American Gods: Visualising Christian Identity as Gothic in Contemporary America

This post was originally presented as a paper at the 2017 Gothic Bible Conference in Sheffield. It has been reproduced here with minor changes and corrections.

The hit television series American Gods (2017–present), created by Brian Fuller and Michael Green, and distributed by Starz and Amazon Prime, adapts Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name. Both are fantastical narratives. In both the book and the television series, an agnostic named Shadow meets and begins working for an old man named Wednesday, who turns out to be more than he first seems (the Norse god Odin). With Wednesday, Shadow travels across America, stumbling into a war between old, immigrant gods and new, secular ones. All are personified in humanoid form—they are real people who feed on human belief. Without giving too much away, through his experiences Shadow eventually discovers the power of faith, and how it relates to his own identity as a mixed-race American.

WIRED Magazine suggested that Fuller and Green’s television reimagining of American Gods ‘gives “faithful adaptation” all-new meaning’. And the show does indeed manage to capture the wild, dark, and strangely reverent world of Gaiman’s novel. There are a few key differences that are especially interesting to examine in light of this conference, however. Specifically, where Gaiman’s novel is whimsical and fantastical, engaging primarily with pagan mythology and the heroic epic, as I will show, the television adaptation explicitly links itself both to contemporary visual Gothic, and to Christianity.

Strictly speaking, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is not a Gothic novel. There is no innocent heroine, no villain with terrible appetites. The novel is set in the present, not the past, and while it contains supernatural elements, they are designed to inspire awe and wonder, rather than horror, terror, or apprehension. Generically American Gods is difficult to categorise, however. As Gaiman himself puts it in the Author’s Preferred tenth anniversary edition, American Gods was ‘fortunate enough to receive a number of awards, including the Nebula and the Hugo (for, primarily, SF), the Bram Stoker (for horror), and the Locus (for fantasy), demonstrating that it may have been a fairly odd novel and that even if it was popular nobody was quite certain which box it belonged in’. It has made its way into the 2016 Encyclopedia of the Gothic, edited by William Hughes, David Punter, and Andrew Smith, where it appears once, under the entry ‘secret histories’, but it is rarely found on scholars’ definitive lists of contemporary Gothic fiction, or even contemporary American Gothic.

The show, in contrast,adopts a very distinctive visual Gothic mode, which is also a staple of its co-creator Bryan Fuller. WIRED elsewhere speaks of ‘Fuller’s gothic sensibility’, and Fuller’s previous series Hannibal (2013-2015) also employed extensive religious iconography. Talking about the season one episode ‘Coquilles’ (Episode 4, 23 April 2013), The AV Club wrote that it has ‘a Gothic, almost religious, sensibility to it’. Critics are often vague about what it is that gives Fuller’s work this ‘gothic’ quality, and scholarship on his shows is still ongoing, but if we look at American Gods we can see a number of distinctly Gothic visual markers, which can also be found across Fuller’s other shows (HannibalPushing Daisies, etc.), and which are often built around religious motifs.

Gilda Williams argues that the Gothic forms a ‘flexible cluster of visual traits, combined with a narrative-based and often dramatic context recounting a set of oppressive conditions usually inherited from the past’.[1] Williams catalogues several aesthetic qualities that are particularly prominent in the visual Gothic, including ‘fragmentation, subverted notions of beauty, dramatic lighting’ as well as its recurring ‘visual triggers’, like ‘the emphasis on surface and texture’, ‘the literalization of idea into form’, and ‘claustrophobic space and disintegration, signalling a history of unhappy relations with the past’.[2]Together, these characteristics help distinguish the things we call Gothic from related categories in the visual arts. Catherine Spooner likewise suggestsa number of features that can be identified as part of the ‘Gothic style’, breaking them down into two broad categories. In popular culture, this includes ‘intensive chiaroscuro, crowded space, intricate detailing, distorted proportions, a saturated colour palette, ornate fonts and deliberately retro or aged styling’. Gothic in the fine arts, in direct contrast, is often ‘governed by the adoption of narrative themes and tropes of the Gothic rather than a consistent “look”’.[3] The title sequence for American Gods is a good example of this:

Not only does this clip contain a number of Gothic visual traits—darkness, claustrophobic space, chiaroscuro, saturated colour palette, retro styling—but the music, which combines Gothic Industrial beats with higher-pitched trumpets and squeals, is also designed to create discordance and discomfort. The show maintains this audio-visual aesthetic throughout the eight episodes of its first season, especially in the ‘Coming to America’ vignettes that punctuate each episode. We’ll come back to those in a minute.

Another relevant difference between American Gods the novel and American Gods the TV series (for today’s purposes at least) lies with the specific gods Fuller and Green chose to bring to the screen. Like the novel, the television series introduces godsfrom Norse, Slavic, and Ancient Egyptian mythology. But in Gaiman’s novel, Christianity is noticeably absent, as is Jesus. The word ‘Jesus’ appears only 16 times in American Gods (a book of some 400 pages), and just three of those refer to the Christian deity personified. The rest are expletives.

Gaiman originally intended to include Jesus in American Gods, and even wrote a scene in which Jesus and Shadow meet over a glass of wine, but ultimately Jesus didn’t make it into the published novel. Gaiman discusses this omission in the tenth anniversary edition of the book, writing:

‘I’d been looking forward to writing the meeting of Shadow and Jesus for most of the book: I couldn’t write about America without mentioning Jesus, after all. He’s part of the warp and the weft of the country.

And then I wrote their first scene together in chapter fifteen, and it didn’t work for me; I felt like I was alluding to something that I couldn’t simply mention in passing and then move on from. It was too big.

So I took it out again.’

