Review: The Gothic in Text Matters

Posted by Timothy Jones on October 02, 2017 in Uncategorized tagged with ,

Text Matters, A Journal of Literature Theory and Culture, Gothic Matters, (Łódź: Łódź University Press, No. 6, 2016)

Review by Stuart Lindsay

In which ways today does the Gothic matter? Gothic matters is the central issue of the collection of essays in this, most recent, issue of Text Matters, edited by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet. Its authors are concerned with both definitions of Gothic matters: firstly, its diverse content, and its proliferation across and cross-pollination with other literary genres, styles, cultures, and contemporary social contexts; secondly, as Monnet writes in her introduction, why Gothic matters–why, in the ages’ ever-shifting ideologies, which each threaten to make redundant, consume, or appropriate the Gothic, study it at all? The chaos and darkness of the political past present, and imagined future, from the fearsome technology of the French Revolution, through the pacifying pharmacology of contemporary medicine, and towards the social collapse of the global order through financial or environmental effect, have provided Gothic fiction with some of its most memorable scenes, even as the historical emergence of violence, persecution, domination, and destruction of this sort looms large in the background of its supernatural plots and themes. It appears that, since the Gothic’s inception in the eighteenth century, we have always lived in Gothic times; historical memory furnishes us with an equal to any of the Gothic’s villains, injustices, or catastrophes. It is for this reason that the penetrating insights provided by the collection of essays in this issue, which have the aims of mapping and analysing the literary Gothic’s uptake of and reflection in a multitude of global, social issues, are timely and of beneficial use to Gothic scholars.

The varied chapters of Gothic Matters express a wide range of concerns in Gothic studies, including notions of outcasts, liminality, and horror. They are also focused on ways in which the Gothic has fashioned these social categories to suit its own ends, establishing particular renditions of repressed cultures and civilizations, and shaping the methods by which we might read historical events as Gothic. Corinna Lenhardt’s contribution, ‘Wendigos, Eye Killers, Skinwalkers: The Myth of the American Indian Vampire and American Indian “Vampire” Myths’, is a particularly insightful exploration of this phenomenon. In her chapter, she explores both the U.S. film and television expression of the Indian figure as a Gothic, supernatural, vampire foe in Blade: The Series (2006), Ravenous (1999), and the Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn–Part 2 (2012), and the ways in which the American Indian writes back, negotiating the vampire myth to express the existence of distinctly American Indian film, and to subvert the racially-denigrating overproduction of Eurocentric vampire tropes. In the novel Eye Killers (1995), considered to be the starting point for this process, and the film Skinwalkers (2002), Navajo legends and political struggles are told through a Gothic plot of ancient symbols drawn in blood, desecrated graves, and uncanny doublings. Dr. Stone in Skinwalkers, a White killer of medicine men who exacts revenge over Navajo “stick waving” traditional healing practices, functions as both Skinwalker and Euro-American vampire, whilst his actions provide an analogue to the violent erasure of Navajo culture.

Another highly notable chapter in the issue is Barry Murnane’s ‘In the Flesh and the Gothic Pharmacology of Everyday Life; or Into and Out of the Gothic’. Analysing the BBC Three television series, In the Flesh, which depicts the medicalisation of the condition of living death via the consciousness-regenerating drug Neurotriptyline, Murnane explorers the parallels between the zombie or, in the show’s terms, the Partially-Deceased Syndrome sufferer, and the everyday life of actual, contemporary, medicated populations: those who must take prescribed medication and tolerate its negative aspects to be considered by clinical authority as included in society. Issues beside the Gothic in Big Pharma emerge in Murnane’s reading. Nationalist ‘risings’ or defences are identified, in the shape of In the Flesh’s Human Volunteer Force or Roarton Protection Service: a paramilitary organisation who, in the programme’s backstory, fought the newly-returned living dead in the latter’s initial, rabid state during the so-called “Pale Wars,” and, in the aftermath of this conflict, when the plot events of the show take place, are suspicious of the now-medicated, pacified PDS-patients. Themes of prejudice and radicalisation also feature in the analysis. Mistrust and surveillance of the emergent PDS community by the paramilitaries and the pro-living political party Victus are perhaps analogous to the pressure surrounding members of British Muslim communities to accept scrutiny and intrusion of their personal lives by right-wing nationalist groups. The extremist Undead Liberation Army (U.L.A), a fanatical            cult of PDS-sufferers, encourage others with the syndrome to take the drug Blue Oblivion, which blocks the stabilizing effects of Neurotriptyline, returning the user to what the U.L.A claims is their true nature: the flesh-hungry zombie incompatible with society’s aims. Delivered by a masked figure in a direct-to-camera address in one of the episodes, the U.L.A’s claims of Partially-Deceased’s incompatibility with everyday life under capitalism in the UK–neoliberalism, recession, public-sector cutbacks–and the need to rise up and destroy this life echoes the incitement to racial and religious hatred of contemporary religious fundamentalism.

