Demon Babies, Snake Women, and Vampires: Just another Semester for Gothic Reading Group

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I think it’s safe to say that, this semester, the Gothic provoked more fear, surprise, exasperation, and… confusion than ever before, and that’s saying a lot for six semesters of GRG strangeness. Our group is dedicated to tasting both the “canonical” texts of the Gothic, those we’ve all heard about (or seen the movie), as well as the obscure, sensational, and campy works that hide within its shadows. We aim to analyze and explore the many dimensions of this tradition, but I’ve always been a firm believer in making sure we enjoy ourselves along the way: this is, after all, a literature invested in good entertainment. In my post last year, I gave a run-down of some of the texts we’ve covered since we began, but for this post there’s plenty to cover just in what we read this semester. As usual, we held our not-at-all secret meetings in Packer House on Friday afternoons, mixing books with goblets of wine: three books in total, and one very high-quality film. We try to mix contemporary stuff with some of the classics to touch on everyone’s interests and to get an idea of just how far this tradition stretches. Very far, indeed… and then some.

MV5BMTY0NzkxMzIwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjg2Njk3OA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_We began with a novel that I personally had a difficult time reading: Rosemary’s Baby. It’s almost exactly like the film (in fact, the introduction describes how Roman Polanski would call up Ira Levin to make sure every detail was an accurate representation of the book), which I find no easier to swallow, so I was prepared for this to be a trial. Most people are familiar with the basic premise, even if they haven’t seen the movie: ambitious husband makes a deal with the satanic cult next door, exchanging the baby they will help his wife bear for fame and fortune. The Gothic has a long history of making pregnancy and childbirth even more horrific than it is, doubling entrapping female victims via the foreignness of their bodies and some kind of incarceration (Agnes’s corpse baby in The Monk, a somewhat modernized version in The Shadow of the Wind, Vivian’s pre-labor trials in American Horror Story, etc). What I find so exceptional about Rosemary’s Baby, however, is the extent to which the Levin recreates Rosemary’s growing lack of agency: the walls close in awfully fast, and it can be a frustrating, claustrophobic

Congratulations, Rosemary!... oh.

Congratulations, Rosemary!… oh.

reading experience. It illustrated for me something I had been reading at the time by David Punter: he says of the Gothic that “it deals with those moments when we find it impossible, with any degree of hope, for our ‘case to be put’.” (Gothic Pathologies 5). No matter what Rosemary does, there’s no escape, and no one will hear her. That was the feeling I remembered from the film and the reason I had wanted to bring it to the group, as a potentially frightening reading experience.What I hadn’t realized, however, was just how much this novel includes a whole catalogue of Gothic tropes and traditions. I might have asked my usual, “What makes this Gothic?” question of the group. We started listing things, and the list just went on and on: in addition to Gothic childbirth, secret societies, rituals, and the devil, we also have questionable authority figures (doctors), the search for dangerous knowledge, a predatory husband, a claustrophobic house with secret doors and passages, urban Gothic and the oppression of the city, meaningful trinkets (a cursed necklace), poison and potions, suicide, rape, hysteria, anagrams, nightmares, and all manner of home invasions and hostile intrusions. I even feel like I’m forgetting things. It’s a rich text for Gothic discussion… but don’t ask me to read it again.

Pamela Colman Smith, 1911

Pamela Colman Smith, 1911

Our second book took a decided turn for the ridiculous. We all know Bram Stoker for writing Dracula, but most don’t know his later novel, The Lair of the White Worm. I chose this one because I had read it for my Master’s course and never quite knew what to make of it… so I was hoping someone would help me make something of it. I’m not sure if that happened, or not. To simplify a very disjointed plot, a rich heir returns to his castle and teams up with a woman who is sometimes a woman sometimes a giant white snake in order to hypnotize a pair of sisters… to some end. There’s a giant kite, a handful of mongooses, and it ends in a delightfully-graphic explosion. I think we spent most of our meeting simply exclaiming how crazy it was, shaking our heads at the pockets of problematic race depictions, and trying to make heads or tails of some of the odd editorial decisions. It was interesting to discover how hacked up and altered the original text had been—it was originally Dracula-sized—which might explain at least some of the weird plot jumps. It seems that it may have become in itself a Gothic artifact, fragmented, regulated, and a definitely full of the unexpected.

D.H. Friston, 1872

Carmilla, D.H. Friston, 1872

We may not have read a Bram Stoker text for vampires, but we did read about them in The Penguin book of Vampire Stories, in which we chose Polidori’s The Vampire, Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and “The Living Dead,” by Robert Bloch. Now, I have a soft spot for The

Polidori in Ken Russel's Gothic

Polidori in Ken Russel’s Gothic

Vampyre, and there’s no disputing its importance as the first written Western vampire story (stolen from Byron, no less). BUT, lots of people don’t really like it: despite the fact that it’s all plot, it’s slow and there’s not much payoff in the end. Yet, it also speaks for a lot of the similar cheap Gothic literature sold in chapbooks and blue books that kept the tradition going at levels below the most educated. Carmilla, on the other hand, is one of the most haunting and beautifully-written novellas the Gothic has to offer: a female vampire that beat Dracula to the game (the game being seducing young women in their bedrooms at night). And, with Bloch’s story, it turned out that we couldn’t have chosen three more different kinds of vampires. In this story, a man pretends to be a vampire during World War I in order to keep his company’s bunker secret from the village, but ends up playing his part a little too well. Group members read other stories in the book as well, which they shared. It was good to finally get to some vampires—a strangely neglected corner of the Gothic for our group.

whiteworm6In our last meeting, we fully embraced the comedic bizarreness of the Gothic and the end-of-semester hysteria by watching Ken Russell’s adaptation of The Lair of the White Worm. This film, if possible, makes even less sense than the book and, in true Ken Russell form, is part cringe-worthy pun, part psychedelic sexual fantasy, and part Hugh Grant. But it’s terrifying in its own way and good fun, and those are the goals of the GRG. I leave you with the trailer in hopes of luring you away to the dark side to join us next Fall.

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