In the novel this makes sense. Gaiman is writing about religion and national identity in a pre-9/11 world, and while the political and nationalist tensions behind Christian identity were certainly present in the late ‘90s, they were perhaps not as pronounced as they have become since. Nor were they as easy to weave into a religious immigrant narrative.

Christianity is something Fuller and Green’s American Gods IS able to tackle, though, and Jesus plays a prominent rolein the television series. Moreover, Christianity is explicitly Gothicised and politicised in thisversion of contemporary America. Framing the act of worship or belief as a personal and political revelation, in the show’s first season Fuller and Green directly link religion to contemporary identity politics. This television adaptation also engages in a deeper and more nuanced portrayal of the Christianities that populate America’s repressed histories than Gaiman’s novel does. In the show, Jesus is still doing well in the sense of having many followers, but something has gone wrong. Fuller and Green have taken Gaiman’s idea of multiple Jesuses for multiple countries and run with it. So where the rest of the American gods have one incarnation, Jesus has many—he is a fragmented deity. America may be ‘one nation under God’, but each American has a different understanding of what that god looks like. In episode 3, ‘Head Full of Snow’, Wednesday introduces Shadow to this concept:

“You’ve got your White, Jesuit-style Jesus, your Black African Jesus, your Mexican Jesus, and your swarthy Greek Jesus.”

“That’s a lot of Jesus.”

“Well there’s a lot of need for Jesus, so there is a lot of Jesus.”

In Fuller and Green’s American Gods, then, the Christianity of the Puritans is not that of the Southern evangelicals, and certainly not that of the Catholics, but all of them merge and collide in Christian America, producing not just one Jesus, but multiple Jesuses.

Proceeding from Chris Baldick’s definition of the Gothic’s ‘fearful sense of inheritance in time’, many critics again point to the continuing importance of historicity and the past in Gothic fiction.[4] Markman Ellis argues that the Gothic ‘is itself a theory of history: a mode for the apprehension and consumption of history’.[5] Sean Silver, likewise, describes how important ‘the Gothic way of telling history’ has actually been to ‘the development of the modern British nation-state’.[6] The genre’s anachronistic way of imagining grand and ancient pasts impacts how we view our national history in the present, he argues, and perfectly describes ‘the experience of modernity as continually routed through and ruptured by the past’.[7] This is precisely the approach Fuller and Green’s American Gods adopts as well, particularly in its ‘Coming to America’ sequences, which dramatise past events—from 14,000 years BC to recent history—in order to comment on the present. In the show (as in the novel), each ‘Coming to America’ vignette tells the story of how a god first came to America, following their worshippers.

In their Gothic re-imagining of Gaiman’s American-road-trip tale, Fuller and Green use godly avatars to represent the country’s repressed colonial and racial tensions, speaking directly to contemporary concerns. This reading is encouraged precisely through the juxtaposition of contemporary Gothic and religious iconography. In American Gods, America’s gods are at war because their worshippers can’t live together peacefully. The traditions, cultures, and worship of the old gods are being colonised, usurped, and erased by those of the new. In Fuller and Green’s television adaptation this colonial metaphor is made even more explicit with the addition of Christianity. Writing a year before the show’s release, Fuller and Green state:

We wanted to get an indication of the relationship between the old gods who have retained their power and old gods who have lost their power. Jesus Christ, being 2000 years old and some change, is a relatively “new” god of the older god category—and has done quite well for himself, in terms of worship. Bringing him in is a compare-and-contrast for how Christianity usurped and absorbed many other religious iconograph[ies].

We see this particularly clearly in season one’s final episode, ‘Come to Jesus’, where Ostara (the ancient goddess of spring) is holding an Easter party for Jesus and herself.

Wednesday and Shadow crash the party, and Wednesday upsets both Ostara and the Jesuses with the following tirade:

Wednesday:Until the day that Jesus Christ crawled out of his stinky old grave, folks would paint eggs with dandelions and paprika. For her to exchange as gifts at the first sign of spring in her name. […] Serious question, my dear. I have no doubt that millions upon millions exchange tokens and observe the rituals of your festival, all down to the hunting of the hidden eggs, but does anybody pray in your name? Do they say it in worship? Oh, they mouth your name, hmm, but they have no idea what it means. […] Same every spring. You do all the work, he gets all the prayers.

Jesus Christ:I feel terrible about this…

Easter:[consoling Jesus] No. No!

Wednesday:It’s her day. You took it. You crucified her day. When they started following you, everybody else got burned. In your name. Happy fucking Easter.

This parasitic relationship serves as a metaphor for the American gods (and for America) in general, and the show ultimately positions the old, immigrant gods (Odin, Anansi, and even Jesus)against the new, dominant, ‘post-religious’ gods (Media, Technology, Globalisation), who have appropriated all the nation’s belief (even in Jesus).

This point about American Christianity’s place between the old religions and the new, and its relationship to both religious devotion and capitalist exploitation, is made earlier in the series as well. Crucially, our first meeting with Jesus in American Gods is in one of the show’s ‘Coming to America’ vignettes, from episode six, ‘A Murder of Gods’.

In this clip, which displays all the markers of the popular visual Gothic highlighted by Williams and Spooner, we also get a horrifying (and highly politicised) portrait of American Christianity, played out as a Gothic history. Mexican illegals, who worship a Catholic Jesus, are gunned down by American vigilantes—ironically also Christian, as we can see from the inscriptions on their guns: ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, a quote from the KJV translation of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. The scene is based on real-life accounts of of US border militia, where, as Fuller and Green put it, ‘these people who think of themselves as defenders will quite legally go hunting for immigrants’.

