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“Young Adult Gothic” at Lancaster’s Litfest

17th October, 2012

The Gothic always features prominently at Lancaster’s annual literary festival, Litfest. The week-long festival features a series of workshops, lunchtime talks, lectures, readings and panel discussions, with Gothic titles and concerns often on the agenda. In addition to the usual variety of literary delights on offer, LitFest this year has been particularly interested in children’s fiction and have commissioned the young adult novella, Malkin Child by Livi Michael, to commemorate the four hundred year anniversary of the trial of the Pendle witches.

Malkin Child (2012), Livi Michael

Litfest is always exploratory, reflective and innovative and “Young Adult Gothic” – an evening panel discussion chaired by Dr Catherine Spooner of Lancaster University – was no exception. Looking beyond the sparkly vampires and dark romance so readily associated with ‘teen gothic’, “Young Adult Gothic” brought together three very different writers with an audience of readers, fans and critics, for a stimulating discussion. On the agenda: why have contemporary authors and readers seized so avidly on the Gothic?

When Elliott and his brother, Ben, move into the old and crumbling Glebe House they don't expect to find themselves sharing it with ghosts. But soon sinister events are unfolding. An old diary reveals glimpses of the mansion's past - and of a terrible tragedy. A mysterious woman talks to the dead. And evil lurks in the East Wing - a hideous labyrinth of passageways devised by a truly twisted mind.

It's a difficult time for fifteen-year-old Savannah Grey - she's settled into her latest foster placement, but her body is acting strangely.

Cliff McNish is a writer of dark teen fiction, including Breathe: A Ghost Story (2006), Savannah Grey (2010) and, most recently the supernatural thriller, The Hunting Ground (2011), which was shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year award. Cliff’s books explore a number of Gothic themes, though monstrosity features prominently. In Cliff McNish’s work a host of terrifying monstrous creations wait in the darkness out there, but they also lurk within us as well.

Ellen Forrest is sick. She feels as if the life is being sucked out of her. The doctors think that she is suffering from a disease of the blood, and she has been sent to her grandmother's house to rest, but she seems to be getting worse, not better.

Sovay is a highway robber living in dangerous times, full of fear, with the spectre of the Revolution in France reaching across the Channel. Sovay’s father has disappeared, the family are tainted by accusations of treason. Sovay takes to the road in earnest to clear her name and quickly becomes entangled in a terrible web of deceit and duplicity. Can she escape before the net closes in on her and all around her?

Celia Rees is perhaps best known for her Gothic inflected historical fiction, which includes Witch Child (2000), Sorceress (2002) and Sovay (2008). Witch Child has been published in 28 languages and her most recent novel, This is not Forgiveness has been selected for the Booktrust Best Book Guide. She has also written for the phenomenally popular Point Horror series and her vampire novel, Blood Sinister (1996), is an intriguing modern day reworking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Chris Priestley’s unsettling and macabre ghost story collections – The Tales of Terror – are a series of uncanny portmanteau narratives, an uncanny concoction of all things Gothic from M.R. James, Coleridge and Poe to  H.P. Lovecraft and Hammer Horror, to name a few. Chris’ work has also attracted a number of children’s fiction award nominations, with Mister Creecher recently long-listed for the UKLA children’s fiction award. Mister Creecher is an inspired rewriting of Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, by way of Charles Dickens. Chris’ novel The Dead of Winter is also a Gothic thriller with a meta-fictional twist, that recalls the fictional worlds of Jane Eyre and The Woman in Black.

Uncle Montague lives alone in a big house and his regular visits from his nephew give him the opportunity to retell some of the most frightening stories he knows. But as the stories unfold, another even more spine-tingling narrative emerges, one that is perhaps the most frightening of all.

Billy is a street urchin, pickpocket and petty thief. Mr Creecher is a monstrous giant of a man who terrifies all he meets. Their relationship begins as pure convenience. But a bond swiftly develops between these two misfits as their bloody journey takes them ever northwards on the trail of their target . . . Victor Frankenstein.

Both the individual author readings as well as the round table discussion that followed constituted a refreshing approach to Young Adult literature with the work of each author placed within a wider context of the Gothic. Importantly, the discussion never became too entangled in the tricky label ‘Young Adult’ or mired in concerns about suitability, appropriateness, or accessibility. Too often questions are asked of children’s fiction that would never be asked of adult fiction, questions which seek to restrict children’s fiction, label it or police its borders in reference to an imagined child reader who is always constructed within a complex web of emotional, moral and political dimensions. Litfest’s evening of Young Adult Gothic was able to put aside the thorny issue of intended readership, and instead evaluated the works under discussion on their own terms. After all the audience present on the night, a range of readers of different ages, was testament to the fact that the age rating or label given to a book by a publisher or bookseller by no means constitutes the final word on who can enjoy that book. In fact, “Young Adult Gothic” gave the writers and their audience the opportunity to interrogate more broadly what Gothic means for contemporary fiction, and why it continues to be phenomenally popular, not only with younger readers, but more generally.