Murnane’s chapter, and many of the other essays in Gothic Matters, implicate convincingly the Gothic in present-day issues of oppression, monstrosity, and violence. Not just a mode of translating horror and social trauma in the post-industrial age, a civilization in decline, and a modernity collapsing under the weight of new barbarisms, the Gothic, Murnane claims, ‘might not be a therapy against, but rather another psycho-pharmacological component of neoliberalism’s own speculative and spectral organization’.[1] ‘The current popularity of Gothic’, he also writes, ‘suggests that it may in fact be normalized and subsumed within precisely these dominant cultural idioms’ (Murnane, 2016, p.240). Can Gothic retain its riotous, antagonistic character if the power of its narratives, even the supernatural ones, are today outdone by actual horrific events occurring at global and local levels, and if its language shores up large-scale economic and ideological trends (the financial profitability and cultural dominance of a particular Gothic figure, the antihero, from the aristocratic vampire star of the Twilight phenomenon, Edward Cullen, to the survivors of various apocalyptic scenarios, for whom the deferment of a hair trigger is all that prevents them from descending into savagery or cannibalism, the uptake in the language of global capital of spectral or zombie economics, the terror of market speculation, etc.)? Marie Liénard-Yeterian, another contributor to the issue, writes in her essay ‘Gothic Trouble: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’: ‘the quintessential Gothic experience–that of the uncanny–pervades our contemporary imagination. The savagery explored by The Road is indeed the barbarity induced by an unprecedented greed spawned by our own economic logic’.[2]

The Gothic Matters issue contains valuable contributions to the development of neoliberal Gothic, a branch of Gothic studies that aims to explore both Gothic fiction’s critical evaluation, through its own narrative means, of the economic ideology, and the cultural anxieties concerning neoliberalism’s own absorption of Gothic drives and imagery within the former’s discourse. There are many other areas within Gothic studies addressed by this issue of Text Matters which will be useful to scholars and students, but are too numerous to give the attention they deserve in a short review. In brief summary of some of the other essays, then: Kristen Lacefield explores how the Guillotine represents a violent, technological incursion upon the human body, and the ontological designation of the Haitian figure of the zombie as slave, enable a productive reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818, 1823), Neil Forsyth analyses the Gothic nature of hands that function independently from conscious control in a number of Gothic texts, primarily Sherwood Anderson’s short story, ‘Hands’ (1919), Agata Łuksza adopts a gendered reading of the Gothic television series Supernatural (2005-), revealing a spectrum of masculinity situated within a melodramatic format, and Agata G. Handley situates Leeds poet Tony Harrison’s liminal voice in ‘On Not Being Milton’ (1978) against the famous ‘mute inglorious’ Miltons of Thomas Gray’s graveyard poem, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751). Although I have selected only a few notable examples, the entirety of this collection forms an indispensable resource for Gothic scholars, theorizing a potentially reciprocal relationship between the Gothic and a society that has been normalized by dominant cultural trends, and supported by the increase in market value and cultural ubiquity of the Gothic. As many of the chapters in Gothic Matters contend, however, the Gothic may only be contained and satiated by this mutual exchange for so long. Through whatever means, this experiment can proceed predictably for only so long; the monster will inevitably escape once again.

[1] Murnane, ‘In the Flesh and the Gothic Pharmacology of Everyday Life, or Into and Out of the Gothic’ in Text Matters, A Journal of Literature Theory and Culture, Gothic Matters, Edited by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, Łódź: Łódź University Press, No. 6, 2016), p.240

[2] Marie Liénard-Yeterian, ‘Gothic Trouble: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, in Text Matters, A Journal of Literature Theory and Culture, Gothic Matters, Edited by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, Łódź: Łódź University Press, No. 6, 2016), p.147.

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