It is arguably one of the most darkly Gothic scenes in the series, avoiding the carnivalesque overtones present in much of the show. Again, this is a result of the way the show adapts past events to fit the needs of the present. American Gods finished production during the election of Donald Trump as US President, with all the surrounding immigration debate—a debate clearly reflected in this scene, which Fuller and Green chose to add, and chose to give a darker tone following the election. Green explains:

[A]s a result of the election and the ugly rhetoric that has become all too common[…] this is the only Coming to America we have so far that doesn’t have either wonky charm or humor. All of our Coming to Americas occupy a tonally different space, but this one is more reverential and liturgical and ultimately quite terrifying. We made an effort to make sure that the blood we see in this one is not our typical “candy blood.” When blood flies and is spilled, it hurts. It hurts our feelings to see, because it’s such a perversion of the American dream to see these people be hunted.

Later in the episode we discover that the guns and bullets used to kill Jesus were manufactured by the Vulcan Corporation, owned by the Roman god of fire, forge, metalworking, and volcanoes, who has learned to “franchise” his faith from the new gods, and tapped into the commercial culture of gun-worship. It is him the killers are actually worshipping when they hunt down immigrants.

In Fuller and Green’s adaptation of American Gods, then, they are able to tackle a subject that Gaiman considered ‘too big’ for his novel. They do so precisely by probing the Christian heart of America, with its Gothic multiplicity, fragmentation, and historical baggage. Fantastical Gothic fictions do not necessarily pretend to be objectively realistic, or to convey historically plausible events. Instead, they suggest how history itself is both uncomfortably real and increasingly distant or surreal. As Baldick argues, ultimately the Gothic’s ‘historical fears derive from our inability to convince ourselves that we have really escaped from the tyrannies of the past. The price of liberty, as the old saying tells us, is eternal vigilance’.[8]


[1]Gilda Williams, ‘Defining a Gothic Aesthetic in Modern and Contemporary Visual Art’, in The Gothic World, ed. by Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 412–24 (pp. 420–21).

[2]Williams, ‘Defining a Gothic Aesthetic’, p. 420.

[3]Catherine Spooner, ‘Twenty-First-Century Gothic’, in Terror & Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, ed. by Dale Townshend (London: British Library Publishing, 2014), pp. 180–205 (pp. 184–85).

[4]Chris Baldick, ‘Introduction’, in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, ed. by Chris Baldick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. xi–xxiii (p. xix).

[5]Markman Ellis, The History of Gothic Fiction(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 11.

[6]Sean Silver, ‘The Politics of Gothic Historiography, 1660–1800’, in The Gothic World, ed. by Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 3–14 (p. 6).

[7]Silver, ‘Politics of Gothic Historiography’, pp. 9, 12.

[8]Baldick, ‘Gothic Tales’, p. xxii.

Gothic States (CfP)

Here’s another great-looking conference CfP, for an event at the University of Pennsylvania, from 29-31 March, 2018:

Since its inception, the Gothic has been a favorite aesthetic of artists exploring extreme states, whether psychological, political, or numinous, at times of imperial expansion, social protest, world war, global revolution, and government oppression. At the same time, its history dovetails with the emergence of new media from early modern tragedy to eighteenth-century travel writing and circulating library fiction, nineteenth-century melodrama, early photography and cinema, comics and graphic novels, popular music and television, and digital entertainment. Even today, the Gothic thrives as a viable, living language for those features of the psyche, the social order, or the cosmos that are least susceptible to representation and least liable to be controlled and assimilated.

Our chosen theme (‘Gothic States’) brings together these concerns by asking scholars to consider the Gothic’s function across differing ‘states’ as a language for addressing incipient nationalisms, whether to endorse or to critique them, as well as for representing divided consciousness, whether sexual, political, filial, or religious. The most powerful Gothic texts, in fact, place these concerns in dialogue with one another, depicting individuals and communities under duress in times of social and political upheaval. We therefore aim to galvanize our understanding of the Gothic as a single aesthetic tradition and invite scholars to create new perspectives on the Gothic in a transnational, trans-media, and comparative context. What role has the Gothic played in how we imagine the constitutions of both individuals and nations? How has the mode been visualized across different media and technologies of representation? Finally, what lends the Gothic its power? What produces the ruptures, fears, and anxieties we associate with it? What fuels its ability to cross media with such opportunistic ease?

Image via the Guardian

 

Please send a 150-word vitas and 250-word abstracts (papers will be 15-20 minutes) to Michael Gamer (mgamer@english.upenn.edu) and Marina Della Putta Johnston (johnston@sas.upenn.edu) by 1 January 2018.

The conference’s plenary speakers will be:

  • Maurizio Ascari, University of Bologna
  • Robin Furth, Marvel Comics, co-author of the Steven King Dark Tower series
  • Diego Saglia, University of Parma
  • Angela Wright, University of Sheffield

The conference is sponsored by the Center for Italian Studies and the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania, with generous support provided by the School of Arts and Sciences, University Research Foundation, the Penn Humanities Forum, the Program in Comparative Literature, the Program in Cinema Studies, the Restoration-Victorian reading group, and the Gen-Sex Reading Group.

Alexander McQueen, ‘Savage Beauty’ at the V&A

The Gothic Bible (CfP)

‘The Great Conflict in Heaven’, by Gustav Dore for Paradise Lost (1866, Cassell & Co, p. 24)

Though I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to submit something to this conference, it looks like a very tempting post-summer project. You can find the original abstract here

SIIBS and The Centre for the History of the Gothic are pleased to announce an interdisciplinary one day conference exploring the theme ‘Gothic Bible’. Since the creation of the Gothic genre in 1764, religion and the Bible have proved to be major influences on Gothic fiction, and our event aims to explore this important and enduring relationship. The conference will take place at the University of Sheffield on Tuesday 31st October 2017.