Celia began the evening with a reflection on her work, reading from both Blood Sinister and Witch Child. Celia’s interest in the Gothic began as a child, when she would furtively steal books from her older brother’s bedroom. Celia’s anecdote is perhaps further testimony of the permeability of the border between adult and children’s fiction. The ‘unsuitable’ reading material she purloined ranged from crime thrillers to lurid Dennis Wheatley novels. Though, the most important prize from this illicit trove was, for Celia, The Pan Book of Horror Stories. “I scared myself witless,” Celia tells us, “but I was hooked.” Writers like Poe, Le Fanu, Blackwood, Machen, Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft form part of Celia’s ‘writing consciousness’, and it is this range of influences that allows her to weave different aspects of the Gothic into her fiction.

Celia began writing specifically for the teenagers she taught, teenagers, she explains, who had stopped reading: “They wanted thrillers, crime, horror: Books that were like adult books, but that were about them.” One defining moment for Celia was emerging from the cinema after seeing Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992, determined to write a vampire novel with young adults in mind. The result, was Blood Sinister, published thirteen years before Twilight, a novel that not only brought the Bram Stoker story to modern day teenagers, but one that sought to blur the line between history and fiction, and between past and present. Celia says, “I wanted to get my readers to believe it could be true.” Blood Sinister experiments with the conceit of the found manuscript to tell two stories, one of teenage girl Ellen in the present day, the other of her great-grandmother in the year 1897. Ellen is staying in a house that overlooks Highgate cemetery and spends hours in her sick bed reading her great grandmother’s diary. Slowly, a story unfolds of her ancestor’s encounter with a foreign count, a story in which the unwitting girl becomes prey for a truly dangerous creature only supposed to exist in myth and fiction. Of course, Ellen’s foray into the nineteenth century are punctuated by visits from the blood specialist, a distinguished foreign doctor from Europe who has taken a particular interest in her case… the meta-fictional conceits of the book, the found manuscript and inter-textual references,  are not, for Celia, about emphasizing fictionality and creating distance between the text and its reader. Instead Celia explains that she makes use of such devices to make the story feel more real.

Celia’s interest in the framing device as a strategy to bring authenticity to her Gothic tales continues in her historical fiction. She explains how another twentieth century Gothic film, The Blair Witch Project (1999) was one of the inspirations behind the phenomenally successful, Witch Child:

“I had the idea for the Diary right from the beginning. I wanted to tell the story in a way that would bind the reader close to the main character. The trouble was I’d decided to begin with the words, ‘I am Mary. I am a witch’ and I didn’t want to change that, so I had to find somewhere to hide the diary. In the end, I decided that she could sew it into a quilt, reasoning that North America was cold, women would be making quilts, the chances of it being found would be minimal and I’d discovered that they used rags and paper to stuff them with because they didn’t have much wool. I was pretty pleased with that idea, then I saw the Blair Witch Project and got really excited… what I really loved about it was the whole concept of something that appeared to be absolutely real and chimed in with the real legends and local stories but was a fiction… I became fascinated by the onion layers of what is real and not real, which seemed to say something profound about story-telling and fiction. So, I decided to add another layer to the story. If the quilt was found, it would now be rare and old, a museum piece to be conserved. In the conservation process, the diary would be found.  This would do much more than act as a framing device, or give the story validity, it would shift it from the past to the present in the turning of a page.”

Celia’s interest in exploring the boundaries of fictionality also resonated with Chris Priestly, whose fiction frequently makes use of inter-textuality, meta-fictional conceits, and portmanteau framing devices. Both writers were asked if they would consider their work post-modern, though both were reluctant to accept the label. For Celia, writing is always, like Mary’s quilt in Witch Child, a patchwork: “All sorts of references enter your writing consciousness. As a writer you collect things, create a patchwork of every scary thing. You cut and snip and put it together.”

Sovay, perhaps Celia’s most Gothic text in a traditional sense, is also something of a patchwork. Set in 1794, Sovay plunges its reader into the world of the eighteenth century Gothic, a historical world stripped of the supernatural: ‘There’s no magic. Nothing supernatural. This is the world of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho.’ For Celia the Gothic of Sovay is the Gothic of claustrophobia, that which emerges from the decaying Gothic abbey and its crypts, and from the dark urban cityscape of London and Paris.

So, from vampires who come out of the past to stalk the present day reader, to the found manuscript that blurs the line between history and fiction; from supernatural monsters to the Gothic claustrophobia of revolutionary France: what defines the Gothic for Celia Rees?

