteristics of the interactive audio serial drama, Stobbart herself developed a passion for running and lost four stone in the process.

Next up was my paper ‘”I’m not in that thing you know… I’m remote. I’m in the cloud”: Networked Spectrality in Charlie Brooker’s “Be Right Back”. In my talk I introduced my concept of networked spectrality as a means of addressing film and television cultural products that pair ghosts, digital technologies and conceptions of haunting. Using the “Be Right Back” episode of Black Mirror I exemplified the themes of multiplicity, the possible social context collapse associated with mediated remains, and drew links to the searchable and scaleable qualities of contemporary digital ghosts.

Lancs ST McRobertRounding out the panel was Dr. Neil McRobert who presented on ‘Gothic memes: The Slenderman Mythos and the “Viral” Tradition. His talk introduced the concept of the gothic or horror meme, a user generated digital idea or word and image pairing that circulates widely across contemporary digital networks. McRobert situated this phenomenon in the tradition of peripheral and marginal (as in at the margins) material, the digital next step in the line of haunted frame narratives like the complexly metatextual House of Leaves (Danielewski, 2000). The Slenderman is the creation of Victor Surge on the Something Awful website in 2009 that was recently in the news media because some youths attempted to kill their friend in his name in an effort to become his proxies. Thus, McRobert argued that the Slender mythos has become a growing, participatory feedback loop that has become culturally significant, but from fake origins- an example of Fake Lore. But as people continue developing peripheral material about the Slenderman struggles for authenticity and ownership also abound.

Lancs SD BuckleyChloe Buckley kicked off the first panel after lunch with her paper, ‘The zombie is me: reconfiguring the zombie narrative in contemporary children’s literature’. Buckley’s paper challenged several diverse ideologies that surround the pedagogical role of children’s fiction, the imagined child reader, and the function of a zombie that must tow the line between the expected gore and fear while not being too frightening for children. Her talk introduced several established approaches to the child reader like the prevailing understanding of the passive learning child that should read constructive literature, but she ultimately challenged approaches like this through an understanding of the zombie figure that resists a singular, sweeping context.


Lancs SD RandellIf exposure to sunlight is a traditional way to destroy a vampire, the sun-soaked beaches of the California coast might be the least likely place to encounter that archetypal creature of the night. Lauren Randall challenged that assumption in her paper, ‘“One thing about living in Santa Carla I could never stomach, all the damn vampires”: The Uncanny, The Valley, and Intemperance with a Vampire on California’s Gothic Coastline’. Through an in-depth reading of Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987), Randall explores the gothic process through which the anticipated construction of the vampire figure is turned on its head such that the beach is the undisputed territory of the vampires. The highly stylized gang of young vampires turn the beach into the stage where they are the principal actors, their uncanny increased visibility in Santa Clara, the murder capital of the world, making them gothically hypervisible, a known threat hiding in plain (day) light so to speak. Randall rounded out her discussion through an analysis of Vampire Beach (Alex Duval, 2006) where the sundrenched, beach bum vampires lose any claim to malice the more they are associated with celebrity and California beaches.

Vivian Leanne Saunders’ paper, ‘”Playing Between Conventional Notes”: Hannibal’s Mutilated Musical Narrative’, concluded the panel. Using her musical training, Saunders broke down the score of the “vocal cello” episode of Hannibal (Brian Fuller, 2013-) into sections based on her understanding of the complexity of the score according to new information being processed by the listener. Her argument was that the troubling implications of instruments made from humans depicted in the episode are reflected in the jarring music score. But it is not just that the score is challenging to listen to. As Saunders points out, there are relatively more comfortable sections of ‘ironic stability’ in the score, but these are imitations of the visual horror of the instruments made from humans. Thus the listener is inclined to find sonic comfort in the grotesque, but is also forced into discomfort in a complexly layered score intentionally composed to unsettle the viewer/listener.

Dr. Eleanor Beal began the final panel of the day, Gothic Neo- and Post-, with her paper, ‘Writing about the unholy is one way of writing about the sacred’: the partial faith and postsecular fiction of Clive Barker’. The terms of Beal’s interest are the very challenges that see religious revivalism set against the postsecular, but as Beal questioned, what are the religious implications of a conception of after secularism? How and where can the secular end such that something might come after? To address these questions Beal considers the themes of the unholy and the sacred in Clive Barkers lived experience and his fiction, and how the gothic can be a renegotiation of religion. Beal considered the gothic as a means of accessing that difficult space between the author’s personal religious experience and the religious themes expressed in his or her fiction.

Lancs SD McWilliamDr. David McWilliam gave the final paper of the day, ‘Beyond the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror and Posthuman Creationism in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus’. Drawing on examples from Prometheus (2012) McWilliam identified nihilism as a temper to the contemporary technology-aided neo-liberal posthuman subject. Rather than gaining insight from the presumed benevolent creators of the human race, the Engineers, the human crew encounter malice, hated and death, in a register of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror rather than a neo-liberal Christian view. McWilliam considered the parallels between the human subject that comes to pity the Old Ones his research team discover at the Mountains of Madness, and the relationship the emerges in the film between a Christian scientist, Dr. Shaw, and the posthuman android, David. McWilliam argued for a depiction of posthuman creationism that views the human being as an accident, an insignificant being to be eradicated.

One reason why I consider this Gothic Study Day to be so succesful was how well each panel linked, expanded, and developed a set of evident contemporary gothic themes. Dr. Nally’s attention to the effects of unseen, but significant behaviors and dialogs reverberated in the discussion of digital avatars, different but not wholly dissociated from conceptions of a divine presence. The gothic brought together diverse and seemingly incompatible topics like children and zombies, vampires and the beach, and unholy/sacred religious beliefs. Gothic themes can be seen in our political, social, and technical moment, reflected in contemporary fictions. Like the previous Lancaster University gothic study days, I left with a sense of excitement about how gothic scholarship is being used and developed in an utterly fantastic academic and social community. I want to close with an emphasis on the Lancaster gothic community, not because we discussed, and socialized until the pub closed after the event, but because the academic and social community at Lancaster are a large part of what separates Lancaster from similar events. Consider attending the next Contemporary Gothic Study Day at Lancaster University to experience cutting-edge gothic scholarship, meet new enthusiastic friends, and experience our legendary community.

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