This event is part of the Gothic Bible project, which is an ongoing research theme at SIIBS and in partnership with The Centre for the History of the Gothic and The University of Auckland. The project seeks to explore the relationship between the Bible, theologies, and the Gothic, and we hope to encourage existing and new academic interest in this area. We welcome papers that examine the Bible, religion, and theology within the Gothic—including but not limited to: novels, plays, poems, films, TV shows of any period—as well as papers that examine passages or narratives within the Bible or other religious texts that can be read through a Gothic lens. We welcome and encourage papers that approach this theme using interdisciplinary methods.

The Gothic Bible conference is open to researchers from any level (including, but not limited to, undergraduates, postgraduates, and Early Career Researchers) and from any discipline. We invite the submission of abstracts of no more than 250 words to be sent to GothicBible@sheffield.ac.uk along with a short bio. The deadline for submissions is Monday 14th August.

Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  •   Theological explorations in Gothic texts
  •   Gothic readings of Biblical passages or narratives
  •   Gothic appropriations and adaptations of biblical characters and narratives
  •   Depictions of The Wandering Jew, Lilith, or other mythological/religious characters
  •   Depictions of religious communities and identities within Gothic fiction
  •   Biblical vampires and other supernatural characters and phenomena
  •   Biblical spaces
  •   Biblical influences in contemporary horror film and TV
  •   Apocalypse and End Times narratives
In conjuction with this event, and as part of the Gothic Bible project, Sheffield Gothic will also be hosting an ongoing Gothic Bible blog series exploring the broad theme of ‘Gothic Bible.’ As always, blog posts can be an informal and fun way to explore a topic that interests you, whether it be through a TV series, a film, a book, or a particular bible passage, narrative, or character. Extensive knowledge of the Bible, Biblical Studies, or the Gothic is not required – so if you want to explore the Gothic Bible theme, and want to blog for the Gothic Bible series, get in touch!
‘The Witch of Endor’ by Washington Allston, 1820
For more information about the conference, the blog series, or the Gothic Bible project, please email us at GothicBible@sheffield.ac.uk or contact us on twitter at @GothicBible.
You can also view the project website – where you can find details about the project, future events, and the project leads – at: www.sheffield.ac.uk/siibs/sresearch/gothic-bible-project

Going Gothic at Strawberry Hill House

Horace Walpole, painted by John Giles Eccardt in 1754.

This excursion report was first shared on the Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth-Century Seminar (CRECS) blog. You can find the original post here.

On 1 March, 2015 the Walpole Trust reopened Strawberry Hill House to the public. As the former home of Horace Walpole, famed (and famously eccentric) author of the first Gothic novel, the house has been a popular tourist destination since it was first built up in 1749.

At noon on 16 May, 2017, twenty-three students and scholars from Cardiff University stepped blinking into the parking lot of Strawberry Hill House, out of the darkened bus that had carried them from rainy Wales. The weather in Twickenham was hardly Gothic-appropriate, but since the tour of the house had been arranged for the late afternoon, we had several hours to eat our bag lunches, stretch our legs in Strawberry Hill’s gardens, and snag a leisurely drink along the sunny banks of the Thames. By the time we returned to the House at 4 p.m., the group was happy, slightly sunburnt, and ready to be thrilled, amazed, and educated about Walpole’s ‘little Gothic castle’.

Gothic History

Our guide was Carole, a soft-spoken woman with a sharp wit and extensive knowledge of Strawberry Hill’s history, heritage, and restoration. The tour began outside the house, where we learnt how Strawberry Hill went from a small cottage to the massive, three-part castle it is today. Following Walpole’s death in 1797, the residence passed to various relatives, many of whom led quite dramatic lives. The stories Carole shared included the Engilsh sculptor (and wealthy widow) Anne Seymour Damer, illegitimate heiresses, a ‘slightly illegal wedding’, and a fall into debt that resulted in the sale of most of the house’s contents.

Strawberry Hill House after the 2012 renovation.

In 1861, the thrice-married Countess Frances Waldegrave took up residence. She established the House as a thriving social salon after her fourth marriage to Liberal politician Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue, who encouraged her to buy back some of the auctioned-off estate. In 1923 the House was bought by St Mary’s University, which still has its campus in the western wing.

A grand Gothic fireplace is the centrepiece of the purple bedroom. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Through this intricate history, Strawberry Hill House was rebuilt and redecorated again and again. When the Walpole Trust set about restoring it to its original glory in the twenty-first century, the first question was how to go about it. After all, there was nothing ‘original’ about the House to begin with—from its revivalist architecture to its papier-mâché walls and ceilings, Strawberry Hill House is fake through and through.

In this, it is utterly Gothic. As Catherine Spooner notes, ‘[t]he construction of fake histories is integral to Gothic texts’.[1] Jerrold Hogle, likewise, writes that the Gothic is ‘grounded in fakery’ from its earliest origins.[2] Walpole himself famously stated that ‘my buildings, like my writings are of paper, and will blow away ten years after I am dead’, but today the House seems as solid as ever.

Gloomth and Glory

Our Cardiff tour group took the same route Walpole’s own guests would have, entering onto the base of a dark, curving staircase and ending in a series of glorious gold and blood-red chambers on the upper levels. Virtually every room is decorated in a different, vibrant colour, though all radiate that wonderful ‘gloomth’ (Walpole’s own word, a counterintuitive combination of ‘gloom’ and ‘warmth’) which continues to be so characteristic of both his house and the Gothic genre he initiated. One bedroom, painted a deep lilac and ornamented in pale wood, was apparently never even used. Of the libraries—Walpole had three at Strawberry Hill—the opposite was true. He read voraciously, and none of his books were just for show.