“I think ‘nightmare’ defines the Gothic. You get the same sense of disorientating unreality; a distortion of time and space and deviation from the normal, an overpowering but often nebulous, ill defined or brooding sense threat. Like nightmares, the Gothic makes you sweat. There’s a feeling of being trapped, unable to escape from a world where none of the normal everyday rules apply and anything could happen.”

Chris Priestley followed Celia with an insightful discussion of his recent novel, Mister Creecher. Chris also spoke of the influence of the past on the present, beginning with how Shelley’s infamous visit to Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva, sparks the creation of a Gothic monster that will endure for centuries.  “Three hundred years ago two teenage girls ran off with a poet,” he jokes. In 1816 the Romantic holiday-makers were reading a book of tales called Fantasmagoria, scaring themselves late at night whilst a storm raged outside. Forty years ago, Chris explains, he was scaring himself witless with late night monster movies in his parents’ council bungalow. He recalls vividly the effect that James Whales’ Frankenstein had on him then, and how it sparked an evangelical mission to get all his school friends to read the original novel.  Yet Chris is far from a Gothic purist. His work adeptly weaves together the high literary fare of Romantic writers, such as Shelley and Coleridge, the dream-like intensity of Poe, the social realism and scope of Dickens, with less vaulted influences such as the Hammer Horror portmanteau films of the sixties and seventies and late twentieth century science fiction action movies, such as Terminator 2. Indeed, Mister Creecher creates a Gothic space in which counterfeits, representations and reproductions have an uncanny and macabre power. Chris’ reading for the evening was perhaps the most evocative example of this. The young pickpocket, Billy, loitering in the street, spies through the glowing windows of the Shelley household. He looks upon a seemingly perfect family scene. Suddenly, Billy is interrupted by the monster, and both are confronted in the street by Percy himself, who seems to recognise the monster. Thunder blasts in the sky and rain falls violently onto the cobbles: “No, said the man, staring wide-eyed. “No. It can’t be. You are-” Priestley goes on to say that he isn’t the first writer to play with the textual nature of Frankenstein’s creation, mentioning Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound as one text that brings together the textual creation with its creator.

“I didn’t want to get too post-modern or tricksy,” Priestley explains, “But I did want to celebrate Mary’s imagination… In a way Frankenstein’s creature is the ultimate fictional character. He has been created by Frankenstein, just as Frankenstein himself has been created by Mary Shelley. I think she is doing something extraordinarily clever there. She seems in some way to be commenting on free will. How much free will does a character in a book have if they are in effect puppets of the author? Frankenstein’s creature rebels against Frankenstein, but also in effect against Mary herself.”

The Shelley’s presence in Mister Creecher also points to Priestley’s other concern. More than simply a meta-fictional experiment, this novel is an exploration of the original as a piece of Romantic polemic: “The Romantics believed that the core to a good society was the family and those prevented from enjoying that kind of loving upbringing would naturally go astray. I think this is still hugely relevant despite sounding like Conservative propaganda. Damaged people will damage others.” He concludes, “Monsters are created by people.” Priestley sees Frankenstein’s monster as a teenage figure who hasn’t been allowed access to a loving family, and it is his adolescent temperament along with the trauma of his neglect that makes him so dangerous. The same is true, of course, for Billy: “Billy and the monster are both dangerous people,” Chris says, “in a dangerous relationship. They are blundering about, looking for love but without the means to understand love. They want it but aren’t really able to give it – to trust. And when they both decide to trust each other they are let down – with terrible consequences.”

Away from the more emotive aspects of his work, Priestley certainly revels in the Gothic’s power to terrify and there is more than a touch of nostalgia in his love of the Gothic of centuries past: “I love creepy films, creepy novels, creepy television shows, but not modern gory horror.” Indeed, Chris is adamant that the Gothic isn’t simply something that frightens: “Gothic is an elevated term, it’s about scale – bigger in concept, setting, characters.” Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is for Chris perhaps the archetypal Gothic tale: “It has an incredible location, hyper-sensitive characters, it is isolated. You travel to a strange place, an exaggerated place.” Following Celia’s comment on the nightmarish quality of Gothic, Priestley adds, “The Gothic is almost hallucinogenic. The feeling you get when you’ve stayed up all night. Everything feels turned up.” Crucially, for Chris, the Gothic is celebratory as much as it terrifying:

“I think that some people – maybe most people – do not want to look into the shadows. But others do. I do. I don’t think this is always the dismal exercise it seems. I think it can be thrilling. It can be sexy. The Gothic is an acknowledgment of that blurred line between the fear of death and the thrill of fear. It also acknowledges the transgressive attraction the evil can have. You go into that dark space willingly.”

