This year, the Gothic Reading Group celebrated its fifth year with a host of psychological, spectral tales. The theme of the year (unintentionally) seems to have been ancient magics and twist endings. We continued our tradition of meeting Friday afternoons in Packer House, passing out the skull goblets, and pouring out wine, literary commentary, fears, and phobias.
With our first text, we jumped into a jumble of partial documents and firsthand accounts in D.A. Stern’s Shadows in the Asylum: The Case Files of Dr. Charles Marsh. These documents, which include articles, book pages, patient session notes, emails, and letters, follow Dr. Marsh’s study and treatment of his patient Kari Hanson, a young woman suffering from delusions and apparent self-harm. Kari had been on a class archaeological trip with her instructor and fellow classmates when, after taking drugs with her friends, began to see creatures in the shadows that did not disappear once the drugs wore off. Dr. Marsh begins to believe there’s something to these delusions as he gets caught up in the history of the area Kari and her team were investigating and discovers that there’s been a pattern to this type of behavior. And then the other patients begin to experience similar visions and violence. Something in the asylum is ripping Dr. Marsh’s patients to shreds.
What makes this text interesting is that, though we do have a collection of documents that we’re meant to read through and discover just as Dr. Marsh is discovering them, they’re just as directive as if we were reading them as Dr. Marsh, collapsing autonomous reader discovery and first-person narration. The text even shows us the same documents more than once, sometimes with things circled or magnified so that we can’t possibly miss them. On one hand, this sounds like sloppy storytelling, being so obvious that the story can’t seem to exist in any tenable world. On the other hand, however, it recreates the focus and conviction of our narrator, who, even though he doesn’t always tell the story in first-person POV, he imitates it by only giving us the documents and the parts of those documents upon which he is fixated. And Dr. Marsh has theories, strong theories, obsessive theories, that leave little room for deviation until he abandons one theory altogether in favor of another by which he is instantly convinced. As a group, I think we went back and forth as to whether this was clever or frustrating (I think I would say a mix of both), the result being that we received a string of false endings but without giving readers any allowance to reach the conclusion to the mystery on their own. So, we’re forced to be wrong again and again in what we’re led to believe. It’s all just a false trail through a series of fragmented horrors, and perhaps that is its most Gothic quality.
We turned to something completely different with our next text, Lovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow. We’ve read Lovecraft before and, though we always discuss his appalling racial politics (if you can even call them that) to some degree, I think we usually agree that, as far as his literary work goes, it’s beautiful and mesmerizing, if a little dense. We aren’t alone in this opinion, and his influence has created an overwhelming amount of slimy, literary progeny, good and bad. This is one of them. These collections of stories are based on Lovecraft stories, whether simply in a similar style or existing in the same world. Datlow lists three goals in her introduction: “to avoid pastiches… to use stories that have not been overly reprinted… to showcase Lovecraftian-influenced stories by at least some authors not known for that kind of story” (14). I’m not sure we were impressed by these goals. When we read collections of short stories, we usually choose one or two to read as a group, and the rest are up for grabs to discuss or share. We read “Only the End of the World Again,” by Neil Gaiman, and “Bulldozer,” by Laird Barron, one a private investigator/ werewolf story, the other a gunslinging Lovecraftian western that we weren’t sure exactly worked. Gaiman is almost always a favorite with the GRG, but we found this story underwhelming: it wasn’t bad, just not as well-written and engaging as his other work. Barron’s story, though it made references to an otherworldly, ancient being that would fit right in with Lovecraft, lacked in the depth of Gothic elements we hoped to find. In fact, it prompted me to bring one of our past collections of Lovecraft’s work to read aloud. In prose alone, there’s really no comparison to .
For our November selection, we chose another collection of short stories, this one straight from one of the greats: Don’t Look Now, by Daphne du Maurier, in which we read the title story. As one would expect from the author of Rebecca, the story was masterfully crafted, prioritizing character and place over complex plot structure. Having said this, we again had a twist ending, though I think for most of us it wasn’t wholly a surprise. The story revolved around a couple, Laura and John, who are traveling in Italy having just suffered the tragic loss of the child. Laura becomes infatuated with a pair of sisters who claim to have the clairvoyant ability to see their dead daughter, but John becomes seriously concerned for his wife’s psychological well-being. When she returns home to see to their son about a medical issue, John becomes lost in the labyrinthine streets, having seen his wife pass by after her supposed departure, looking very troubled and with the two sisters. It would seem, however, that the sisters are not the only ones who can see visions. John is a fascinating character, and we discussed his own issues with mourning and psychological well-being.
We ended the semester with a double feature of films: Rosemary’s Baby and What We Do in the Shadows. We read Rosemary’s Baby last year, and I think I commented on what a harrowing and claustrophobic text I find it to be, and the film is no different. Because of its intensity, we followed with a comedy that upheld the Gothic tradition of integrating humor into its more supernatural and dark elements. What We Do in the Shadows exposes the challenges of vampires living in the modern age: living in a flat with other vampires, going clubbing, and finding (or seducing) food. It was a combination that showed the breadth of Gothic influence in the most entertaining way possible.
It’s possible that this will be the last year for the Gothic Reading Group. It’s a group that’s been near and dear to my heart since it began, and it has really helped me keep sight of what I love about this literature. We’ve read almost every period and form of the Gothic, and the ability of this tradition to foster the knowledge of so many scholars from so many specialties has reminded me why I read it and how much more there is to learn.