One of Walpole’s three libraries. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

The Castle of Otranto is visibly linked to the house in which its author first dreamt of it, and Walpole himself described Strawberry Hill as ‘the scene that inspired’ the novel. The play between light and dark in the house alone is fascinating, as sunlight and candlelight cast marvellous shadows through the intricate designs in the windows, walls, and balustrades. At the top of Strawberry Hill’s gloomth-laden staircase, Carole read us a passage from the Castle of Otranto, inviting us to imagine walking through the house’s halls at night, by the light of a single candle.

Carole reads to us from The Castle of Otranto. Photo by Michael Goodman.

One of the tour’s undergraduate attendees, Laura Robinson, comments on this aspect of the House as well, suggesting: ‘It cannot be doubted that Horace Walpole’s eccentric and unique Strawberry Hill House reflects the Gothic literary tradition that began in the Romantic Period. Strawberry Hill’s architecture and the atmosphere created inside the house itself through the manipulation of light—particularly surrounding the staircase—creates a Gothic impression that we still recognize today’.

Restoration and Revival

The final room of the tour. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Throughout the tour, we saw signs of the restoration project still underway. Teams of volunteers have re-painted, re-woven, and re-embroidered the House’s various embellishments, using historically accurate techniques. The House also contains several pieces of furniture built to spec by the students of a nearby design school. The restoration workers were able to reproduce these designs so faithfully both because Walpole describes them extensively in his records, and because he commissioned a series of watercolours detailing each of the rooms. Even when it was brand new, then, Strawberry Hill House was already busy writing its own history.

Ironically, the pieces of the restoration that felt most faithful in light of Strawberry Hill House’s elaborate self-performance and fakery were not the painstakingly hand-embroidered bedclothes, but the digitally-reproduced sketches and paintings, machine-copied down to the last bump of oil paint. In one of the bedrooms hangs a magnificent, 3D-printed picture frame, which was then gilded and retouched using traditional methods. It perfectly embodies the elaborate, delightful sham that is Strawberry Hill House.

This 3D-printed frame was photographed from 400 different angles so it could be reproduced. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

All in the Details

In addition to the grand history Carole shared with us, small details and stories gave us a glimpse into Walpole’s own person and psyche. A muted, pastel-green room once contained Walpole’s curio collection, including numerous heirlooms from his beloved mother. In the dining room hangs a portrait of Walpole’s deceased aunt, who allegedly haunted the house. The legend varies: she either died of smallpox or was pushed down the stairs. Through the window of the best bedroom, we even got a glimpse of the cottage where Walpole would hide himself away during tours of Strawberry Hill House.

Walpole’s cottage hideway has been sold off and expanded since his death, but the building still stands. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

As Josie Powell, one of the undergraduate students on the tour, relays: ‘Strawberry Hill embodies all the typical Gothic conventions; vast spaces and dark colours create a sense of entrapment. Yet Walpole’s Strawberry Hill is more than just a Gothic building. It contains so much attention to detail that it is an invaluable example of social history’.

We are very grateful to CRECS (who generously organised and funded the tour), to Learning and Education Coordinators Sally Stratton and Charlotte Hawkes, and to our fabulous guide Carole, who made the house and its tales come alive for us in all their Gothic glory.

CRECS goes Gothic at Strawberry Hill House. Photo by Michael Goodman.

References

[1] Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 38.

[2] Jerrold E. Hogle, ‘The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection’, in A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), pp. 496–509 (p. 497).

CfP: Penny Dreadful, Gothic Reimagining and Neo-Victorianism in Modern Television

2000x2667_nmc5h5It’s been less than a year since Penny Dreadful ended dramatically in its third season, but this week brings the announcement of a collection of academic essays dedicated to the show. Edited by Manchester Metropolitan University‘s Jon Greenaway and Stephanie Reid, the collection looks to explore the show’s Gothic and Victorian heritage, as well as its contemporary contexts.

If you’re working on Penny Dreadful, do consider submitting an abstract to Penny Dreadful: Gothic Reimagining and Neo-Victorianism in Modern Television. The deadline is 15 May. Click here to download a Word version of the CfP. Text version follows:


Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) has become one of the most critically well-regarded shows of the post-millennial Gothic television revival, drawing explicitly on classic tropes, texts and characters throughout its three-season run. However, despite the show’s critical success and cult following, a substantive academic examination of the show has yet to be undertaken.

This edited collection seeks to address the current lack within Gothic studies scholarship, and situate Penny Dreadful as a key contemporary Gothic television text. This collection will seek to trace the link between the continued expansion of Gothic television, alongside the popular engagement with Neo-Victorianism. In addition, the collection seeks to examine notions around the aesthetic importance of contemporary Gothic that become particularly prominent against the narrative re-imaginings that occur within Penny Dreadful. This collection explores exactly where Gothic resides within this reflexive, hybridized and intertextual work; in the bodies, the stories, the history, the styling, or somewhere else entirely?

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Possible contributions could include, but are no means limited to the following:

  • Gothic adaptation and/or appropriation?
  • Pastiche and parody and Gothic aesthetics
  • ‘Global Gothic’ in the sense of its commercialisation
  • Neo-Victorianism (styling, politics, economics); as well as explorations of the impact of ‘historicizing’ Gothic
  • Representation of gender within the text, specifically female monstrosity
  • The Post/Colonial context, as well racialized characterisation and presentation
  • The reworking/restyling of monsters in contemporary Gothic
  • Consideration of a ‘Romance’ aesthetic and how this alters conceptions of ‘Gothic’ texts and the influence of ‘romantic’ themes/styles in contemporary Gothic

What the proposal should include:

An extended abstract of 500 words (for a 6,000-word chapter) including a proposed chapter title, a clear theoretical approach and reference to some relevant sources.