Cliff McNish, the third speaker of the evening, also characterised Gothic as “the darker seam of life.” In Cliff’s talk, monsters were again very much on the agenda. Love of the monster drives much of his work. He is, he explains, “in it for the monsters.” “They are so Other in every way; they offer such an opportunity to let your imagination run loose.” Monsters in Cliff’s work stalk the borders between Gothic, horror and the Weird. His chosen reading was the opening of his monster thriller, Savannah Grey. This terrifying scene, in which an unnamed ‘Horror’ stalks its victim, gives us a taste of the hybridity of Cliff’s monsters. The horror is a a cyclopean thing, with a star-shaped head, suckers and claws, mewling, animalistic.

Yet, Cliff is clear that monstrosity isn’t simply about physical otherness or the grotesque body. Like Chris, he wonders too if perhaps the most frightening monster is the child monster, with its unpredictable appetites, impulsive behaviour, its volatile temperament. His novel, Savannah Grey, however, also explores the possibility of the monster within:

“I’ve always been fascinated by exploring the whole idea of what is the difference between being human and a monster because what better way is there to explore the old, old question: What does it really mean to be human? What is the difference between what it means to be human and what it means to be a monster? This is a question that the main character, Savannah herself, has to face as well. To defeat a monster, how close do you have to be to becoming one?”

In Savannah Grey, the most monstrous thing lies within Savannah herself, a powerful weapon buried inside her throat. Physical horror is integral to Cliff’s work, and the weapon she harbours is as much a physical violation of her body as it is a symbol of her dormant potential.

For Cliff, the ambiguity of inside / outside and the permeability of self and Other is something intrinsic to Gothic space itself. His reading of Savannah Grey describes the moment the monster stalks its prey, prowling the streets where she lives, sneaking inside her home unseen, up the staircase, into the bedroom where Savannah sleeps, oblivious. Cliff explains that for him the Gothic comes from this infiltration, this violation of the security of the home:“You’re meant to be safe in your own home, aren’t you? But in Gothic you aren’t safe. This is a space where you are only an arm’s length away from being in dire peril.”

Yet Cliff’s explanation of why the Gothic has increased in visibility and popularity since the millennium rejects the anxiety model, one that continually characterises the world as an increasingly perilous, dangerous place. For Cliff, the explanation is almost the opposite:

“There are almost no daily threats in modern Western life… For the first time in history, most people feel comfortable. Sickness isn’t the daily omnipresent fear it once was. Plus, it is now so long since the latest big world war that no one fears being called up to fight or losing loved ones on the same scale in previous generations. To live in a world where it matters deeply how many Twitter friends you have is comforting, but it’s hardly exciting. A lot of young people are bored. Gothic fiction vicariously provides the thrills they seek… The Gothic is the darker seam of life. It is something quietly waiting. That which reminds us that life is dangerous. That the world can be unsafe.”

Throughout each author’s individual talk and the discussion afterward, it was agreed that the Gothic was an elastic term, and one that resists definition the more one attempts to fasten it, confine it, fix it. Nonetheless, as Chris Priestley was keen to emphasize, the Gothic is also more than simply a simile for “scary”. Perhaps it is Gothic’s heightened, elevated, special quality that makes it endure from decade to decade, from one century to the next. For me, however, the key seems lie in the patchwork nature of the Gothic, in its inherent hybridity and adaptability. Each of the three writers interpret something very different by the term ‘Gothic’, and their work is remarkable in its own unique way. Nonetheless, hybridity is something of a common principle. But then, hasn’t the Gothic always been a hybrid creation? Celia’s adaptation of Dracula, with its found manuscript, is a continuation of the patchwork nature of the original text itself. Priestley’s inter-textual rewriting of Frankenstein engages in the same kind of referentiality as Shelley’s novel, itself full of references to other stories, other texts. Cliff McNish’s hybrid monsters, which stalk from without as well as lurk within, echo the most terrifying creations of the Gothic, the monsters who are a double for the self, who always already contaminate the home from within. The monster perhaps gives us the most potent metaphor for Gothic fiction. The source of Gothic’s vitality is its hybrid genesis, its patchwork construction. Gothic is a monstrosity concocted from wildly disparate sources and materials. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Gothic is always un-dead. But this doesn’t mean that it is inert, a decaying construct, made up of empty pastiche and vacuous reproduction with no power left to shock or terrify. Rees’ foreign Count, Priestley’s adolescent Mister Creecher, the macabre Uncle Montague, or the horrors and ogres of Cliff’s fiction: These creations are full of vitality and life. Young Adult Gothic continues to imbue the Gothic mode with new possibilities, new playfulness, and fresh opportunities to experience real terror.

Further Reading:

You can see Chris and Celia’s reflections on the event at and

Celia, and other writers of historical fiction, produce a blog –  ‘The History Girls’

Chris’ regular ‘blog can be found at

Also see the author’s websites for more on their previous and forthcoming work:

Tales of Terror’s Uncle Montague also finds time to ‘blog. You can read his macabre musings at:

More about Litfest:

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