Please also provide your contact information, institutional affiliation, and a short biography.

Abstracts should be sent as a word document attachment to j.greenaway@mmu.ac.uk or stephanie.m.reid@stu.mmu.ac.uk by no later than May 15th 2017 with the subject line, “Penny Dreadful Abstract Submission.”

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Female Gothic Histories

Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, Artist Unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen's Novels
Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, artist unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen’s Novels

‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. […] I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.’ —Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818), p. 123.

Every year at Cardiff University, the Assuming Gender journal and research group invites a distinguished guest speaker to give a lecture within the broad subject of gender studies. Last year Professor Catherine Belsey delivered a lecture on ‘Women in White’ across cultures and fictions. The year before, Professor Nicola Humble offered a delightful look at gender and the literature of food. This year, Professor Diana Wallace sketched the written tradition of ‘Female Gothic Histories’. Her abstract outlined a bold range of concepts:

If the term ‘historical fiction’ is a kind of oxymoron which yokes together supposedly antithetical opposites (‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘history’ and ‘literature’), then adding ‘Gothic’ into the mix complicates it further. This lecture will explore a tradition of Gothic historical fictions which stretches from Sophia Lee in the eighteenth century to Sarah Waters in the twenty-first century. Conscious that women have often been left out of traditional historical narratives, such female writers have turned to Gothic historical fiction as a mode of writing which can both reinsert women into history and symbolise their exclusion.

As the abstract suggests, Professor Wallace began her lecture by bringing together two genres that are often considered distinct: history and Gothic fiction. Dubbing historical fiction a ‘bastard genre’, she categorised it as traditionally female, and cited this as one of the reasons why fictional historiography—especially Gothic historiography—is worthy of deeper study. Wallace relied on a number of psychoanalytical concepts throughout, and she described Gothic fiction as the ‘uncanny return of the repressed past’. In a patriarchal tradition that tends to write women out of history, historical Gothic fiction potentially offers us a window into the way female writers relate to the past. It also helps us to question the distinction Walter Scott helped to establish between this genre and his own historical novels, which he describes in Waverley as being ‘more a description of men than manners’.

Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.
Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Professor Wallace’s lecture delved deep into Sophia Lee’s The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times (1783-85), Vernon Lee’s Penelope Brandling: A Tale of the Welsh Coast in the Eighteenth Century (1903), multiple rewritings of Jane Eyre, Victoria Holt’s pulp novels (including Mistress of Mellyn, pub. 1960) and the modern Gothic, before finally coming to settle on Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger. In this survey, Victorian fictions were intentionally sidelined, specifically because they already loom so large in discussions of women writers, the Gothic, and historical fiction.

For each case study, Wallace explored the approach the work’s author takes to gender identity and relations. She also suggested how this might be related to the text’s depiction of history. In The Recess, as in many Gothic fictions of the time, the fates of the central female characters are in the hands of a rather sinister collection of men. In Penelope Brandling, the protagonist’s woes stem largely from patriarchal structures, rather than any single man. Mistress of Mellyn and other pulp novels of the mid twentieth century turn their gaze to the other woman. In an article appropriately entitled ‘Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband’, Joanna Russ describes how such fictions enact a Freudian drama, in which the male protagonist is the Father, wrongly accused, and the other woman/first wife of the protagonist becomes the Mother, who must be destroyed in order for the Gothic heroine to achieve her goals.

Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé
Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

At this point, Wallace was interrupted by a mysterious fire alarm—an event that was also, appropriately, to be found among the attributes of the haunted house in Sarah Waters’ work once the lecture resumed. The Little Stranger plays with all of the Gothic stereotypes and traditions outlined in the rest of Wallace’s lecture, giving us a ghost story through the eyes of an unreliable male narrator, who may or may not have committed the crimes attributed to a poltergeist. Within Gothic fiction, Wallace thus sees a progression of thought in the way gender, horror, and history are intertwined.

Wallace closed, fittingly, with one quotation from Luce Irigaray’s monograph Thinking the Difference, and another from Jane Austen’s Gothic parody Northanger Abbey:

If the rationale of History is ultimately to remind us of everything that has happened and to take that into account, we must make the interpretation of the forgetting of female ancestries part of History and re-establish its economy. (Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution, trans. Karin Montin, 1989, p. 110)

[Y]et I often think it odd [history] should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. (Northanger Abbey, p. 123)

Scream Queens: Women and Horror

woman-screaming-261010-large_newAs part of the final chapter of my PhD thesis, which takes a fan studies approach to historical monster mashups, I’ve recently been researching audience statistics for Pemberley Digital’s various series. Pemberley Digital is an online broadcasting company that specialises in serialised YouTube adaptations of classic literature. Specifically, I wanted to know whether Frankenstein, MD, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), had a different audience than their other productions. Unlike Pemberley Digital’s other shows, Frankenstein, MD represented a genre shift from drama to horror. How might this affect their viewership?

Pemberley Digital’s representatives were very happy to send over screenshots of their YouTube demographics data, which yielded some very interesting results. Below are the audience demographics for the two most popular Pemberley Digital series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice) and Emma Approved (based on Austen’s 1815 novel Emma).

LBD Demographics
LBD Demographics
Emma Approved Demographics
Emma Approved Demographics

As you can see from the infographics, the audience for these series overwhelmingly identifies as female, and most are under the age of 24.

Unlike its other shows, Pemberley Digital produced Frankenstein, MD in cooperation with PBS Digital Studios, part of the online arm of the American Public Broadcasting Service (a free-to-view, non-profit, and largely educational media platform). This meant that while I could obtain demographics for all the extra videos produced for Frankenstein, MD (spinoff vlogs by Iggy DeLacey and Eli Lavenza) from Pemberley Digital, I would need to approach PBS Digital Studios for statistics on the main episodes. Fortunately, they too were happy to provide the information I needed.

Frankenstein MD Vlogs Demographics
Frankenstein, MD Demographics (Bonus Content, Pemberley Digital)
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Frankenstein, MD Demographics (Main Episodes, PBS Digital Studios)

As you can see, viewers for Frankenstein, MD content skew slightly older and identify more often as male – especially on main episodes of the series. Part of this difference in demographics is no doubt due to the diverse makeup of PBS audiences more generally. It’s likely that, due to its more diverse content, PBS Digital Studios simply has more men in its audience than Pemberley Digital, and these viewers were attracted to the show because it was broadcast on the PBS YouTube channel. The Frankenstein, MD production team, which is composed much more heavily of men than the average Pemberley Digital production, may also have helped skew the demographic. As a social network, YouTube users are split pretty evenly between male and female, though many gender stereotypes prevail nonetheless.

FMDSlider

While I’m still working out what exactly this data can tell me about the audiences of historical monster mashup, it also led me to the question of who generally watches horror. Surely, as one Flavorwire list of ‘50 Must-See Horror Films Directed by Women’ points out:

Genre filmmaking has a reputation as a man’s field. That goes for audiences as well as filmmakers. To the novice, it’s easy to see why. For a long time women’s bodies have been used to titillate male adolescent horror fans — shrieking, squirming, disposable ciphers.

As it turns out, however, the audience for horror on big screen and small is not as male-dominated as one might expect. In fact, several recent studies have suggested that it’s pretty much 50/50 (these studies tend to stick pretty strictly to a binary gender system).

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Of course, this information will likely come as no surprise to scholars of the Gothic, a genre with a strong history of female readership (and viewership), but it’s worth noting that horror’s popularity with women crosses into visual media as well as textual media. In a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, Lorenza Munoz argues that female support for horror not only fuels its box office success, but ‘has revolutionized the genre’:

No marketing decision on these horror films is made without considering how to attract girls and women younger than 25, added Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for New Line Cinema, which distributed “Texas.”

“This young audience has been such a boon to movies over the past five years,” he said, noting that “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” reinvigorated the genre and introduced it to a new generation of girls. “They can go in groups on a Friday night.

“It becomes a pack thing, the same way an action movie is a pack thing for guys.”

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The article continues:

 

Weinstein, who began distributing Barker’s “Hellraiser” movies starting with the third in the series after he launched Miramax’s Dimension Films label, said Barker had to convince him that females should be targeted in the marketing campaign.

“I questioned that,” said Weinstein. “I didn’t realize that women were as big an audience as men. It’s not perception of action or violence” that draws them. “What you are selling is fright.”

[…] “The girls run the show.”

If these excerpts interest you, then I strongly recommend you check out the entire article (it’s a short read).

Of course, the fact that women make up 50% of the audience doesn’t mean that women are well represented behind the scenes of horror cinema. You may be aware that women only make up 4,7% of the Hollywood film directors in the past five years. Horror is lurking at the very back of the industry, with the crews on these films just 9% female on average. There have been numerous calls for female-led horror in the past few years, but it remains to be seen whether things will actually improve for women making horror as dramatically as it has for horror’s audiences.

TexasChainsawMassacreMarilynBurnsLSBryanstonDistributionCompany

Now Reviewing Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist

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© VikPiratenholz

This post is a teaser for my weekly review series on Penny Dreadful season 3, starting this Friday (6 May) and featured over at the Victorianist. [UPDATE: You can now find my first review in all its glory at this link.]

When the first season of Penny Dreadful was announced in 2013, we were unsure what to expect. Initially, it drew comparisons to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, which also weave characters from classic literature into an original story. The similarity soon proved to end there, however. Trace Thurman of Bloody Disgusting recently called Penny Dreadful ‘one of the best horror shows currently airing on television’, and it’s hard to argue with this assessment.

Wonderfully atmospheric and deeply unsettling, Penny Dreadful delivers its horror without straying too far into the camp and gore that have become staples of contemporary horror (though the first few episodes are relatively gruesome). This is not to say that camp and gore don’t have their place – I’ve enjoyed few shows more than Ash vs Evil Dead this year – but it’s been difficult to find a good example of finely balanced terror and suspense.

The first season draws its plot indirectly from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mina Murray has gone missing and her father assembles a team to search for her. As this tangential relationship might suggest, Penny Dreadful is often more interested in exploring where characters have been than where they are going. Both superficially and fundamentally, this is a show about the past, and its central characters are all running from it. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) – Mina’s father – and his manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani) are scarred by their colonial experiences in Africa. Their colleague Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) has committed a terrible transgression, by which she is haunted literally, as well as metaphorically.

American gunman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is running from his family, and naturally carries another dark secret as well. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) are … well … Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein (I won’t spoil the reveals for you). Some additional characters come and go over the course of the series’ first two seasons, all with similar stories. Will any of them be able to come to terms with who they are, and what they have done?

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In the ‘last season on Penny Dreadful’ segment this week, we were reminded of the centrality of this question to the show’s overall message. ‘Do you believe the past can return?’ asks Miss Ives. ‘It never leaves us,’ replies Sembene. ‘It is who we are’. So, with the first episode of season 3 fresh off the airwaves, will the third season demonstrate a similar historical awareness? Will it continue what we loved about the first two, while also correcting some of their flaws? And to what extent can it be labelled ‘neo-Victorian’? I will be exploring these questions with each new episode, and sharing my thoughts with you on the Victorianist, starting this Friday (6 May, 2016).

In the meantime, if you’re eager for more Penny Dreadful, I highly recommend the show’s YouTube channel and production blog. Both are chock-full of engaging and informative material. Depending on your location, you can even watch the season 3 premiere for free right here.

‘Embrace Your Dark Side’: Penny Dreadful‘s Season 3 Trailer

PrintAbout two weeks ago a proper trailer for the next season of Penny Dreadful was released. Various other obligations have kept me from looking at it properly, but this week I’ve finally been able to sink my teeth into it. Without further ado, then, my take on this 1-minute-and-45-second trailer.

(Note: there will be spoilers for seasons 1 and 2).

To start, you can watch the whole thing here on Penny Dreadful‘s YouTube channel:

The trailer starts out strong with a shot of the much-touted star of the series Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), before swiftly introducing us to an exciting new location (North America?):

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We’re then treated to a none-too subtle shot of the moon, in case we needed a reminder that everyone’s favourite Penny Dreadful werewolf was last seen bound for the New World:

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Let’s hope Penny Dreadful handles the skinwalker associations better than J.K. Rowling did.

Also returning are ‘world-renowned explorer with an axe to grind‘ Malcolm Murray, (Timothy Dalton), American werewolf in London Ethan Chandler (though, as we discovered last season, that’s not his real name; played by Josh Hartnett), Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monstrous creation Caliban/John Clare (Rory Kinnear), the depraved Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and the delightful Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper).

Newcomers to season 3 include Dr. Seward – presumably a nod to Dracula’s Jack Seward – played by Patti LuPone (who also played the cut-wife in season 2),  Dr. Henry Jekyll (followed by Edward Hyde?) played by Shazad Latif, and a Native American warrior played by Wes Studi.

And apparently this girl?
And apparently this girl? Nice addition to the long-running Gothic tradition of creepy women in white, in any case.

We can only hope that Shazad Latif and Wes Studi’s characters fare better than Sembene (Danny Sapani), who died brutally last season – in what was sadly only the last of several appearances that were apparently only designed to help move the storylines of the white characters along.

Don't hold your breath,
Don’t get too attached.

We also get to see some obligatory hints about the Showtime-level sex scenes we’ll be treated to:

Naturally when Vanessa says she's been 'touched by Satan' she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously bloody) sense. 
Naturally when Vanessa says she’s been  ‘touched by Satan’ she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously gory) sense. It’s Showtime, dammit!
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Is the woman sleeping with John Clare in this scene black? In a trailer where the tagline is ’embrace your dark side’? If so I see a series of thesis paragraphs on unfortunate colonial subtext in my future.

Not a bad trailer by any means, but some of the things it teases are worryingly familiar to me. I’ve written before about how, despite that fact that I absolutely love the show on a personal level, on an academic one it has some issues with the way it represents monstrosity. Specifically, it capitalises on a number of the characteristics of monsters established by critical theorists, without actually delivering on most fronts. It also has a problematic relationship with its LGBTQ characters, despite show runner John Logan’s frequent linking of monstrosity and his own homosexuality.

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Except the cheesy classic werewolf font. The show delivers all the way on that one.
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Also (potentially) the Bride of Frankenstein front. Give me more of Lily Frankenstein – but less, please, of the ‘prostitute with a heart of gold‘ stereotype and the ‘Strong Female Character with a sexually traumatic past‘ stereotype.

For Judith Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act’ between a series of binary oppositions, frightening precisely because they stood poised to transgress established identities and social parameters (Skin Shows, p. 1). Ultimately,  despite its self-advertised exploration of identity binaries, Penny Dreadful uses monstrosity (and its Victorian setting) in a way that constructs a false sense of diversity, disturbance, and change. In its attempts to represent ‘everyone’, it instead shuts out all but the privileged minority it represents on-screen.

Rather than using the past to discuss present-day issues, as it claims, the show instead presents the issues of certain Victorian outcasts – many of whom are now far from marginalised. In a sense, then, Penny Dreadful uses its Victorian setting to reclaim monstrosity for the privileged.

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For instance, what is this tasty bit of Orientalism? ‘We may be monsters, but those foreign monsters are way scarier’.

In addition to the predictable issues and reveals, there are a number of scenes where I genuinely have no idea what’s going on:

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Who is this creepy dude and why is he smelling Vanessa? Tell me more.
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…Dorian and Lily take down a sexual slavery ring? Again, intrigued as to the context of this scene.

I am, however, very interested to find out. With just under two months to go until the premiere of season 3, and a few months more until it’s spun out all nine episodes on broadcast television, Penny Dreadful has plenty of time to change my mind about its politics of the monstrous.

And let’s be honest – they’ve already gone a good way towards placating my non-academic brain with this shot of Timothy Dalton in a cowboy hat:

Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.
Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.

What do you think? Are you excited for the new season of Penny Dreadful?

Giving the Past a Photographic Afterlife

I’ve long been a fan of Jo Teeuwisse’s Ghosts of History project, where she overlays present-day locations with old archive photographs. I’m also a big fan of the recent trend where contemporary artists insert monsters and pop culture icons into thrift store paintings. In that same trend, while researching my current chapter, I came across the image series ‘Dancing with Costică’, in which Australian artist Jane Long borrows from the recently-digitised archive of Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte to create her own series of images.

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Long colorises and digitally alters Acsinte’s photographs, transforming these already-beautiful portraits into something surreal and often vaguely unsettling:

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Some of the revised images also have poignant undertones, and make clear allusion to events that occurred after the original photographs were taken, as in ‘tall poppies’, which depicts a number of soldiers against a backdrop of poppies, a flower used to commemorate soldiers who have died in war. In this way, Long imbues old images with new meaning:

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Head on over to Jane Long’s website for more images in the series, and feel free to share your thoughts about these images (and their revision of historical documents) in the comments!

(all images © Jane Long, 2015)